Every year, warnings from elected officials and corporate leaders about weaponized disinformation grow louder. The discovery that Russian operatives spent $160,000 on social media ads to influence the 2016 presidential election began a national conversation about disinformation, misinformation, and foreign propaganda. The heads of Facebook, Twitter, and Google have appeared in congressional hearings on the subject, most recently on March 25.
To the average 21st-century media consumer, these warnings of disinformation likely seem strange. If information is just facts, combatting disinformation should be as simple as identifying and ignoring falsehoods. “The truth will set you free,” right? Human rationality is supposed to be our foremost weapon against disinformation. This is the basis of democracy and every citizen’s right to vote.
But based on their reaction to disinformation, world leaders evidently find this view naïve—and a “disinformation industrial complex” has arisen to arm governments for the narrative war. It consists of new government offices like the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center, initiatives and task forces controlled by intelligence services, and special media projects undertaken by NGOs. These entities spend billions of private and public dollars on disinformation defense, sometimes against state actors, but often asymmetrically against ragtag groups of conspiracy theorists or pranksters.
National elections are the most common battlegrounds in these fights over facts, and even straightforward data and documents can be labeled disinformation when carrying electoral import.
For example, the 2017 email leaks that claimed to expose criminal activity by Emmanuel Macron were designated a disinformation attack because they were “taken out of context.” And most media outlets and social media platforms brazenly suppressed the leaked contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop ahead of the November 2020 presidential election.
Although legacy media outlets and tech giants have largely privatized the disinformation defense industry, many elected officials have proposed limits on digital speech and prosecuting disinformation peddlers. In the United States, the First Amendment prevents speech bans like those in Europe, where a French presidential candidate can be convicted for tweeting about Islamic State terrorism. But governments need not resort to outright censorship: they already have many ways of silencing or deplatforming dissent.
Cases like that of Douglass Mackey illustrate how many tools governments have in the war on disinformation—and how quickly these tools can become weapons of political power. Mackey posted pro-Trump jokes and memes on Twitter before the 2016 election, but—despite his anonymous identity being “doxxed”—his activity was never deemed criminal until four years later, when the Justice Department charged him with election interference just seven days into Biden’s administration. Jail time for Americans with the wrong political opinions has now become an official means of “fortifying” elections against disinformation.
Predicaments like those facing Mackey or Marine Le Pen’s supporters in the French election might intimidate would-be hooligans from creating anonymous Twitter accounts, and they certainly have a chilling effect on politicians’ speech. They also severely undermine the credibility of intelligence services, mainstream news and social media, and others with a responsibility to facts. The CIA’s home page proudly announces, “We are the nation’s first line of defense.” But Americans don’t feel defended by censorship or counterpropaganda. In an age when the average internet user can find alternative viewpoints online with little effort, the war on disinformation has only heightened suspicions.
That’s one reason the public has become more cynical and divided than ever—the vast majority of disinformation accusations are transparently manipulative and self-serving. Meanwhile, proven disinformation that serves establishment narratives—like the infamous Steele dossier—is given a free pass and amplified by corporate media.
Neither individual nations nor international stability can survive if competing interests handle differing viewpoints as “information wars.” Conversations are not armed conflicts, and treating them as such will ensure a self-fulfilling prophecy of violence. Unfortunately, the disinformation-industrial complex seems not to care if narratives labeled “disinformation” are true, false, or somewhere in between. It only matters whose narrative—whose power—it defies.