The scramble by news outlets and tech corporations to prevent the spread of mis- or disinformation has itself become a news story. When advertorials, Photoshopped pictures, deepfake videos, inflammatory social media posts, and the alternative facts of spinmeisters and conspiracy theorists can incite millions of citizens to dangerous or undemocratic behavior, there’s a responsibility to steer the public away from the most egregious lies, no? Yet applied consistently, the same standards that put an asterisk beside politicians’ boasts or that flag Facebook jokes would also put warning labels on fantasy fiction (“Note: dragons are mythical creatures which have never existed”), campfire ghost stories (“Fact check: this account of a vanishing hitch-hiker has no basis in verified police records”), or religious texts (“Warning: no scientific data confirming the existence of God has ever been found”) – and let’s not even get started on Oliver Stone’s JFK or Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? Trying to shut down disinformation wherever it appears sounds like a useful project, but it may turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth.
In some cases, such as injurious libel or perjured courtroom testimony, false statements can indeed be legally stopped and penalized. If I say publicly that Joe has committed theft and murder, and Joe hasn’t, then I am in serious trouble (parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 have successfully sued incendiary radio personality Alex Jones for suggesting that the massacre was a big hoax). On the other hand, if I say publicly that all of western society is built on a history of theft and murder, well, that’s open to interpretation. There is thus a pretty wide latitude between the intentional utterance of known untruths which may do real harm (misleading claims on behalf of a commercial product, say), and mere rhetoric that twists agreed-on knowledge in order to persuade (like a political platform). A lot of what gets labeled as misinformation falls somewhere between those poles: not quite as inherently incorrect as “two and two make five,” but neither as indisputable as “two and two make four,” either. Misinformation and disinformation, like their relative propaganda, have come to mean anything said or believed by those with whom we disagree.
Likewise, it’s one thing to “trust the science” when we talk about basic physical principles (water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, the earth revolves around the sun), and another when we discuss ongoing research (How did the dinosaurs die? Is human intelligence genetically inheritable?). For practical purposes, some science is a lot more trustworthy than others – I accept the science of aeronautics when I board a plane, but I’m not as sold on the science of nutrition when I have a second bowl of ice cream. Aeronautical and nutritional science are both based on observation and evidence, but I can afford to ignore the findings of one a little longer than the other. Science is the opposite of superstition, but it’s not the opposite of fallible.
However well-meaning the endeavor might seem, it’s impossible to identify and debunk every last piece of dishonest, erroneous, incomplete, or conjectural information that’s put forward as objective fact. There are too many of them, and no one is omniscient or impartial enough to qualify for the job. Small example: a while ago a local TV reporter where I live profiled an elderly World War II vet who once flew “dangerous missions over Nazi-occupied Germany.” Wrong. The Nazis were already in Germany when the war began, and they went on to occupy foreign countries, such as France, Poland, and the Netherlands. It was a dumb mistake, rather than a purposeful deception, but it was in any case misinformation which might have confused some gullible or inattentive viewers. Should a warning notice have popped up? Should the clip have been pulled for promoting revisionist history? Who gets to decide where free speech (or ignorant, or offensive, or controversial speech) ends, and where prohibited propaganda begins?
Ultimately, the problems of mis- and disinformation parallel the problems of traffic accidents, phone addiction, and dryer lint: they are all inevitable byproducts of widespread technologies whose conveniences we otherwise take for granted. You can always commute by bus, put down your device, and hang your wet clothes on a line – and you can always disconnect from the unending torrent of true and false messages we are all drowning in – but somehow I doubt many of us are willing to make those tradeoffs. As I wrote back in 1997’s Silence Descends: The End of the Information Age, 2000-2500, information has become “a staple luxury,” something we all have but which, however accurate or inaccurate it may be, is usually far more than we need. Fact. Arguably.