Information, information cynicism, disinformation, and misinformation


Fig. 1. Archive photograph of Joseph Goebbels by an unnamed photographer, 1942, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-0821-502, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.

(Groan.)


I have mostly been critical of white Christian nationalists for their abuse of so-called “free speech” to promote conspiracy theories, particularly regarding COVID-19.[1] But it hasn’t just been the right wing. And it hasn’t just been about COVID-19. See, for example, Ukraine, where both left-wing (see, for examples, the Green Party and the Democratic Socialists of America) “tankies.” and the paleoconservative right wing support Vladimir Putin, because any imperialism is just fine and dandy as long as it isn’t U.S. or North Atlantic Treaty Organization imperialism.[2] And of course, a major concern with Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been that he will encourage disinformation, that is, when not posting it himself.[3]

Back in 2005, when I was finishing my Bachelor’s degree, and had applied for a Master’s program, I wrote an essay noting a shift in what information would generally be recognized as authoritative. I saw then the rise of Wikipedia and a decrease in trust in academia and mainstream journalism.[4] I would now have to characterize that essay as prescient with a vengeance.

Even in my left-wing Twitter bubble, I see people who distrust any mainstream journalism, who draw outlandish and hastily generalized conclusions from selective observations (like the tweet at the beginning of this post), who in fact favor any counter-narrative to that offered by mainstream journalism because they are convinced that mainstream journalism lies. It is no false equivalence to say this is as misguided on the Left as it is on the Right.

Certainly by the third year of any undergraduate program—I recall this lesson most vividly in a research methods class—students will have been taught about what sources academics trust and to what degree. That’s not to say, by any means, that any of these sources is infallible. The nature of empirical truth is that it is tentative, the best we can do given data available at the moment. It is for the Right to thus prefer ideology, diminishing the empirical as “temporal” and “transitory.”[5] Scholars ask us to be critical and skeptical, but not cynical.

What I see is cynicism. This cynicism has a history. The journalistic cheerleading for the Vietnam War, even at odds with what reporters on the ground were seeing and trying to report, is a notorious example.[6] It’s an example repeated, also notoriously, with the George W. Bush administration’s post-9/11 “War on Terror.”[7] Indeed, particularly with foreign affairs, but really with media consolidation and understaffing, reporters have been increasingly dependent on “official” sources and thus more susceptible to “official” narratives and, even more worringly, “official” biases.[8] J. Herbert Altschull devotes much of his work on this topic to showing the myriad ways that even a so-called “free” press, not much less than in places with state-controlled media, remains subject to political and economic authority.[9]

In the so-called “free world,” much of this has to do with capitalism and the fact that capitalists own mainstream news outlets. Ideologically, journalists are thus less prone to critique capitalism[10] and thus to rub you the wrong way if you have, as I have and as I think some of the folks in my Twitter bubble have, lived long on the rather nasty underbelly of capitalism.

One of the objectives in my third year research methods class was critical reading. Even peer-reviewed scholarship can be mistaken; peer reviewers have their own careers, based on their own scholarship, to protect and usually come from the same fields as authors and are thus susceptible to the same sometimes bonehead errors as those authors. (Human scientists adopt a transdisciplinary approach, attempting to avoid at least some of these errors.) Authors themselves will accordingly be conservative in their predictions, which can result, as with the climate crisis, in understating the dangers we face, in large part as they seek to preserve their own credibility.[11] But above all, we are all, all of us, human.

As a human scientist, I delve even further, as epistemology, a study of the ways people know what they claim to know, is an emphasis. Positivism, better known, as “scientific method,” has its not inconsiderable value, but also its limitations, denigrating subjective experience to elevate a false objectivity based on the superficiality of quantitative data.[12] There are other ways of knowing and, as I graduated with my Ph.D., I emerged with a humility regarding “truth” and “knowing.”

But as you distrust traditionally authoritative sources, like academia, like mainstream journalism, this does not mean that alternative sources are better. It certainly does not mean that the opposite of whatever they publish is true. As we see with Twitter,[13] as we saw with Facebook before it,[14] as I see with passengers who spout disinformation from podcasts they claim were from actual researchers, a very real problem is a failure to evaluate sources critically in favor of a Manichean view of mainstream or “official” as evil, therefore anything at all else as good. This is lazy, it is contemptible, and it is asinine.

Questions to be asked when receiving any information will often seem familiar to journalists who do this as part of their job and they will seem familiar to critical theorists (critical theory is yet another human science emphasis):

  • Who and what are included and who and what are excluded in this narrative? What pieces of the story should you be seeing and don’t?
  • Who is powerful and who is subaltern in this account? Pay particular attention to excluded or marginalized people here.
  • Who benefits from this narrative as presented? Are they powerful or subaltern? Do benefits to either powerful or subaltern come at the expense of the other? Is the narrative fair in this light?
  • Can you be assured that people presented in a story are who and what they claim to be? Do they claim credentials or experience? Do those credentials or that experience support their authority to make the claims they make?
  • Who, if anyone, is treated with prejudice or bias? On this point, watch language in particular.
  • Are arguments supported with evidence and logic? Where evidence is offered, what alternative arguments might it support? Does the logic follow? Is the logic in any way fallacious?
  • Is evidence truthful? How do you know it is truthful?
  • Has evidence been obfuscated for any reason? If so, you cannot evaluate either its veracity or its use in supporting any arguments. Yes, this includes ‘classified’ evidence.

The failure to ask these questions is a form of negligence. And what we have seen, as with COVID-19, as with the Iraq War, and increasingly with the climate crisis, is that this negligence can be lethal. It cannot be accepted.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Free speech, COVID-19, and responsibility,” Not Housebroken, January 28, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/01/28/free-speech-covid-19-and-responsibility/
  2. [2]David Benfell, “The desperate attempt to blame anybody else for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/03/03/the-desperate-attempt-to-blame-anybody-else-for-vladimir-putins-invasion-of-ukraine/
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Elon Musk’s ‘free speech,’” Not Housebroken, November 2, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/04/28/elon-musks-free-speech/; David Benfell, “Elon Musk’s Achilles’ heel,” Not Housebroken, November 22, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/07/10/elon-musks-achilles-heel/
  4. [4]This essay is, so far as I know, lost to the mists of time. I do not have a copy.
  5. [5]David Benfell, “A theory of conservative epistemology,” Not Housebroken, November 19, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/08/06/a-theory-of-conservative-epistemology/
  6. [6]David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2000).
  7. [7]Eric Boehlert, Lapdogs (New York: Free Press, 2006).
  8. [8]J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995); David Croteau and William Hoynes, Media/Society, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2003); Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (New York: Pantheon, 2002).
  9. [9]J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995).
  10. [10]J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995); David Croteau and William Hoynes, Media/Society, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2003); Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (New York: Pantheon, 2002).
  11. [11]Naomi Oreskes, Michael Oppenheimer, and Dale Jamieson, “Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Pace of Climate Change,” Scientific American, August 19, 2019, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/scientists-have-been-underestimating-the-pace-of-climate-change/
  12. [12]Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, John Wilkinson, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1964); Bruce Mazlish, Uncertain Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007); Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).
  13. [13]David Benfell, “Elon Musk’s Achilles’ heel,” Not Housebroken, November 22, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/07/10/elon-musks-achilles-heel/
  14. [14]Jason Togyer, “How Facebook has undermined communal conversation in McKeesport,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 18, 2020, https://www.cjr.org/special_report/year-of-fear-chapter-19-facebook-undermined-conversation-in-mckeesport.php

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