April 5, 2023 - 3:00pm

From state actors all the way down to fact-checkers, the ‘disinformation complex’ has blossomed in recent years. Broadly defined as false information which is intended to mislead, disinformation as a concept is opaque and has taken on several meanings — some benign, others less so. 

In a 13,000 word essay for Tablet, Jacob Siegel delineates all the nefarious ways disinformation has evolved over the last 70 years in America. As Siegel explains it, ‘disinformation’ is an invention, one that has morphed into a tool of governance. Declaring information as true or untrue is a means to control public discourse and to undermine and censor information which is “unflattering” to political elites. He joined Freddie Sayers to discuss it further:

Disinformation is a means by which the Government in cooperation with private tech companies and civil society, NGO groups, censors, uses extra legal means to censor political discourse around issues like Covid vaccinations, lockdowns, the elections. And in the US, it’s a free-for-all. It’s a blank cheque to censor anything. So on one level, disinformation is ostensibly censorship in order to protect national security. In a larger sense, that machinery of censorship is not opportunistically looking to erase certain things from the public record that are unflattering to political elites. It’s actually rather more than that. It is a means of governance. It is a system of power. It is its own system of power, outside of the formal, official — in the US constitutional — means by which the Government is supposed to operate.
- Jacob Siegel

How did this ‘tool of governance’ become so mainstream? The US Government, Siegel points out, has long engaged in promoting what could be described as disinformation, but the ‘war on disinformation’ in which the US now finds itself engaged was begun by Barack Obama. One of the last things the former president did while in office was sign into law the ‘Countering Foreign Disinformation Act’, which fully committed the US political class to a counter-disinformation campaign, which according to Siegel “was really always in spirit, and very quickly in practice as well, an information war directed against the American people”.

With the appearance of Donald Trump on the political scene, the ‘foreign’ dimension of this war became increasingly irrelevant: 

There was originally this foreign dimension […] But from the very beginning, ‘foreign’ is a kind of ruse that’s setting up what is actually a much larger, effectively omni-directional structure, because the internet is global, that can censor anywhere but which is, in practice, focused on the domestic political environment inside the US and specifically on this populist surge, which is taken as an existential threat by the ruling party officials in the US who see populism in truly apocalyptic terms.
- Jacob Siegel

Siegel argues that the consequences of this mode of censorship for American society should not to be minimised: 

The system of secrecy and the Government’s own promotion of conspiracies, like the idea that Donald Trump was an agent of Vladimir Putin or a Russian stooge, which the US intelligence agencies promoted. It’s not simply that they are wrong or pernicious, or that this reflects corruption. They actually drive people crazy. They deranged the political system. They ruin the ability for people to engage sanely and transparently in their own politics.
- Jacob Siegel

Siegel is not hopeful that America will be able to overcome this crisis with ease. He calls for structural changes to the internet as a whole, a system that prioritises data rights. The Big Tech companies are too powerful and until they are reined in, transparency will be a thing of the past and the information/disinformation war will rage on