Disinformation by Omission

Additional thoughts on the futility of regulatory responses to mis- and disinformation

In my last post, I wrote about the Canadian Forces’ attempts to manipulate public opinion, including by means of disinformation, and about the dangers of regulations ostensibly meant to counteract disinformation. I briefly return to the issue of disinformation to highlight an excellent, if frightening, essay by David French in his newsletter for The Dispatch.

Mr. French writes about the alarming levels of polarization and mutual loathing by political partisans in the United States. He argues that this results from a “combination of malice and misinformation”, which mean “that voters hate or fear the opposing side in part because they have mistaken beliefs about their opponents. They think the divide is greater than it is.” Mr. French observes that many Americans are stuck in a vicious cycle:

Malice and disdain makes a person vulnerable to misinformation. Misinformation then builds more malice and disdain and enhances the commercial demand for, you guessed it, more misinformation. Rinse and repeat until entire media empires exist to supply that demand. 

And, crucially, Mr. French points out that misinformation does not just consist of “blunt, direct lying, which is rampant online”. It also includes “deception by omission (a news diet that consistently feeds a person with news only of the excesses of the other side) and by exaggeration and hyperbole”, which can be “in many ways more dangerous than outright lies”, because they cannot easily be countered with accurate information. (This is why the rhetorical practice of “nutpicking” ― pointing to the crazies on the opposite side, and claiming that they represent all those who might share something of their worldview ― is so effective. The nuts are real! They might even be somewhat prominent and influential, though not as much as the nutpicker suggests. Nutpicking isn’t lying. But it is deceptive, and destructive.) 

And yet, Mr. French cautions against regulatory responses to this crisis, serious though it is:

there is no policy fix for malice and misinformation. There is no five-point plan for national harmony. Popular policies … don’t unite us, and there are always differences and failures to help renew our rage. Instead, we are dealing with a spiritual and moral sickness. Malice and disdain are conditions of the soul. Misinformation and deception are sinful symptoms of fearful and/or hateful hearts. (Paragraph break removed)

I think this is tragically right, even though I do not share Mr. French’s deep Christian faith. Call it heart or mind instead of soul; speak of moral error, indeed of immorality instead of sin; this all is secondary, to my mind. The point is that the fault is not in our laws, but in ourselves. And this is why, in my last post, I wrote that the government

cannot be trusted with educating citizens and funding media in a way that would solve the problems of the “environment that has created the disinformation crisis”. The solution must come from the civil society, not from the state.

As I wrote long ago in the context of hate speech, the law ― at least so long as it remains relatively cabined and does not attempt comprehensive censorship ― cannot counteract the corrosive “messages … sent by sophisticated, intelligent people”, who are able to avoid crude hate propaganda, or outright lies. The hint, the understatement, the implication, the misdirection, the omission are their weapons, and the shield against it must be in our hearts and minds, not the statute book.

We often think of regulation as a sort of magic wand that can do whatever we need, provided we utter the right sort of spell when wielding it. This is, of course, an illusion, and entertaining it only distracts us from working on the most difficult subject of all: our selves.