Op-Ed by Robert E. Wright
Misinformation, i.e., wrong claims innocently made, and disinformation, i.e., wrong claims willfully made, have long consorted to create propaganda, a distorted worldview designed to achieve some political goal.
The lines between those lies have so blurred that only a neologistic portmanteau, dismisinfoganda, fully captures recent reality.
Like an old hip-hip song, let’s break it down:
dis = intentionally wrong claims (lies)
mis = unintentionally wrong claims (error)
dismis(s) = denying a claim without empirically engaging it
info = a claim about the real world
(propa)ganda = that which is propagare, i.e., propagated or spread
Ergo, dismisinfoganda is the politicized spreading or squelching of claims without, or counter to, adequate empirical evidence.
Dismisinfoganda remains agnostic about motivation, which is often opaque even to the claim’s originator. Moreover, what matters most is not the creation of the claim but its propagation. People tend to believe, and pass along, claims that they believe substantiate their ideological views or further their material interests. The selective process (spread or ignore) occurs regardless of the claim originator’s intent.
A 1975 book by Tom Burnam updated in 1986 called The Dictionary of Misinformation (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell) now looks rather quaint. Most of its 302 undocumented pages the author used to explain proper usage of words like zeppelin, which, in addition to being in the name of one of the greatest rock-n-roll bands ever, was the only lighter-than-air airship that was both steerable and rigid. Some simply corrected common elisions of history, where phrases like the “Emancipation Proclamation” come to stand in for the Thirteenth Amendment, or misattribution of origins, like Charles Darwin being the first person to elucidate biological evolution. Important stuff for copy editors and fact checkers but harmless for the most part.
Mission-critical matters simply fail if they are erroneous. If an engineer denies that two plus two equals four and tries to launch a rocket into space, s/he isn’t even going to be able to build the rocket, much less provide others with the schadenfreude of watching the thing explode on the launch pad.
Specious commercial claims also tend to go down in flames, although only metaphorically and sometimes too slowly. Competitors and consumers have strong incentives to expose the truth that such-and-such company’s product claims are false or misleading and nobody else much cares, which keeps noise to a minimum. Of course companies may also try to spread disinformation about competitors but they have to do so surreptitiously or consumers would immediately discount it. The current mix of customer feedback (Yelp! and such), expert opinion (via Consumer Reports and the like), costly quality signaling (like UL and others), and product databases/aggregators (like CPID), remains imperfect but in normal times (which these are not), it works well enough. One hopes that any private attempt to “cancel” any such bona fide commercial information assessor or disseminator, the way that social media site Parler was shut down earlier this year, the departments of justice and commerce would meet with swift and sure retribution.
Parler, of course, was not a major source of commercial information but rather a forum for the sharing of political opinion and policy information, which one would think would be protected by the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall pass no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” While it is true that Congress did not directly shut down Parler, a panoply of laws and administrative policies made it lawfully possible for private parties to do so and some, including myself, have argued that regulations and taxes are so high that traditional public-private distinctions have broken down. If the government can essentially outsource its dirty business to corporations, the Bill of Rights becomes a dead letter.
Florida recently retaliated against what its governor terms “Big Tech Censorship” by passing a Transparency and Technology Act that tries to force social media companies to inform Floridians of their banning/blocking policies and to apply them to all users consistently. The legality of the measure has been questioned although many states, including ironically enough the one where Silicon Valley is located, regularly regulate out-of-state companies doing business within them.
At least the subject is being debated, probably because Big Tech Censorship of a law regarding Big Tech Censorship would be more than a little ironic. A much more important issue is dismisinfogandizing by federal officials, especially Anthony Fauci. AIER and others have repeatedly exposed his lies, half-truths, and flip-flops (and floppy pitching arm) and yet somehow this superannuated individual retains his job, power, and prestige.
The most recent revelation, however, may finally drive him from the policy scene. In case you haven’t heard, a consensus is now emerging that the hypothesis that the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 came out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology needs further study. That doesn’t mean that the CCP deliberately unleashed the virus on the world or even covered it up, just that for some reason earlier indications that lab workers experienced Covid-like sickness in November 2019 did not fully register until recently.
The point here is that a politicized claim with major policy implications that Fauci adamantly dismissed as absurd in May 2020 he now says a year later needs investigation as he is “not convinced” that the virus emerged naturally. Far from a one-off mistake, Fauci’s outright dismissal of claims with empirical backing forms part of a pattern of behavior displayed across the federal and some state governments regarding election reforms and results, police brutality, urban rioting, fiscal and monetary policy, and other important policy areas.
While that pattern of dismisinfoganda hardly proves a Deep State or Blue State conspiracy, it should deeply trouble all Americans that high profile and highly paid members of its government cannot seem to reason correctly. A real scientist working in the public interest would have said a year ago what Fauci is now saying regarding the origins of the novel coronavirus: “Here is what we know, and here is what we still need to learn.” Instead, he leveraged his (undeserved) popularity and traditional journalist deference for authority, especially of the white lab coat variety, to stave off a line of inquiry that could have saved lives by speeding therapeutic and vaccine development.
Alas, I see no way of significantly reducing dismisinfoganda other than ideas that I have previously espoused:
- Improving the educational system so more Americans can reason correctly, ask the right questions, find disinterested sources of data, and more generally think for themselves. But it will take about two decades to slow the spread and flatten the curve of dismisinfoganda even if we magically improved education overnight, which is unlikely.
- Holding public officials much more accountable for their affirmative decisions and pronouncements, thus encouraging them to proceed more cautiously on the policy front and to speak more judiciously when acting in a policy or spokesperson capacity. Police officers are not the only public servants whose qualified immunity needs to be reconsidered, but such a fundamental reform also seems unlikely at present.
- Increasing transparency through floods of FOIA requests or, better yet, continuous automatic release of all but the most secret national security information. Police officers are not the only public servants who should be wearing body cams but, again, such a fundamental reform seems unlikely so long as the rulers get to make and enforce their own rules.
- Encouraging the formation of bonded news outlets that credibly commit to making payments to aggrieved parties if they refuse to retract mistakes as prominently as the original articles.
A glimmer of hope lies in the fact that some drastic people and institutions still have the incentive and wherewithal to expose dismisinfoganda, and they were the ones responsible for bringing the Wuhan lab story back into view with compelling new details. But the fact that a highly educated dear friend of mine recently refused to see me in person because I wouldn’t consent to wear an N95 mask for hours even though he was vaccinated and I have something at least as good, natural immunity, is telling.
The New York Times claims that natural immunity is no better than the mRNA “vaccines,” and NPR argues that Covid survivors should still get vaccinated, but who can believe them, or Fauci, on such matters anymore, especially when important policies with profound civil liberties implications, like vaccine passports, remain under consideration? Therein lies the true cost of runaway dismisinfoganda. Many Americans once believed government officials unless/until they had good reason to doubt them but increasingly they disbelieve officials unless/until they have reason to believe them. Maybe that is a good thing as it will eventually induce Americans to ask why they continue to pay the salaries of people they cannot implicitly trust to do their respective jobs.