Future Tense

The Way We Discuss “Disinformation” Is Toxic

Three paper tears with the words "propaganda," "fake news," and "disinformation" typed on them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Dan-Cristian Pădureț/Unsplash.

“Do you know [who] the greatest propagator of disinformation in the history of the world is? The U.S. government.”

This was Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s response to the recent formation of a Department of Homeland Security Disinformation Governance Board, which was intended to oversee and safeguard the U.S. from disinformation threats abroad. The board’s announcement was swiftly followed by public opposition and anger online, with comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984 “Ministry of Truth” trending on Twitter soon after. Nina Jankowicz, who was to lead the board, was the subject of harassment and violent threats.

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On Wednesday, three weeks after the board’s announcement, DHS announced it would be put on “pause.”

The board may be on hold, but we’re surrounded by other calls to address disinformation, especially from the powerful. In an April speech, former President Barack Obama claimed disinformation harms democracy by undermining common understandings about reality, and called for increased governmental regulation of information circulation online. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has argued that disinformation is a geopolitical threat. Journalist Carl Cameron recently suggested on MSNBC that it was even time to consider “putting people in jail” for spreading misinformation.

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Yet much of the buzz surrounding both the board and the broader moment raises a fundamental question: Is the current fixation with “disinformation” even helpful?

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As a media Ph.D. student, I’ve studied the literature surrounding terms like misinformation, disinformation, fake news, and propaganda in some detail. Despite the terms’ complexities and heavy connotations, they’ve become buzzwords, often thrown around with little justification. The practice can have serious consequences for those accused of spreading “disinformation” and the larger media environment, which can range from Twitter suspensions to straining the general public’s ability to follow or understand events as they happen.

With the Disinformation Governance Board on pause, it’s time to reconsider the toxic information and discourse environments—and impact such environments have had on public discourse—that these terms have contributed to.

But first, a step back: What does disinformation mean, anyway? In fact, the answer is anything but straightforward, even among academics.

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While the term rose to prominence during the 2016 U.S. elections, disinformation was used throughout the 20th century and especially after 1980. The Soviet Union’s Disinformation Office, the Dezinformburo, was famously established in 1923 to create false documents, or disinformation, to mislead foreign governments looking to learn more about the newly formed Union. But the problem of fabricated information is perhaps as old as time—consider Roman Emperor Octavian spreading rumors in wartime about political opponent Mark Antony.

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There is a colloquial definition for disinformation, of course. According to Merriam-Webster, disinformation is “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.”

But this popular definition provides more questions than answers. Chief among them: Who has the ability or authority to deem something false? As scholars Emily Vraga and Leticia Bode note, consensus among experts on a given topic does not always exist. The body of evidence to compare claims may be contradictory, incomplete, or speculative. And, perhaps most importantly, who is or should be an “expert” is not always clear. Of course, our ideas of what is true may also change over time, often through public discourse about and dissent against the status quo.

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Many definitions of disinformation focus on the “intent” to spread incorrect information—but that’s hard to prove. And perhaps misinformation—which is like disinformation, except without intent—raises another question: Can’t people speculate, or just be plain wrong? Or is that, too, at risk of being labeled misinformation?

The philosophical context only compounds disinformation’s definitional problems. In 1988philosopher Guy Debord warned about the term disinformation in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, writing that the powerful use it as an umbrella term to delegitimize opposition and criticism. Clearly, terms like disinformation lie on contested ground in a less-than-honest reality. But if we can’t consistently define disinformation, how can we, or any government, reasonably claim to address it?

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These questions and discussions surrounding disinformation and today’s complex information environment are complicated yet critical.

Certainly, many critiques of the board and related social media comments were partisan and quite ugly. But one doesn’t have to consider the Disinformation Governance Board the real life Ministry of Truth to acknowledge that the root concerns expressed through the uproar about the board—that disinformation and related terms can be used to stifle debate, that one person’s facts may well be another’s disinformation, and how the government playing an increased role in deciding what is, and how to act upon, disinformation, could be dangerous—are legitimate. Should the board become unpaused, I have grave concerns that it may hamper the ability to freely produce and disseminate critical journalism, and I remain skeptical that any one entity, especially a government entity, should be granted increased responsibility over the truth in any capacity.

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The board joins previous attempts to address disinformation that have often been ham-fisted, if not downright harmful. After all, terms like “conspiracy theory,” “propaganda,” and “disinformation” carry heavy weight. In practice, they often discredit emerging and potentially true stories as bunk, which can hamper our understanding of, and perhaps willingness and ability to discuss, current events.

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Take the infamous Hunter Biden laptop story, which supposes emails on an abandoned laptop reveal President Joe Biden may have acted to protect his son from a corruption investigation in Ukraine during the Obama era. While once dismissed as conspiracy theory and placed on the backburner, new details have emerged and emails relevant to the story have been authenticated, making the narrative worth further exploration.*

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Concerns about COVID-19 mis- and disinformation, furthermore, have led to a lack of critical discussion regarding how the virus was handled. Vice News recently reported the CDC was using phone tracking to learn whether Americans abided by lockdown rules, for example, yet earlier concerns that pandemic restrictions like vaccination passports could bring about a potential for surveillance were often slammed as conspiracy theories or otherwise deemed irrational. Since its pausing, the DHS and Jankowicz allege the board’s public image was itself derailed by mis- and disinformation, where they say commentators and social media users widely circulated misrepresentations of the board and Jankowicz. But these misinformation accusations, too, chip at the public’s ability to freely speculate about a board that is apparently established in its interest. Mission creep concerns surrounding the board are not baseless; they exist within the context of evidenced U.S. government overreach, including the widespread and illegal surveillance of U.S. residents via the NSA previously exposed by government whistleblower Edward Snowden. Civil liberties organizations have expressed concerns along similar lines, with the ACLU recently tweeting about the DHS’s lack of justification for the board and its unclear scope. The board’s intimidating name and clunky rollout, where officials struggled to clarify its purpose, have not helped matters.

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For now, the Disinformation Governance Board is no more. But the current moment is about more than its rise and apparent fall: it’s about our relationship with the truth. And while the desire to fight disinformation is understandable, recent events show that anything less than the utmost caution when examining information can interfere with our collective ability to identify, discuss, and act in ways that are productive, rather than toxic.

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As the board remains on pause, maybe it’s time we consider relying less on “disinformation” as the root cause of all our societal problems for a change. After all, we could be wrong about it.

*Correction, May 25, 2022: This piece originally misstated that Nina Jankowicz, the head of the now-paused DHS Disinformation Governance Board, had in a tweet said that the Hunter Biden laptop story was a “Russian influence op.” Jankowicz was livetweeting the 2020 Joe Biden-Donald Trump debate and paraphrasing Biden, who said, “There are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what he’s accusing me of is a Russian plant. … Five former heads of the CIA, both parties, say what he’s saying is a bunch of garbage. Nobody believes it except his good friend Rudy Giuliani.”  

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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