June 25, 2022

Misinformation isn’t a ‘Russia problem’

Should we censor false information from Putin? The problem with censorship, in this case, is less about the rights of Russian propagandists as it is about the rights of other people to hear them.

This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Weekly, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.

These words of George Orwell strike me as relevant:

“A phrase much used in political circles in this country is ‘playing into the hands of.’ It is a sort of charm or incantation to silence uncomfortable truths. When you are told that by saying this, that or the other you are ‘playing into the hands of’ some sinister enemy, you know that it is your duty to shut up immediately.”

After Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, tech companies have banned or restricted Russian state media outlets and removed other accounts pushing pro-Moscow propaganda.

Does the Russian Federation distribute lies in order to shape the world’s opinion? Absolutely. This dishonesty may make it seem that they have no right to be part of our media ecosystem, and that saying Russian propaganda should not be banned is “playing into the hands of” Putin. ​​​​​I will not fashion myself a backseat geopolitical analyst, but I am inclined to sympathize with Ukrainians, their country being the victim of a foreign invasion. The problem with censorship, in this case, is less about the rights of Russian propagandists as it is about the rights of other people to hear them. The importance of free speech is not so much that an individual is allowed to state his beliefs for his own sake, but rather so that the public can figure out the truth.

But let’s say that there’s no truth to be found in Putin’s propaganda. Even so, it is still worthwhile to allow people to access it, for the same reason that it’s useful to study the propaganda of any authoritarian country or read Mein Kampf: to understand what the enemy believes.

In any case, to treat propaganda as a virus that people must be protected from is to assume that people are passive recipients of information, incapable of determining and rejecting falsehood. Proponents of censorship, if they want to be honest, should be more forthright that this is their worldview.

The main problem with the restrictions—as with other censorship based on stopping so-called misinformation or disinformation—is that it is never executed consistently and objectively. I don’t just mean that autocratic (and democratic) governments throughout the world make dubious ethical decisions, and yet remain on social media. I mean that it has never in practice been about censoring false information, but rather about censoring information that contradicts accepted authorities and narratives.

In the first weeks of this war, we have already seen examples of false information from the Ukrainian side. Reports of “The Ghost of Kyiv,” a heroic fighter pilot shooting down six Russian aircraft in one day, turned out to be unconfirmed.

Does anyone doubt that the United States government would mislead its citizens, particularly with regards to war?

In the case of COVID, the federal government and health authorities have intentionally spread false information. For example, to prevent a shortage of masks, they lied and said they don’t work.

There are numerous examples of times the government and legitimate media institutions were wrong about things, but only things that contradict them are labeled as false information.

I say none of this to create a false equivalency on behalf of Moscow. The moral failures of liberal democracies are not equivalent to the routine oppression of dictatorships. But this gap in the degree of wrongdoing does not excuse giving the “good guys” an information monopoly.

Doing so creates an unbalanced playing field in which people are only allowed to hear certain parts of the debate. In a free society, people are allowed to figure out the truth for themselves, not have the government choose it for them.

Restricting “misinformation” is not now, and has never been, an effort to protect the truth. It has always been an effort to monopolize what the public is allowed to hear. Even when the statements being censored are, in fact, false, they are censored not on this basis, but on the basis that they contradict the authority’s goals.

This article, Misinformation isn't a 'Russia problem', was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.