Information war – A fight against disinformation or censorship?

A Neokohn szerkesztője


How can someone who spreads disinformation fight disinformation? By Tímea Hajdú.

The Biden administration announced at the end of April the creation of the Disinformation Governance Board under the supervision of the Department of Homeland Security, with the aim of fighting disinformation on the internet. Although the specific framework of the Board was not yet known, a Democratic political activist, Nina Jankowicz, was officially appointed to head it. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in an interview that the body under his ministry would not be an „opinion police.” Just a short time afterwards, on May 18, due to massive backlash and some serious questions surrounding Jankowicz’s qualitfications, the Board was put on hold and Jankowicz resigned.

The announcement caused an uproar among Republicans. Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who is the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, criticized the panel: „As the author of the bipartisan law that established the Global Engagement Center to combat the constantly evolving threat of foreign propaganda and disinformation abroad, I do not believe that the United States government should turn the tools that we have used to assist our allies counter foreign adversaries onto the American people,” he said in a statement quoted by CBS News

On the internet, the commission was immediately nicknamed the Ministry of Truth, a name made famous by Orwell’s 1984.

Jankowicz herself has come under criticism for spreading false information on her own Twitter page, for example, sharing that the New York Post’s Biden laptop story was Russian disinformation.

Disinformation as a political weapon

The deliberate dissemination of false information is not a new phenomenon; it has often been used by governments, political parties and interest groups as a form of influence.

In the United States, the charge of spreading disinformation has become a political weapon in recent years. If one wants to point out exactly when it became a ubiquitous concept, one has to go back to the 2016 election. Multiple Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Sharly Attkisson, formerly of CNN and CBS, told Megyn Kelly on her podcast that

after Trump’s election, campaigns started to push for stricter regulation of online speech.

The businessman was able to win even though every television channel, every major press outlet except Fox News, supported Hillary Clinton. Trump made good use of online platforms, especially Twitter, to counter this. After the election, there was a lot of pressure on social networking sites to censor conservative content on the grounds that it was offensive.

In an interview with The Epoch Times, Attkisson said that after 2016, there was a demand for „fact check” companies, and committees were set up by social networking sites to monitor content. Attkisson says that this has created a whole industry, but in many cases, these monitors are partisan activists backed by political parties, companies and interest groups.

The first dedicated project to combat fake news and disinformation was First Draft News, set up by Google’s parent company Alphabet, whose CEO at the time was Eric Schmidt, a major supporter of the Clinton campaign.

According to Attkisson, because some companies own social media sites, Democrats realized that if they could influence the narrow window through which people were informed, they could gain the same influence they had already achieved in traditional media.

Companies have since volunteered to monitor posts to avoid stricter regulation. However, these fact-checking actions have often targeted only one side. Particularly striking was the systematic and conspicuous monitoring of Trump’s posts, which eventually led to his complete ban. The label „misleading information” was plastered on the posts.

But what particularly led to an explosion in disinformation-screening was the COVID-19 epidemic. Social networking sites have been very assertive in filtering information about the outbreak, not only for individuals but also for media. In the first few weeks especially, there was a lot of misinformation and fake news, and during the two years of the outbreak, social media acted as a kind of censor. On many controversial issues, social networking sites relied on outside experts to decide what was true and what was not.

The real red line came when social networking sites started to take action against media outlets for spreading disinformation. This activity intensified around the 2020 election, as they did not want a repeat of 2016.

The most striking example of this was when Twitter and Facebook blocked the New York Post, claiming that the Hunter Biden laptop story was unverified and potentially Russian disinformation.

They did this despite the fact that the articles were confirmed by outside sources. Almost a year passed when, in September 2021, a Politico reporter first confirmed that the story was legitimate. So the accusation of Russian disinformation suppressed a case that could potentially have had an impact on the election. The Russian accusation was also spread by Democrats, including Jankowicz herself, a fact that raises doubts about the impartiality and aims of the new Disinformation Governance Board.

Who is to say what is true?

The Biden administration has been vocal about the importance of countering disinformation, not only against foreign powers but also domestic actors, even before the committee was formed. In early 2022, Spotify was boycotted because the Joe Rogan podcast, the most listened to show on the app, was spreading „Covid disinformation.” In response, Spotify has placed links to official government sites underneath the shows. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that while this was a good move, Spotify should do more to combat misinformation. What exactly that would mean, she did not say.

The concern about the anti-disinformation body is precisely that it could restrict social media sites and the press. Traditionally it would be precisely the media’s job to control the government and not the other way around. The reverse is called censorship.

If a media outlet publishes false information, it can be taken to court. However, when the government steps in as the controller of information, freedom of speech is at risk.

Senator Rand Paul said at Mayorkas’ Senate hearing that the biggest spreader of disinformation in the world is the U.S. government itself. He listed the Pentagon Papers, Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and the Steele dossier smearing Trump. He also added that if the two parties cannot agree on what constitutes disinformation, how can they control it on social media. Paul said he did not trust the government to know what was true and what was false.

“That nobody should want the U.S. Government let alone Homeland Security arrogating unto itself the power to declare truth and falsity seems self-evident, particularly when run by this uniquely ill-suited Democratic Party operative,” wrote Glenn Greenwald, a left-wing journalist, on Substack.

In the article, Greenwald notes that the disinformation industry, with its fact-checkers and self-proclaimed experts like Jankowicz, is a “sham.”

And Douglas Murray, a British writer living in America, said that it was obvious that the disinformation they themselves were spreading would not be checked by the Democrats. He cited the example of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s child protection law, which the press has rebranded as the “Don’t say gay” bill, even though this prohibition is not in the text. If the government wanted to take action against misinformation, it would obviously direct it primarily against the opposition, rather than controlling its own party. This is true for both parties.

Republicans are expected to try to dismantle the committee, which has not even held its first meeting, and, as previously mentioned, has just recently been “paused.”. But it is expected that the accusations of disinformation, and the information war in general, will only get more intense in the future. After all, it is not only those who have the information who have the power, but those who control its flow.