My first head-on encounter with wilful disinformation was trivial and illuminating. Back in the mid-80s, I was barely 20 years old, working in one of Ottawa’s busiest restaurants. As with restaurants everywhere, artists, students and social misfits were over-represented.
A pair of very pretty front of house people, he a dancer and she a budding intellectual, were discussing Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, as young lovers do. They were leaning across the service bar in the back, making eyes at each other. Professing her love for the, uh, book, she said something astonishingly wrong about it. He enthusiastically agreed.
I, the stunted Beatnik, stupidly thought their enthusiasm was driven by a shared love of learning.
“No it’s not!” I blurted. “The whole point of the book is that there won’t be any resolution!”
They didn’t even break eye contact with one another. I offered a couple more increasingly agitated points, but they ignored me.
I was right there. Speaking. To them.
And they ignored me. Me. Who was right there.
God I was stupid.
It took me decades to come to terms with a thing I should have learned right then and there: Ideas aren’t debated. They’re contested. Ideas exist only to bind us together.
Yes, only. The fact that ideas also allow information to be stacked up so that even a fool such as I can pontificate about the ornate intellectual structures in Foucault’s Pendulum or Gravity’s Rainbow is Darwinian coincidence. We’re flying to other worlds on peacock feathers.
If we survive as a species, it will be through the power of ideas to build common cause and save us from ourselves.
If we collapse, it will be through the power of ideas that unite (enough of) us in opposition to the idea of a common cause.
The fact that it’s taken me decades to come to this realisation makes me very sad. The fact that I’ve come to this realisation at all gives me hope.
Climate change theory isn’t up for debate. It never was. Ever. It was just a widening body of data leading inexorably to a more nuanced understanding of the same conclusion: If we change the composition of the atmosphere sufficiently, the climate will change too.
Voter fraud isn’t subject to debate. Fraud is remarkably easy to detect, and always has been, even back in the days of Machine politics. Actual voter fraud generally isn’t designed to hide the results. It’s a show of force. It’s a public statement of contempt for the mere concept of democracy. It is the idea of autocracy embodied, designed to unify the population in submission.
Fake narratives of voter fraud are, paradoxically, the same thing.
Vaccination isn’t subject to debate. Discovery? Yes. Research? Of course. But not debate. There is literally nothing in the fundamental proposition that is subject to question: If we assist the body in developing immunity to dangerous diseases, we will suffer less as a species.
But if we do allow people to pretend it’s a debate, every word of that last sentence can be assailed:
“If—” Ah! You’re not even sure yourself and you want to force me to take that poison?!
“we—” Who’s we, Kemo Sabe? I never consented to this!
“assist the body in developing immunity—” Assistance?!? It’s invasion! We’re messing with God’s Plan! We’re poisoning ourselves now and for generations to come!
“to dangerous diseases—” It’s no worse than the flu! I had it, and I was fine!
“we will suffer less—” MORE
“as a species.” Leave me out of your mind control plots, Bill Gates! I’m not even sure we are the same species.
And yet, in the face of this, we spend inordinate amounts of time and effort trying to equip the truth-tellers, the fact-checkers, the cooperators and the listeners with tools to cope with the liars and the stone-hearted exclusionists.
Forgive me if this simile offends, but telling reputable media professionals how to better contend with this phenomenon is disturbingly similar to telling women to dress sensibly. You’re demeaning us, second-guessing what we’re already doing, and making the problem ours alone when it’s emphatically not.
We haven’t lost our readers’ trust. It’s not like it slipped between the cushions while we were streaming Tiger King. We’ve been systematically delegitimised and defamed by bad faith actors.
In this light, telling media people to Do Better and to Build Trust is counter-productive. We should do it, of course, but not because it’s going to solve the disinformation blight. Better information is a public good in and of itself, but it’s not a suitable antidote to false narratives that unite one group against another.
We won’t win this contest by debating. We win by exposing bad faith.
The solution has always been the same: Single out the ringleaders and show them up for the charlatans they are. Because the charlatans are there. Every time—or at least so often that the exceptions are statistically unmeasurable.
Purveyors of falsehood and conspiracies know this. That’s why they reserve an especially virulent stream of invective for the most charismatic leaders, the ones who don’t argue, but persuade. They’ll stop at nothing if they fear their ideas are taking hold.
That’s not how we roll, of course. But we have a weapon that is equally effective. We can expose. We expend exabytes of data—years of effort every day—exposing the lie, but only a fraction of that exposing the liars and their selfish motives, and punishing them. And yet:
Research has shown that many types of harmful misinformation are disproportionately spread by small groups of dedicated bad-faith actors. Clearly defined and enforced strikes are a way to address these harms in a proportionate, straightforward way.
evelyn douek @evelyndouek
Super clear system. Repeat offenders are a huge part of the problem: now, they’re on notice, with plenty of chance to adjust to Twitter’s rules, which it’s entitled to have https://t.co/qmQWiEMo0g
At every nexus of false conspiracy, there is always a liar. There’s someone who knows better, and still does the deed. And does it for reasons people despise. Always. That’s who should be targeted. That’s who should be punished. People who wilfully and knowingly spread falsehoods for their own benefit.
It’s a shockingly painful grind, but it works. It worked against Tobacco, arguably the most addictive recreational substance going. The day we turned the corner on tobacco abuse was the day governments in the USA and elsewhere got the tobacco companies to admit they lied, and made it intensely painful for them to continue lying.
The day will never come when people are no longer in the thrall of ideas that elevate them by debasing others. But here’s the thing: powerful ideas have to be sincerely held. Once the liars are exposed, it becomes easier for people to congregate around better ideas.
Again, what needs to be exposed is not just the lie, but the liar. You can’t just catch someone out in a contradiction, proclaim ‘You lie!’ and consider them forever disqualified. You need to expose the corrupt end their duplicity serves, and punish that.
Trump could wear a dozen impeachments like medals on his chest in service of his Big Lie, and nobody would flinch. It’s the tax fraud that’ll do him in. The outcome of an impeachment is debatable by design. A fraud charge much less so. The outcome is contestable, sure, but not debatable. Except in very limited circumstances, you can’t win by redefining fraud1.
And then, when that’s done, we need better ideas about how to save ourselves. The data comes later. We know how to save ourselves. We just have to find a way to agree that enough of us want to.