12 min read
To Inform Or Misinform: The American Government’s Campaign of Information Curation

Ilan Hulkower

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." 

First Amendment to the United States’ Constitution 

On May 18th, the Biden administration announced that they were pausing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s newfound Disinformation Governance Board due to the backlash it received from the public. Prominent among the criticisms were the airing of free speech concerns that the government was improperly influencing the national discourse in what is supposed to be a democratic self-governing society by distinguishing between what is true and what is disinformation in the name of public safety. The director of the board, Nina Jankowicz who is a “disinformation expert” according to CNN, has also resigned. Jankowicz and other Biden officials have defended the board’s role as important for national security in tackling foreign sponsored disinformation and disinformation revolving around the illegal migration crisis that the US faces. After resigning, Jankowicz defended the board by saying, “We need to have a grownup conversation about how to deal with threats to our national security and that’s not what happened here.” That Nina Jankowicz has decided that it is the government's place to combat disinformation is surprising given that back in 2020 she was a skeptic of governmental involvement in fighting disinformation. 

In the name of having that adult conversation, this article will seek to demonstrate why a government body policing speech is unwise in the first place and how the American government has increasingly infiltrated the private sector by demanding stricter controls on free expression. To be clear here, not all speech is lawfully permitted even in democracies. For instance, incendiary speeches that contain incitement for unlawful action like rioting are not treated as free expression. The Founding Fathers of the United States intended the country to be an exemplar of ordered liberty and not chaotic unruly anarchy. As such, it is my contention that fighting against lies, libels, and calls for violence is praiseworthy but that the government's track record of policing, monitoring, or “advising” what is correct speech is neither praiseworthy nor desirable in a free society. 

For one thing, the government should not be seen as a proverbial guardian class of benevolent truth tellers. Such a government body, like that of the Disinformation Governance Board, that is devoted to the curation of information on the basis of what is (alleged to be) true harkens back to Woodrow Wilson’s infamous Committee on Public Information, which operated from 1917 to 1919. This committee was tasked with stirring up pro-war sentiments in the United States and was involved in the creation of a propaganda machine that manipulated and censored news coverage in the country. The Committee was so effective in stirring up passions that it led to self-appointed patriots violently harassing pacifists, the politically undesirable, and ethnic groups like German immigrants. Such acts of press curation by a government are not unique to the United States alone in leading toward the suppression of truthful information and demonization of those deemed the enemy. 

It is not just that governments have a history of suppressing truthful information but that governments also have a way of lying or at least spreading disinformation of their own to drag a country into war or stir up war fever. As Otto von Bismarck put it, “People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war, or before an election.” To add to Bismarck’s witticism here, it is not just during a war that people lie but that people may lie to get the country into war. American history is replete with such occasions of the government not giving out good information in order to go to war. The rush to blame Spanish perfidy for the sinking of the battleship Maine in 1898 in Havana harbor to justify an American war with Spain when there was no hard evidence that they sunk the ship is one such example. One of the buildups to America’s entry to World War One in 1917 was the sinking of the Lusitania, a passenger ship, represents another such example. What was not advertised was that, in addition to its American passengers, the ship was carrying arms to Great Britain. There are even questions over whether the British put the ship in harm’s way. The 1964 infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was used as an excuse to secure a Congressional resolution permitting a direct American intervention into Vietnam, was based on a lie that the North Vietnamese had launched a second attack on an American warship. The 1990 babies in incubators story, that Iraqi soldiers killed Kuwaiti babies by pulling them from incubators, was used to sell the idea of intervening in Iraq turned out to be false. The Iraqi weapons of mass destruction narrative that was started in 2002 by George W. Bush was used to justify another American intervention against Iraq. This too was based on faulty information. Whether these wars, as a whole or individually, were inevitable or whether they wisely advanced American interests is beside the point here. The point is governments, whether intentionally or otherwise, have given faulty and even entirely incorrect information to their own public in order to justify certain acts like war. 

A history of disinformation also seems present in the Disinformation Governance Board itself. Nina Jankowicz, the former head of the Disinformation Governance Board, herself has an eyebrow raising history of purveying partisan narratives that turn out to be false. Her various statements (and propagation of statements by others) that denigrated the Hunter Biden laptop corruption exposé as being “a Trump campaign product” and her demanding that voters deserved the true context behind the discovery of the laptop and not a fairy tale being one such example. Nevertheless, the laptop was not Russian disinformation. The laptop and the various emails from the laptop were verified (and the context given behind its discovery remains intact) as a genuine source of various misdeeds by the Biden family by the corporate press. The same press had derided or ignored the scandalous emails from the laptop for nearly 2 years after the initial stories from the laptop broke. Indeed, much of the basic information that the corporate press broke since then using the emails from the laptop were recirculated from older reporting from non-corporate sources. 

Jankowicz also dismissed the story that Covid came from a Chinese lab-leak and she accused opponents of Critical Race Theory as being “disinformers”. While there has certainly been misinformation in the context of Covid, the lab leak theory is now being seriously considered while her attack on opponents of Critical Race Theory is just partisan politics. Such vulnerabilities and one-way partisanship demonstrated by Jankowicz were not missed by those like Senator Josh Hawley who adroitly used this as a line of attack on the board and its director. 

Jankowicz was not the only government official to be grilled in this manner. Senator Rand Paul also attacked Alejandro Mayorkas, the head of the DHS, on similar lines that he and Mayorkas could not agree on what qualifies as disinformation and questioned the capability of the government to deal with the problem effectively. In terms of the performance of Biden’s DHS in the functions it is already tasked with, there is much to be desired. While the Trump administration recorded low rates of illegal immigration, the Biden administration has recorded historically very high rates of illegal immigration into the United States. Indeed, the very practices of the Biden administration have been criticized for being unserious or for even encouraging this boom in illegal immigration. Biden’s DHS nevertheless seems more interested in what to call illegal migrants (the new term is undocumented non-citizens or just migrants) rather than seriously tackle this problem. There are some grounds for cynicism that this Disinformation Governance Board would have been used to cover for or would have diverted attention from these mounting problems. Such cynicism has gained greater currency as recent whistleblower documents confirmed that the board’s scope was not just restricted to issues of foreign or immigration related disinformation but other more domestic issues like certain stances on election security or on Covid. These documents also show that there was coordination between the board and Twitter, a private social media company, on setting up a system to censor viewpoints that the board deemed misinformation. In effect, the board’s purpose was well beyond what was advertised in Congress as and it was engaged in a closed door censorship campaign against certain views. 

Even before the formation of the Disinformation Governance Board, however, there was mounting evidence that the American government was using its influence to encourage a greater censorship regime by private social media companies. Until recently it seemed that both sides of the political aisle in the United States were at least rhetorically largely against a government sponsored censorship regime on the internet and denounced other governments for imposing such regimes on their citizenry. For instance, Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, proclaimed in 2011 that “For the U.S. the choice is clear— we place ourselves on the side of openness. Internet freedom raises tensions like all freedoms do but the benefits outweigh the costs.” Many social media outlets like Twitter were founded on the ethos of being “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” At least in the West were such lofty promises of free speech and free platforms so seemingly tenable. 

Yet, since Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015 and won the 2016 election, such promises in the West of an open platform have increasingly been under heavy assault by even the American press itself. This tirade against an open internet has even reached hysterical declarations that the internet, which until a few years ago was largely touted as a democratizing force, was damaging to democracy. Such calls for greater control of social media content were echoed not just in the press but by politicians in Congress who threatened to legislate if social media did not toe the line. Representative Jan Schakowsky for instance has jumped on the board of censoring content citing ads in the 2020 election that compared Joe Biden to a Latin American socialist dictator. Others demanded content moderation against Covid-19 vaccine skeptics or else these sites would face Congress compelling them to do so by law. The Biden White House has also admitted that they flag (and encourage others to flag) what they see as disinformation for censorship by these private outlets. In other words, pet political projects are thrust into what social media should promote and protect. Some of these calls have come even after revelations that these media sites were already censoring stories that were damaging to Democrats in the 2020 election

When Elon Musk announced that he was going to purchase Twitter and try to return it to its free speech roots, there was an outcry. Max Boot, an American political commentator, bemoaned this potential acquisition by a free speech advocate by shrilly proclaiming that “For democracy to survive, we need more content moderation not less.” Evidentially, according to the school of Max Boot, the power of democracy rests on the need for content moderation [i.e. censorship]. Max Boot in this awkward declaration is effectively arguing that the public is too stupid to discern what is truthful information by themselves so they must be cajoled by a superior class of moderators, who naturally have no bias or personal interests of their own, into enlightening the vulgar unwashed masses on what good information is and what is bad information. Lest one think this opinion is confined to one paranoid commentator alone, other outlets like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Vice have run articles to this effect. Other outlets like Esquire took a more intelligent approach and made arguments that an eccentric billionaire owning a major hub of information may not be in the best interests of a truly free society. 

Given that wealthy people already own various hubs of information prior to Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter, however, this is mostly a moot point. Personally, what matters to me is the values that the owner of the site or paper has. If they are for free speech, then buying that news or social media site is not much of a concern to me. Elon Musk for instance seems to be a free speech advocate as he has clarified that what he means by making Twitter a free speech zone again when he tweeted the following: 

"I simply mean that [speech] which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government [sic] to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people." 

As of now, I am not aware of a real alternative to the privatized system we have that has a better track record concerning free speech. 

After Musk’s offer to buy Twitter was made public, the White House expressed its concerns over the potential of a less curated platform. Jen Psaki, then White House spokesperson, said the following

“The president has long talked about his concerns about the power of social media platforms, including Twitter and others, to spread misinformation...We engage regularly with all social media platforms about steps that can be taken. That has continued, and I'm sure will continue, but there are also reforms that we think Congress could take." 

Several revelations have come out after Musk’s bid for Twitter. After Twitter assured Musk that no more than 5 percent of their users were bots (automated accounts designed to mimic a human user), an audit found that nearly 1 out of 4 followers of Musk on Twitter could be bots or spam accounts raising concerns that the proportion of bots on Twitter are much higher than disclosed. A similar audit found that nearly half of Joe Biden’s twitter followers were fake as well. 

This is not the first bit of controversial discovery over how the Biden administration handles their social media accounts. Criticism has been previously voiced over the Biden administration’s own official YouTube channel barring anyone from leaving a comment and how YouTube enacted a general policy after the Biden administration came into power that when applied to government social media accounts hides how many downvotes these public channels received. Given the collaboration between big tech and the Biden White House such an artificial following of the current president may not be coincidental. If it is revealed that the White House’s information curation campaign also included artificially hiking up the president’s social media account with fake followers, this would be another example of why such agendas are bad. If you manufacture fake followers to create the impression of popularity or a phony consensus, then this is also damaging to genuine debate. 

Given all this, it is difficult to say why the government should be regarded as the supreme arbitrator of truth. The record is clear that governments, the United States included, have embarked on disinformation campaigns and that they have hidden truthful information before in order to achieve their own institutional goals. People at the top have partisan agendas, biases, and interests and for them to be granted the role of censor/content moderator of (mis/dis/false) information should be worrying. People have died from the wars and the internal strife that these campaigns of government “content moderation” brought into being before. Free societies are supposed to be beacons of debate and have avenues for lawful dissent. The growing nature of the collaboration between the government and big tech should be a cause of uneasiness for any civil libertarian. To “save our democracy” as many of our paranoid pundits like to phrase it, we cannot take away basic liberties as this would be a betrayal of our democracy. It seems to me at least that much of this zeal for censorship is a cry for authoritarianism of a sort where people are only exposed to one pre-approved narrative and are not allowed to effectively question it. This is not healthy nor is it remotely democratic.

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