Misinformation, Disinformation, and the new age War

By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

In the digital age, with information wars becoming a constant, pundits argue over misinformation and disinformation. The difference according to them lies in that misinformation occurs accidentally while disinformation is deliberate and carried out with intent. This, alas, is a distinction without a difference.

While their attempt to distinguish between the two may be subtle, it amounts to subterfuge. The absence of some litmus test to definitively determine intention or lack of intent behind a piece of information, labeling it as mis- or dis-information remains arbitrary and subjective. It is similar to the dilemma posed when tagging protest, in that someone’s insurrectionist may well be another’s a freedom fighter.

The appropriation of so-called facts pompously claimed by the messengers as ‘truth’ becomes absolute, in proportion to the deadening and death of dissent. Canceling out culture enables the ‘favored’ perspectives to remain unchallenged while disabling those that manifest dissent or run counter to the ‘acceptable’.

The content screening algorithms, manufactured by at best biased and at worst uninformed coders, flag every view and exclude every writer who departs from the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ i.e., the red line applied and solely determined by the platform’s censors. Thus Trump – even when President of the world’s oldest democracy and a superpower but deeply hated by mainstream media – gets permanently banned. But Ayatollah and Putin are embraced and allowed to pass “Go” rather than sent to “Jail” – to use terms familiar to players of Monopoly.

Such unchallenged power is possible because digital companies operate under the shield and armor of section 230, a weird clause in an archaic law enacted by Congress which frees digital platforms and their owners from liability for views expressed by users, or those censored and canceled out by users or by the host platforms.

America’s digital emperors thus perpetuate the malaise resulting from their monopoly of censorship power over speech. It is they who determine who can say what, when, how, and whether, posing a serious threat to scholarship but worse, to American democracy.

As the truth becomes a licensed commodity, dissent gets increasingly vilified and proactively snuffed out, causing fictional facts to be manipulated and presented as truth.

‘Dezinformatsiya’ or disinformation is attributed to Stalinist Russia (Alas! Not to Trump or Putin) as a cold war strategy meant to counter the enemy propaganda. The term refers to the distortion of information. Corrupting information in the process of conveying it, however, is History’s and Polity’s chronic sordid saga. The malady of turning fiction into fact has ailed all times, except it is now ubiquitous. Like the covid-19 virus, it will never die or disappear.

Ages ago, Senator Patrick Moynihan warned, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.” Today, digital platforms have made it possible for everyone – except the banished and ex-communicated – to have, transmit, proselytize, and propagate views based entirely on their “own” facts, and their “own understanding of them”.

To shoot down protest, those in power feel increasingly comfortable with fostering a false sense of unanimity of facts but also of opinion or of understanding of facts. And this is achieved not by the proverbial “meeting of minds” but by the deliberate malicious exclusion of opposing views.

Lack of transparency and distortion of information has plagued American politics always, but never so blatantly as now, not because previous administrations were more democratic, fair, or transparent but because they lacked the digital technology and means to corner the digital public space.

To the favored presidents, such space is now made available by its corporate owners who are fully vested in the president and political party of their choosing, and eager to serve as conduits of their agenda and messaging.

Apparently, these owners of virtual political reality experience no crisis of conscience in doing so, and in killing free speech. Taking charge of American democracy, they now determine the rules of public speech – trashing dissent as poisonous, and criticism of the president and his policies treasonous.

Even satire is now charged as hateful speech causing dismissal from a platform – as seen in the recent suspension of The Babylon Bee by Twitter for satirically designating a trans person (born male but changed to female) as their “Man of the Year”. Banished account holders can return only if they apologize and delete the “offensive” tweet, which The Bee has refused to do.

The digital owners’ cutting and eliminating powers are upending our politics, segmenting us, and threatening to turn this country into the “Disunited States of America”. Barring one ideology and not the other from the public square breeds mutual resentment and reinforces fissiparous tendencies.

A house divided, Lincoln had forewarned, cannot stand. The Red and Blue divide descriptive of our 50 states are no longer geographic. It has become personal, with Americans tagged as Red or Blue, and both hues providing fodder to keep the information war going.

Even as the world totters at the brink of another world war, the digital war shows no signs of abetting. While Putin’s unprincipled invasion of Ukraine and his savage treatment of civilians are getting fully blasted by western media, Putin continues to challenge what he deems to be a one-sided coverage. In fact, he has banned Meta, Facebook, Instagram etcetera as harmful enemy propaganda, and a threat to his nation’s security.

American media and liberal politicians of course are enraged and crying foul. But their hypocrisy is blatant, and their protest ironic.  If Putin’s suppression of dissent seems excessive, American media need only to look back at the speech limitation they have imposed or tolerated and encouraged. Trump’s presidency is a telling instance of how media can scuttle a presidency and silence a president. Worse, they have perpetrated the miscasting and hounding of Trump’s supporters as Enemies of the State.

It is therefore both hurtful and laughable to see the censors of dissent and the champions of speech suppression attacking Putin for doing exactly the same. Hypocrisy is epitomized when they along with our politicians take the moral high ground to castigate Putin, claiming that propaganda posing as news presents a real danger as it green-lights violence.

Hypocrisy is magnified when they condemn one side and not the other. In contrast to their vigorous condemnation of Putin’s media and dissent suppression, the suspension of rival political parties suspected of collusion with Russia by the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has invited no such outrage. Nor has Zelenskyy’s signing of a decree that seeks to unite all national TV channels into one platform, citing the importance of a “unified information policy”. His actions should evoke condemnation but instead, they are being justified as the exigencies of war and martial law.

As the Ukraine war perpetrated by Putin prolongs and senseless deaths pile up under the indiscriminate firepower of Putin, viewer fatigue will set in. Media coverage and the contesting digital wars too may scale down.

History proves that when war extends from days and weeks to months and years, both interest and anguish fade away. Then, the winner of the digital war more than the actual war will determine who will prevail in history.

Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

Images courtesy of (Image Courtesy: The Guardian) and Provided

Share this post