Disinformation Threatens Our Democracy

By Arnold Oliver 

Some time ago, several millennia in fact, a wise man known as Confucius admonished the Chinese people to “call things by their proper names” in order to better perceive and grapple with reality, and to avoid disorder. It is said that he was among the first to understand the importance of language in politics. 

If he were still around he might well have plenty to say about the English language in general, and our political lexicon in particular. A number of the terms commonly used in American politics conceal more than they reveal and seem almost designed to confuse. One of the more confusing political terms out there is “conspiracy theory.”

Why this matters: Many people are confused about what “conspiracy theories” are, how they originate, and how they are spread. Partly as a result, millions of Americans live in a dark fantasy world as a result of their misunderstanding of the nature of the information that they receive. Consequently, our tired old democracy is in peril. 

Let us deconstruct the term “conspiracy theory,” explain why it is confusing, suggest a common sense alternative, and outline the information crisis that we face. 

Oxford provides us with a standard definition of conspiracy theory, which is, “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event.” That is fine as far as it goes, but it does not help us to understand where those beliefs originate. It is as if conspiracy theories spring from out in the ether somewhere, and there are no human agents responsible for them. But that is not the case: Nearly all conspiracy theories are the deliberate creations of individuals, groups, and sometimes governments seeking to confuse, stoke fear and obscure the truth.

The use of the word “theory” in the phrase is similarly problematic. A theory is a proposition that can be tested against reality, or by experiment. The great majority of theories are developed in good faith with no intent to mislead. It is rare to encounter a theory that is almost entirely devoid of testable propositions, and blatantly false, unlike most of what are called conspiracy theories. 

Further, the word “conspiracy” generally connotes an activity by at least several people to secretly commit an illegal act. But most of the vile rumors advanced by right-wing influencers and Q-Anon types, as vicious as they are, are not against the law. 

Therefore, in the Confucian spirit, allow me to offer an alternative phrase that represents a deliberate effort to disseminate untruthful information aimed to instill hatred, fear and divisiveness. 

I suggest that we go with “disinformation plot” as a preferred alternative to conspiracy theory. 

Disinformation is created purposefully. Its origins are not mysterious and can be understood. It is false information created deliberately in order to mislead. (This is not the same as “misinformation,” which is incorrect information believed or spread without necessarily malicious intent.) 

Disinformation plots would not matter very much were they not believed by millions of people, including Americans, with dire consequences.  The claim that there is a secret Democratic party pedophile cabal that murders and eats children has been promoted by Q-Anon and others who know quite well that it is a monstrous lie. But it is nonetheless apparently accepted as truth by millions. This and other false beliefs have already led to violence, with more sure to follow. 

While there are many sensible conservatives out there, the facts are that conservatives are more likely to believe disinformation, create it, and pass it onward. There is very little on the left side of the political spectrum resembling Alex Jones, Donald Trump or Q-Anon for sheer disregard for truth and evidence. The left side of the political spectrum is also vulnerable to disinformation, but not to the same degree. 

Many disinformation plots originate and are boosted by foreign governments, among the most pernicious of which are those aimed at weakening Americans’ faith in their electoral system or sowing skepticism about the Covid pandemic and science’s response to it. It has been established that the government of Russia has employed such disinformation plots against the United States. 

The US government has also launched disinformation campaigns against other countries for many years. As long as our own government engages in those sorts of practices we hardly have standing to complain when other nations do it to us as well. Covert info wars that are aimed at weakening a country’s independence and institutions are wrong whoever makes use of them. 

Speaking of InfoWars, it now seems likely that Alex Jones will pay a heavy price for his vicious lies about the Sandy Hook massacre families, as will some of those who have defamed voting machine manufacturers. Let us cheer when disinformation plots are prosecuted in courts of law, and penalties imposed. Other malicious disinformation plotters also need to be brought to justice. 

If Confucius were still around, I am pretty sure he would approve. 

Dr. Arnold Oliver, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Heidelberg University, Ohio.

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