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Accountability for the Boy Who Cried “Misinformation”

By Matthew S.W. Silk
15 Nov 2023

It is no secret that we’re obsessed with information right now, particularly the spread of misinformation. The internet age allowed for the transmission of data on a scale never before seen, including “fake news” or, as the preferred nomenclature would have it, misinformation and disinformation. Now, AI can generate and propagate false information at will.

But our zeal in seeing misinformation stamped out has clouded our recognition of the ways the concept can be abused. Misleading information can be problematic, but our response to it can be equally troubling. We’ve contorted the way we discuss contentious issues and complicated our understanding of accountability.

Many of the most egregious examples of false information being spread are done specifically for the purposes of misleading others. For example, since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war there has been an increase of disinformation about what is actually happening and what each side is doing. Keeping the record straight has been difficult, different groups look to vilify others. It’s easy to confuse the public and sow social instability when they’re not able to see what is happening first-hand. This has been the case, for example, with the disinformation being spread regarding the Russia-Ukraine war.

But apart from geopolitical conflicts, we’ve seen false information being spread about climate change in order to protect financial interests. Political disinformation is also undermining democratic dialogue, and combined with cases of misinformation – cases where deception is not intentional – we can see how the spread of rumor and lies helped fuel the protestors who stormed Congress on January 6th. Cases like this remind us that false or misleading information can be spread deliberately by people seeking to accomplish a particular goal or merely by those who are passing on the latest internet debris they take to be valid.

Both disinformation and misinformation can undermine the ability of society to recognize and respond to social problems. During the pandemic, for instance, massive amounts of false information made it difficult to manage public health, leading to needless deaths. As philosopher John Dewey warned, “We have the physical tools of communication as never before. The thoughts and aspirations congruous with them are not communicated, and hence not common. Without such communication the public will remain shadowy and formless.” Ultimately, misinformation and disinformation prevent the formation of the common understanding necessary to ensure that shared problems can be collectively addressed.

There is, however, potential to abuse the concept of “fake news” for one’s personal ends. You can always accuse others of intentionally peddling fictions – calling out certain kinds of misinformation while conveniently ignoring others when they suit your interests.

Consider this example: A recent study showed that only 3% of Earth’s ecosystems are intact. This finding was very different from those of previous studies, because the study redefined what “intactness” meant. Without a consistent scientific definition of terms, different studies will produce incommensurate results. This means it would be easy to accuse someone of engaging in misinformation if a) they are using a different study than I am and b) I don’t make discrepancies like this clear.

While the crusade to stamp out misinformation seems honorable, it can quickly lead to chaos. It’s important to recognize that scientific findings will conflict when employing different conceptual frameworks and methodologies, and that scientific studies can often be unreliable. It can be tempting to claim that because at least one expert claims something or because one study reaches a certain conclusion, you have the Truth and to contradict it represents misinformation. It can be more tempting still to simply accuse others of misinformation without explanation and write off entire points of view.

The way we liberally label misinformation makes it easy to engage in censorship. Today, there are concerns expressed about the media’s initial coverage of the “lab leak theory,” which may have stifled discussion by immediately branding it as misinformation. This is significant because if there is a widespread public perception that certain ideas are unfairly being dismissed as misinformation, it will undermine public trust. As Dewey also warned, “Whatever obstructs and restricts publicity, limits and distorts public opinion and checks and distorts thinking on social affairs.”

These are dangerous temptations, and it means that we must hold ourselves and others accountable, both for the information we pass on as well as the accusations we throw around.

Matt has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Waterloo. His research specializes in philosophy of science and the nature of values. He has also published on the history of pragmatism and the work of John Dewey.
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