By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
1. Everything you will read in this commentary is disinformation.
2. To say that this commentary contains disinformation is disinformation.
3. To say statements calling this commentary disinformation are disinformation is disinformation.
This is what our public discourse has come to. This is what we have done to it. We Americans have made a nonsense of ourselves. You want to talk about America’s late-imperial decline? This is the warp and weft of it as we shred our social fabric. This is what our troubled republic sounds like, an indecipherable cacophony amid which anything we say can be turned to mean other than what we mean.
We don’t talk to one another anymore, sharing opinions or perspectives. When we come across anyone who thinks differently than we do we simply call him or her a disseminator of disinformation, a liar, and nothing more need be said.
I do not share these thoughts simply because it is difficult to live in a nation that has destroyed its agora in the ancient Greek, its public space, or because anyone expressing a dissenting view on this or that question is vulnerable to censorship, suppression, or some other form of ostracism, or because it is lonely amid the creeping atomization and isolation this freakish “disinformation” war visits upon us.
There is a larger matter at issue, a more insidious matter. This is a matter that faces us with what I judge to be the most dangerous threat of all those we now confront.
The New York Times published a piece on Oct. 20 under the headline, “How Disinformation Splintered and Became More Intractable.” In it, Steven Lee Myers, formerly of the Times’s Moscow bureau, and Sheera Frenkel, a technology reporter in the San Francisco bureau, made the point very plain, although hardly did they intend to do so: Those flinging around all these charges of disinformation with notable vigor and conviction are crusaders in the cause of a dangerous form of liberal absolutism.
Much has been written about disinformation these past few years, of course. I have read nothing to date that so exposes the malign design that is implicit in the war against it. This war rests squarely on the cynical use of disinformation in the service of power as it intrudes ever more stealthily into our lives and rights.
We have heard talk of “liberal authoritarianism” and even “liberal totalitarianism,” which I consider excessive for its extreme connotations, over the past half-dozen years. My own coinage since 2016, when Russiagate was all the rage and we still had Hillary Clinton to kick around, is “apple-pie authoritarianism.” To one or another extent, these terms seem in line with de Tocqueville’s “soft despotism” as he explained the phenomenon 190 years ago in the second volume of Democracy in America.
But for all the famous French traveler foresaw, I don’t think he anticipated what is going on around us now. I do not use the term “liberal absolutism” lightly.
Absolutists are those who assert their authority to make the law, to enforce the law, and—key point here—to hold themselves above the law, “the state of exception” as the scholars put it. This is why we associate the term most commonly with the age of monarchies. Those claiming to wage a war against disinformation are absolutists in a very similar meaning. They assert the right to determine what is true and what is not and to force the public to abide by their determination—this while holding their version of what is true and what is not entirely beyond scrutiny or question.
There are many things to say about the Times piece just mentioned, but let us start with the headline. Disinformation has splintered and therefore spread, an observation that places the government-supervised Times in a position to judge it from a presumed position of authority. Presumption of this kind is an attribute of absolutism. And disinformation in the Times’s definition is “more intractable”—harder to fight and extinguish.
We are left with a key question. Who is doing the tracting, so to say—who is self-assigned to wage the war?
This is a question so important that nobody claiming to wage war against disinformation ever dares ask it or offer an answer. And it is vital we pose and answer this question if we are ever to counter the liberal absolutism that lies behind the disinformation war that corrupts our polity. Caitlin Johnstone, the sassy Australian observer of American affairs, addressed this matter as directly as anyone has in a piece she published October 22:
This fatal logical flaw in the burgeoning business of “fact checking” and “counter-disinformation” is self-evident at a glance, and it becomes even more glaring once you notice that all the major players involved in instituting and normalizing these practices have ties to status quo power.
The idea that someone needs to be in charge of deciding what’s true and false on behalf of the rank-and-file citizenry is becoming more and more widely accepted, and it’s plainly irrational. In practice it’s nothing other than a call to propagandize the public more aggressively. You might agree with their propaganda. The propagandists might believe they are being totally impartial and objective. But as long as they have any oligarchic or state backing, directly or indirectly, they are necessarily administering propaganda on behalf of the powerful.
Myers and Frenkel propose to hide these realities from us. Passive-aggressively, as is so often The Times’s wont, their piece assiduously obscures the question of authority in the matter of disinformation so that we may never ask it. There is a disinformation problem, it grows worse, and good people are fighting it: This is The Times’s storybook version of what is going on.
What is going on, to get straight to it, is a war mainstream media such as The Times and the governing powers they serve never before had to wage. The rising influence of independent media as digital platforms have become available to them is at bottom a challenge to an information monopoly that has endured since the emergence of corporate-owned mass media a century or so ago.
What is at issue, this is to say, is the efficacy of diverse perspectives in a free society. This holds whether the topic is war, the Pentagon budget, the CIA’s illegalities, Russia, vaccines, Hunter Biden’s corruptions —anything having to do with the power of the national security state. The disinformation war is nothing more than an effort to extinguish all views on such topics other than those approved by our liberal absolutists.
“Despite years of efforts by the media, by academics and even by social media companies themselves to address the problem, it is arguably more pervasive and widespread today,” Myers and Frenkel write. A little further on: “Today, however, there are dozens of new platforms, including some that pride themselves on not moderating—censoring, as they put it—untrue statements in the name of free speech.”
See what I mean? The heart of the matter is the proliferation of new publications using digital technologies. This is a bad thing. There must not be so many publications with all their outside-the-orthodoxy perspectives. Making things worse, some of them don’t assign themselves the authority to “moderate” content. And in this connection, I love the “censoring, as they put it.”
The last bit is the most important. Media, meaning mainstream media, along with academic people and wholly unqualified techies are here to tell you something is untrue, and the right to free speech is reduced to a dodge, an impediment that gets in the way of those determining the truth.
My neck snapped when I got to the sixth paragraph of the Times piece, where Myers and Frenkel quoted none other than Nina Jankowicz. This tells us a great deal of what we need to know about the disinformation war and what The Times is up to as it soldiers forth waging it.
Jankowicz once ran the Russia and Belarus operations at the National Democratic Institute, a close cousin of the coup-cultivating National Endowment for Democracy. She went on to work for the Foreign Ministry in Kyiv. She proved a tireless liar as she dedicated herself to the wall of disinformation that sustained the Russiagate farrago for four years.
Nice. Readers will recognize Jankowicz as the blink-and-you-missed-it head of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board until that operation collapsed in a matter of weeks earlier this year amid a shrill chorus of protests that it was an American version of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. I will always remember Jankowicz for her wonderful thought at the time of her appointment: “Just think of me as the Mary Poppins of disinformation.”
Disinterested source No. 1, let us call Ms. Jankowicz. I will think of you always, Nina, in just this way.
I wondered as I read along why someone on the Times’s national desk didn’t have the presence of mind to tell Myers and Frenkel to drop the Jankowicz quotation, as she transparently gives away the disinformation war as a propaganda ploy to control what we read, view, and indeed think. Did I have this wrong.
The next quotation is from Jared Holt of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. And what is the ISD? It is a London-based operation dedicated to hunting down all sorts of malevolent doings: “conspiracy theories,” “extremism,” “counternarratives,” “fake news,” “echo chambers,” and of course, the big one, disinformation. Its primary funders include every government in the Anglosphere, numerous others in the European Union, Google, Microsoft, George Soros, and Pierre Omidyar—these last being heavy into the “regime change” game. The Times, of course, mentions none of this.
Let us call our Jared and the ISD disinterested source No. 2.
No. 3 in the impartial sources line is the one that caused my jaw to drop to the edge of my desk, my neck having already snapped. Myers and Frenkel had the brass to trot out an operation called NewsGuard to this effect:
TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance, has become a primary battleground in today’s fight against disinformation. A report last month by NewsGuard, an organization that tracks the problem online, showed that nearly 20 percent of videos presented as search results on TikTok contained false or misleading information on topics such as school shootings and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“An organization that tracks the problem online”: I always love The Times’s thumbnail identifiers when they are used to occlude the truth about a source from its readers.
NewsGuard has been around since the mid–Russiagate years and purports to do what its name implies: It assigns itself the task of identifying misinformation, disinformation, and “fake news.” It advises $4.95-a-month subscribers—public institutions, libraries, universities, individuals—of offending publications. Here is what The Times wants to slip past readers: NewsGuard counts the State Department and the Pentagon as “partners.” Its advisory board includes Michael Hayden, a retired general and formerly director of the CIA and the NSA, Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security, and Anders Rasmussen, a former secretary-general of NATO.
I have a direct interest when it comes to NewsGuard. Earlier this year it assigned Consortium News a red-alert rating—meaning it is a dangerous publication—on the grounds that it spread various bits of disinformation. Chief among these are Consortium columns noting that the U.S. cultivated the 2014 coup in Kyiv and the presence of neo–Nazi ideologues in Ukraine’s political and military institutions.
I wrote some of the columns at issue and, of course, stand by them. There is plentiful evidence supporting every assertion in them, as Joe Lauria, Consortium’s editor, patiently laid out to NewsGuard’s interrogator. This did not matter. NewsGuard applied the condemning classification, and it remains.
There is an important lesson here. What is true or false is not actually at issue in the disinformation war. What contravenes the liberal absolutists’ orthodoxies is at issue. Alternative views of the war in Ukraine, “election denialism,” “undermining trust in the democratic system”—these are to be countered as disinformation. It is, altogether, a term with no meaning.
The Times has its own curious list of condemnations. To “portray Big Tech as beholden to the government, the deep state or the liberal elite”: This is demonstrably true, but uh-uh. The Times cites a Pew study that found one in 10 posts on internet sites surveyed made “derisive allegations” about LGBTQ issues. No: We cannot have this.
It is vital at this point in this creeping, creepy campaign that we hold to what I call the Skokie Position. Readers will recall that in 1978 the American Civil Liberties Union supported the right of American neo–Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, which had a large Jewish population, despite the marchers’ odious views. This was what it meant back when people understood how to defend free speech.
It is the same for us now. I do not know what derisive allegations against LGBTQ people someone made on a digital website. I do not know what tasteless things Kanye West—who figures among the condemnable in the Myers–Frenkel story—said about Jews or Black Lives Matter. I most certainly support their right to say whatever it is they said.
Myers and Frenkel want us to understand the disinformation war as one waged against right-wing websites such as QAnon, Donald Trump and his followers, and assorted others gathered under the term “conservative.” This is neat, even halfway clever as an organizing principle. We liberals must band together in the disinformation war because it is the great, unwashed other side that has us under attack: This is the thesis running all the way through the Myers–Frenkel piece.
Neat, clever to an extent, and cynical times 10, in my read. This is not about Republicans or Democrats, the right wing in American politics against what no longer even passes for a left. It is about absolutism appearing in America’s political culture to an extent I start to think is unprecedented.
In this connection, Lee Fang and Ken Klipperstein published a piece Monday in The Intercept that leaves little doubt about the danger we face in the disinformation war. In “Truth Cops,” they reveal “years of internal DHS [Department of Homeland Security] memos, emails, and documents” demonstrating the frightening extent to which the federal government is working directly, as in very directly, with Big Tech to control what is published on digital platforms. This is the avenue on which the DHS has chosen to travel now that its Governance Board has bombed: Always best to get it done through the private sector.
Given the extent publishing platforms such as Facebook and Twitter now collaborate directly with DHS and other federal agencies, as Fang and Klipperstein detail it, we can no longer entertain any claims that there is no official censorship in America. What these two writers reveal is illegal, a clear breach of the First Amendment. And let us watch as Myers, a seasoned correspondent now leading the Times’s disinformation coverage, reports this major development — if, indeed, he does.
In the where-are-we-headed department, Diana Johnstone, the noted Europeanist, mailed me an item the other day from a German reporter named Ulrich Hayden. It is here, in an automated translation from German. Diana’s note atop the piece reads, “Bundestag decides Russians are guilty of everything.” It seems that denying or “trivializing”—meaning what?—war crimes or genocides, including what are considered Russia’s in Ukraine, is now punishable as “incitement of the people.” Hayden reported that the Bundestag passed this legislation in an evening session “without any prior announcement.”
The Germans, like many others, get these things done by law, openly. Americans, dwelling in the land of the free, get them done unofficially, less visibly, and through the private sector, not least by way of our media.
I like the masthead motto of NachDenkSeiten, where Ulrich Hayden’s piece appeared. It is “For everyone who still has their own thoughts.” It is clean, sturdy, and cannot be turned upside down as “disinformation.” In a time when liberal absolutists spread disinformation in the name of fighting disinformation, it focuses the mind on what is truly being fought over.