The Orwellian name of the Democrats’ new ‘Disinformation Board’ need not have instantly repelled people like me. People who are truly worried by the barrage of harmful rubbish people like my taxi driver in Devon last week have been drinking up thirstily from the internet’s many poisoned udders.
Said taxi driver was an intelligent mother of two, living in the middle of nowhere, and disinformation, fake news, and the conspiracy theories they stoke had got to her. She believed everything from the idea that wearing a mask is lethal for personal health, to that of the Ukraine war being cooked up by agents in a shadowy but pre-ordained new world order, to the hypothesis that Elon Musk wants to implant scorpion-shaped devices inside all our brains.
Would it be nice to stamp out all those conspiracy theories, all that fake news? Of course. But regulation can quickly become censorship, and as some critics have noted, one woman’s misinformation is another’s information. Indeed, stories previously suppressed or labelled as fake news are gaining credibility: Covid’s origins in a lab leak, for instance, or Hunter Biden’s laptop not, after all, being a plant by Russian disinformationists, though these are not hills I would be ready to die on quite yet.
The Disinformation Governance Board may not be sinister in its current incarnation. It claims to be mostly concerned with monitoring disinformation spread by “foreign states such as Russia, China, and Iran”; “transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling organizations” and misinformation disseminated during natural disasters. It claims that it is “deeply committed to doing all of its work in a way that protects Americans’ freedom of speech, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy.”
But even if the Board isn’t going to start going after people for watching the wrong YouTube content, it’s hard to see how it is a force for the active protection of freedom of speech and civil liberties. Certainly, in ostensibly free countries like America, surveillance of lawful speech feels like a step onto a very slippery slope. So much is rotten and difficult in American culture and society, from the breakdown of political debate to the collapse of education, the spiralling cost of basic groceries (inflation is 8.3 per cent), to the difficulty of accessing healthcare including, for an increasing number of women, safe and legal abortion, to soaring homicide rates. America is dangerous, expensive, and volatile: but at least its citizens could comfort themselves that it’s free.
The new Board does “not have any operational authority or capability” and is only going to pass its findings on to “potentially impacted people and organisations”. But this is menacingly vague statespeak for “whoever we want”, and while it might not have “operational authority” right now, it could well do in future. After all, there’s an awful lot of slipperiness in its mission: the Board’s remit is not just disinformation and “mal” information but also “misinformation” – a far more subjective domain.
Indeed, any pretense at neutrality of this outfit goes out the window with a quick look at the background of its head, the richly-barneted young Nina Jankowicz, who is 33. Her commitment is strong: she makes cute TikTok videos about disinformation. But so is her partisanship. Last October, Jancowitz dismissed parental concerns about the teaching of critical race theory in schools, including concepts such as white privilege, as merely “one of those hot-button issues that the Republicans and other disinformers, who are engaged in disinformation for profit…have seized on”. Such a comment reveals a willingness to throw around the concept of disinformation for political ends.
As well as having authored a book on Russian disinformation, Jankowicz has also written a tome called How to Be A Woman Online, about managing the threat of misogynistic trolling. This sounds great, but is steeped in a particular vision of free speech that sees an internet rid of unpleasantness. No wonder Jancowitz is amongst those horrified by Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter as a genuinely open platform, trolls and all. As American firebrand Katie Herzog wrote on Bari Weiss’s news analysis site Common Sense, “in Jankowicz’s telling, the internet is a virtual street corner where men harass, leer, belittle, and fondle themselves when you’re just trying to post brunch pics. It’s dark, dangerous, violent, and those we’ve entrusted to ensure our safety are failing at their jobs—to protect women—in the name of so-called “free speech.”’
And so however impressive her CV, and noble her aims, Jankowicz has distinct, Biden-era politics, and this is bound to shape her perception of what is ok and what isn’t, what is untrue and what is simply politically unpalatable or – in the parlance of her government – what makes a digital space “unsafe”, aka not woke-friendly.
At the end of the day, what makes the Disinformation Board definitely foolish and possibly sinister is that it is the state meddling in areas it ought not to. The chances are it’ll just be pointless. Either way, it is chilling that nobody in the Biden government saw fit to insist that it isn’t the government’s business, outside of public educational curricula, to monitor the dissemination of information – whether it’s true or not.
Of course conspiracy theories are mad, and do harm, but their free circulation is the price we pay for living in a liberal democracy. As our own nannying government would do well to remember, the state ought to concern itself with matters of law, order, the economy and the protection of freedom, and leave off fiddling with the minutiae of citizens’ private lives.
And given how wrong our governments have been about most things, from the seriousness of the pandemic threat to the likelihood of a war in Europe, it’s nothing but hubris to expect us to welcome them as self-appointed arbiters of truth.