On Misinformation

October 11, 2021 Updated: October 31, 2021


When Donald Trump started talking about “fake news,” the charge hit home so squarely that the media had to come up with a strong rejoinder, something to deflect it. They couldn’t outright deny it, for too many news flashes turned out to be just that: altogether fake (the pee tape, Jussie Smollett, the Covington boys …).

So, in customary fashion, when pinned down by a potent accusation, the media have taken a lesson in leftist tactics and bounced the accusation right back, though choosing a different label.

The word they prefer is misinformation. Fake news is too glib, too slogan-like, for media figures who fancy themselves educated and urbane. Misinformation has a technical ring to it. If you call something “fake news,” you sound like a guy at a football game who spots a penalty committed by the other team: “Hey, that’s pass interference!” But if you assert, “That’s misinformation,” you sound like an expert, one who is acquainted with the facts, who possesses accurate information, who is informed.

It says, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” but with a word big enough to be intimidating.

That’s the sociocultural meaning of misinformation, which accompanies the dictionary definition. I’ve checked Webster’s second and third editions, which define the word in verb form, misinform, and cite it as giving incorrect or misleading information, which sounds straightforward enough. In today’s usage, however, the word does more than that. It positions people in a particular way, dividing those who trade in the truth from those who tender and/or consume rank falsehoods.

Misinformation is a thing, of course, but the real purpose of the term isn’t to identify it. No, it’s to identify a group and censure every member of it. The people who make the judgment ask, “Who?” not “What?” If misinformation has arisen, they go to the source, to the someone who has committed this moral crime, and perhaps a legal crime as well.

We have two miscreants in the dock; first, those misinformers who knowingly invent or pass on misinformation. They are Machiavellians, con artists, political operatives, and irresponsible troublemakers, and we condemn them accordingly. As for those people who listen to misinformation and fully accept it, well, they’re culpable, too. Stupidity is no defense, not when voices of accurate information are there to be heeded. If they wish to remain uneducated, to idolize Trump and stick to their flyover towns, fine, but they mustn’t get involved in the public square. Keep quiet!

This is the dramatis personae of the misinformation theater. On one side are the connivers and ignorami; on the other are the conscientious truth-tellers and truth-listeners. That’s the group dynamic, and it works all to the benefit of the informed. How frustrating it must be for the noble purveyors of truth to find their wisdom ousted by the rhetoric of distorted minds? They feel like Sisyphus pushing the boulder of facts up the steep hill of prejudice and delusion and conspiracy-thinking.

Recent episodes such as debates over masks and vaccines, along with the affair of the Facebook “whistleblower,” have brought that attitude of “We are the informed ones, the guardians of truth,” into the public eye, but I have observed the attitude come out a thousand times in the realms of academia ever since I started graduate school in the 1980s. It is, as I wrote earlier, a handy way for professors to pat themselves on the back.

What goes unsaid in this setup, however, is what makes a piece of information a specimen of misinformation. We can answer that question easily if we treat it abstractly. A statement is misinformation if it’s undergone a reliable process of verification and failed. If it has been tested scientifically, analyzed logically, or held up to known facts and come up short, we call it a “mis-,” yes. That’s how the method should work.

But that’s not how it does work in actual practice. It’s not scientific method that earns people the label “misinformer.” Journalists and politicians don’t waste time on laborious verifications. They opt for a quicker exercise: the yardstick of liberal outlook. A voice that conforms to liberal myths and values—that’s information. A voice that dissents—that’s misinformation. We don’t need to deal with truth/falsity distinctions, though we talk that way. A simple conformity/nonconformity measurement will do.

When it comes to vaccines, climate, racism, and the 2020 election, we have a party line that has been reiterated by media, theorized by academics, and weaponized by liberal politicians and judges. The process has been one of solidification, whereby opinions, suppositions, half-truths, partial facts, and incomplete or still unfolding evidence have been mixed and molded into a pat “narrative” by people of rigid values and political designs.

It’s an ideological formation that has acquired the status of truth. Or, rather, not of truth, but of information, a term that makes it seem as if the final product isn’t the result of a complex political concoction. It’s just information, real material in the objective world to be gathered as you would information in the old Yellow Pages. In this way, the fabricators of the party line may hide their machinations. From thence onward, to deny the narrative is to deny reality.

There is an irony in this. I can’t tell you how many times over the years, particularly in the 1980s and ’90s, in meetings and at conferences, in books and in articles, I heard and read academics insist upon the pragmatic and political nature of “truth.” (They often put scare quotes and sneer quotes around the word.) The very idea of objective truth was the prime example of naivete, they insisted, and every aspiring humanist had to learn that lesson. Human interests are everywhere; politics never stops, not even in the hard sciences.

Nietzsche himself declared, “There are no facts, only interpretations,” and nobody had more authority in 1985 than he did (Foucault, the leading theorist of that moment, was himself an avid Nietzschean).

In the theory seminar in those days, to assert a distinction between information and misinformation was to forget the most basic catechisms of theory. Don’t be so gullible and credulous as to trust in a truth untouched by desire, power, patriarchy, class interests, and other social shapers of the world we inhabit, we were told. The whole idea of objectivity is suspect. Worse, it’s reactionary.

And here we are now, with liberals returning to the old ways. They have dropped Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, feminism, deconstruction, Foucault, pragmatism (Rorty), and postmodernism, and gone back to the scientific outlook they used to deride. It works for them now, it’s in their favor, so they go with it. Don’t call them hypocrites, don’t accuse them of double standards. The left uses weapons that are effective, now this one, now that one. An unprincipled approach to truth gives them the flexibility to adjust when conditions change.

The first apprehension a conservative should pursue, then, doesn’t set out to expose the inconsistency. A conservative should assume inconsistency from the start and ask instead, “Why this weapon, and why at this time?” As I stated above, I think the misinformation tactic not only does the obvious labor of discrediting conservative belief in an overt act of calling it misinformation. It also counters the highly successful Trump tactic of “fake news.” And what that means is that conservatives should press ever more strongly the “fake news” theme, and they should include “misinformation” in the corpus of liberal fakery.

As has been noted, the left attacks that which threatens it. The misinformation push is a sign of conservative effectiveness. Don’t run from the charge, and don’t defend yourselves against it. Instead, keep up the pressure that evoked “misinformation” in the first place. And be sure to enjoy the moment.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.