In August 2022, multiple organizations on the Left gathered in the webinar “Combating Disinformation and Misinformation in 21st Century Social Movement.” Those gathered for the webinar discussed the impact of disinformation on various issues the Left holds dear, including the threat of white supremacy pushing the “great replacement theory,” abortion, and immigration. The conference identified disinformation as a leading problem in spreading racist, anti-trans, and anti-gay information.
Shanelle Matthews, the Movement for Black Lives’ director of communications and founder of the Radical Communicators Network, organized the event. She argued that democracy is at risk, advancing the rather counterintuitive logic that policing speech is the only way to preserve democracy—a belief that has been widely accepted on the left since 2017.
Matthews observed, “One of the aims of the contemporary disinformation movement is the erosion of democratic ideals. And one of the aims of the progressive and leftist social movement is to realize democratic and socially democratic ideals, so we are at odds.”
Jacquelyn Mason, director of programs at Media Democracy Fund, explained: “Online racialized disinformation” is false information about race intended “to deceive or manipulate the public for the purpose of achieving profit, political gain, and/or sustaining white supremacy.”
Mason emphasized that there is a clear difference between misinformation and disinformation, even though the line is blurred because of the speed at which information moves online. Misinformation, she said, is “false content, but the person sharing doesn’t realize the content is false or misleading.” Whereas, she said, disinformation is “content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm within communities.”
“Combatting misinformation requires trust.” Mason pointed to the Disinformation Defense as a network of organizations dedicated to fighting disinformation, particularly lies that affect communities of color. The league seeks to build trust to counter and inoculate against misinformation. To that end, it works to help develop trusted local sources, such as barbershops and churches, and training the people on how best to address issues such as voting and health care.
During the conference, Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, complained that states were spreading misinformation rather than individuals or organizations. Hayashi said the Right pushed two “disinformation narratives,” but didn’t explain what was inaccurate about either. The first narrative led to bathroom bills. The second was about biological males that wanted to play women’s sports. Hayashi claimed 33 states advanced 150 anti-trans bills in the previous year–which was seven time as many bills that were raised.
Reliable Information Versus Censorship
As if this even requires explanation, nothing here should be construed as advocating disinformation or misinformation—or the old-fashioned term “lies.”
The problem comes in mislabeling points that are either true or opinion based on true facts that happen to be unpopular with certain crowds.
There have always been lies and fake news outlets. For a time, principled newspapers had a tough time competing with sensationalists yellow journalism. But eventually the yellow papers faded away as consumers wanted reliable information.
Journalists should strive for the truth above all else. More than anyone, journalists and their organizations should understand that the truth cannot be reached by silencing or castigating dissenting voices out of the fear that dissenting voices will lead too many people astray.
Whether through journalism, science, or other endeavors, the best way to reach facts and the truth is through honest inquiry—and being unafraid to go where the inquiry might lead.