by Joseph Bernstein published in Harper's Magazine
Read original on Harper's Magazine's website
Bernstein posits a crucial theory on "disinformati...Show description
Posted 562 days ago
This was a fantastic article. There were, of course, parts that I disagreed with deeply, but the fundamental argument was an excellent one: couldn't it be possible that the battle against "disinformation" is simply a battle against views that we don't agree with, simply shrouded in elitism? Berstein is not saying that this is a fact, but he's asking us to look seriously at how we define and attempt to combat disinformation. It's not enough to agree with the general consensus of what is or isn't "misinformation." There is a fine line between truth and dogma, and it seems that we are crossing it unwillingly without really looking at our own values.
Disinformation is real - that is without question. People post false content online in an attempt to persuade or erode trust. That is without a doubt. But what we should be skeptical about is what exactly constitutes disinformation and how influential is it actually? Berstein brings up the most obvious example of COVID:
Many disinformation workers, who spent months calling for social-media companies to ban such claims on the grounds that they were conspiracy theories, have been awkwardly silent as scientists have begun to admit that an accidental leak from a Wuhan lab is an unlikely, but plausible, possibility.
He is not trying to perpetuate some crackpot theory that Wuhan scientists produced the virus, but rather promoting skepticism: we cannot categorically rule out the possibility because we believe it to be harmful. It is harmful for people to immediately label it as "disinformation" because it is picked up by a certain political group and attempt to ban or smother it. This has serious implications for truth and free speech in a democracy.
Of course, the argument against Bernstein's theory is that no, the people perpetuating that theory were actually trying to do harm. But again, that means there are political and social underpinnings, not purely based on fact or science. Just as there are those who are promoting "disinformation" for political gain, there are those that attempt to cull anything related to it for political gain. Berstein puts this amazingly well:
A quick scan of the institutions that publish most frequently and influentially about disinformation: Harvard University, the New York Times, Stanford University, MIT, NBC, the Atlantic Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, etc. That the most prestigious liberal institutions of the pre-digital age are the most invested in fighting disinformation reveals a lot about what they stand to lose, or hope to regain. Whatever the brilliance of the individual disinformation researchers and reporters, the nature of the project inevitably places them in a regrettably defensive position in the contemporary debate about media representation, objectivity, image-making, and public knowledge. However well-intentioned these professionals are, they don’t have special access to the fabric of reality.
Bernstein questions what this means for democratic society. In this sense, he's reaching across the aisle, past the center, to find a common ground between the growing groups in the Left and the Right who are challenging the "establishment" (I use that word with caution and know it is packed with meaning). In a passage that both sides would agree with, I believe, he writes:
The Biden Administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism—the first of its kind—promises to “counter the polarization often fueled by disinformation, misinformation, and dangerous conspiracy theories online.” The full report warned not just of right-wing militias and incels, but anticapitalist, environmental, and animal-rights activists too. This comes as governments around the world have started using emergency “fake news” and “disinformation” laws to harass and arrest dissidents and reporters.
Bernstein's belief here is that there is a political center, based on the neoliberal ideology of the last decades, that is fighting to stay the default authority.
The media scholar Jack Bratich has argued that the contemporary antidisinformation industry is part of a “war of restoration” fought by an American political center humbled by the economic and political crises of the past twenty years. Depoliticized civil society becomes, per Bratich, “the terrain for the restoration of authoritative truth-tellers” like, well, Harvard, the New York Times, and the Council on Foreign Relations.
This is interesting to think about, but this is a part of the article that I begin to disagree with. There is a tendency on the Left for consiparacy theories against the "elite" and "center" just as there is on the Right. Writing like this attempts to depict some cohort of people in in together to hold on to their power. Rather, these are just individuals who truly believe in liberal ideals, and I don't think they are waging some effort to "depoliticize society" for maintaining power, but rather they see "depoliticized society" as the best way to make progress. That's an important distinction for me and one that I think Bernstein blurs.
Another point that stood out to me which I thought should have been omitted entirely was the following:
This is perhaps the deepest criticism one can make of these Silicon Valley giants: not that their gleaming industrial information process creates nasty runoff, but that nothing all that valuable is coming out of the factory in the first place.
I don't know if this is Bernsteins opinion or if he was citing some group, but the statement is just false. It is absolutely uncountable the amount of researchers, institutions, students, workers, intellectuals that use Google to find and categorize information unlike any time before. To believe otherwise is to live in a fantasy world. I don't think Bernstein actually believes this (or maybe was thinking about Facebook more during this point).
And lastly, there is this focus on studies that look at the amount of "shares" associated with posts:
Last year, Facebook started putting warning labels on Trump’s misinformative and disinformative posts. BuzzFeed News reported in November that the labels reduced sharing by only 8 percent. It was almost as if the vast majority of people who spread what Trump posted didn’t care whether a third party had rated his speech unreliable.
The entire point of social media like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram is that it filters content through certain people, celebrities, and a large amount of people are just passive. Looking at "shares" has nothing to do, NOTHING TO DO, with the influence of a post. Research may have focused on this because that's the data available, but I would argue that views are hundreds to thousands of times more influential. Somebody who sits on the fence in politics who logs into Facebook once a day and that is their only source of news and information will, undeniably, be persuaded by whatever content comes up.
Bernstein concludes with the idea that Facebook kinda sucks, and we put too much belief in the idea of misinformation:
The question is: Why do disinformation workers think they are the only ones who have noticed that Facebook stinks? Why should we suppose the rest of the world has been hypnotized by it? Why have we been so eager to accept Silicon Valley’s story about how easy we are to manipulate?
Although I don't agree with it 100%, it's a very, very good point. There is an entire culture around disinformations as if we are all subject to Facebook's algorithm, even though must of us kind of hate it anyways. But I think he is missing a large amount of people: those that don't read newspapers or care about how good Facebook is but who log in just to see what the people around them might think about things while sitting on the toilet, before going to sleep, waiting in line. In these moments, we cannot deny its influence.
Regardless, Berstein's article laid out a lot of fantastic points. Even though I don't agree with them all, they were incredibly thoughtful and make us look considerably at the idea of "misinformation" which is being accepted on the Left without question.