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Don’t give me truth: The pitfalls of fighting misinformation

Michael Bröning is Director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in New York and a member of the basic value commission of Germany’s Social Democratic Party.

Confronted with the disastrous consequences of fake news, online hatred and misleading information, governments are increasingly embracing the role of arbiters of objective reality, establishing formal rules to combat “misleading information” and the spread of inflammatory fake news.

But when authorities are in charge of objectivity, who will object to the authorities?

In Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, India, Sweden and South Africa, the fight against “hate speech” is now enshrined in law. South Korea’s parliament has called for a panel of experts to separate “truthful history” from conspiracy theories — and overly critical readings — of the country’s past. And in the United States, President Joe Biden’s administration announced the establishment of an interagency “Disinformation Governance Board,” targeting “disinformation that threatens the security of the American people.”

International organizations have followed suit. The European Union passed a new Digital Services Act, enabling members to take down political propaganda or hate speech. And in the U.N., there’s a notable shift from saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war — as pledged by the U.N. Charter — to targeting the ever-spreading info wars. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly warned of an “epidemic of misinformation” and has launched initiatives to “cut through the noise to deliver life-saving information and fact-based advice.”

Clearly, in times where Russian state propaganda presents naked aggression as a fight against “Nazism,” extremists distribute racist manifestos online and former President Donald Trump has returned to social media, the impulse to defend what is true is understandable.

And yet, there are good reasons to curb the enthusiasm when enlisting governments in the fight against misinformation.

Part of the problem is a simple truth — the truth is never simple.

Facts, data and even scientific consensus are frequently more multidimensional, conflicting and less static than government boards or official communiqués can allow for.

And as information requires context and interpretation, the notion of a government-sanctioned scientific truth is in fact anything but scientific. After all, the foundation of rational truth-finding is the conviction that even absolute certainties can and should be questioned. In the words of John Stuart Mill, it is only by raising questions “comprehensively, frequently and fearlessly” that “living truth” can be prevented from turning into “dead dogma.” 

This abstract problem, however, has a tangible political dimension.

In a world of contesting political ideals, the line between disinformation, misinformation and merely inconvenient truths is incredibly difficult to draw; and the premise that political authorities are best positioned to draw this line and dispassionately identify reality misreads the nature of politics. This would essentially reverse the ideal of speaking truth to power which, in turn, would have the almost inevitable consequence of stifling legitimate opposition, silencing necessary criticism and ultimately emboldening authoritarian tendencies — especially given many governments’ dubious track records in permitting dissent.

Essentially, asking politics to define the demarcation line between fact and fiction all too frequently amounts to entrusting the care of the sheep to the wolf.

And democratic governments should be concerned as well, as even well-meaning attempts to bolster politics through the enlistment of ostensibly objective science can have unintended negative consequences. All too often, rather than insulating the former, they politicize and ultimately delegitimize the latter — with devastating repercussions for the political climate, social cohesion and a rational debate. For example, the blurred line between government authority and the role of science in the fight against COVID-19 is reason for pause.

In an ever-changing world, the truth won’t benefit from political ex cathedra stipulations but rather from open debate and the unhindered interplay of competing views.

Given the alarming rate at which press freedoms are shrinking around the world, guaranteeing and defending this open exchange of ideas is a more urgent task for well-meaning governments than assuming the impossible role of universal adjudicator of reality.

Freedom of opinion is the operating system of democratic societies. It’s not only the result but also a prerequisite of democracy.

In a world now steeped in misinformation, don’t give me truth. Give me debate.

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