How the Concept of Misinformation Has Been Weaponised to Silence Dissenting Voices
The concept of “misinformation,” or “misleading, false and/or harmful information,” has been repeatedly invoked by Big Tech media companies and governments to justify the suppression and invalidation of information and perspectives they disapprove of. This concept has been employed by Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, and national health authorities either to delegitimate or silence views they deem to be false or harmful to the public interest. But the concept of misinformation is very slippery indeed, and wide open to ruthless exploitation on behalf of political or ideological causes.
Consider the case of American podcaster Joe Rogan. He hosts the podcast with the largest listenership in the history of podcasts, leaving mainstream media like CNN far behind.1 Rogan asks tough questions and brings on controversial guests. He does not deal in cheap soundbites but extended, multi-hour interviews. There are now calls by a whole range of public figures, from the United States Surgeon General Vivek Murphy to music artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, for Spotify to censor Rogan on grounds of spreading anti-vaccine misinformation.
What sparked this campaign to silence Joe Rogan was a recent interview he conducted with Twitter-censored virologist Dr Robert Malone (here are some excerpts from the interview) to discuss a number of issues related to pandemic policy, most notably the rollout of the Covid vaccines.
Dr Malone is an outspoken critic of the pharmaceutical industry and of the vaccination campaign. He is himself vaccinated, but believes the administration of the vaccine on a massive scale to all age groups is a reckless experiment, that unnecessarily puts people’s lives and health in danger, given that the long-term risks of the vaccine remain unknown, and many people being vaccinated are at very low risk from Covid-19.
Was Joe Rogan guilt of spreading “misinformation,” as alleged by people like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Prince Harry, by allowing Dr Malone to voice his concerns about pandemic policies on his podcast?
One might think that this question could be settled by simply deciding whether or not one is in agreement with Dr Malone or finds his arguments persuasive. But this would be to naively assume that in every serious political or scientific disagreement, one party to the disagreement can be identified authoritatively, before the argument has even taken off, as a perpetrator of “misinformation” to be shut down, while the other, as the bearer of Truth, to be given a red carpet.
If that were so, public debate and disagreement about high stakes issues could be short-circuited in advance by a censor under the direction of an elite class of handpicked philosophers or scientists. But that starts to sound a lot like the death of science and the birth of totalitarianism.
The question at issue, then, is not whether we agree with Dr Malone’s assessment of the vaccination campaign, but whether the mere fact of interviewing this controversial individual makes Rogan complicit in the propagation of “misinformation.” I doubt it very much, even if Joni Mitchell and Prince Harry think otherwise.
Accusations of misinformation certainly carry some rhetorical “umph” to them. They have an air of scientific rigour and objectivity to them. The person who leads the charge immediately assumes a position of epistemic and possibly moral superiority with respect to the accused. After all, if I accuse you of peddling “misinformation,” that means that I must be more “scientific,” more knowledgeable, and more in touch with the “facts” than you. In opposing “misinformation,” it may appear that my motives are above reproach.
If the motives of accusers of misinformation are as pure as the driven snow, and the content of misinformation is just determined by inconsistency with the plain facts of science, then why has the concept of “misinformation” become so politicised and contested?
Is it just because ignorant, misinformed people, don’t like to hear their falsehoods exposed? Or might it be that the term is being used dishonestly to arbitrarily silence people the censor happens to disagree with?
It seems fair to assume that some statements genuinely constitute “misinformation” - for example, the statement that drinking lots of tea will cure severe cases of Covid-19. Similarly, it is hard to deny that there are some types of information that are intrinsically dangerous or harmful - for example, a bomb-making youtube video.
Fair enough. But scratch beneath the surface, and it quickly becomes clear that the category of “misinformation” is infinitely malleable and very easily weaponised for political and ideological purposes. In practice, “misinformation” is very much in the eye of the beholder, and is rarely deployed in a politically or scientifically neutral manner.
This becomes clear as soon as we consider how charges of misinformation have been weaponised during the pandemic to selectively suppress certain opinions deemed politically unacceptable, until the “right people” started uttering them.
For example, for a long time, Facebook slammed virtually every statement connecting SARS-CoV-2 to a lab in Wuhan as erroneous or misleading - even though some high-level scientific experts viewed the lab leak hypothesis as plausible. When experts Facebook relied on, like Dr Anthony Fauci, admitted the lab leak hypothesis could not be ruled out, Facebook embarrassingly reversed themselves (here is a detailed account of those events). Suddenly, the lab leak hypothesis was no longer deemed to constitute a quack conspiracy theory, or “misinformation.”2
Again, consider the fact that a corona roundtable of highly qualified scientists (Dr Kulldorff from Harvard, Dr Bhattacharya from Stanford, Dr Gupta from Oxford, and Dr Scott Atlas from Stanford) moderated on 18th March 2021 by the Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, was abruptly removed from Youtube, allegedly because at least one of the participants was critical of the practice of masking children.
Putting aside the fact that the “fact-checkers” of Google, Facebook and Twitter are hardly qualified to review the soundness of the opinions of highly qualified scientists on a matter as complex as disease control, how might we justify the decision of a media platform to censor a contested scientific opinion on community masking (or any other matter) as a piece of “misinformation”'?
Is it because a majority of scientists disagree with it? In that case, we would have to suppress every unpopular scientific opinion before it even got a chance to be publicly considered, and endorse a crude majoritarian view of scientific truth, which is completely contrary to the spirit of open scientific inquiry.
Or is it the fact that the claim in question is not accepted by some official scientific authority, such as the WHO or the CDC? But “official” opinion could only be a gold standard for scientific truth if two things were true: first, that all official experts will converge automatically on the same “truth”; and second, that some people, by virtue of their position as “official” experts, are so smart, or wise, or virtuous, that their pronouncements may be considered as infallible wisdom, and could never be corrected or proven wrong by being challenged in public.
However, there is absolutely no reason to assume that a medical expert nominated to the World Health Organisation is more likely to share true and safe information than a professor of medicine at Harvard or Stanford medical school. Science does not work like that, nor does any field of knowledge. To believe otherwise is to be in the grips of an extraordinarily naive and childish conception of expert knowledge.
Charges of misinformation are consistently levelled against those who threaten the censor’s cherished opinions, and almost never against those who reaffirm the views of the censor. For example, Twitter aggressively censors opinions that question Covid vaccination campaigns or support the development and use of cheap and safe pharmaceutical treatments for Covid-19, yet they happily turn a blind eye to false and misleading claims that support their own narrative.
Here are some examples of false and/or misleading claims that have been given a free pass by Twitter and Youtube:
gross exaggerations of the dangers Covid-19 poses for young and health individuals
the misleading and arguably fraudulent use of PCR “case” data in spite of repeated warnings by experts that it was a deficient diagnostic tool
false statements suggesting that the vaccines are all “perfectly safe” for anyone to take, in spite of clear evidence that some Covid vaccines are associated with worrying increases in the incidence of diseases like myocarditis, especially in young populations
the constant equation of “death from” and “death with” Covid-19
plenty of defamatory claims about critics of Covid vaccination policies, including the claim that they are all “anti-vaxxers.”
statements implying that Ivermectin is a drug intended exclusively for horses.
All of these claims are manifestly “false or misleading,” yet Big Tech giants turn a blind eye to them. Why? Because they swim in the same direction as the narrative they are determined to push through. Do not be fooled: “misinformation” is not a politically neutral, scientific criterion of correctness, but a powerful tool of political propaganda and persuasion.
It is imperative that the advocates of heavy-handed political censorship, parading under the banner of “misinformation-detectors,” do not win the day, because if they do, then the public sphere will become a hall of mirrors, in which the lazy, self-serving mantras of a few powerful actors bounce, virtually unchallenged, from one platform to another, while dissenting voices, however intelligent or discerning, are consigned to the shadows and dismissed as the rantings of crazy people.
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According to one report, “CNN’s Primetime Anchor Anderson Cooper received around 238,000 viewers on average per episode last year, while podcast host Joe Rogan reaches an average of 11 million listeners per episode. Not even the top-rated TV news program NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt’s 8.5 million viewers can touch Rogan’s audience.” The 11 million estimate is repeated in many other sources, including The Telegraph.