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The Right to Risk Being Misinformed
The War on Misinformation isn't driven by rationality or altruism, but by a visceral reaction against the wrong sort of opinions, and the people who hold them
In February this year, the Irish Government announced the creation of an Electoral Commission to carry out various functions in relation to elections and referendums, including regulating political advertising. They will also be tasked with tackling Misinformation on Social Media. It was in this capacity, at a press conference during the last week, that the head of the Commission spoke of “learning how to deal with the balance between the right to freedom of expression on the one hand, and on the other hand, the right of persons not to be misinformed”.
Twenty years ago the creation of a commission with a remit like this wouldn’t have raised any concerns, but we’ve lived through a lot since then. The context for the introduction of this body, and this curious new right, are the pending EU Digital Services Act and the much discussed Hate Speech laws, both of which will have the effect of restricting political discussion in Ireland.
I thought it would be good to dig into some arguments against “tackling Misinformation” that seem obvious to me, but that I don’t hear very often. I also wanted to expand on some points I had made previously about the origin of the obsession with Misinformation.
We’ll put the idea that all this is purely about preserving the fragile flower of democracy to one side for a moment - not because I think that’s untrue (although I absolutely do), but you can get that perspective in a respectable newspaper column, TV news bulletin or New York Times bestseller any day of the week so what would be the point. The psychological aspect is more interesting, so please, take a seat (lie down on this couch?) and let’s pathologise a while.
The people who decide what laws we will implement are successful people who have moved through the upper echelons of academia, business, and the civil service. These are details people, whose success and self-image are based on being decorous, introverted, hierarchical and fact-oriented. (I’m a bit like that and I recognise my type.)
This has been pointed out before in a million articles about “Somehweres Vs Anywheres” but what I’m highlighting here is the line of causation. They don’t adopt that style of interaction because they’ve become used to it via their careers; they sought out the careers most congenial to their personality types, and prospered because the fit was so good. The PMC style is first and foremost an aesthetic preference, and since they reached their position by merit, they have no problem imposing those preferences on other people.
Their problem with Misinformation is as much with the people who spread it as the thing itself. Technocrats by their nature are people who have suppressed their own views and precisely calibrated them in order to successfully manoeuvre through organisations their whole career. They’ve gotten where they are by attending working groups, committees and think tanks that weren’t easy to get invited to. Making alliances with like minded people in corridors. In the darkness of bedrooms and home offices, getting really good at learning facts, passing exams and making presentations. Now here are all these apes, who have never so much as put together a powerpoint slide, getting their big dirty paws all over our nice clean machine, upending it, turning it inside out - brazenly! In front of everyone!
The fact that the interference is often to no effect is irrelevant: it’s disgusting and there ought to be a law against it. And if we have anything to say about it there will be.
The inconsistent policing of Misinformation in practice seems to support that interpretation. Towards the end of the campaign on the recent Irish abortion referendum, Facebook and Google announced that they had detected an unusual pattern of spending in online ads, and were suspending them for the rest of the campaign. The move was welcomed by the government and by repeal campaigners (i.e. those in favour of introducing abortion) and decried by their opponents. Online ads were thought to favour the anti-abortion side, and it was taken as read that the intervention negatively impacted them.
Abortion isn’t an issue I’m interested in, so I’m not coming at this from a partial or conspiratorial slant. But the Taoiseach at the time approved of the intervention and stated “we hold by the principle that foreign money shouldn’t be used to influence elections and referendums in this country… and the decision Facebook has made in that regard is very welcome. Perhaps it could have come sooner but it has come and therefore it is very welcome.”
I’ve highlighted what I feel is an extraordinary claim about the security of our electoral process that required deep examination. Instead it was instantly forgotten by all concerned as soon as the referendum results came in. Who, specifically, was caught trying to buy our referendum? Nobody knows.
Ireland has its own political quirks but it isn’t unusual in how its managerial class view this issue. So the referendum is a template of the threat of Misinformation will be dealt with in future, in Ireland and elsewhere.
There will be opaque coordination between the government, its informal agents and Big Tech; this will produce an intervention which only ever impacts the culturally disfavoured side. Because it involves mostly unelected officials engaging with private companies only a small fragment of the true story around this interference in a democratic process will ever be known. The theoretical position of the press in this system is to be a fearless watchdog, harassing the people in power (elected and otherwise) to understand why they took such an extraordinary step, or allowed it to be taken. The Irish press didn’t do that during the referendum and won’t do it the next time.
The final objection to the idea of managing Misinformation is that it relies on a misrepresentation of what the online world generally, and Social Media specifically, is. The fact that posts are written down and we can go back and look at them later gives them an apparent weight, or seems to place them in a category above gossip or drunken blather. But that’s an illusion.
Twitter (for instance) isn't a symposium or a rally: it’s just the modern venue where we do our most casual speech. It is a public square, but only in the sense that the urinals in a pub after a football match are a public square, or the top deck of the bus at one in the morning is. One shouldn’t expect a political officer carrying out fact-checks or handing out fines in either of those locations and shouldn’t expect it on social media either.
That analogy only goes so far because it does not account for the exponential spread of information via social media. But if there’s any change we should be making to take account of that, it should be in the opposite direction - acknowledging that these aren’t really platforms for official discussion and creating the cultural expectation that politicians, in their official capacity, withdraw from them.
The Chairperson of the Electoral Commission has posited a right to not be misinformed. I can’t help but suspect that in the majority of cases this means the right of the sort of person who chairs a commission not to be confronted with an opinion she finds repulsive. To the contrary I think there really is a “right to risk being misinformed” which is the far more fundamental one, encompassing as it does the right to think out loud, speculate, say or believe something stupid, be publicly wrong, and talk in a casual manner on platforms designed for that express purpose - and to do all of the above in the style that I like, not the one you like. Attempting to apply the standards of the boardroom, the research paper or the broadsheet editorial page to the graffiti’d toilet wall of social media is a category error, and it’s driven by an aesthetic and visceral reaction no matter how often it’s presented as rational one.