A now dead Bucks County resident and activist once wrote a book he named Steal This Book. Although the good Professor Lee McIntyre at Boston University wants readers to buy his latest book On Disinformation: How To Fight For Truth And Protect Democracy, he also advises when you are finished reading his short 133 page call to action treatise that you pass it on to a friend. (And it truly is a quick read: the pages are merely 4” by 6” but they are packed with fresh insights.) It is critical to do so because the professor argues we are currently in an information war which requires all hands on deck to combat the firehose of lies from the moneyed few that are destroying our democracy and the very idea of truth itself.
A key distinction the author makes is between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation involves misperceptions or mistaken beliefs honestly held and conveyed due to lack of credible information at the time. There is no intentionality to spread an untruth in those who misinform. It is quite the contrary with disinformation. Those who spread disinformation are true liars who intentionally spread lies and confusion to further their own selfish ends. The author traces the usage of disinformation campaigns from Big Tobacco, to Big Oil, to climate change deniers, to the anti-science and anti-vaccine movements, and finally to the Big Lie of Trump’s MAGA minions. What all these movements have in common is a program of deliberate lying disinformation that seeks to obliterate any standard of truth in the minds of their listeners so that their false version of reality can prevail which then supports their selfish interests.
The author then identifies five key aspects of disinformation campaigns which unsurprisingly can be traced to Russian information war strategies. (After I list them here, do they sound familiar to you? I am quite sure you will recognize them in all the disinformation words of the MAGA Big Lie.)
Disinformation campaigns involve:
- Cherry picking evidence
- Believing in conspiracy theories
- Engaging in illogical reasoning
- Relying on fake experts and denigrating real experts
- Establishing impossible standards for what the other side must achieve
The overall goal is not merely to convince the listener to adopt a single belief, but to doubt the very existence of any truth whatsoever. In that way, the authority in charge can devise any truth convenient to its ends at any time to foist on the confused masses. And by removing truth from the picture, the authority in charge evades blame, responsibility and accountability. Pretty neat, eh? Remind you of anyone?
The media fails in many ways by not understanding the important distinction between misinformation and disinformation. Instead of giving equal time to truth tellers and disinformers, the media should be calling out the lies, liars, and their moneyed backers and not hide them behind a veneer of impartiality and equal time. If disinformers are not called out for the intentional liars they are, the media unwittingly acts as their agents of amplification, spreading their lies even further and faster.
At this point you may be feeling a wave of cynicism and despair in the face of the presence of such overwhelming disinformation campaigns all around us. But this is exactly what the author demands that you rise above. The disinformers want you to give up and become cynical and fall into a hopeless lethargy that feels like any truth is unknowable. But if would-be truth tellers become lost and silent, the stage is left to the disinformers.
So the author provides a list of what ordinary citizens can do to fight back at the individual, interpersonal, and governmental levels. Activities suggested involve recruiting an army of truth tellers, constantly repeating the truth and constantly calling out the lies, the liars, and their moneyed sources, lobbying for better regulation of social media, revisions to and enforcement of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and possibly restoring a revised Fairness Doctrine.
With respect to the interpersonal realm, the author suggests reading his prior book How To Talk To A Science Denier where he outlines how to conduct respectful, thoughtful conversations with people who are under the sway of cult-like disinformation. Such people should not be met with anger and hostility, but with empathy and concern as he reminds us that such people are true victims of powerful disinformation campaigns. Enlightening questioning techniques such as “What evidence would it take for you to change your view?“ or “ How did you form that view?” can be opening doors to closed minds. Effective communication should also be carried through at the media level to avoid an extreme polarization that ultimately plays into the hands of the disinformers. The author recognizes that these solutions are not quick fixes and will take time, but advises us to remember that we are not alone in our efforts and that the power of kindness and truth will help us prevail.
I urge you then to buy this book and find out exactly what needs to be done to fight these forces of disinformation. The author quotes Timothy Snyder who succinctly wrote: “post-truth is pre-fascism.” If the disinformers are creating a post-truth world, what is next is a pre-fascism world which presages the death of democracy. There is rightfully an urgency to the author’s warnings and therefore it is up to all of us to shoulder this burden and follow his advice to combat disinformation everywhere.
If you don’t get that free copy of this book from a friend and are unable to buy the book, here is a link to a Zoom talk the author gave recently via the Princeton public library.
In this one hour seminar he distills the essence of his book and even answers questions from attendees. Check it out. No need to steal. It’s free. And then pass it on to another. If truth and democracy are to survive, we need an army of truth-tellers to combat that firehouse of disinformation funded by the super-rich for their own selfish ends.