Are We Having a Moral Panic Over Misinformation?

Yves here. Even though this article may seem pedestrian, the intensifying efforts to censor what is perceived to be wrongspeech makes a “back to basics” discussion of so-called misinformation valuable. What is telling is how often individuals react emotionally to challenges to their beliefs on hot topics of the day and are either unwilling or unable to defend their views. The second is the frequency with with these strongly-held positions fall into what I call “belief clusters”: for instance, that anti-globalists are often libertarians and therefore budget hawks (you’ll see this grouping regularly among prominent YouTube commentators).

One reason for highlighting this piece is that it makes for a compact rebuttal to those out to silence viewpoints they deem dangerous. Please consider sending it to the information vigilantes in your life.

By Joanna Thompson, a science journalist, insect enthusiast, and Oxford comma appreciator based in New York. Originally published at Undark

n 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic rampaged across the globe, the World Health Organization declared that we had plunged into a second, simultaneous catastrophe: an infodemic. This global crisis was characterized by the rapid spreadof false information, or misinformation, mostly in digital spaces. The fear was that such inaccuracies would leave the public unmoored, adrift in a sea of untruth. Eventually, this mass disorientation would cause people to harm themselves and one another.

In an effort to combat the rising tide of misinformation, certain agencies, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.K. Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee, have poured resources into quantifying its spread and impact online. Some of the resulting reports have spawned legislation aimed at limiting online fake news.

But some psychologists and sociologists aren’t convinced that misinformation is as powerful as all that — or that it is a substantially different issue now compared with in the past. In fact, they think that we may be prematurely whipping ourselves into a misinformation moral panic.

“It seems to me that we start from the conclusion that there is a problem,” said Christos Bechlivanidis, a psychologist and causation researcher at University College London. “But I think we need to think about this a little bit closer before panicking.”

Studying misinformation can be extremely slippery. Part of the reason is semantic. Even the scientific community does not have a good consensus on what constitutes misinformation.

“It’s such a weak concept,” said cognitive psychologist Magda Osman at the University of Cambridge. Misinformation is most commonly defined as anything that is factually inaccurate, but not intended to deceive: in other words, people being wrong. However, it is often talked about in the same breath as disinformation — inaccurate information spread maliciously — and propaganda — information imbued with biased rhetoric designed to sway people politically. Somelump misinformation under the same umbrella as disinformation and other forms of intentionally misleading material (though for her part, Osman draws a clear distinction between misinformation and propaganda, which is both better defined and much more clearly harmful). But this is where things start to get dicey: Even under its common definition, practically anything could qualify as misinformation.

Take, for example, a weather forecast that claims a particular day will have a high of 55 degrees Fahrenheit. If that day comes and temperatures rise to 57 degrees, does the forecast qualify as misinformation? What about a newspaper story that inaccurately reports the color of someone’s shirt? Or a scientific hypothesis that was once widely accepted but is later updated with newer, better data — a cycle that played out in real time throughout the Covid-19 pandemic? The trouble is, research that seeks to quantify or test susceptibility to misinformation will often include relatively innocuous inaccuracies alongside things like dangerous conspiracy theories.

It’s worth noting that misinformation — by any definition — has been around for a long time. Ever since the first humans developed language, we’ve been navigating an information landscape pitted with lies, tall tales, myths, pseudoscience, half-truths, and plain old inaccuracies. Medieval European bestiaries, for instance, described creatures like bears and weasels alongside unicorns and manticores. Anti-vaccine groups have been around for over 200 years, well before the internet. And in the age of yellow journalism around the turn of the 20th century, many reporters made up stories out of whole cloth.

“I don’t like this whole talk of ‘we’re living in a post-truth world,’ as if we ever lived in a truth world,” said Catarina Dutilh Novaes, a researcher who studies the history and philosophy of logic at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Standards for journalism and books have, on the whole, improved since the yellow journalism days. But casual conversation isn’t held to the same rigorous standards — you’re probably not likely to pull out a reference book and start fact-checking your grandma at the dinner table. Today, a lot of this type of interpersonal discussion has moved online. Simply quantifying the amount of misinformation in a given online space, then, is virtually impossible, because “everything that we’re saying is inaccurate,” Osman said. And proving that wrong information has a direct impact on a person’s behavior can be even muddier.

Most of the rationale for quantifying misinformation and determining who is susceptible to it stems from the assumption that consuming it will alter people’s beliefs and cause them to behave irrationally. The quintessential example is misinformation surrounding Covid-19, which was blamed for many people’s subsequent hesitancy in getting a vaccine to protect against the virus. There are a wealth of studies demonstrating a correlation between consuming misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. But it is deceptively tricky to prove a causal link; for example, evidence suggests a lot of vaccine-hesitant folks were skeptical of the science well before the Covid-19 pandemic began. They may have sought out misinformation to justify their pre-existing bias — but that doesn’t mean consuming incorrect information caused the distrust. Other studies suggest that factors like in-group solidarity and national identity are stronger predictors of whether or not someone will get vaccinated against Covid.

In fact, a recent study showed that simply exposing people to Covid misinformation had little to no impact on their decision to get vaccinated and, in certain cases, may have even made them slightly more likely to get a Covid vaccine.

Attempts to pinpoint a particular group that is most likely to buy into misinformation — be it elders, young people, poor folks, the less educated, or some other identity — often have patronizing overtones as well. We’re all susceptible to believing things that aren’t true; it just depends on how they’re presented.

Osman compares the panic to that over violent video games in the last few decades. Despite a slew of headlines and politicians proclaiming that games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty were making teenagers more aggressive, research hasn’t really demonstrated that one causes the other.

Osman argues that our collective concern over misinformation is, in some ways, a moral panic about the internet — which would place it in a long history of similar worries about every new way in which information gets shared. Virtually every form of communication technology has been met with its very own public outcry. In mid-15th century Europe, people destroyed dozens of print shops in a wave of anti-Gutenberg sentiment. The rise of radio in the 1930s led some American parents to fret about its corrupting influence on their children. Even the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates wasn’t immune to the moral panic of his day. “He didn’t like writing at all. It was suspicious,” said Dutilh Novaes.

At a certain level, these fears are perfectly reasonable. Until we know how a new technology will change our lives, it makes sense to proceed with caution. And lately, we’ve barely had time to do that. The last three decades have seen extremely rapid shifts in information-sharing technologies — from cell phones to email to social media — that culminate with the smart phone, which allows us access them all in one sleek, portable package. It’s overwhelming and, in many cases, scary.

“I think what people are still coming to grips with is realizing that actually there was a lot of optimism in the beginning of the internet,” Dutilh Novaes said. We expected that more freely available information would lead to more transparency and less confusion. Instead, we’ve been disappointed to discover that even in an information golden age, people can still be wrong.

Of course, none of this means that the spread of misinformation online is always benign, or that we shouldn’t attempt to regulate it in any way. It’s just that if we’re going to respond with sweeping new legislation — or let tech moguls impose their own limitations — we need to be sure of what the problem actually is, Osman said.

The silver lining is that fake news, false beliefs, and moral panics are not new phenomena — society has thousands of years of experience with them, for better or worse. “I would argue that we are pretty capable of dealing with lies,” Bechlivanidis said.

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  1. Koldmilk

    What worries me about the term “misinformation” is that it includes ordinary inaccuracies and uncertainty. Both are common in science as scientists propose and test models, and so attempts to suppress “misinformation” are also anti-science.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I’d much prefer we go back to using the old term for this – propaganda.

      Using the censors’ “misinformatiom” framing only lends an unwarranted legitimacy to their totalitarian dreams.

      1. Daniil Adamov

        All messaging intended to convince someone to do something is propaganda. That includes, say, trying to convince people to mask, or trying to convince people to accept vaccination, or trying to convince people that something called “misinformation” must be combatted. It is one of many useful neutral concepts that are widely treated as negative for no good reason.

    2. DJG, Reality Czar

      Koldmilk. I tend to agree with you and with the followup comments by Daniil Adamov and lyman alpha blob directly above.

      Misinformation often is not deliberate. Misinformation is part of normal human life.

      Misinformation includes such ideas as pineapple on pizza being acceptable as food.

      Let’s not chase misinformation around and demonize it.

      I tend to view discourse that I don’t consider reliable as either propaganda or as lying. As Daniil Adamov notes, propaganda is a neutral term.

      It isn’t that we have reached a post-truth society. We have reached the point when it is no longer acceptable to call a liar a liar. Does anyone besides me recall the expression “so-and-so doesn’t suffer fools gladly” (said of Marianne Moore, interestingly).

      If more people were told that they were fools, public discourse might improve, ironically. Instead, we get the babblings of Lindsay Graham, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Antony Blinken.

      In this baroque era, there seems to be considerable trouble with calling a spade a spade, a shovel a shovel, a Tartuffe a Tartuffe, and a horrible idea a horrible idea. A dash of rectification of names would help us all.

      As for so-called “fake news,” now there’s a moral panic. It doesn’t exist. “Fake news” is either lying or propaganda. Or Hillary Clinton opening her mouth.

  2. John R Moffett

    “I don’t like this whole talk of ‘we’re living in a post-truth world,’ as if we ever lived in a truth world,”

    That sums it up nicely. We have always lived in a world of advertising and propaganda, both of which use the same techniques pioneered by Edward Bernays to change how people think. Corporations and governments have many reasons for wanting people to think that false things are true, and true things are false. We only get into this discussion of fake news or infodemics when corporations or governments don’t like the counterarguments they are hearing.

    1. Daniil Adamov

      Pretty much, yes. When I hear talk of a post-truth era, I start to wonder when the truth era was. Was it around the time of the Iraq War or in the days of Goebbels? For that matter, lies and unsubstantiated rumours have been commonplace and influential throughout human history. No advanced technology or techniques are strictly necessary for lies to have power, though I’m sure they have some influence.

  3. James T.

    I really do not think we get more misinformation today than before but it sure seems that way due to all of the information we are exposed to due to the internet. Disinformation has always been around and people really choose to believe it based on their beliefs or willingness to accept it because it supports their own beliefs. We cannot convince people of what they should or should not believe by trying to control what they see and hear. History has shown that never works in the long run anyway. I think we should just allow anyone to say anything they feel and then let everyone make their own decisions what works for them and stop all the craziness with fact checking and censorship. Allowing open debate that allows everyone to state their position is likely to lead to better outcomes.

  4. The Rev Kev

    The main problem with misinformation these days is that it is a bit of a movable feast. And the ones that want to determine what is information are the very one spreading it. Here I will limit myself to the lies arising from the present Pandemic so does anybody remember any of these? Masks are dangerous to wear. Don’t take horse past, y’all. Washing your hands will keep you safe. If you don’t have a mask, a t-shirt wrapped around your head will do. Wait, I have a video link here- (2:03 mins)

    And I will say that the the World Health Organization declaring that we have plunged into a second, simultaneous catastrophe: an infodemic is a bit of a**** on their part as they did everything in their power back in 2020 to NOT declare that the world was experiencing a panic wasting precious weeks. They proved themselves as broken as the US CDC. So now they want to say what is true or not? Better to rely on a Mark 1 BS detector – located between both your ears.

  5. Neutrino

    Future Shock, written by Alvin Toffler way back decades ago, gave a preview of modern challenges.

    People have used that title to address many problems with an accelerating life. One take has been that people’s world views are fairly static and that any upsets to those cause digging in of heels. There isn’t so much a rejection of what happens as there is a plea for time to process those happenings and maybe even to try to attempt to develop some means of coping. How qualified life seems to become.

    Eventually, some give up and tune out while others continue to press on gamely with searches of familiar and potentially new explanations.

    That latter bit is located on the information war front, blast craters and all.

    1. playon

      One problem is the increasingly rapid pace of change… the internet, AI, bio-engineering, playing around with DNA, cell phones, etc — just in the last 40 years. Change has accelerated a lot since Future Shock was written in 1970.

      1. sick stones

        That was my impression upon rereading Future Shock. Toffler was writing about a trend that hadn’t really happened yet in his time, at least not nearly to the extent it is unfolding now.

        I’m reminded of Alan Watts, who was writing about the “Los Angelization” of the world, and how places are less and less worth going to because they’re all increasingly the same. But he was writing this in the 1960s, when the world was still pretty interesting and un-superficial.

        If I had to pin it to one or two things, it’s the cellphones and the surreal amount – and quality- of surveillance. And of course its largely tacit acceptance by the public – particularly after 9/11, which ramped up the surveillance state on steroids, as it was intended to.

        There was a song called by Rockwell called “Somebody’s Watching Me” that got a lot of radio play back in the early-mid 1980’s. I was born in 1973, so I was around ten when the song came out. I never felt like somebody was watching me when I went out back then. And that’s because they weren’t. There weren’t cameras (or cops) in schools or really anywhere, even government bldgs. There weren’t cellphones keeping us always-on and always plugged in to the machine.

        I would say that anyone born in the late 90’s and after has absolutely no concept of privacy. But the fascinating thing is that many people my age and older don’t have the institutional memory to recall how things were.

        You can’t get away anymore. I think this has a tremendous bearing on mental health and addiction issues as well.

      2. Roland

        I disagree.

        Pace of change, even when the question is confined to technology, has been faster in various periods of the past.

        Consider 1920-1960. Household radio & TV. Penicillin. Jet travel. Atomic bombs.

        Or 1850-1890. Ocean steamships. Massive worldwide explosion of railroads and telegraphs. Repeating firearms. Photography. Antiseptic surgery.

        People today do not seem to be particularly better or worse at dealing with periods of change than they were in the past.

        Change itself is the wrong metric. What matter are the benefits and harms, and to whom. It’s not all that hard to get used to a world with penicillin!

        Atomic bombs? I guess we’ll find out within the next few years.

    1. Susan the other

      And all that gaslighting is self defeating, not to mention expensive (vast amounts of surveillance) and just another waste of time and resources. I finally listened to Daniel Schmachtenberger’s “The Third Attractor” (I think that’s the title) – all 3 hours of it. A wide ranging monologue on how to fix our civilizational mess. Based on game theory. Very interesting. The bit I liked the most was about how Sweden has opted to practice total transparency. It’s cheaper. It instills trust. It produces better cooperation. Etc. It’s hard to imagine the required effort it will take to be deeply transparent – like some extreme fact checking would be required because as he also explains, everything in modern society is “exponentiating” – like technology, AI, pollution, etc.

  6. rob

    I am also of the mind that there has ALWAYS been “mis-information”.

    How many people are deranged by their belief in all the various religions, whose creators and supporters have created these fairy tales, which NEVER happened; As a common belief system to unite AND to divide.
    Look at the jews and christians who make the claim that “god”… gave current day isreal to the hebrews…. Their perceived birth-right, nothing more than an urban legend.
    In thousands of years, there has been so much confusion and mis-direction of people’s purpose, that it is in the leading position to be the most destructive thing mankind has ever created.

    Now, we have governments and corporations creating false narratives, and on top of that proposing being the “censor” to eradicate any type of unsanctioned thinking.

    So, while the earth is heading into a more precarious equilibrium for human existence, we have the masses of people pre-occupied with myths and fables.

    Before we even get to real world realities like:
    How did three towers fall on 9/11… Something that has never happened before or since…. all on one day…HMMM. And never mind the four year study at the university of alaska’s engineering dept proving the NIST theory on what happened was impossible( surely that SHOULD be called “mis-information”), with the only way to account for what was observable for building 7, and what is known of physical properties points to simultaneous failure of ALL major structural columns in 2 waves, PERIOD.
    Another aspect regarding that FACT, would be to investigate HOW that reality COULD even be possible. Since in the last several thousand years, we have seen that metal and stone/ steel and concrete, don’t just “disappear”, and offer zero resistance to gravity allowing a building to fall at free fall speed, suddenly.

    And then when we get to other “big news” like covid. Did it come from a lab?
    Is asking the question disinformation? are we being told by the people who would have “goofed” and let their chimera out, don’t look …. you are not allowed… we are the only source of “real”information…despite the fact that everything they stand for is obviously “dis-information”?

      1. rob

        As opposed to the engineering dept at university of alaska @ Fairbanks under prof. John Hulsey.
        They released all the data.. for anyone to see… and correct… if they can…

        Its obvious who is “hiding” something?

  7. TomDority

    Thomas Jefferson was a huge supporter of free speech, free press, free association, free education …. oh yea… he had a bit of influence in that US Constitution thingy….. point is, he was aggravated, smeared, rumored about, put down and drawn out, generally mentioned the huge amount of misinformation and lack of facts or much of any content by the press the contrivances, rumoring press and masses, all the same junk we see today…. and always…. always, always defended the same. As an aside -He was always suspicious of people who would do anything to attain office – in like wanting to attain office ..suspicious because he questioned their intent for office holding.
    Just goes to show this Mis- info thing been around since the founding. I would be more concerned, morally concerned, about the attempts to muzzle and control, hoard and support the already blooming secrecy regime in the US being used to empower an authoritarianism and self-serving class divisionism and used for politicians craven desire for personal power at the expense of doing the peoples work.

    1. Joe Well

      I had to laugh about Thomas Jefferson, who proves exactly the opposite point about misinformation. One of his biggest charges of “misinformation” was against the reporter James T. Callender who correctly reported on Jefferson raping his slave Sally Hemming and fathering children with her.

      Jefferson, the Nixon of his time, connived in many intrigues and misdeeds which fueled “misinformaton” by reporters like Callender.

      Callender later drowned (it speculated he was was drowned by his enemies) just before he was to testify in a sensational libel trial involving accusations against Jefferson.

      With Callender safely dead, historians reported the “information” that Jefferson was not the father of Hemmings’s children for almost 200 years, until DNA tests of descendants proved otherwise.

      1. scott s.

        Well, if the question is “misinformation” regarding DNA testing I note that “The Foster et al. (1998) DNA study revealed that male-line descendants of Eston Hemings (a son of Sally Hemings) and male-line descendants of Field Jefferson’s father (who was Thomas Jefferson’s grandfather), shared the same Y-chromosome haplotype. This demonstrates that Eston’s father was a Jefferson male. ” Other evidence is needed to establish TJ’s paternity, as well as the moral/criminal act of “rape”.

      2. TomDority

        The Nixon of his time – LOL
        How does Thomas Jefferson prove the exact opposite.
        Since you bring the rape issue up – like to know your opinion of D Trump and his groping past — guess you would rather have full blown fascism or other kind of controls on speech, association and judicial proceedings – yes, lets bring back Monarchs and Kings and thought police

  8. Carolinian

    we may be prematurely whipping ourselves into a misinformation moral panic.

    What’s this ‘we’ kemo sabi? IMO no true intellectual believes in censorship because language, thinking, ideas are their bread and butter. So perhaps the real problem is the decline of thinking and most especially in our universities where the profs are often as job insecure as our journalists. The drive to censor represents a decline in America’s ruling class in general where mediocrities like Hillary and Biden and Dubya come to the fore. At least when Trump calls himself a “stable genius” he’s kidding–sort of. But he’s no genius either as we all know.

    Here’s suggesting that censorship is the symptom not the disease and our Western societies need a cure for the latter.

  9. Gavin

    The question we should all be asking when coming upon almost anything is.. Is this topic more like left-handedness or is it an actual new concept?
    In the 1800’s and early 19’s, people had to deny being left-handed because obviously left-handed people are the devil. Eventually it was realized left-handed is just The Way Some People Are, and the religious moved on to other panics. Funny how it’s always religion, of course.
    Now it’s recognized that there’s a bit over 11% [15%?] of left-handed people in any population.
    So does this new thing represent realizing something that’s always been and we’re only now starting to measure it.. or is it an actual change?
    I think the US has almost from the start been wildly propagandized, and only now are we starting to unpeel that onion.

  10. Lefty Godot

    There will never be a way to curb misinformation or disinformation that does not also encroach on free speech. What there could be, although difficult to implement in a neutral way, is an information bonding authority not beholden to a single nation, bloc, or multinational corporate interest group; in other words something that can provide a rating for information and the reliability of various sources of information. Everyone would still be able to ignore the ratings or other mechanisms that such an authority came up with, but at least it would be there for people who wanted to pay some attention to it. (Of course, back in the 1990s I also thought we should be licensing people for connecting to the internet like we license them to drive on public roads, so obviously I fantasize about the possibility of a benign public authority that probably no longer has any chance of existing.)

    In the current environment, people seek out certain types of misinformation and disinformation on the internet because those are the types that confirm or extend their existing beliefs, that reward their confirmation biases. You really can’t do much about that. I mean, if we let Richard Dawkins decide what misinformation and disinformation are, any communication of religious beliefs would be banned or come with a big red warning sticker attached to it, but the people who wanted to believe in what religions promise would still seek it out. The “evil Russians influencing our elections via Twitter” narrative that the Democrats were pushing was definitely a contrived moral panic to try to overcome the fact that many, many Americans were already deeply unsatisfied by the Democratic party’s almost four decades of betraying the working class voters that once had some reason to support it.

  11. Skip Intro

    The panic about misinformation is a consequence of the shock therapy applied to gaslit Clinton supporters, who had been fed an artificially enforced ‘inevitability’ meme. The Clinton campaign’s reliance on bravado and projecting the air of a winner despite many warnings caused many to assume it was in the bag, and do things like chill their champagne or stay on the supreme court.
    When shock of Trump’s win hit them, they lost moorings, and had to believe that everyone was just subjected to nefarious disinformation on social media. As is so often the case, that was projection, as the Clinton campaign used David Brock’s ‘million troll army’, among others, to (try to) control the social media narrative landscape.
    So the panic was established, all that was missing was a way to cash in. Enter grant-sniffing academics and NGOs, funded to generate white papers to generate funding.
    The Twitter files shed so much light on this universe that I had to go over the piece again to see if I missed reference to information like Hoax of the Century. Its absence is glaring.

  12. Skk

    Re: history of worries about new ways of sharing information.
    A 70s episode of UK comedy series ‘George and Mildred’ had this dialogue.

    6 year son of Tory voting father: Can I watch television ?
    Dad: OK, so long as it’s BBC

    I.e not ITV, the advertising funded channel.

  13. zapster

    Missing from this discussion is the vast amounts of money spent by governments to promote misinformation that boosts politicians’ defense and big pharma, etc. stock portfolios. Without the direct involvement of the Pentagon and the CIA, etc., finding the truth would be a lot less complicated. :\

    1. Bsn

      Also missing is the vast amount of knowledge in the hands of social scientists, psychologists, and other manipulators of emotion and reason that has been used against the general public. Slight nudges, suppressing of history, quick glances at headlines, diversions …… so many techniques are available to those with the largest server (look up Jaron Lanier) that they (the powerful and well funded) have a huge advantage over people and their ability to make an informed decision. You thought Madison Avenue was bad, look at what Silicon Vally is kicking out. It’s not your father’s Marlboro Man anymore.

  14. JonnyJames

    The use of vaccines as an example is perhaps not as clear-cut as other examples: the narratives from “trusted sources” changed over time. Of course, this caused some to doubt the accuracy of the information, and some doubted all of it.

    As noted by others, the US govt./media have told willful, and often ridiculous lies in the past, the most infamous off the top of my head: Gulf of Tonkin, Saddam has WMD, “yellowcake” uranium, Gaddafi gave Viagra to his troops, Assad “gassed his own people”, Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism, and likely dozens of lies about Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Il and others. Since we have been conditioned for years to fear/hate foreigners, Russians/Cubans/NorthKoreans/Palestinians are inherently evil, Arabs are always portrayed as “terrorists” and violent nutcases etc., It is easy to produce narratives that play into that fear/hate. (use of the Other for domestic political mobilization is very effective)

    With that said, the standard of journalism has indeed declined even further. Giants of Journalism like: the late Robert Fisk, and the late Robert Parry wrote about this, as well as Chris Hedges, Patrick Lawrence, John Pilger… I’m not sure who coined it, but I have heard the term “presstitutes” many times, and I think Hedges (and Ray McGovern) call them fawning stenographer-sycophants or something similar.

    That’s a big reason why we come here to Naked Capitalism, to get credible and quality information. Cheers to Yves Smith and everyone at NC!

  15. zagonostra

    A book only recently have come to know about, is Jacques Ellul’s “Propaganda”. It focuses more on the psychological process by which we come to crave/need information and how that organic impulse is manipulated.

    The book doesn’t adopt a positivistic approach to trying and measuring anything that we could refer to as “mis/dis information.” Ellul starts with a basic fact. That sui generis, it exits. If you believe this then it leaves you naturally to want to know more and study it. If you believe it doesn’t exist than there is no need to try and understand it, it is a phantom and you can go back to cheering for your team.

  16. eaglemount

    I, too, am a comma appreciator, although a heretofore closet one! For fear of being labeled as anti-semantic, I have remained in the closet. But, no more,
    thanks to you, Joanna!

  17. Glen

    I tend to agree that there is too much made about the misinformation which is not new phenomenon, and in fact, we were taught in high school that news coverage is ALWAYS biased and multiple new sources and critical thinking is required to try and discern reality from all the reporting. I’m not sure that is still being taught in school anymore. (Well, that’s a polite lie, I’m pretty sure it was never taught in most high schools at all.)

    What is perhaps new, and is disconcerting is that the “lived” reality of most Americans and the reported “reality” on the MSM just becomes further separated as our country splits further into the rich, and everybody else. Most Americans will at some point give up on the MSM, and get their news via alternate sources, but this sorta gives our elites license to continue to point to the MSM, and say that everything is going OK, and ignore what is happening to much of the country.

  18. JonnyJames

    (Also part of this issue: the Israelis openly targeting and murdering journalists)

    Narrative management, perception management etc can also come in the form of eliminating sources of non-approved information. The most flagrant examples of this:

    Julian Assange and Wikileaks released the “collateral murder” video documentation of US military murdering civilians, including Reuters journalists. Apparently, murdering innocent people is funny to some, as evidenced in the video. I don’t recommend watching it so I won’t include a link, it is extremely disturbing and will ruin your day.

    Murdering journalists who do not report the official narrative is the ultimate form of misinformation, intimidation and narrative control. If anyone hasn’t seen this video, it’s still on YT, but I don’t recommend watching it unless you have a strong stomach.

    As a result of this and other embarrassing information released by Wikileaks, false charges were leveled at Assange, and now he is still in max sec. HMP Belmarsh awaiting likely extradition to a US prison for the rest of his life. They are clearly making an example out of Assange and pissing on their own “rule of law”. Nils Melzer, a UN rapporteur, has likened Assange’s treatment as tantamount to torture.

    But they respect the rule of law, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and all that…

    1. Rob

      Detractors have always paid a high price for telling truth to power. Galileo was also sentenced to life for espousing a truth that, contrary to scripture, the earth was not the center of the universe. Is any person or body truly qualified to determine what constitutes indictable disinformation in today’s fast changing world or is it all down to the flavor of the month?

      1. jrkrideau

        Technically, Galileo got house arrest for trying to dictate Church theology with a wacky theory that did not work. He might even have got away with a slap on the wrist if his theory was not so bad. Hint: there are more than one tide a day.

    2. rob

      The weight being brought against Julian Assange, shows how fantastic his idea was. Wikileaks.
      IMO the ability for people to leak; now that we live in a world of closed compartmentalism, is like letting the sun shine in to a dark moldy space.
      It is the beginning. the way to know what filth lies in the darkness. Growing.

      The truth coming out, in the thousands of pages of any and all kinds of secret data or correspondence; Shows the masses that the emporer is naked.
      The state dept. e-mails showed that these people really are morons, strutting around in full display. Then there were things like getting victoria nulands thoughts as to what should happen in post coup ukraine, … these things really are “priceless” IMO

      And of course they will call it “disinformation”
      “If the inferior man did not laugh loudly at it, it would not be fit to be called the WAY” lao tzu

  19. Adam

    In a world of monopolies and deregulation anything goes. Therein is the problem. Unintended erroneous mistakes or deliberate deception run within the same stream. When is Trojan horse, just a large wooden horse carving?

  20. Falls City Beer

    To be certain, the phenomenon of misinformation is nothing new. But I do think the scope and power of propaganda and disinformation has never been more total. Think about how it is functionally impossible to call for a ceasefire in Gaza without instantaneously, in algorithmic fashion, being labeled an antisemite. PMC careers will be lost, so you will hear more on this matter, moral panic or not.

  21. Gregory Etchason

    The Trump/MAGA/FOX nexus is both disinformation and misinformation and appropriately called
    “dismisinformation” 🤣

  22. Gregory Etchason

    The Trump/MAGA/FOX nexus is both disinformation and misinformation and appropriately called
    “dismisinformation” 🤣

  23. Acacia

    Thanks for this article. “A moral panic about the internet” sounds about right, though I would add that it seems not simply about a “new way in which information gets shared”, i.e., that it’s not simply an effect of a new technology, but that this new medium for sharing information has also threatened the authority of older forms of media, in this case the authority of pre-Internet mass media, which were highly centralized (a.k.a., the “legacy media”).

    In follows that a fair amount of the conflict we encounter around “misinformation” now seems to involve some conflict between those who have reason to question the dominant narratives being circulated through the mass media, and those who are unwilling to question those narratives, typically just falling back on appeals to authority and doubling down on them (e.g., “I read it in the NYT, so…”).

  24. Lex

    I agree that the idea of misinformation and disinformation are overblown at this point. I see at as a reactionary response from the societal / state power structure to a loss of information control.

    Yesterday John Kirby stood in front of an audience and told everyone that Russia was executing whole units, sending untrained and under armed conscripts in human waves against Ukrainian positions, etc. I can go to multiple places and get a different picture of reality than Kirby wants me to have. Not that long ago I couldn’t do that. So like the EU basically outlawing Russian media, the response is to control the information available to the public. That can’t easily be done with outright censorship. Claiming an epidemic of mis or disinformation is the next best thing because it leads to self-censorship if it works.

    Note that I don’t think this is a grand conspiracy to institute censorship. Just an instinctual reactionary response by those who have power and want to keep it.

  25. WillD

    There will always be people who misunderstand, misinterpret and make mistakes about information – for any number of reasons. Information is not necessarily factual, it can be opinion, commentary, analysis, observation – lots of things, and be presented in many different ways. There is no possible prescription for what it is and how it should be presented.

    So, with the possible exception of single easily-presented simple facts, information cannot be classified definitively as right or wrong, mis- or dis-. And even with facts, very few are absolute and not subject to possible differences of explanation or interpretation. By changing the context, the same ‘fact’ can have a different meaning or significance. Take numerical data as an example. It can be presented many ways for different purposes, with the same underlying data, but appearing very different to the receiver. This is common with economic and financial data used by governments and corporations that want to deceive the receiver.

    Ultimately, the onus is on the receiver to decide for themselves what they think of the information they are receiving.

    The real issue here isn’t about information as such, it is about censorship and propaganda, where people are fed specific narratives, and denied access to the truth.

  26. Piotr Berman

    In my observations, the bulk of misinformation and disinformation comes from two kinds of marketing: commercial and political. Commercial information is geared to make us spend on unnecessary things, prime example being larger and more expensive vehicles. People were convinced that SUVs are safer than sedans, even where they excelled only in crashes with smaller cars, while being worse in crashes with solid obstacles and more prone to flip over. And I skip over even more bizarre trend, “luxury pickup trucks”.

    The ads here seem innocent, but in “established publications” you see recommended links to assorted snake oil of medical and financial nature etc.

    Political disinformation is utterly malicious, in part plies false or extremely speculative “facts”, e.g. Putin amassing 50 billion dollars, spent in a small part on a luxurious palace over Black Sea. The most fresh disinformation is the figure and character of casualties of Hamas attack. 1400 innocent victims initially included 40 beheaded babies and raped women, to inflame public opinion better. More verified numbers are 900, half of them military personnel which is really phenomenal negligence of IDF, and half (overlapping) from fire by IDF. Independently collected info is spotty, but official totally blanks out that those issues, military casualties and friendly fire casualties exist at all. The idea seems to be to target Gaza casualties to be at least 20,000, or even worse, at this point one can only speculate. You can read it in The Grayzone and Twitter/X, both much maligned.

    In disinformation “studies”, facts diverting from the official ones are classified as disinformation, even if the official version does not seem logical at all. Then cases of posts that doubt poisoning of Skripals by covering the door handle are bundled into statistics of penetration of social networks with malicious misinformation.

  27. CanCyn

    I think it is the tribal acceptance of news and information based on said tribe’s trusted sources that upsets me the most. Yves pointing to the belief clusters got me thinking more about this. I hesitate to criticize Democrats or, here in Canada, Liberals because I know I will then be assumed to be a MAGA and trucker convoy supporting anti-vaxxer, it’s kinda nuts. I agree that there has always been misinformation and propaganda but I do think that this tribalism or belief clusters and the labeling of everyone into those camps might be new?

    And the acceptance of the propaganda and the vilification of those questioning an idea as well as the taking of personal offence over facts (e.g it is no longer acceptable to say women but people who can get pregnant) that might be new. I recently had a conversation about masking with someone who finds them uncomfortable and feels that she can’t breathe as well when she has one on. When I responded that she is indeed getting adequate oxygen when she wears a mask and that there is lots of scientific research that proves as much, she argued that I couldn’t challenge her lived experience! I had to clarify that I wasn’t saying she isn’t uncomfortable in a mask – how could I challenge that? Simply that masking doesn’t harm your oxygen intake.
    Critical thinking is not welcome, heads explode when you try to suggest that I-mectin isn’t horse paste or that there might be problems with the vaccines or that Trump is occasionally right, etc. When did we stop questioning the news? When did the FBI and CIA become the good guys? It is as though we’ve lost the grey zone and nuanced thinking.

  28. Victor Sciamarelli

    IMO, I seldom thought misinformation or disinformation were the crucial problem. Rather, it was the truth that infuriated the ruling class.
    Noam Chomsky, one of our greatest public intellectuals, has always been shunned by the msm. Julian Assange is rotting in jail without being charged with a crime. Nelson Mandela spent 27-years in jail in South Africa. Eugene Debs, a presidential candidate, was sentenced to 10-years in prison for opposing the US involvement in WW1.
    There is a long list of activists, intellectuals, whistle blowers, journalists, and ordinary citizens who paid an enormous price, including being killed, because they spoke the truth. It’s the political parties and the media that compete to make their version of misinformation the accepted version of events and, for them, the truth tellers are a problem.

    1. CanCyn

      “Rather, it was the truth that infuriated the ruling class.” BINGO! I suppose it really all comes down to keeping us all distracted so that the wealth building of the few at the cost of the many continue undisturbed.

    2. hk

      The most dangerous information is that which convinces people to wrongthink and the more credible the info is always more widely believed. Naturally, the truth that contradicts that which cannot be false has to be declared the worst of “disinformation.”

  29. aaron

    I find it hard to assess without skepticism an article that claims to be written by someone who both has a clear definition of what propaganda is and that that idea automatically includes it being “more harmful” (presumably, than misinformation). This chain of reasoning always goes, “the things my dominant cultural context tells me are just relation of fact, the things that other places that disagree tell me are propaganda”. It neglects the critical thought that all relation of information necessarily includes bias and intent towards something, and is trivially propaganda. I think this author’s blindness to that affects the rest: there is no serious treatment of cui bono from a world where it has become a norm both to casually decry “mis/disinformation”, and also where the arbiters of that classification are the ever-shrinking group of people with significant say in how our media gets to us. The author is correct that information of this sort has been with us forever. Where they fail, I feel, is in thinking that its new treatment is necessarily some neutral outgrowth of our collective will, rather than an intent by a tiny minority that has an outsized say in how our culture is expressed.

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