You can’t evaluate disinformation without understanding the political agenda behind it

  • Published on April 1st, 2021

Dr. Joan Donovan’s Technology and Social Change project on Media Manipulation released a report Tuesday on mitigating medical disinformation with a “whole-of-society approach.” While it focuses on how medical misinformation is spread through media manipulation and its audience within the public health community, mentions of COVID-19 and vaccines could just as easily be swapped for climate change.

media manipulation life cycle - climate denial and covid liesBy Climate Denier Roundup

The media manipulation life cycle on page 18, for example, is just as true for climate denial: campaigns are planned in secret, then fringe websites and social posts start popping up until real journalists or politicians start to notice and debunk and attempt to limit the spread of the misinformation, at which point the media manipulators adjust their approach and start over.

And the general guidelines (page 24) are also relevant to climate and other, shall we say, myth-rich fields, highlighting the “fact-fallacy-fact” debunking strategy, and that “manipulation campaigns thrive when timely, relevant, local and redundant information is not available.”

The recent Texas blackouts, for example, showed how liars were eager to blame renewables, capitalizing on the fact that they could baselessly blame renewables faster than any reliable assessments — which (surprise!) showed it was mostly gas that froze up — were available. But that initial framing was so effective that Texas Republicans are considering making renewables more expensive, essentially out of denial and spite.

And that gets to where the otherwise-great report is lacking (something that it actually acknowledges), which is the specific political element.

The medical misinformation it addresses “may represent a narrow view of the larger public reckoning on misinformation, political disinformation, and Internet governance.” It’s titled as a “whole-of-society approach,” but it sidesteps the existence of a rightwing disinformation machine as something of a given, instead at times describing misinformation as if it moved of its own volition and not by people with agendas.

But until the faux-media outlets and fake experts are called out for their out-sized role in propagating public health threats, then it’s always going to be a matter of forcing social companies to play clean-up instead of stopping lies at their source.

Because that’s the bigger problem, political disinformation.

It’s one thing for people to have fun wasting their time with flat Earth theories or finding phallic symbols at the alternate capital of the United States (a.k.a. The Denver Airport), but there exists a multi-million-dollar organized disinformation apparatus sitting around waiting to capitalize on the next moment of uncertainty to consolidate power.

For example, here in the U.S., anyway, given that Democrats control the House, Senate and White House, it’s unsurprising that conservative media is on the warpath. But instead of fixating on the (quite popular) clean energy policies the Biden administration is rolling out, they’ve mostly been waging one-sided culture wars.

For example, after a couple months of stirring up hate with a “coordinated attack” against trans kids who dare to play sports or seek medical care or just exist, cancel-“cancel culture” warriors have moved on to clutching pearls over Lil Nas X’s Satan-themed free speech expression as the right-wing media’s preferred vehicle for manufactured outrage, as Parker Malloy of Media Matters recently explained.

The purpose there is to keep people angry at an enemy, and therefore politically aligned with their fellow straight white Christian Q-loving Republicans.

On slightly-more-serious policies, it’s all about pretending immigration is suddenly a “crisis,” and shutting down ballot access for tens of millions of voters at the local level with Jim Crow 2.0, both issues with disinformation at their racist core.

But all that capacity for hatefully misinformed media, all that influence on the mainstream news and politics is made possible by polluters. The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s site for anti-Lil Nas X, transphobic, rabidly pro-Seussian racism and anti-climate content, was backed by a pair of billionaire fracking brothers (no, the other ones, the Wilks.)

Most of those supposed “experts” that Fox News and others put on TV to cast doubt on consensus science — be it on vaccines and COVID-19 or  climate change — have the luxury of doing so because they get paid a decent salary by organizations that exist to pump out disinformation in order to defend their billionaire backers.

So if you’re going to take a truly “whole-of-society” approach, it means taking measures to preserve democracy and voting rights to make it harder for misinformation to influence the outcome of elections. It means campaign finance reform to keep polluters and disinformers from buying political influence, or setting up dark money front groups to peddle disinformation as a day job. It means media literacy and standards so that “news” is actually news, and not Koch/Wilks/Mercer money masquerading as media.

Otherwise this is just going to keep happening. Whatever progress is to be made in protecting the public from a pandemic, or climate crisis will be constantly eroded by an industrial-grade disinformation machine built to whip up racism and bigotry to secure support for a political party and ideology with no greater goal than protecting the profits of the rich and powerful.

(Originally appeared at DailyKos.)

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