There are very few things that journalists love talking about, in 2021, more than the “dangers of misinformation”. It is, after all, the perfect justification for the media’s existence. The message, distilled, is simply this: Trust us, and do not trust anybody else.
The problem, of course, is that “misinformation” is entirely subjective. In the beginning, it was coined to describe some of Donald Trump’s more outlandish claims during the 2016 American Election: Wild statements like those claiming that an opponent’s father was present for the assassination of John F Kennedy, or that America was being “invaded” by illegal immigrants. But even then, the seeds of the racket which “misinformation” has become were being sown. Because those two statements are not the same thing: Whether someone was present for an assassination is a simple, factual, probably verifiable matter. Whether a surge in immigration counts as an “invasion” or “a surge in the number of people seeking refuge” is a matter of political taste and interpretation. The language might disgust you, or appeal to you, but it is an argument, not an attempt to misinform. In very many cases, “fact checking” crossed the line from “establishing the facts” behind a claim, to explaining the reasons why the writer found it ideologically unconvincing. With a global media that is, for various structural reasons, much more closely aligned with the political left than the right, “fact checking” very quickly became an ideological project. Nowhere did that happen more than in Ireland.
My colleague Gary Kavanagh published a blockbuster report yesterday detailing the natural and obvious endpoint of the panic about misinformation. The Irish Government, in partnership with Kinzen, one of the legion of companies that have been set up for this purpose, reported thousands of posts and tweets to social media companies as “misinformation”. The clear intent of reporting these posts as misinformation is to ask social media companies to suppress them, to reduce their circulation, and to make sure that as few people as possible see them. We do not know how much Kinzen were paid for their services, but one might reasonably guess that it was substantial. And of course, as Gary reported, a very substantial portion of what was flagged as “dangerous misinformation” was nothing of the sort.
This is not a story that you are likely to read about anywhere else in the Irish media. The problem here is that the incentives all run one way: “Misinformation” is big business, these days, in Ireland. Media companies use the fear of misinformation to justify demands made to the state for more money for themselves, and, even more tellingly, enhanced regulation of their biggest competitor, which is social media. Admitting that the “misinformation” problem is vastly overstated, if not entirely imagined, would, at a stroke, deprive media outlets of their strongest argument for more funding and regulation of their competitors, and also destroy the business model of companies like Kinzen, which extract money from the taxpayer to solve the so-called problem.
But of course, much of what the Irish Government reported as “harmful misinformation” was not misinformation at all, let alone harmful. It included material from the New York Times, ABC News, the Jerusalem Post, and other reputable outlets. What the material all has in common is not that it is not factual, but that it was not helpful to the narrative that the Irish Government wanted to create. In April of this year, the Irish Government was fully invested in getting everybody to take a vaccine. And so, when a foreign newspaper published a story raising concerns about the safety of the Astrazeneca vaccine, it was reported as “misinformation”. Not because it was false, but because it might be read, and shared, by the wrong people.
When a British MP made a speech to a House of Commons committee, arguing against Vaccine Passports, the Irish Government reported his tweet sharing the speech as “harmful misinformation”. It was neither harmful, nor misinformation. What it was, simply, was a political argument with which somebody in the HSE disagreed. Therefore, they sought to have it repressed.
The elephant in the room in all of this is that the Irish Government is an explicitly political organisation. It has views, and opinions, much of them of the political left. We have multiple examples, now, of the Irish Government seeking to have views, and opinions, with which it disagrees, be silenced. The evidence is undeniable.
All of this has been made possible, in true big brother style, by the idea that the public must be “protected” from misinformation. But the truth is that the people being protected are not, and never have been, the public.
The whole idea behind the “misinformation” panic is to protect the people in power. Fear of “misinformation” is used to protect established interests: Politicians, Newspapers, Government departments, from criticism. They have very cleverly weaponised false statements made by some, in order to justify the dismissal of criticism which is legitimate, and well founded. This was always an obvious slippery slope, and we are sliding down it at an alarming rate.
There will, it is safe to say, be no consequences arising from Gary’s report yesterday. No other media outlet will pick the story up. There are a great many people in Ireland, after all, who are perfectly comfortable with their opponents being silenced. Indeed, the Government is actively pressing for legislation that will criminalise “hate speech” – though you can be certain that no person of the left will ever be prosecuted under its auspices. The media are well incentivised to stay silent. The politicians, too, are perfectly content with uncomfortable ideas being suppressed.
We at Gript do not have hundreds of thousands of readers, so the chances are that most Irish people will never even hear about this story. For those of us who do, however, know about it, and think it matters, it will soon be time to fight this trend, or face being silenced indefinitely.