By Daniel Klein
The policing of “information” is the stuff of Naziism, Stalinism, Maoism, and similar anti-liberal regimes. To repress criticism of their dicta and diktats, anti-liberals label criticism “misinformation” or “disinformation.” Those labels are instruments to crush dissent.
This paper offers an understanding of knowledge as involving three chief facets: information, interpretation, and judgment. Usually, what people argue fervently over is not information, but interpretation and judgment.
What is being labeled and attacked as “misinformation” is not a matter of true or false information, but of true or false knowledge—meaning that disagreement more commonly arises over interpretations and judgments as to which interpretations to take stock in or believe. We make judgments, “good” and “bad,” “wise” and “foolish,” about interpretations, “true” and “false.”
On that understanding, the paper explains that the projects and policies now afoot styled “anti-misinformation” and “anti-disinformation” are dishonest, as it should be obvious to all that those projects and policies would, if advanced honestly, be called something like “anti-falsehood” campaigns.
But to prosecute an “anti-falsehood” campaign would make obvious the true nature of what is afoot—an Orwellian boot to stomp on Wrongthink. To support governmental policing of “information” is to confess one’s anti-liberalism and illiberality. The essay offers a spiral diagram to show the three chief facets of knowledge (information, interpretation, and judgment) plus a fourth facet, fact, which also deserves distinct conceptualization, even though the spiral reminds us: Facts are theory-laden.
Writing at Discourse, published by the Mercatus Center, Martin Gurri describes “disinformation” as follows:
The word means, ‘Shut up, peasant.’ It’s a bullet aimed at killing the conversation. It’s loaded with hostility to reason, evidence, debate and all the stuff that makes our democracy great. (Gurri 2023)
That is from Gurri’s excellent piece, “Disinformation Is the Word I Use When I Want You to Shut Up.” The piece prompted the present essay, the title of which is a variation on his.
With such titles, Gurri and I are being polemical, of course. Not all usages of “disinformation” and “misinformation” come from people intent on shutting someone up. But a lot are. The “anti-misinformation” and “anti-disinformation” projects now afoot or in effect are about shutting up opponents.
In 2019 the Poynter Institute for Media Studies published “A Guide to Anti-misinformation Actions around the World.” There you survey examples of anti-misinformation and anti-disinformation projects and policies, which have no doubt soared further since 2019.
The policing of ‘information’ is the stuff of Naziism, Stalinism, Maoism, and similar anti-liberal regimes. In my title “Misinformation Is a Word We Use to Shut You Up,” anti-liberals are the “We.” To repress criticism of their dicta and diktats, they stamp criticism as “misinformation” or “disinformation.” Those stamps are Orwellian tools that anti-liberals wield in the hope of stamping out Wrongthink—for example, on climate, election integrity, the origins of the Covid virus, therapeutics such as Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine, the effectiveness of masking, the effectiveness of the Covid injections, the safety of the Covid injections, and the effectiveness of lock-downs. “Anti-misinformation” could be deployed in keeping with whatever the next THE CURRENT THING might be, with associated slogans against, say, China, Putin, Nord Stream, racists, white supremacists, MAGA Republicans, “deniers,” et cetera. And then, of course, there’s all that “misinformation” disseminated by “conspiracy theorists”.
In speaking of “policing,” I mean government throwing its weight and its coercion around against “misinformation” or “disinformation.” And, besides government coercion, there are allies. These allies often enjoy monopolistic positions, stemming either from government handouts, privileges, and sweetheart deals, as with broadcasters, universities, and pharmaceutical companies, or from having cornered certain network externalities, as with certain huge media platforms. Allies of various sorts sometimes do the bidding of the despots because they themselves are threatened and intimidated. The ecosystem leads to their debasement.
To support governmental policing of “information” is to confess one’s anti-liberalism and illiberality. Even worse, it is to flaunt them. The motive is to make and signal commitment to anti-liberalism, in a manner parallel to how religious cults sets up rituals and practices for making and signaling commitments (Iannaccone 1992). Vice signals vice, the ticket in some spheres to promotion and advancement.
Also, vicious action spurs more of the same to defend against exposé and accountability for past wrongs. In protecting their rackets, the wrongdoers verge upon a downward spiral.
I wrote Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2012). The book says knowledge involves three chief facets. Those facets help us see why “misinformation” and “disinformation” are words anti-liberals use to shut people up. The three chief facets are information, interpretation, and judgment:
- Information exists within a working interpretation, natural to the context of the matter under discussion.
- Interpretation takes us beyond the working interpretation. It opens things up to the marvelous generation and multiplying of interpretations; you now face a portfolio or menu of interpretations, and it is a portfolio that can always grow yet another interpretation.
- Judgment is the action facet of knowledge. It is about, first, estimating interpretations and, second, taking stock in certain interpretations you estimate highly. Judgment involves a degree of commitment—belief—which propels you to act on the interpretations you take stock in. If you do not actually act on the interpretation you purport to take stock in, you are a hypocrite and a quack. If you are aware of your hypocrisy, you are a liar; if you are not aware of it, you are in denial, self-deluded. Lying, stubborn denial, self-delusion, and cynicism are features of baseness.
When despots label opposition “misinformation” or “disinformation” they abuse language. They invoke presuppositions built into the word information, presuppositions that are false. When despots label opposition “mis-” or “disinformation, they are, at best, objecting in the interpretation and judgment dimensions of knowledge, or, at worst, they are speaking in a way that has abandoned civil engagement altogether, instead using words as instruments of wickedness.
Usually, what people argue fervently over is not information, but interpretations and judgments as to which interpretations to act on. What is being labeled and attacked as “misinformation” is not a matter of true or false information, but of true or false knowledge. The projects and policies now afoot styled “anti-misinformation” and “anti-disinformation” are dishonest, as it should be obvious to all that those projects and policies would, if advanced honestly, be called “anti-falsehood” or “anti-falseness” or “anti-foolishness” or “anti-untruth” campaigns. But to prosecute an “anti-falsehood” campaign would make obvious the true nature of what is afoot: The persecution and silencing of Wrongthink. In misrepresenting matters of interpretation and judgment as one of “misinformation,” they misrepresent the nature of their projects and dodge the responsibility to account for how they judge among vying interpretations.
Within the information dimension of knowledge, variance is resolved in a straightforward manner. Very little interpretative engagement and dialogue are called for. The question of whether a movie is in black-and-white or in color can almost always be readily decided, because we basically share an interpretation of “black-and-white” and “in color,” making the question a matter of information. If interpretative effort is called for, the matter is no longer within the information dimension—is Citizen Kane a better movie than Roman Holiday? Only to be ironic would someone say: Dad misinforms you when he says that Citizen Kane is better than Roman Holiday. The irony there would be in the implied high self-estimation, as the speaker sets up his own aesthetic sensibilities in judging movies as a standard so precise and accurate as to warrant “misinform” when Dad disagrees with that standard.
The despots are without irony. They dodge interpretive engagement by labeling dissenting statements “mis-” or “disinformation.” They are simply bullying and intimidating their opponents.
We notice that sometimes, as here, announcing BBC Verfiy, the despots use the novel term “mistruth,” which was scarcely ever used prior to a few decades ago (see here). The “mis-” prefix does not well fit on the word truth, which pervades knowledge river-deep, mountain-high. Think of
mistake, misspeak, misremember, misplace, mislay, misquote, misdirect, and so on. The prefix “mis-” is proper when the betterness of a readily identifiable alternative—the accurate quotation, for example—is hardly a matter of dispute. I doubt that much time will be spent by BBC Verify on correcting misquotations.
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