Disinformation research: a critique 

This short podcast is not so much a criticism of disinformation research but rather a critique of the expectations around it  – or possibly the unexamined expectations around it.

I refer to these three articles.

1) https://www.npr.org/2021/08/04/1024791053/facebook-boots-nyu-disinformation-researchers-off-its-platform-and-critics-cry-f

2) https://harpers.org/archive/2021/09/bad-news-selling-the-story-of-disinformation/

3) https://www.niemanlab.org/reading/facebook-sent-flawed-data-to-misinformation-researchers/

Music by Lesfm from Pixabay/ Image

Networked blindness

When it comes to defence of the common knowledge in a democracy, disinfo research that focuses primarily on networks can be problematic.

Just look at recent history.

Since the Kremlin interfered with the US election in 2016, the focus of democracy’s defence has been “the network.” Researchers look for and find malicious accounts there.  

But in the era of the attention economy, even focusing on the network can distract us from where we should be looking. 

In 2020, a coterie of public figures, including former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, helped push deceptive statements, linked back to Russia, into the American political debate, with the goal of hurting Joe Biden’s candidacy.

By using an ‘influencer’ strategy the Kremlin’s proxies simply cake-walked past the Maginot Line of defense erected by the disinformation research community.

Years earlier, in 2016, the White House’s (and much of the public’s) attention was on the networks of cybersecurity

But at that time, it was the content on those networks, not the networks themselves, that was the primary target for meddling and mayhem.

In the years ahead, you can expect the venue of the mayhem to change again.

In other words, guessing the vector of an “information attack” is nearly impossible.

So our best long-term defence may not be in patrolling networks.

Crypto assault on the post-Bretton Woods order picks up speed

The New York Times recently published a story: “Crypto’s Rapid Move Into Banking Elicits Alarm in Washington” that highlights the speed with which the industry is challenging the regulatory ability.

Unlike inventions like Facebook or Uber, which come from Silicon Valley (a physical place), cryptocurrency, starting with the mysterious paper by Satoshi Nakamoto, comes from the internet. 

It basically comes from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. So there is no central place to address it, view it, support it, oppose it, or stop it. 

This everywhere-reality will factor into how governments respond to it in coming years. At this point, whatever regulators do will act a bit like the engineering of the cryptocurrencies themselves, helping to adjust its trajectory in the coming months and years.

For that reason, crypto’s emergence as a sticking point in the US infrastructure is a moment of disruption

To the degree that there is thought behind much of the industry, the hope is to challenge, erode and supplant the power and legitimacy of traditional banking. For real crypto activists, the hope is to challenge central banks and the system of currency stability put in place at the end of World War II.

For a look at one scenario of cryptocurrency, have a scan of what’s going on in Lebanon. As the economy and currency crumbles, cryptocurrency and its associated businesses fill in the gaps. 

Cryptocurrency promises the ability to conduct transactions with zero trust. But what problem does this solve? Or whose problem? People who live in incredibly low-trust environments such as post-Soviet states, hackers, etc. 

You can’t point to many successful societies where almost no social trust exits. So the problem crypto, and its associated businesses, solves is one found in a low-trust society. 

For that reason, undermining the legitimacy of government and central banks (especially) is the core of the sales pitch of crypto. 

You don’t buy a new mattress, if you’re content with your current mattress. So, a mattress sales campaign shows you that you are indeed missing a better world through better sleep made possible through the new patented technology used to produce the new mattress. It solves a problem you didn’t know you had. 

Likewise, cryptocurrency’s sales pitch claims central banks are systemically inflating away the value of the public’s savings held in fiat currency, leaving behind the “unbanked”, and that this is the generationally new way of doing business that represents a kind of new and better world. 

If you’re shut out of the housing market and stable full-time work, the promise of a better world offered by cryptocurrency (to say nothing of the change to access quick wealth) could nonetheless be attractive. 

The Big Disinfo thesis

The main problem with Joseph Bernstein’s “Big Disinfo” argument in Harper’s is that it assembles a manufactured boogie man to help stand up his broader case.

Bernstein, a Buzzfeed tech reporter, is absolutely right to say that the best minds of the vague and all-inclusive disinfo research business “however well-intentioned…don’t have special access to the fabric of reality.”

And so when the reporters and researchers write about “disinfo” there’s no certainty about what exactly is normal or standard in the world of information and knowledge.

But Bernstein’s bigger argument doesn’t really account for how the formlessness of the digital world extends to the elite liberal institutions, as well. Neither bad information nor good information is created and shared in a centralized fashion. So even being an elite organisation with Katie Couric co-chairing won’t necessarily make it powerful. 

Bernstein’s oblique argument that fighting disinfo somehow talks up the advertising pitch of social media strikes me as – well, almost conspiratorial.

If Facebook isn’t the boogie man (as disinfo researchers claim), then it must be the elite institutions of yesterday that have been dethroned by Facebook that are the problem. It just couldn’t be that powerful social media companies, caught out by an unforeseen situation, are responding in a way that they think best- and least damaging to their brand. But the notion that disinfo research represents some kind of 5D psych-op from the Facebook marketing department is a bit hard to believe.

A more troubling aspect of Facebook, Twitter and social media platforms is the monopoly hold they have, not just in markets and among businesses, but also over disinformation researchers themselves. In Facebook’s case, the company has recently restricted access to tools used by researchers. Twitter shares it with trusted organisations. Both companies convert (instrumentalize?) the disinfo research community into yet another network of content generation, and worse, it may be one with little real effect in reforming the platforms.

But Bernstein eyes a faded hierarchy, the establishment so to speak, and places it at the top of the pyramid of concern in the issue of disinformation.

“That the most prestigious liberal institutions of the pre-digital age are the most invested in fighting disinformation reveals a lot about what they stand to lose, or hope to regain,” he writes.

If what they hope to gain isn’t status but a measure of political normality that would seem to be a good thing. As an editor once said to me “there’s room for everyone on the internet.”

I’m not sure you can argue that because the US has a race problem, for example, the Council on Foreign Relations has no role is supporting a reasoned information eco-system.

What these institutions are simply responding to online today are the events as they occur around them. What if neither these establishment institutions, nor the social media companies, are fully in control and calling the shots? The prospect of that is harder to reckon with when looking to assign blame.