Politics & Policy

The True Meaning of ‘Misinformation’

Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks at the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation nomination hearings to examine the expected nomination of Pete Buttigieg to be Secretary of Transportation in Washington, D.C., January 21, 2021. (Ken Cedeno/Pool via Reuters)
Public safety is an old justification for persecuting political opponents.

Last week Senators Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) and Ben Ray Luján (D., N.M.) introduced a bill designed to suppress dangerous misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. Like similar proposals on the right, the bill would limit the liability shield of Section 230 for social-media platforms. Unlike proposals on the right, however, the Democratic senators have a correct understanding of what limiting the liability shield would accomplish — namely to further incentivize Big Tech to suppress conservative speech.

As others have noted, the legal effect of the bill would amount to exactly nothing, because even without the liability shield, American law provides no liability for the passive dissemination of medical misinformation. It is mostly theater. On the other hand, sometimes political theater has real consequences, especially when the intent — as with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Court-packing plan — is to intimidate and deter.

Klobuchar’s proposal for a Ministry of Public-Health Truth is especially chilling when you consider the broader trend of which it is merely the latest example. Misinformation is certainly bad for democracy. But, like the accusations of racism that abound today, the “misinformation” label is rarely an apt description of its subject. It is, rather, a rhetorical trick, employed for its value as a political weapon rather than as a signifier.

It is no mere coincidence that, like the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984, the progressives’ campaign against “misinformation” entails their emphatic right to proclaim obvious falsehoods while suppressing their political adversaries’ right to speak obvious truth. The label is not used as a signifier at all, but as a tool of arbitrary power. It is the rule, the accusation, and the conviction, all bundled up in a single word — with no possibility of appeal. Its user automatically wins whatever argument may be at stake, thereby rendering further debate superfluous. After that, silencing the opposition becomes merely a ministerial function.

Consider PolitiFact’s latest display of professional martyrdom for the Democratic cause, recently chronicled by National Review’s David Harsanyi. PolitiFact went after a video that compared campaign-trail statements from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, suggesting that they wouldn’t trust a vaccine developed under auspices of the Trump administration.

“The parts that are left out make clear that Biden and Harris were raising questions not about the vaccines themselves, but about then-President Donald Trump’s rollout of the vaccines and the risk that the effort would become rushed or politicized,” wrote PolitiFact.

This distinction is absurd, Harsanyi suggests. Actually, it is a brazen lie — “misinformation,” properly so-called. Biden and Harris didn’t say anything negative about the Trump rollout. They were casting doubt specifically on the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines themselves, in statements that obviously contributed to anti-vax sentiment at the time and likely also since.

But rather than admit an obvious mistake by two of their beloved Democrats, the “professionals” of PolitiFact preferred to embrace a bald-faced lie. Biden and Harris had not cast doubt on the vaccines, they decided, and the mere suggestion that they had done so was itself misinformation! If only George Orwell had seen this performance with his own eyes, it might have been memorialized with at least a subtle reference in 1984.

Think about it. If the Klobuchar bill were concerned with actual misinformation rather than arbitrary control, wouldn’t it contain a simple, objective definition of “misinformation”? Well, it doesn’t. Instead, it empowers the Ministry of Truth — er, I mean the Department of Health and Human Services — to define medical misinformation. Why miss an obvious opportunity to help the bill look like something other than an Orwellian nightmare? Because when regulators seek a particular outcome, they must be able to decide what the rule is on a case-by-case basis, which incidentally is why all truly socialist systems must be dictatorships, as Friedrich Hayek noted.

At the Brookings Institution, Mark MacCarthy writes, “The distinction between publicly airing a legitimate scientific disagreement about the effects of vaccines and conducting a willful disinformation campaign to undermine public health is razor-thin. Do we really want a government agency to define that line between scientific truth and falsity in a way that has legal consequences?”

But the line between “legitimate scientific disagreement” and a “willful disinformation campaign” is not razor-thin — it’s totally gray and indeterminate. Take a close look at the adjective “willful” in MacCarthy’s formulation and its meaninglessness becomes readily apparent. Neither Klobuchar nor any other progressive has a mens rea — guilty intent — requirement in mind when she seeks to suppress “misinformation.” On the contrary, it is precisely the sincere belief in misinformation — which they have by one of their self-serving fictions equated with the opposite, deliberate misinformation — that they are trying to stamp out.

There is a lot more at stake here than just freedom of speech, which in normal times — say, the 1990s — would have been enough on its own to make the Klobuchar bill an immediate nonstarter. But today’s Democrats are not like their parents. Color-blindness is now racist; freedom of speech, violence; questioning received wisdom on any subject, misinformation.

The progressive campaign against health misinformation, thinly justified on the grounds of protecting public health, not only does no such thing; it is itself a danger to public health. Why? Because health policy raises difficult policy issues with no obviously correct answers, so every answer must be considered tentative and subject to revision on the basis of an ever-changing mosaic of information, like science itself.

As Kyle Smith recently wrote in these pages:

Truth, though, is rarely a settled thing. Less than 18 months ago the government-approved truth according to Anthony Fauci was that risk from the coronavirus was “minuscule.” Less than 17 months ago, he told us that wearing masks was counterproductive. For a few days in April, the “truth” according to the FDA was that no one should use the J&J vaccine because it was too dangerous. And just two months ago, it was accepted, government-backed fact that the coronavirus could not possibly have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Facebook labeled anyone who claimed otherwise guilty of propagating misinformation.

What is and is not “misinformation” is and ought to continue to be the subject of robust public debate, without the government’s acting as referee.

Sooner or later someone will come up with a reliable estimate of how many tens of thousands of people died because of a totally false sense of security about the efficacy of masks, a misimpression created in part by the suppression of information about their dubious efficacy. I can think of elderly people in my own family who for months in 2020 routinely engaged in extremely risky behaviors — such as taking unnecessary trips to the supermarket — because they thought that wearing masks made it safe to do so. They are lucky they made it through the pandemic, because many others in the same situation, with the same false sense of security, didn’t.

The progressive campaign against “misinformation” is not just a lurch toward the persecution of political opponents under the all-too-familiar cover of public safety. And it is not merely a danger to public health. It is an attack on the very idea of democratic government, which, like a court of law, relies primordially on an adversarial dialectic to get near the truth.

Truth, however, is the last thing on the mind of those who throw around the word “misinformation” as if it were impossible that they are the ones who are misinformed.

Mario Loyola is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program of Florida International University, and a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute of George Mason University. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone.


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