the disinformation war

The Liberal Obsession With ‘Disinformation’ Is Not Helping

Why the swift death of the White House’s disinformation board is probably a good thing.

Pandora’s Box, 2021. © Marcel Dzama. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner. Art: Marcel Dzama
Pandora’s Box, 2021. © Marcel Dzama. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner. Art: Marcel Dzama
Pandora’s Box, 2021. © Marcel Dzama. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner. Art: Marcel Dzama

On Wednesday, the Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz reported on the disastrous rollout of the Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board. Announced on April 27 with a hazy remit to “coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security,” the initiative generated immediate fierce backlash from conservative pundits and politicians who compared it to the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984. The expert tapped to lead the board, Nina Jankowicz, faced a wave of ferocious, viral, and often personal attacks online as well as scrutiny over her past statements seeming to betray her partisan sympathies. Now, just three weeks later, the Disinformation Governance Board is no more, and Jankowicz has resigned.

According to Lorenz and her sources (other disinformation researchers, as well as staffers in DHS and on the Hill), Jankowicz was taken down “by the very forces she dedicated her career to combating” and was undermined by a flat-footed, timid response from the Biden White House. The campaign against Jankowicz and the board, Lorenz writes, was “a prime example of how the right-wing internet apparatus operates, where far-right influencers attempt to identify a target, present a narrative and then repeat mischaracterizations across social media and websites with the aim of discrediting and attacking anyone who seeks to challenge them.” In other words, the Disinformation Governance Board was undone by a “textbook disinformation campaign.”

This version of the story is richly ironic and tragic. As one Hill staffer told Lorenz, “Nina’s role was to come up with strategies for the department to counter this type of campaign, and now they’ve just succumbed to it themselves.” But from another perspective, the right’s campaign against the Disinformation Board resembled any other successful advocacy effort to halt a government initiative. As with most activist endeavors, some of the facts were fudged, innocuous statements were deprived of context and tendentiously interpreted, those in charge were depicted as cartoonish villains, and a more complex story was reduced to a fairy-tale struggle between the forces of good and evil — not great, but when it comes to political messaging in our polarized age, par for the course. (I can recall quite a bit of Manichaean simplification happening during the Trump years.)

Obviously, I sympathize with Jankowicz. No doubt she faced an astronomical volume of right-wing nastiness, dishonest attacks on her reputation, and genuinely disturbing threats. I’m sure the administration could have done more to insulate her from the backlash. But other than that, I don’t see how a fully operational Disinformation Governance Board could have prevented this outcome — except via the very means conservatives (mistakenly?) feared it would possess. If, as Lorenz is careful to note, “neither the board nor Jankowicz had any power or ability to declare what is true or false, or compel Internet providers, social media platforms or public schools to take action against certain types of speech,” then how would it have prevented right-wingers from tweeting terrible, dishonest things about Jankowicz? Lorenz’s reporting seems to arrive at a Catch-22: The right’s campaign to depict Jankowicz as a government censor amounts to “disinformation” only if she and the DHS were indeed helpless to stop it.

I know, I’m being slightly glib. The truth is, I think it’s important for smart people to analyze the ways in which the architecture of social media facilitates and incentivizes witch hunts and the dissemination of hateful, dishonest content. And the government likely has a role to play in coercing tech platforms to prioritize the public interest over the profit motive in crafting their algorithms. But I don’t think it requires any great leap of conspiratorial thinking to find fault with a disinformation board under the aegis of the DHS. Government officials — whoever resides in the White House — are professional liars. They lie haughtily in the interest of “national security,” sheepishly in the interest of saving face, and passionately when their jobs are on the line. Would Jankowicz’s office have been empowered to counter “disinformation” coming from her own department? Or only from those criticizing it? And what would its remit have been under the next Republican presidency? As one conservative writer put it, “It’s not clear to me that Democrats have fully reckoned with the non-negligible possibility that Donald Trump is in charge of the new Disinformation Governance Board in 2 years.”

But the other pernicious problem with liberals’ fixation on “disinformation” is that it allows them to lie to themselves.

Trump’s ascendance in 2016 posed a painful psychic challenge to liberal elites. It suggested the possibility that many millions of Americans were motivated by deep, venomous dissatisfactions with the world they had helped create, that our cultural disagreements were profound, not superficial, and that our perspectives were practically irreconcilable inversions of each other. Political reality seemed to tilt on its axis. How could a man who appeared to them so transparently abhorrent and clownish be welcomed by others as a savior — or at least as a tolerable alternative to the status quo?

“Disinformation” was the liberal Establishment’s traumatic reaction to the psychic wound of 2016. It provided an answer that evaded the question altogether, protecting them from the agony of self-reflection. It wasn’t that the country was riven by profound antinomies and resentments born of material realities that would need to be navigated by new kinds of politics. No, the problem was that large swaths of the country had been duped, brainwashed by nefarious forces both foreign and domestic. And if only the best minds, the most credentialed experts, could be given new authority to regulate the flow of “fake news,” the scales would fall from the eyes of the people and they would re-embrace the old order they had been tricked into despising. This fantasy turned a political problem into a scientific one. The rise of Trump called not for new politics but new technocrats.

Like other pathological reactions to trauma, the disinformation neurosis tended to re-create the conditions that produced the affliction in the first place. (Freud called this “repetition compulsion.”) By doubling down on elite technocracy — and condescension toward the uneducated rubes suffering from false consciousness — liberals have tended to exacerbate the sources of populist hostility. As Joe Bernstein documented in Harper’s last year, the “antidisinformation industry” has attracted massive investment from wealthy Democratic donors, the tech industry, and cash-rich foundations. Hundreds of millions of disinfo dollars are sloshing around the nonprofit world, funding institutes at universities and extravagant conventions across the world. Last month’s “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” conference was headlined by Barack Obama and featured Anne Applebaum, David Axelrod, Jeffrey Goldberg, and a lengthy list of other academic, journalistic, and political luminaries. I’m sure very interesting ideas were discussed there. But gathering the leading lights of liberalism to an auditorium at the University of Chicago — so that they together can decide which information is true and safe to be consumed by the rabble outside — strikes me as a hollow exercise in self-soothing, more likely to aggravate the symptoms of our legitimacy crisis (distrust and cynicism) than resolve any of its impasses.

Don’t get me wrong: There are obviously hard problems to be worked out regarding technology, speech, and democracy, and I have great respect for scholars working in that nettlesome nexus. But as Bernstein put it, the new class of disinformation experts, however well intentioned, “don’t have special access to the fabric of reality.” If faith in our institutions is to be restored, I don’t think it will be accomplished by stigmatizing doubt or obstructing the dissemination of falsehood. After all, faith is not a matter of fact and fiction.

The Liberal Obsession With ‘Disinformation’ Is Not Helping