Inside the ‘Misinformation’ Wars

On Friday afternoons this fall, top American news executives have dialed into a series of off-the-record Zoom meetings led by Harvard academics whose goal is to help newsroom leaders fight misinformation and media manipulation.

Those are hot topics in the news industry right now, and so the program at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy drew an impressive roster of executives at CNN, NBC News, The Associated Press, and other major U.S. outlets.

A few of them were confused by the package for the first session.

A Harvard case study was shared with me by a participant, which examined the coverage of Hunter Biden's lost laptop in the final days of the 2020 campaign. The story had been pushed by aides and allies of Donald J. Trump who wanted journalists to believe that the hard drive would reveal the corruption of the father.

The case study on the power of social media and news organizations to mitigate media manipulation campaigns was provided by the news media.

The laptop saga of Hunter Biden is relevant. You may recall that Trump allies panicked and dumped its contents onto the internet and into reporters' inboxes, a trove that included embarrassing images and emails purportedly from the candidate's son showing that he had tried to trade on the family name. The big social media platforms reacted forcefully, blocking links to a New York Post story that tied Joe Biden to the emails without strong evidence, and limiting the spread of the Post story under its own control.

The story about the laptop was a dirty tricks campaign, and describing it with the word "misinformation" doesn't add much to our understanding of what happened. The younger Mr. Biden doesn't know if the laptop in question was his. The media manipulation campaign was an eleventh-hour attempt to create a late-campaign scandal, an attempt at an October Surprise that has been part of nearly every presidential campaign I have covered.

The Wall Street Journal looked at the story very hard. The Journal was unable to prove that Joe Biden tried to change the U.S. policy to benefit his family. Even if some journalists and academics like the clarity of that label, there was a murky situation that was hard to call misinformation. The Journal's role was a standard journalistic exercise, a blend of fact-finding and the sort of news judgment that has fallen out of favor as journalists have found themselves chasing social media.

The case of the lost laptop was more or less synonymous with the material passed along by Trump aides. The phrase "media manipulation" refers to any attempt to shape news coverage by people who you don't like. Emily Dreyfuss, a fellow at the Technology and Social Change Project, told me that media manipulation is not necessarily a bad thing.

Silicon Valley engineers tend to label something that is, in plainer English, true if they focus on who is saying something and how they are spreading their claims.

The Hunter Biden case study was designed to cause conversation and not leave you resolved as a reader, according to the research director of the program.

Ms. Donovan defines misinformation as false information that is being spread. She was against my suggestion that the term lacks a precise meaning.

She doesn't believe the word is a left-wing label for things that Democrats don't like. She traces the modern practice of misinformation to the anti-corporate activists the Yes Men and Adbusters. She wrote that their tools have been used by foreign operatives, partisan pundits, white supremacists, violent misogynists, grifters and scam artists.

The image is.

The research director at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy is a long time student of the internet's shady corners.

Ms. Donovan is one of the scholars who have tried to understand contemporary politics. She is a fan of the Steve Bannon show, "War Room." She zeroed in on the way that troll and prankers developed tactics for tricking people online over the first half of the last decade, and how those people brought their tactics to the right-wing reactionary.

The new world was riveting and dangerous to the people paying close attention. The main reason Mr. Trump and people like him won elections all over the world was due to widespread media manipulation. This perspective may leave little space for other causes of political action or for other types of political lies, like the U.S. government's long deception on its progress in the war in Afghanistan.

The people who have spent less time on 4chan than Ms. Donovan have adopted a niche preoccupation. The Aspen Institute has a commission on information disorder. I moderated a panel at the New Economy Forum with a different, somewhat dental, label for the same set of issues. T Bone Burnett did release an album by that name in 1980. Sarah Hanson-Young, an Australian senator, said that News Corp was the biggest culprit in misleading her fellow citizens about climate change. The New York Post believes that the emails prove President Biden's corruption and not just his son's influence peddling.

The technocratic solution to a problem that is as much about politics as technology is a weakness of the new focus on misinformation. Right-wing populists lie a lot, and stretch the truth more. Donald Trump's audience was often in on the joke as American reporters quizzing his fans on camera discovered. Most of the people running news organizations and universities were offended by many of the things he said.

If there is anything we are good at, it is information, so it is more comfortable to reckon with an information crisis than a political one. If journalists and technologists could explain how foolish Mr. Trump was, surely the citizens would come around. The people who liked him knew what was going on, laughed about it, and voted for him despite the times he went too far.

According to a broadside published byHarper's Magazine, the think tanks raising money to focus on the topic were offering a simple solution to a political crisis that defies easy explanation and exaggerating the power of Facebook in a way that, ultimately, served Facebook most of all. Bernstein argued that the journalists and academics who expose instances of disinformation seem to believe they have a particular claim on truth. He wrote that the professionals don't have access to the fabric of reality.

I have found many people worried about the new field of misinformation studies to be modest about how far it will go. She agrees that the part of the field that deals with figuring out what is true or false needs to get better. The report acknowledged that there are no arbiters of truth in a free society. Tech platforms are under new pressure to be transparent in how claims are spread.

The editor in chief of The Texas Tribune, Sewell Chan, one of the Harvard course's participants, said he didn't think the program had a political slant, and that it helped him understand the new forms of lie peddling that have emerged.

He said that misinformation is a loaded and subjective term. I am more comfortable with precise descriptions.

I feel the push and pull of the information community in my journalism, as well as the temptation to evaluate a claim by its formal qualities, rather than its substance. In April of last year, I wrote about the way that anti-China Republicans were pushing the idea that Covid-19 had leaked from a lab. There were many red flags. I apologize, but media criticism is skin-deep. The scientific shouting match made use of the word "misinformation", which was also used in the partisan shouting match. The state of that story is that scientists' understanding of the origins of Covid-19 is evolving and is not going to be resolved on social media.

The story of tech platforms helping to spread lies is still important, as is the work of identifying stealthy social media campaigns from Washington to, as my colleague Davey Alba recently reported, Nairobi. The Covid-19 Pandemic gave me and my colleagues at The New York Times a new sense of urgency about communicating the seriousness of the epidemic and the safety of vaccines in a media landscape littered with false reports.

Politics is not a science. We don't need to explain the old-fashioned practice of news judgment with a new terminology. There is a danger in using jargony new frameworks. The job of reporters is not to put neat labels on the news. It is to report what is actually happening, as messy as possible.