Commentary

Misinformation's Just Another Word For Nothing Left To Lose

As someone who has spent most of my life working under the protection of the First Amendment, I've never been more torn about the tension between the right to free speech and the need to curtail misinformation than I have over the past half-dozen years. The truth is, it's always been a blurry line as well as a moving one, but for most of my career, it was a slow-moving one.

That's no longer the case, thanks to the ability of technology to accelerate and amplify bad information as quickly as the good kind.

A few weeks ago, I published what I believe was one of the most important "Red, White & Blogs" I've ever written -- the one correlating the decline of the world's population living in a democracy with the rise of it living with internet access. And there's the rub.
Whether it is disinformation about elections, scientific information helping people navigate a pandemic, or the wackiest new QAnon theory, the internet has enabled it to spread like no tomorrow, literally.
We can speculate on who is doing most of the spreading, but what we do know is there are some hostile actors, both foreign and domestic and digital media is enabling them.

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The most ironic part of these attacks is that they've actually managed to divide the beliefs of Americans on the subjects of free speech vs. disinformation itself.

There has been anecdotal evidence of that from various studies over the past several years, but a new study from Ipsos puts some hard numbers around it.

The report, "Free Expression In American Post-2020," was published by The Knight Foundation and Ipsos (not so coincidentally) on January 6, and it finds a marked partisan divide among Americans on the tradeoffs of preserving free speech vs. limiting the spread of misinformation.

Specifically, it found that Americans overall put a higher importance on free speech vs. limiting misinformation, though Democrats index proportionately higher and Republicans lower in terms of the latter. Hmmm -- I wonder why?

If I were filling out that survey, I would rank both of them equally in terms of being extremely important to American democracy, although I think the bigger danger right now is misinformation, because it is clearly out of control and technological innovation continues to accelerate the ability of hostile actors to spread and amplify it.

Lastly, I find a breaking news story that the Republican National Committee is pulling out of future presidential debates, given that the party's members are such big proponents of free speech, but I imagine it's because they don't care as much about the spread of misinformation.

In a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the RNC said it would ask all candidates seeking the party's nomination to pledge not to participate in the commission's debates.

The commission is a nonprofit corporation created jointly by the RNC and the Democratic National Committee in 1987 to sponsor and produce televised presidential debates leading up to an election.

2 comments about "Misinformation's Just Another Word For Nothing Left To Lose".
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  1. Bob Guccione, Jr from WONDERLUST, January 15, 2022 at 1:51 p.m.

    This is a great piece Joe. And a perfect presentation of the dilemma.

    I think freedom of speech should be as almost absolute as it is (it's not absolute), and misinformation has to be better defined and identified, because there's a difference between out and out factually untrue and unsupportable information, and opinions and conclusions and extrapolations that one doesn't agree with. The latter, even if unpleasant and unpopular, should be heard, for us to have meaningful and constructive debate as a society.

    We mustn't be afraid of words. (And of course I'm not implying that you were saying that.)

    There are already 17 forms of unprotected speech, for which there is no First Amendment defense, so I'm not talking about inciting riots or panic in confined spaces, or threatening to kill, nor slander, libel, lying to Federal Law Enforcement, etc (which are specific and punishable forms of misinformation). And I think continued perpetuation of obvious lies, like about the 2020 election, which incite violence and intimidation (and pose as justification to pervert elections in the future) should also be prosecutable, in the way that slander is egregious and deliberate misinformation.

    But alternate opinions? They are the lifeblood of human evolution. Debate is good. We invariably learn from it, and we never learn from shutting it down.

  2. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, January 16, 2022 at 8:34 a.m.

    @Bob Guccione Jr.: Truth!

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