The United States needs a “whole of society” effort to increase resilience against disinformation and misinformation, particularly in the context of a global pandemic. Unfortunately, the actions of the Trump White House are weakening the health of our body politic, politicizing science and dividing Americans instead of uniting the country to address a collective challenge.
A new executive order by President Trump seeking to police content on social media is a transparent, unconstitutional effort to further “work the refs,” building on decades of activism that has resulted in reporters engaging in false equivalency in an age of asymmetric political polarization and extremism, which in effect misleads the public.
Ironically, the text of order is still not posted on WhiteHouse.gov as of the time of this posting, despite news that the President signed it. Multiple media organizations have obtained and reported on a draft that leaked.
At best, it’s a legally meaningless distraction. At worst, it further abuses the powers of the presidency to advance a conspiracy about ideologically motivated censorship on social media without evidence, intimidating private companies from taking even small steps to accurately inform the public about elections, health, or other issues by labeling provably false content — much less removing it from a given platform if moderators decide it violates their policies.
This executive order and the accompanying messaging appear designed to intimidate the tech companies from taking more aggressive steps to combat disinformation, particularly Twitter.
And as with other efforts to spread propaganda and conspiracies using US government platforms and resource to distract from this administration’s failures and corruption, they represent an abuse of power, not embracing deliberative governance and advancing legislative proposals designed to strengthen American democracy in the digital age.
It’s also bitterly ironic – and beyond hypocritical – given that this President unconstitutionally blocks Americans on Twitter and has accumulated a long record of trying suppress information by threatening lawsuits against newspapers or suing TV stations for airing critical ads.
We can see what successful efforts looks like in a healthy democracy like Finland or Norway. The wicked problem in the United States is that this president is the primary source of disinformation in American society – and his party is either unable or unwilling to check his lies or even acknowledge their breathtaking scope and velocity because it would affect their hold on power, and related legislative agenda, de-regulatory efforts, or judicial appointments.
Successful efforts to combat disinformation require systemic investments across multiple contexts, from government to media to education to technology companies to the public, where institutions build media literacy and trustworthy information sources.
Journalists, networks, and tech companies can and should put his lies in epistemic quarantine, but it’s insufficient to halt their viral spread or harms in an age where smartphones and social media access are quickly become ubiquitous.
Attacking the legitimacy of journalism and casting accountability reporting, watchdog reports, and science as being “biased” directly undermines the official foreign and domestic policies of the US government, with respect to press freedom, democracy, climate change, and public health, among other issues.
No White House should do so, and no Congress should tolerate it.