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Sunday, August 29, 2021


Disinformation (unpublished letter to Harvard Magazine)

Harvard Magazine ran an article on disinformation in its previous issue which prompted a lengthy response from me. The latest issue features a number of published letters to the editor in response, with even more letters online, but none of them were mine. It probably was too long for publication, but at the very least I can publish it here:

To the Editor (yourturn@harvard.edu):

“Can Disinformation Be Stopped” (July-August, p. 28) provides an interesting discussion of who or what is most responsible for spreading disinformation, but it fails to discuss the key question — who determines just what is disinformation? Joan Donovan, for example, suggests that Facebook et al. should be “required to provide important news to their users.” Would that have included “news” back in 2003 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, perhaps the most consequential case of disinformation in the last century, one that led to the deaths of an estimated million people? After all, Secretary of State Colin Powell assured the United Nations that "Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."

But that was a bald-faced lie, deliberate disinformation. Powell certainly knew it at the time, since he was reliably reported to have said about at least some of the material, “I'm not reading this. This is bullshit," and to have removed "dozens of pages" of alleged evidence. And U.S. intelligence services knew it at the time, since we also know that the German intelligence services had told them before Powell’s speech at the U.N. that President Bush had mischaracterized Curveball's information [sic] when he warned before the war that Iraq had at least seven mobile factories brewing biological poisons.

There were those of us at the time, including this writer, who warned at the time that what we were hearing was deliberate disinformation. But the “mainstream consensus” was that the case for WMD was a “slam-dunk”, so according to Donovan, Facebook would have been required to inform its users of that, and, going further, should have suppressed the countervailing view with “selective silence.”

“Selective silence” also happens to be one of the least recognized, but just as insidious, form of disinformation, something I have called “Fake News By Omission,” the idea that not telling people about something that is true misinforms them about reality just as much as telling them something that isn’t true (“Fake News”). An excellent example of this occurred after the 2019 Presidential elections in Bolivia. Evo Morales won the election, but his opposition cried fraud, based on a Trump-style claim that votes that were counted later were different than votes that were counted earlier and hence prima facie proof of “fraud” (and here, it wasn’t even a case of his opponent winning, just of whether Morales’ plurality was or was not 10 points higher than his nearest opponent). With the OAS and U.S. government backing the opposition, the military carried out a coup, forcing Morales out of the country and putting the ultra-right wing Jeanine Añez into power, a change which had profound effects on the subsequent history of Bolivia (but fortunately was recently reversed with the election of Luis Arce).

Where does “Fake News by Omission” come in? Because shortly after the election, the respected Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) conducted a detailed statistical study proving that there was nothing anomalous about the election results whatsoever, just the normal outcome of a system where, e.g., rural results come in later than urban ones. But that study got the silent treatment from the American mass media, and the coup took place. Four months later, after the coup was firmly entrenched, the Washington Post carried out its own study which corroborated the results of the CEPR study.

And an almost identical scenario is unfolding in Peru. That election, which took place three weeks ago as I write this, saw leftist Pedro Castillo winning with a majority of votes, and, once again, his opponent making Trump-like fraud claims based solely on the change in percentages as the counting proceeded, a perfectly normal scenario. And three weeks after the election, both the New York Times and the Washington Post are practicing “selective silence”. Neither has yet reported Castillo’s victory in its news pages, opening up the possibility of the U.S. government supporting a coup should one happen, with most Americans completely unaware of Castillo’s victory.

Another aspect of disinformation omitted from the article is its role as a tool of the U.S. government in demonizing our supposed “enemies”, just as in the extreme case of Iraq back in 2003. In the most recent case, the U.S. government seized (thereby shutting down) 36 websites associated with the government of Iran, including the English-language website of a completely conventional news outlet, PressTV, accusing them of spreading “disinformation”. Of course PressTV presents news from the point of view of the Iranian government, just as not only the Voice of America but also CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and every other “mainstream” news outlet presents news from the point of view of the U.S. government. That doesn’t make it “disinformation” and, in fact, if one reads the DNI report on which this seizure was based, there’s not even a claim that any disinformation was spread by these websites. So here we have the U.S. government spreading disinformation that PressTV and other Iranian sites were spreading disinformation. Will that disinformation be suppressed by Facebook (or by the New York TImes or Washington Post)? Of course not, because it’s U.S. government-endorsed (and, in this case, originated) disinformation.

We have another perfect example of the complexity of this issue ongoing right now. Months ago, when Donals Trump was still President, the news media treated the “Wuhan lab escape” theory of COVID-19’s origin as a conspiracy theory that needed to be (and was) suppressed. Suddenly we find that theory all over the media, not because any significant new information has come to light, but because the theory has now become useful to the U.S. government as part of its developing new Cold War against China.

The subject of disinformation is complex, and inherently political, and ignoring that complexity and that political aspect gets us nowhere.

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