Inside the ‘Misinformation’ Wars

This hints at a weakness of the new focus on misinformation: It’s a technocratic solution to a problem that’s as much about politics as technology. The new social media-fueled right-wing populists lie a lot, and stretch the truth more. But as American reporters quizzing Donald Trump’s fans on camera discovered, his audience was often in on the joke. And many of the most offensive things he said weren’t necessarily lies — they were just deeply ugly to half the country, including most of the people running news organizations and universities.

It’s more comfortable to reckon with an information crisis — if there’s anything we’re good at, it’s information — than a political one. If only responsible journalists and technologists could explain how misguided Mr. Trump’s statements were, surely the citizenry would come around. But these well-meaning communications experts never quite understood that the people who liked him knew what was going on, laughed about it and voted for him despite, or perhaps even because of, the times he went “too far.”

Harper’s Magazine recently published a broadside against “Big Disinfo,” contending that the think tanks raising money to focus on the topic were offering a simple solution to a political crisis that defies easy explanation and exaggerating the power of Facebook in a way that, ultimately, served Facebook most of all. The author, Joseph Bernstein, argued that the journalists and academics who specialize in exposing instances of disinformation seem to believe they have a particular claim on truth. “However well-intentioned these professionals are, they don’t have special access to the fabric of reality,” he wrote.

In fact, I’ve found many of the people worrying about our information diets are reassuringly modest about how far the new field of misinformation studies is going to take us. Ms. Donovan calls it “a new field of data journalism,” but said she agreed that “this part of the field needs to get better at figuring out what’s true or false.” The Aspen report acknowledged “that in a free society there are no ‘arbiters of truth.’” They’re putting healthy new pressure on tech platforms to be transparent in how claims — true and false — spread.

The editor in chief of The Texas Tribune, Sewell Chan, one of the Harvard course’s participants, said he didn’t think the program had a political slant, adding that it “helped me understand the new forms of mischief making and lie peddling that have emerged.”

“That said, like the term ‘fake news,’ misinformation is a loaded and somewhat subjective term,” he said. “I’m more comfortable with precise descriptions.”

I also feel the push and pull of the information ecosystem in my own journalism, as well as the temptation to evaluate a claim by its formal qualities — who is saying it and why — rather than its substance. Last April, for instance, I tweeted about what I saw as the sneaky way that anti-China Republicans around Donald Trump were pushing the idea that Covid-19 had leaked from a lab. There were informational red flags galore. But media criticism (and I’m sorry you’ve gotten this far into a media column to read this) is skin-deep. Below the partisan shouting match was a more interesting scientific shouting match (which also made liberal use of the word “misinformation”). And the state of that story now is that scientists’ understanding of the origins of Covid-19 is evolving and hotly debated, and we’re not going to be able to resolve it on Twitter.

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