In April, the Biden administration announced the beginning of the Disinformation Governance Board, which had the stated intention of protecting national security by combating various types of misinformation. There was incredible backlash to the creation of the DGB, and the agency folded within three weeks of its announced birth.
Yet it would be naïve to assume that the government isn’t planning to “combat misinformation” behind the scenes. In fact, recently leaked documents show that the Department of Homeland Security has plans to do just that.
Information obtained from a combination of leaks and a lawsuit that Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed earlier this year (with the claim of government collusion with social media companies to suppress information) shows the DHS’ continued plans to pressure social media companies into taking down what the government deems “misinformation.”
According to an exposé written by journalists at The Intercept, “discussions have ranged from the scale and scope of government intervention in online discourse to the mechanics of streamlining takedown requests for false or intentionally misleading information.”
The DHS’ efforts will target misinformation related to such topics as the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, the manner in which the US is providing aid to Ukraine, and (quite ambiguously) racial justice.
Naturally, there are no clear guidelines for how the DHS would define misinformation as part of this plan. What does the consensus have to be in government for something to be defined as misinformation? For matters of medicine, what must the level of agreement in the scientific community be before something is deemed false? These questions should be troubling to anyone.
I was reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ speech on freedom of speech and expression, where he challenges those who wish for censorship to name one person they know that they would be comfortable having complete control over what they can see or read. This individual will decide if something is right or wrong for you to discover. I know of no such person in my life. Do you?
Hitchens also says in this speech, “Might [an outrageous or appalling opinion] in any case give people to think about why do they know what they already think that they know? How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else? It’s always worth establishing, first a principle, saying “What would you do if you met a flat Earth society member?” “Come to think of it, how can I prove the Earth is round?” “Am I sure about the theory of evolution? I know it’s supposed to be true. Here’s someone who says no such thing, it’s all intelligent design”. “How sure am I in my own views?” Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus and the feeling that whatever you think you’re bound to be okay because you’re in the safely moral majority.”
We benefit from hearing the opposite side even if that side is expressing outrageous falsehoods, because then we can come up with more principled and intelligent arguments for our own beliefs. Such an idea reflects the tradition of the utilitarian John Stuart Mill. In his 1859 essay On Liberty, a work with strikingly modern arguments, Mill writes, “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” Mill argued that the silenced opinion may turn out to be true, and that deep understanding of one’s owns opinions depends on hearing from dissenting voices. Those who misguidedly cheer on the DHS’ efforts because they imagine that their archenemy of choice will be silenced exhibit a high degree of intellectual cowardice.
In response to the DHS’ campaign to police misinformation through social media companies, Edward Snowden called for the dismantling of this agency. I would consider this course of action entirely reasonable, although pretty much guaranteed not to happen. The DHS was created in a blind response to the 9/11 attacks, and after its mission to supposedly guarantee American safety through the war on terror, it has now turned its attention to the American public, branding ordinary residents of the country as a threat. This agency is only an unneeded encroachment on civil liberties. Its recent efforts to allow the government to be the ultimate arbiter of truth proves just that.