If you want to know how insane our disinformation discourse is right now, consider this: on Wednesday, just two days after Elon Musk secured a $44 billion deal to purchase Twitter — triggering apoplectic doomsaying from his critics on the left — news broke that the Department of Homeland Security has created a “Disinformation Governance Board” to combat misinformation ahead of the 2022 midterms.
Testifying before the House Appropriations Subcommittee, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the new entity would address the “threat” of so-called targeted misinformation campaigns among minority communities. Hours later, Politico reported the DHS board would also focus on illegal immigration and Russia, and would be led by Nina Jankowicz, a former disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center and an advisor to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, who also happens to be a Russia collusion truther.
In addition to spreading the false story that former President Donald Trump was put in office as part of a nefarious Kremlin plot, Jankowicz once claimed armed Trump supporters would show up to the polls to intimidate voters. In the runup to the 2020 election, she spread the false narrative that Hunter Biden’s laptop was a Russian influence operation.
Indeed, the choice of Jankowicz to head a DHS office targeting election misinformation ahead of the midterms tells you everything you need to know about what the Biden administration means when it uses terms like “misinformation,” and sets up a board at DHS to “combat” it. The point of the board is to suppress any information or news that runs counter to the administration’s political aims and policy agenda. Understood in this light, the new DHS board amounts to a Soviet-style Ministry of Truth, a propaganda operation designed to quash speech and hide information from voters ahead of national elections — the exact opposite of its stated purpose.
News of this Disinformation Governance Board should snap the entire Musk-Twitter saga into focus. The unintentionally hilarious freak-outs from corporate media and left-wing blue checks about the end of democracy if Musk takes control of Twitter are not, according to the left’s point of view, overreactions.
For them, the purpose of Twitter is not to facilitate free speech or the salutary exchange of ideas or even robust debate. They care as much about all that as, say, Mayorkas and Jankowicz care about disinformation ahead of the midterms. Nor do they care all that much about hateful speech or targeted harassment on Twitter. So long as the targets of hate and harassment are on the right, it’s fine by them.
When they decry Musk’s takeover and lament that it will threaten democracy, what they mean is that they fear losing control over the platform, which, although smaller than some other social media companies, is a remarkably powerful tool for controlling narratives, shaping political discourse, and influencing news coverage. For them, “free speech” means speech they allow, that falls within boundaries they themselves have set and can change as needed. None of the people who now claim Musk’s ownership of Twitter is a huge problem saw any problem at all with Twitter’s suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story ahead of the 2020 presidential election — a major case of actual misinformation that arguably affected the outcome of the election.
You cannot get them to admit this, though, in part because they will not admit it to themselves. Epistemic closure on the left makes it impossible for someone like The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, for example, to understand the Musk takeover of Twitter as a potential victory for authentic free speech. For Serwer, the entire debate about free speech on Twitter is a canard, “a disingenuous attempt to frame what is ultimately a political conflict over Twitter’s usage as a neutral question about civil liberties, but the outcome conservatives are hoping for is one in which conservative speech on the platform is favored and liberal speech disfavored.”
That pretty much sums up what the left is telling itself about all this. Allowing conservatives to speak their minds on Twitter about, say, transgenderism or abortion or critical race theory, can’t possibly be considered “free speech.” To them, it’s just “hateful conduct” conservatives engage in as part of a power dynamic, which in turn warrants censorship.
Same goes for raising concerns about last-minute changes to voting rules ahead of the 2020 election, or questions about the origins of Covid-19 and the efficacy of the vaccines. None of it counts as free speech, according to the left. Mention any of that, and you’re liable to get locked out of your Twitter account. (Believe me, I know whereof I speak.)
For the left, this isn’t only right and just, it’s necessary to “protect democracy.” Consider the recent remarks from former President Barack Obama — the living, breathing avatar for this mode of thinking. During a speech at Stanford University, Obama said censoring speech online is necessary to thwart disinformation that could hoodwink people into believing falsehoods or losing trust in their leaders, and of course we can’t have that. “Once they lose trust in their leaders, in mainstream media, in political institutions, in each other, in the possibility of truth, the game’s won,” he said.
It never occurs to Obama, or to his rapt audience at Stanford, that our leaders richly deserved to be distrusted, as do the mainstream media and our political institutions. The important thing, for Obama and those with his mindset, is not that these people and institutions prove themselves actually trustworthy, only that they be seen as such. If that means a little more online censorship, then so be it.
It was not always so. There was a time not long ago Obama himself at least made it sound like he thought free speech was important. Speaking at the United Nations in 2012 just weeks after the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi that killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador in Libya, along with three other Americans, Obama mounted a spirited defense of free speech. (Set aside, for the moment, that he did so under the false pretense that the Benghazi attack came about as a result of spontaneous protests of an anti-Muslim video, and not, as everyone at the time knew, a coordinated assault by Islamic militants affiliated with Al Qaeda.)
The reason the United States protects free speech, Obama said, is “because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities,” and because, “given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech.”
Efforts to suppress free speech, he went on, are doomed to fail because “in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.”
What a difference a decade makes.