Who gets to define ‘disinformation’?

When journalists and social-media oligarchs declare some stories or ideas out of bounds and then discredit voter decisions, trust in the media and democracy is lost.

A voter in Des Moines, Iowa, casts his ballot for the presidential elections at Roosevelt High School on Nov. 3, 2020. Credit: Phil Roeder via Wikimedia Commons.
A voter in Des Moines, Iowa, casts his ballot for the presidential elections at Roosevelt High School on Nov. 3, 2020. Credit: Phil Roeder via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The 2020 race is over. Or is it? As has increasingly been the case in tight elections, the results of the presidential race are being contested as several states are very close, and the side that has fallen behind is contesting the results. But, as with seemingly every contentious issue in recent years, there is a conscious effort to limit the discussion by claiming that some people are peddling “disinformation.”

That term is generally defined as false information intended to mislead its recipients and has usually been employed to describe propaganda issued, either overtly or covertly, by governments. In our current toxic political environment, however, it has become a catch-all word used to deprecate information—whether questionable or that which is patently true—that is considered inconvenient or a distraction from a key partisan talking point.

The problem is that a lot of people who are loosely throwing that word around now are doing so not so much in order to expose falsehoods as they are in discrediting opponents and arguments they don’t wish to have circulated.

Those who assert that worries about the accurate counting of ballots are misplaced claim that those making such accusations are spreading disinformation. Perhaps they’re right. Count me as skeptical when it comes to such assertions. Anyone alleging voter fraud or malfeasance had better back up their claims if they want to be believed. On the other hand, anyone who thinks there’s no such thing as cheating in elections is asking us to forget pretty much everything we know about American political history or human nature.

But the effort to discredit any discussion of the issue is pretty rich considering that the apparent winners of 2020 spent the previous four years peddling an ultimately debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 results being the product of Russian collusion with the assistance of respected mainstream newspapers and broadcast stations. Is it really any harder to believe in election cheating than the claim that the president of the United States was a Russian agent?

Worse than that, some of the early analyses of the 2020 race are claiming that the results were also impacted by “disinformation” that persuaded groups that were expected to support former Vice President Joe Biden in larger numbers than they did to oppose him. It’s already become commonplace to claim that support for President Donald Trump among Jews was the product of false arguments about Israel or smears of Democrats. Hispanics were supposedly manipulated by disinformation about Democrats who were soft on socialism.

Calling your opponents liars and scoundrels goes back to the earliest days of the republic, and was a practice engaged in by nearly all of America’s Founding Fathers. But we’ve gone far beyond that sort of time-honored mud-slinging. Contemporary partisans don’t just swap accusations as work to prevent the discussion of issues with the aid of their media allies.

Two stories come to mind as examples of how media supporters of Biden shut down discussions that might have hurt him. In early September, Biden and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, met with the parents of a man who had been shot by police while resisting arrest in Kenosha, Wis. Yet not a single major outlet brought up the fact that the man’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., was a well-known supporter of Nation of Islam leader and hatemonger Louis Farrakhan, and whether it was right to grant such a person access to the putative next president. Nor did they question Harris about why she said she was “proud of them.”

The same rules applied when it came to the latest disclosures about the shameless influence peddling and questionable international business deals conducted by Biden’s son Hunter. As with the Blake incident, the story could be put down as not important enough to change anyone’s vote. But instead of airing the revelations before minimizing their importance, with few exceptions the media dismissed it as Russian disinformation and, despite the lack of proof for that discredited claim, refused to cover it and applauded when social-media oligarchs who favor Biden censored mentions of it on Facebook and Twitter.

We may well be seeing a repeat of this problem with a revelation about an anti-Israel statement signed by Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate who will be running in a crucial runoff election that could decide control of the upper body of Congress. Within hours of publication of the story, Twitter was alight with accusations that it amounted to disinformation or propaganda. Instead of considering the statement’s importance, those following that race are debating whether it is OK to discuss it.

This is part of a general trend in journalism in which even some of those who are trusted with setting the standards to be followed can no longer be trusted. The most prominent example of this problem can be found in the AP Stylebook.

Published by the Associated Press, the Stylebook has, since its first edition came out in 1953, become the leading authority on grammar and style by reporters and editors, as well as a corporate communication reference guide. Its updates about how to use words have even more influence on the way Americans speak and write than dictionaries.

While it started out as an objective source—as with so much of the media it serves—the Stylebook has long since discarded fairness for a liberal bias that betrays the goal of its authors to tilt the playing field against conservatives.

This was on display this fall when the Stylebook weighed in to re-educate Americans about the “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter protests that resulted in violent riots and looting in hundreds of American cities since the May 25 death of George Floyd. Since speaking the unvarnished truth necessarily paints these events in an unflattering light, the AP advised journalists to stop calling them “riots” and to use the more neutral “protests” instead, even if they were violent. Describing the pillaging of businesses by rioters as “looting” was denounced as racist.

It went on to advise that when writing about people who were burning neighborhoods, looting stores and attacking police, journalists should not write about what they were actually doing. Rather, press outlets should focus their coverage on the “underlying grievance” of those engaging in “rioting and property destruction.” In other words, reporters should believe those who are trying to portray a nation that has long since moved on from its troubled past as irredeemably racist rather than their lying eyes and ears.

Just as obvious was an AP article about Democratic Party threats to pack the Supreme Court with liberals if they gain control of Congress next year. The article described a Democrat’s support for this idea as an effort to “depoliticize” the court. That’s a partisan redefinition of a term that has been universally employed for decades.

Nor is this kind of Orwellian “newspeak” anything new.

For example, in the last decade, the AP forbade the use of “illegal immigrant” in favor of “undocumented,” a word that means nothing but distracts us from the truth about the issue. It banished “Islamist” from the vocabulary of those covering the threat from radical Islam and said that “terrorists” should be misleadingly referred to as  “militants.”

Honest public discourse depends on calling things by their right names. But in 2020, the AP Stylebook became an eager partisan recruit for the anti-Trump “resistance.”

There is a “disinformation” crisis in American journalism, though it’s not necessarily the threat that the Russians or the president are spreading lies. It’s the willingness of all too many journalists to engage in partisan censorship and word redefinitions, in addition to spreading conspiracy theories that smear their opponents while decrying other stories as conspiracies that should be ignored. If, as a result, many Americans aren’t willing to believe us when we tell them now about the presidential election being decided fairly and squarely, who can blame them? The most important casualty in this isn’t the media’s credibility as it is faith in democracy. 

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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