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Deception about disinformation

Anti-Trump group tried to silence “adversarial narratives”

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Stephen Glass lived the dream of every aspiring journalist. At 25, he was writing cover stories for The New Republic, a left-leaning but thoughtful political journal that reveled in its reputation as “the inflight magazine of Air Force One.” Glass specialized in human-interest stories with social and political implications, such as “Spring Breakdown,” about the drunken antics of young Republicans at CPAC. Or “Hack Heaven,” about a brash teenager hired as a security consultant by a company after hacking into their computer system.

Glass wrote with wit and style and telling detail. And most of his stories were partially or completely fabricated. The 2003 movie Shattered Glass dramatizes the undoing of a talented con artist and provides a cautionary tale for journalism classes. How many potential fabricators will take the lesson to heart?

Especially now that the internet offers new ways to lie. In August 2017 the Alliance for Securing Democracy, composed of journalists from left and right, launched an online dashboard to track “Russian disinformation” on Twitter. “Hamilton 68” took its name from the Federalist No. 68, which argues electors in the Electoral College would be better informed than the public. But revelations about Hamilton 68 cast doubt on what “informed” even means.

The dashboard identified and tracked 644 Twitter accounts “that we can directly attribute to the Russian, Chinese, or Iranian governments or their various news and information channels.” While warning users that “this dashboard provides the questions, not the answers,” Hamilton 68 was cited as authoritative by journalists, politicians, and academics. So much so that Twitter executives started to wonder about its bona fides.

An in-house investigation revealed that almost all of those 644 accounts originated in the United States and ranged from far- to center-right, from wild conspiracy theories to reasonable counterarguments. Yoel Roth, ­formerly the head of Trust & Safety at Twitter, observed that Hamilton 68 appeared to “strongly preference pro-Trump accounts (which they use to assert that Russia is expressing a preference for Trump … even though there’s not good evidence any of them are Russian).”

To their credit, Roth and his team shared these concerns with the Alliance Securing Democracy. After talks described as “very frank and ultimately constructive,” ASD rebranded the dashboard as Hamilton 2.0, which, according to a fact sheet, “focuses only on overt, attributable accounts, allowing greater transparency about the accounts being monitored.” But none of this was transparent until Elon Musk released thousands of internal Twitter documents after assuming ownership. To learn that they had been tagged as Russian bots was a shock to many of the account holders on the original list.

Let’s assume ASD was sincerely convinced of danger to democracy after the election of a certain colorful real-estate tycoon. Surely small deceptions could be ­justified on behalf of a greater truth.

But how many small deceptions until truth collapses? A British group called the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) has compiled a list of “untrustworthy” news sources and is leaning on advertisers to pull their ads from these dangerous deceivers. GDI defines disinformation as “adversarial narratives” that are “intentionally misleading.” The “Riskiest Sites” include The New York Post (leaning conservative), Reason magazine (libertarian), and RealClearPolitics (largely neutral). But NPR, USA Today, and HuffPost get GDI’s seal of approval.

Stephen Glass wrote fabrications to build his résumé. The fabrications of democracy defenders are far more dangerous because they aim to define truth for an entire culture. To paraphrase Psalm 12:4, With our disinformation list we will prevail—who is master over us?

Capital-T Truth comes from above, but lower-t truth must be debated in the public square, not shut down because it is “adversarial.” When truth stumbles, justice takes a hit (Isaiah 59:14). It may be God’s mercy that these “disinformation” blacklists are coming to light now. Let’s hope so.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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