The dangers of trying to suppress vaguely defined ‘disinformation’

NewsGuard, a service that evaluates compliance with the fundamental principles of good journalism, gives this website the highest possible rating. However, the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), a British organization aimed at dissuading advertisers from disreputable websites, claims Reason is one of the 10 “riskiest” online news sources in the United States.

The stark contrast between the two assessments illustrates the challenge of defining “disinformation,” an increasingly nebulous concept that invites subjective judgments driven by political affiliations and political preferences. The problem is particularly acute when the government demands that websites take steps to combat “disinformation,” portraying it as a serious threat to public health, democracy, and national security.

GDI, which receives financial support from the National Endowment for a Democracy, reportedly offers “neutral” assessments of the likelihood that a website will promote disinformation. Counterintuitively, his “risk” ratings do not require any actual examples of inaccurate reporting, let alone deliberate misrepresentation.

GDI ratings are instead based on 16 “indicators” within two “pillars”: “content” and “operations”. The organization says ReasonThe rating of “high” risk was due to the lack of explicitly stated rules regarding “attribution of authorship”, fact-checking, corrections and moderation of reader comments.

GDI emphasizes that its “content” judgments are based on a sample of articles that reviewers analyze without knowing the source or author, which it says helps “retain nuance and neutrality.” But some of the “indicators” require judgments that are influenced by the reviewers’ personal opinions.

In assessing the “bias of an article,” for example, reviewers should consider whether the writer uses “flawed logic” or “dishonestly embraces different views of the story.” The reviewers are also looking for “negative targeting” of “individuals or institutions”, which is said to be different from “criticism” based on “solid reasoning” and “strong evidence”.

GDI says its ratings are not dependent on whether reviewers agree with the opinions expressed by writers. But it is implausible to assume that people who read articles that contradict their own views won’t be particularly inclined to spot “flawed logic,” insufficient attention to other perspectives, weak reasoning, and inadequate evidence.

It’s no surprise, then, that all of the 10 “highest risk” sources identified by GDI are conservative or libertarian, while nearly all of the 10 “lowest risk” sites, including NPR, The New York Times, HuffPostand BuzzFeed News, lean left. While the GDI insists that “the index does not assess party affiliation or a site’s specific political, religious or ideological orientation,” it specifically takes into account “the degree to which a site is likely to adhere to an ideological affiliation.”

GDI combines dubious methods with a vague definition of “disinformation”. You might think that disinformation, unlike disinformation, requires an intent to deceive. But the organization rejects that request because it “cannot be directly measured.”

The GDI’s definition of disinformation does describe it as “deliberately misleading”. The organization again contradicts itself when it says that “all newsrooms are vulnerable to the risks of disinformation, ranging from everyday human error more nefarious tactics” (emphasis added).

You might also think that disinformation, at the very least, must be false. The GDI believes that this criterion is also too demanding, because it is “extremely difficult to evaluate on a scale” and because “a statement that is technically true can be presented out of context in a wrong and harmful way.”

In short, the GDI folks know misinformation when they see it, although they don’t claim that “high-risk” websites actually promote it – just that power. That attitude reflects a broader problem: Everyone agrees that disinformation is bad, but people disagree about what that category includes.

Given this confusion, the federal government’s efforts to crack down on “disinformation,” which includes pressure on social media platforms and subsidies for groups like GDI, are particularly chilling. Even “intentionally misleading” speech is protected by the First Amendment, and a government that respects free speech has no business deciding how to apply that slippery label.

© Copyright 2023 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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