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4 May 2022

Disinformation is political, not a simple matter of truth and lies

It may have noble aims, but Biden’s new Disinformation Governance Board is just another form of propaganda.

By Louise Perry

“Information laundering is really quite ferocious/It’s when a huckster takes some lies and makes them sound precocious/By saying them in Congress or a mainstream outlet so disinformation’s origins are slightly less atrocious.”

These are the lyrics to a ditty composed by Nina Jankowicz, the executive director of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board, a new body that was introduced to the public on 27 April. In a video released on her TikTok channel, Jankowicz sings with gusto, setting her disinformation anthem to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Disney’s Mary Poppins. 

The choice of a song from children’s fiction is apt. In the world-view that Jankowicz is promoting, disinformation is a matter of goodies and baddies – the former tell the truth, while the latter tell lies. Her Disinformation Governance Board is on a mission to vanquish these “hucksters”. It is Disney all the way down. 

What’s notable about the examples presented by Jankowicz – both in her song, and in her writings and public statements – is that only one side of the political aisle seems to be responsible for spreading disinformation. “Most of the disinformation that we’ve seen, this highly emotionally manipulative content, is coming from the right,” she said in November 2020. So while Jankowicz is quick to describe scepticism about the coronavirus vaccine or the security of mail-in balloting as disinformation, I have not been able to find any instances of her condemning disinformation spread by left-leaning media outlets or politicians. 

Examples of the latter do exist. It was comically misleading, for example, for CNN to broadcast its reporter standing in front of burning cars during the Black Lives Matter protests in August 2020, which the news ticker on the screen was simultaneously describing as “fiery but mostly peaceful”. Then there was that long period of time during which the Covid-19 lab leak hypothesis was considered to be a “debunked conspiracy theory”, until all of a sudden it wasn’t. Early in the pandemic, Jankowicz herself suggested on Twitter that promoting the utility of masks constituted “disinfo” before the rapid U-turn in public health advice that led to the introduction of mask mandates. It is straightforwardly wrong to suggest that the clash between left and right maps neatly on to the clash between truth-tellers and liars.

Which is not to say that disinformation isn’t a real thing. The term was once used primarily to describe efforts by government intelligence agencies to undermine enemy states through deliberate deception. In the early 2000s, the word entered mainstream US politics and began to be used as a synonym for propaganda. Jankowicz is now among those speaking in sometimes apocalyptic terms about the threat that disinformation poses to the American nation (“Facebook Groups are Destroying America” is the headline of a piece she wrote for Wired in 2020).

The problem with swapping out the word “propaganda” and replacing it with “disinformation” is that doing so obscures the role of political power. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has triggered panic among many of the people most concerned about disinformation – the former head of global news at Twitter, Vivian Schiller, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the prospect filled her with “existential dread”.

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Musk’s critics are terrified of the possibility that his apparent commitment to free speech is actually a cover for the promotion of harmful speech, including disinformation. Both sides of this conflict are representing themselves as defenders of fundamental virtues, with one side (Musk’s) concerned with protecting free speech, while the other side (Jankowicz’s) concerned with protecting the public from hostile actors. This framing suggests a politically neutral contest.

But there is nothing politically neutral about it. The Disinformation Governance Board is actually tasked not with defending the American people from lies, but rather with defending the American people from statements that Jankowicz and her political allies believe to be lies, which is not at all the same thing.

This does not mean that Jankowicz is insincere – far from it. I’m quite sure that she genuinely understands herself to be in battle with the “ferocious” and “atrocious” creatures of the night. There is no conspiracy to suppress the speech of the Joe Biden administration’s domestic enemies – at least, not a conscious one. There is a system at work here, but it is a system that works in peculiar ways. 

There is a concept that can help us understand what is going on – a concept developed by an American software engineer called Curtis Yarvin. He doesn’t have an academic position and he hasn’t published any books, at least not in analogue form. Instead, he has written hundreds of thousands of words online, some of which have been synthesised into ebooks that are available to download for free.

Despite his outsider status, Yarvin is perhaps one of the most influential political philosophers of this century, and a highly controversial figure. A recent Vanity Fair feature on what has been dubbed the “New Right” details Yarvin’s impact, not only on powerful figures such as the tech billionaire Peter Thiel, but also on a cool and youthful crowd who have turned against progressivism and are now forming something of a counter-elite. 

One of Yarvin’s most influential ideas is concerned with what he calls “the cathedral”. Our pre-Reformation forebears had the Catholic Church, and the Soviets had the Politburo, and we too have a nexus of powerful institutions that govern us: the media and the academy. But our cathedral has no central administrator. There is no conspiracy.

Instead, there is a group of clever and ambitious people all competing for status within elite institutions, and this process of competition tends to produce ideological conformity across those institutions. The cathedral “has a Party line without a Party”, writes Yarvin, and “if you’ve ever met any of the officially authorized bearers, you know that the last thing they think of themselves as being is ‘officially authorized bearers’.”

You don’t have to agree with the rest of Yarvin’s writings to see that the cathedral metaphor has explanatory power. It explains, for instance, how Jankowicz – an officially authorised bearer if ever there was one – can be put in charge of a propaganda department and not realise it. Because ideological conformity makes the ideology invisible, turning political conflict into a simple matter of truth and lies.

[See also: How social media influencers are trying to combat the myths and misinformation around sex]

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