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.