The 'Misinformation' Wars from the Inside.
Journalists and scholars are pioneering the development of a new language of truth. The outcomes are not always more obvious.
This fall, top American news executives have been dialing into an off-the-record Zoom conference conducted by Harvard researchers with the objective of "assisting newsroom leaders in combating misinformation and media manipulation."
These are hot subjects in the news industry at the moment, and the program at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy gathered a remarkable roster of executives from CNN, NBC News, The Associated Press, Axios, and other big American news organizations.
However, a few of them expressed surprise at the reading material for the first session.
It consisted of a Harvard case study, which a participant provided with me, that examined the coverage of Hunter Biden's misplaced laptop during the last days of the 2020 presidential campaign. The narrative was promoted by aides and associates of then-President Donald J. Trump, who attempted to convince journalists that the contents of the hard drive would prove the father's criminality.
According to the Shorenstein Center report, the news media's handling of that narrative is "an illuminating case study on the power of social media and news organizations to minimize media manipulation operations."
The Hunter Biden laptop saga is undoubtedly educational in some way. As you may know, frightened Trump associates rushed to release its contents onto the internet and into reporters' inboxes, a treasure that supposedly contained embarrassing photographs and emails purportedly from the candidate's son indicating that he attempted to trade on the family name. Preparing for a recurrence of the WikiLeaks 2016 election shenanigans, the major social media sites reacted forcefully: Without substantial evidence, Twitter blocked links to a New York Post story linking Joe Biden to the emails (though Twitter swiftly changed its decision), and Facebook restricted the dissemination of the Post story under its own "misinformation" policy.
However, it clearly appears that the laptop narrative was part of an old-fashioned, politically motivated dirty tricks campaign, and labeling it "misinformation" adds little to our understanding of what happened. While at least one receiver has confirmed that some of the emails reportedly on the laptop were authentic, the younger Mr. Biden has stated that he is unsure whether the laptop in question was his. And the "media manipulation campaign" was a desperate 11th-hour attempt to generate a late-campaign scandal, an attempt at an October Surprise that has occurred in practically every presidential race I have covered.
As I noted at the time, the Wall Street Journal examined the story thoroughly. Unable to establish that Joe Biden attempted to modify US policy as Vice President in order to enrich a family member, The Journal refused to portray the story the way Trump advisers desired, leaving that spin to right-wing tabloids. What remained was a hazy scenario that is difficult to characterize as "misinformation," even if some journalists and scholars prefer that label's clarity. The Journal's part was, in fact, fairly normal journalistic work, a mix of fact-checking and the sort of news judgment that has fallen out of favor as journalists chase social media.
While some academics use the phrase cautiously, "misinformation" was more or less synonymous with "material passed along by Trump aides" in the case of the lost laptop. And in that context, the term "media manipulation" refers to any attempt to sway news coverage in favor of those whose ideologies you oppose. (Emily Dreyfuss, a fellow at the Shorenstein Center's Technology and Social Change Project, told me that, despite its menacing ring, "media manipulation" is "not always malicious.")
The emphasis on who is saying something and how they are distributing their assertions might cause Silicon Valley engineers to hastily classify something as "misinformation" when it is, in plain English, correct.
Joan Donovan, Shorenstein's research director, who is managing the program and secured financing from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, explained that the Hunter Biden case study was "meant to elicit discussion – it is not intended to leave the reader resolved."
Ms. Donovan, a Twitter powerhouse and a lifelong student of the internet's shadowy corners, defined "misinformation" as "false information that is being shared." She protested vehemently to my idea that the term lacked precision in its definition.
She noted that, despite appearances, she does not feel the term is solely a left-wing euphemism for things Democrats despise. Rather than that, she attributes the modern technique of "disinformation" (i.e., deliberate deception) to anti-corporate campaigners the Yes Men, who were famous for hoaxing corporate announcements and other stunts, and Adbusters' "cultural jamming." However, she noted, "foreign operators, partisan pundits, white supremacists, violent misogynists, swindlers, and fraudsters" have adopted their techniques.
Ms. Donovan is one of the researchers who has attempted to untangle the tangled web of information that is current politics. She is currently an obsessive listener of Steve Bannon's eponymous program, "War Room." As many journalists and academics who study our chaotic media environment do, she has focused on how trolls and pranksters developed tactics for angering and tricking people online in the first half of the last decade, and how those individuals applied those tactics to right-wing reactionary politics in the second half of the decade.
To those paying close attention, this new world was enthralling and deadly — and it was infuriating that outsiders were unaware. For many information researchers, pervasive media manipulation appeared to be the defining event of the last decade, the primary driver of millions of people's opinions, and the primary reason Mr. Trump and others like him won elections throughout the world. However, while this perspective is occasionally revelatory, it may leave little room for other political causes or for other forms of political lying, such as the US government's long-running deceit about its progress in the Afghanistan war.
What was previously a niche interest has been adopted by others who have spent less time on 4chan than Ms. Donovan. Katie Couric, a broadcaster, recently served as chair of the Aspen Institute's Commission on Information Disorder. I led a session at Bloomberg's New Economy Forum, coining the term "truth decay" to refer to the same set of challenges. (That one appears to have been coined by the RAND Corporation, though T Bone Burnett did release an album by that name in 1980.) There, an Australian senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, stated that she believed the primary offender in deceiving her fellow citizens about climate change was Rupert Murdoch's News Corp – hardly a novel subject or one in need of a new moniker. The New York Post's insistence that the emails demonstrate President Biden's wrongdoing, not only his son's influence peddling, is another example of this political genre.
This reveals a flaw in the increased emphasis on disinformation: It is a technological answer to a political problem. The new generation of social media-fueled right-wing populists frequently mislead and twist the truth. However, as American reporters discovered when they questioned Donald Trump's supporters on camera, his audience was frequently in on the joke. And many of the most heinous statements he made were not necessarily false — they were simply extremely insulting to half of the country, including the majority of those in charge of news organizations and colleges.
It's easier to deal with an information crisis — after all, if there's one thing we're good at, it's information — than a political crisis. If only responsible journalists and technologists could demonstrate how erroneous Mr. Trump's claims were, the populace would undoubtedly change their minds. However, these well-intentioned communications gurus never grasped that those who supported him were aware of what was happening, joked about it, and voted for him despite, or perhaps because of, the times he went "too far."
Harper's Magazine recently launched a broadside against "Big Disinfo," arguing that the think tanks focusing on the subject were proposing a simple answer to a political situation that defied easy explanation and exaggerated Facebook's power in a way that ultimately benefited Facebook the most. According to the author, Joseph Bernstein, journalists and scholars who specialize in identifying instances of deception appear to believe they have a special claim to truth. "However well-intentioned these specialists may be, they lack particular access to reality's fabric," he wrote.
Indeed, I've discovered that many of those concerned about our information diets are reassuringly pessimistic about the potential impact of the emerging discipline of disinformation studies. Ms. Donovan refers to it as a "new area of data journalism," although she acknowledges that "this segment of the field needs to improve at determining what is real or incorrect." The Aspen study accepted "that there are no 'arbiters of truth' in a democratic society." They're putting fresh and necessary pressure on internet platforms to be upfront about the spread of allegations, both genuine and misleading.
Sewell Chan, editor in chief of The Texas Tribune and a participant in the Harvard course, said he did not believe the program had a political bent and that it "aided me in comprehending the new types of mischief creating and lie peddling that have emerged."
"That said, misinformation, like the term 'fake news,' is a loaded and somewhat subjective term," he noted. "I prefer accurate descriptions."
I am also aware of the information ecosystem's push and pull on my own journalism, as well as the temptation to judge a claim solely on the basis of its formal characteristics — who is making it and why — rather than its substance. For example, in April, I tweeted about what I perceived to be the deceptive manner in which anti-China Republicans aligned with Donald Trump were promoting the notion that Covid-19 had leaked from a lab. There were numerous informational red flags. However, media criticism (and I apologize if you've made it this far into a media column to read this) is superficial. Below the political yelling match was a more fascinating scientific shouting match (in which the term "misinformation" was liberally used). And the current state of that story is that scientists' knowledge of the origins of Covid-19 is developing and contentious, and we are unlikely to resolve it on Twitter.
The issue of technology platforms assisting in the propagation of misinformation remains critical, as does the work of detecting covert social media efforts ranging from Washington to, as my colleague Davey Alba recently revealed, Nairobi. And the Covid-19 pandemic instilled a new sense of urgency in everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to my colleagues at The New York Times, for example, in expressing the pandemic's seriousness and the safety of vaccines in a media landscape plagued with false tales.
However, politics is not a scientific discipline. We do not need to add new jargon to the age-old activity of news judgment. There is a risk in accepting jargon-filled new frameworks that we have not thoroughly considered. At the end of the day, reporters' responsibility is not to neatly classify the news. It is to convey what is truly occurring, however untidy and unsatisfying that may be.