Who Decides What’s Misinformation? Those Who Misinform? Or Those Who Challenge Them?

Have we not all heard those who challenge establishment narratives with contrary accounts mocked for operating from “alternative facts”? Surely you are familiar with the progressive refrain, “You are entitled to your opinions but not to your facts,” as if “the facts” are beyond question—as long as they’re those facts approved by “the authorities.” Appeal to non-approved facts, such as those known to biology, are met with terms indicating bigotry and even disordered psyches. When mocking and shaming fail to dissuade those challenging power, charges of “misinformation” and “disinformation” are leveled and demands to censor raised and directed at those owning and managing the means of communication.

The Biden administration on Thursday unveiled an international Declaration for the Future of the Internet howl endorsing efforts to curb online “disinformation” and “harassment.”

In the case of the Internet, which was initiated by US government in the late 1960s with the creation of ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), funded by the Department of Defense, those means belong to the people. The Internet is a public utility and it is of significance that the logic of the infrastructure on which the global operating system, namely the World Wide Web, depends was invented by the nation with the most expansive free speech protections known to humanity. These protections should indicate the norms of the system in perpetuity.

These protections were presented in their definitive form in the First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights, ratified in the late eighteenth century, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” There are no qualifications placed on the rights enumerated therein. Crucially, the First Amendment is not a list of government powers, but the explicit identification of the rights of the American people—the sovereign in a democratic republic.

Freedom of expression was recognized as a right of global humanity in Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the majority of the world’s nations in 1948. Section 1 of that article states, in part: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” This is considered international law.

Recognition of this right was reinforced in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) adopted in 1966, which states in several section: “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Unfortunately, however, section 2 of Article 10 of the UDHR lists potential restrictions of the right that contradict section 1: “The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society.” It then identifies justifications for such laws: “the interests of national security, territorial disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.” That’s quite an expansive list.

The ICCPR also identifies potential restrictions on the free speech right, specifying that “these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.” Furthermore, it states in the next article: “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

Consider the justification “for the protection of health” (specified as “public health” in the ICCPR). This is the basis of governments characterizing as and restricting “misinformation” challenging claims made by, for example, the World Health Organization during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus one can see how the exceptions provide powerful and politicized and corporate-captured entities with the tools to rationalize and even depoliticize corporate state propaganda.

Consider also the problem of irreligious criticisms. At what point does criticism of Islam rise to the level of “religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination”? Why is it wrong to advocate hatred of a religion, which is a species of ideology, that preaches doctrines that themselves promote hatred and discrimination? Why is Islam (or any other religion) different from any other ideology, such as National Socialism? To put this another way, why are we allowed to promote hatred of National Socialism and not Islam or any other doctrine? Ruthless criticism of doctrine is hate speech in whose eyes? Who decides?

Recently I argued (see Obama for Commissar) that it is not the role of executives to determine the truth of information or theories. These are determined over time dialectically in courts of law and science. I cited Alex Jones and his theory concerning the role of inter-dimensional demons in world affairs and rhetorically asked if this is false theory. No more so than the theory that a man met with angel in a cave and received a revelation from God. Do we really want the government to declare Islam disinformation or a conspiracy theory and remove it from social media platforms? Of course not. But why is it protected—even declared off limits from speech promoting hatred—while Alex Jones is forced into bankruptcy? (See my Project Censored article, Defending the Digital Commons: A Left-Libertarian Critique of Speech and Censorship in the Virtual Public Square, as well as my interview on the Project Censored show out of Berkeley on the Alex Jones case.)

Elites believe that the masses are too naive to determine for themselves what is misinformation. If the Internet is an open system, then the people will come to believe false things. Disinformation, they tell us, is a threat to democracy. What do they mean by democracy? Really they mean technocracy. You surely noted without me telling you that the world’s major religions are not included among the false things the people will come to believe. These are useful to power. And they are hardly democratic systems. Indeed, when you study the matter, the only false things that trouble those who seek tighter regulations of the systems of communication are those things that undermine the legitimacy of various elite projects and the authority of the elite generally.

Crucially, religion is not a system that people take up because they are naive; history shows that people are compelled to adopt religious doctrine because an elite control the means of communication and punish in various way those who deviate from it. This fact is as true for everything else as it is for religion. Elites have throughout time controlled the means of ideological production and determined the content of its transmissions in order to control the people in a fashion that suits exclusive interests of power. It must be remembered that it was only with the advent of the Enlightenment and the emergence of the free speech right and various means of popularly distributing information—of whatever sort—that the stranglehold elites held over the public mind was loosened and religion and other ideologies were pluralized and, in may places, marginalized in the lives of people.

How did homosexuals break free of compulsory heterosexuality? Not because elites forced the masses to ally with gay liberation. Elites were opposed to the normalization of homosexuality. But they no longer controlled the minds of the masses in this area. That was because the free speech right allowed for the criticism of those doctrines that inspired and perpetuated laws oppressing homosexuals. This development testifies to the capacity of the individual to determine what he shall believe in the absence of a requirement that he believe what an elite says he should. Often all it takes for justice to prevail, or at least to get things moving, is the removal of constraints on the ability of people to make up their own minds. Did elites believe homosexuality was unacceptable? Yes. But now it is acceptable. This is but one of a myriad of examples one could cite in making the case for unfettered speech.

Galileo Galilei, whose Dialogue the Church banned. The man himself was placed under house arrest for life.

The intrinsic good of a maximally open system of free thought is no more true that in the realm of scientific development. Imagine an official proclamation by the corporate state that the laws of physics must be fixed in a particular way and that any information that challenges the official formulation is misinformation worthy of suppression. This was the case before the advent of robust free speech. Recall the history of when the Church insisted that the arrangement of the celestial bodies that adorn the heavens could only be one way. Why is it any different when doctors and scientists challenge claims made by pharmaceutical corporations and powerful medical associations and government organizations? Do these bodies not act as the Church in the days of Copernicus and Galileo when they censor contrary views? Again, who shall decide the truth? Who shall be commissar?

As I noted in my previous blog, Elon Musk and the Peril of Free Thinking, the European Union, which has embraced all of the restrictions suggested by the UDHR and the ICCPR, reminded Elon Musk, which has reached an agreement to buy out the social media platform Twitter, that he must comply with EU regulations on policing online content or face severe penalties. As I reported, in an interview with the Financial Times yesterday, Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, told Musk that Twitter must cooperate with the EU’s rules on content moderation, including the pending Digital Services Act, which will require large tech platforms to remove illegal content, such as “hate speech.” I told readers that this situation should alert everybody to the inherent problem with globalization: if a US-based corporation in charge of an effective public utility is required to bow to European Union rules, and these rules concern fundamental rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution, then the rights of Americans are potentially violated by an outside entity.

We learned today that powerful countries in the nascent new world order have been formulating a global scheme concerning the future of the Internet. According to The New York Post, “Biden staffers lead 50-country pledge to ‘reclaim’ internet, fight ‘disinformation’.” Beyond the headline: “The Biden administration on Thursday unveiled an international ‘Declaration for the Future of the Internet’ with 50 other countries, slamming the policies of ‘authoritarian’ governments — while endorsing efforts to curb online ‘disinformation’ and ‘harassment’.” The Declaration, is written in lofty terms that anybody who cares about the fundamental right to freely transmit and receive information can support. Smartly, the document avoids getting bogged down in the concrete struggles over internet freedom we are witnessing in the trans-Atlantic system. The various state mass surveillance apparatuses and the censorship of information by social media platforms go unmentioned.

However, one can read between the lines threats to the very freedoms the Declaration claims to defend. And context and statements made around the declaration leave little doubt. Under the section titled “Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” the signatories pledge to “combat violence online, including sexual and gender-based violence” and “make the Internet a safe and secure place for everyone, particularly women, children, and young people.” Given the emerging definition of violence on the woke left, which includes the concept “harmful speech,” behind which lurks the notion that speech is a form of violence (including even silence), and in light of international law, will censorship of such speech be necessary to create this safe and secure space for these groups? For example, if criticism of transgenderism is deemed harmful to those alleged to suffer from gender dysphoria, or who claim to have been born in the wrong body, will this criticism be disallowed for the sake of safe space? The use of this term “safe space” in the context of woke progressive politics should alarm those who care about liberal freedoms.

The following bullet point is also troubling: “Promote safe and equitable use of the Internet for everyone, without discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnic, national or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of an indigenous population, property, birth, disability, age, gender identity or sexual orientation.” Does this bullet point strictly refer to unhindered Internet access for all those categories identified? Or do the terms “safe” and “equitable” signal variable access to the Internet based on power asymmetries and the progressive stack? What if members of a group find that the Internet contains content that they and their allies believe discriminates against them by preventing them from safely using the Internet?

Seemingly aware of the signals the document sends, the Declaration attempts to assuage the concerns the defenders of liberal freedoms will have by offering this bullet point: “Reaffirm our commitment that actions taken by governments, authorities, and digital services including online platforms to reduce illegal and harmful content and activities online be consistent with international human rights law, including the right to freedom of expression while encouraging diversity of opinion, and pluralism without fear of censorship, harassment, or intimidation.” Have we not already seen the inherent problems with this given the justifications outlines in international human rights law? How will human rights be redefined with the evolution of the new world order? Whose version of human rights will prevail? That of the Chinese Communist Party? In 1990, the Muslim-majority nations en masse substituted for the Universal Declarations of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which presented a set of rights reflecting the conservative Islamic values of Sharia, i.e., Islamic law, which by their very nature conflict with fundamental freedoms protected by the former declaration. How will the Internet everywhere be affected by Sharia?

The Declaration for the Future of the Internet insists on the global character of the system. Therein lies the problem. It is a declaration based on the entrenchment of globalism, which is led by transnational corporate power, represented by, among other elite groups, the World Economic Forum. By what mechanism will such a declaration keep the Internet maximally free when governments across the world, some of them wielding tremendous economic and military power, have laws that limit content based on cultural and religion norms and political ideologies, limitations that will inevitably limit content for those nations where such content is protected by free speech rights? The Declaration for the Future of the Internet itself states: “Access to the open internet is limited by some authoritarian governments and online platforms and digital tools are increasingly used to repress freedom of expression and deny other human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This is accomplished in part by states claiming that the Internet in maximally-free mode creates unsafe spaces for the populations under their control. It should not escape of anybody that the United States and the European Union increasingly resemble the forms of government the document warns about.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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