Repeat the Question: Is Disinformation a Required Part of Living in a Democracy?

A Proposal for a Democratic OffenseAgainst Disinformation

There’s a bad idea masquerading as a principled commitment to free speech. We know we have a disinformation problem, but we have yet to decide what we can do to fight against it.

In the days following the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Twitter took action against misinformation by banning President Trump. One study measured that misinformation declined by 73% on that platform as a result. This decision also spurred an effort to remove QAnon accounts promoting false claims of election fraud. Then came the complaints of censorship and that “big tech” had steamrolled the First Amendment.

CNET has an excellent rundown of the First Amendment claims that piled up and debunks each one.

To hear Mark Zuckerberg describe the problem, we have to accept disinformation as part of living in a democracy:

“Our policy is that we do not fact-check politicians’ speech. And the reason for that is that we believe that in a democracy it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying.”

—Mark Zuckerberg, quoted in The New Yorker, “Facebook and the ‘Free Speech’ Excuse

Democratic life is one of peril, and the only defense is accepting our responsibility to check the facts for ourselves. Fortunately, we don’t have to allow this response to be our final answer.

A better answer with democratic principles

Lawfare picked up the question of what to do with misinformation in a short series on their podcast. One democracy-focused episode started with the question, “Can democracy play offense on disinformation?” Quinta Jurecic hosted the conversation with Alina Polyakova and Ambassador Daniel Fried to discuss their paper, “Democratic Offense Against Disinformation,” recently published by the Atlantic Council and the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Of particular interest was their insistence that defensive strategies will never be enough. They also worked with a commitment to democratic values that grounded every strategy they proposed:

“Democracies also need to go on offense: to take the fight more directly to the purveyors of disinformation and the regimes that sponsor and direct them… Care and caution are still required. The principle of remaining true to democratic values holds as much for offensive as for defensive options. We must not become them to fight them. Democracies should not attempt their own version of disinformation. Doing so would undermine the values that democracies seek to defend….”

—from the paper “Democratic Offense Against Disinformation” by Alina Polyakova and Ambassador Daniel Fried

We can imagine that the questions focused on Twitter, “Big Tech,” and the First Amendment all ask, “Can they do that?” The question Polyakova and Fried instead propose asks what we can do to protect our democratic values from those who would use disinformation to diminish those values.

Recommended Reads for Understanding the Problem

Facts won’t fix this: experts on how to fight America’s disinformation crisis (The Guardian)

It’s crucial to understand that the way people process information is through entire narratives, not individual facts, Wardle said. Trying to combat disinformation through factchecking or debunking individual false claims just turns into an endless, fruitless game of “whack-a-mole.”

It’s too late to stop QAnon with fact checks and account bans (MIT Technology Review)

“In this information ecosystem, Twitter functions more like a marketing campaign for QAnon: content is created to be seen and interacted with by outsiders. Meanwhile, Facebook is a powerhouse for coordination, especially in closed groups. “

The deplatforming of President Trump (TechCrunch)

“Twitter has played a paramount role over the debate about how to moderate President Trump’s communications, given the president’s penchant for the platform and the nearly 90 million followers on his @realDonaldTrump account. In the past, Twitter has repeatedly warned the president, added labels related to election integrity and misinformation, and outright blocked the occasional tweet.”

Chinese disinformation is ascendant. Taiwan shows us how we can defeat it (The Washington Post Opinion)

First, the Taiwanese government monitored media platforms around-the-clock and effectively debunked false news with the potential to gain traction. The government often used memes to disseminate the correct information publicly, recognizing that online viral content tends to be short, funny, and easy to understand and share.

The First Amendment in the age of disinformation (New York Times Magazine)

Despite more regulations on speech, these countries remain democratic; in fact, they have created better conditions for their citizenry to sort what’s true from what’s not and to make informed decisions about what they want their societies to be. Here in the United States, meanwhile, we’re drowning in lies.”

You are probably spreading misinformation. Here’s how to stop. (The Washington Post)

“After speaking with six of the leading disinformation researchers, my takeaway is that it’s no longer particularly helpful to say we should try to judge whether information looks plausible before sharing it. The truth is, very often it looks just fine.”

Recommended Reads for Democratic Solutions

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