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In defense of misinformation

In defense of misinformation
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The internet has been a tremendous innovation. But like any double-edged sword, there are pros and cons to the freedom the internet brings. The internet is expansive, and in many ways it’s unchecked. Before, when you needed to look up the definition of a word, you’d go the dictionary, as in a physical book. The dictionary was a trusted source. Now, when you look up a word online, it could end up being Wikipedia or the Urban Dictionary, or any number of less reliable sources — and you may get the wrong definition.

All of this is to say that because of the way the internet has democratized information, we are exposed to more information than ever before and, by extension, more incorrect information than ever before.

There has been a push among certain journalists, politicians and political activists to crack down on incorrect information on the internet, on social media and in traditional media outlets. For example, Reps. Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooHillicon Valley: Senate unanimously confirms Chris Inglis as first White House cyber czar | Scrutiny mounts on Microsoft's surveillance technology | Senators unveil bill to crack down on cyber criminals FCC votes to advance proposed ban on Chinese telecom equipment Pharmaceutical industry donated to two-thirds of Congress ahead of 2020 elections: analysis MORE (D-Calif.) and Jerry McNerneyGerlad (Jerry) Mark McNerneyIn defense of misinformation House Democrats want to silence opposing views, not 'fake news' Hillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook's deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds MORE (D-Calif.) recently sent a letter pressuring cable providers to justify why they’d provide a platform to networks including Fox News, Newsmax and OAN. Calls for a crackdown on speech have only grown since the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. 

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A tipping point was a recent congressional hearing, on “disinformation and extremism in the media,” which featured journalist Soledad O’Brien and others. The hearing was aimed at not just the right but the left too — CNN and MSNBC were targets of ire, for incorrect reporting on the Mueller investigation, Russia collusion and more. It’s why I believe we need to defend the media, the internet and social media — and why I’m writing in defense of misinformation. 

There’s a difference between “misinformation” and “disinformation.” The two words are often used interchangeably but shouldn’t be. Misinformation is defined as “incorrect or misleading information,” while “disinformation” is defined as “false information deliberately and often covertly spread in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.”

I’m not defending disinformation — willful distortion of the truth is irresponsible and unethical. But disinformation assigns a motive to the incorrect information, whereas misinformation is simply incorrect. I don’t believe disinformation is nearly as prevalent in our media and on social media as is misinformation.

In a perfect world, misinformation would not exist. Misinformation is certainly not preferable to correct information. Instead, what I worry about is the rush to correct misinformation and not just correct it but to actively seek it out. There’s a push now to spotlight it, and the end result allows the punishment to become far more severe than the crime.

The media gets things wrong; they have forever. But in the internet age, and particularly in the social media age, incorrect information has grown. President TrumpDonald TrumpIran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' Ivanka Trump, Kushner distance themselves from Trump claims on election: CNN Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum MORE was a vessel of misinformation; at the same time, the anti-Trump media was often a counterbalance of misinformation. From Russia collusion to the Jussie Smollett story to the Covington Catholic story, misinformation was a centerpiece of the legacy of the Trump era media.

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This is not journalism or even speech I particularly enjoy. But I defend its right to exist. It’s covered by the First Amendment. Just because something isn’t true does not mean it should be eliminated. Because if that were the case, we’d inevitably start to over-correct, and the fallout would be tremendous.

Misinformation is the cost of freedom. Misinformation is the tax we all pay for the freedom to say what we think, and the freedom to have unfettered access to as much information as possible — to engage independently, with little to no limitation from gatekeepers. 

There’s only one way to counter misinformation in a responsible way — with more and better information. Until our information ecosystem is overflowing with truth and honesty, I’ll defend the right of every media outlet and every person on social media who has ever found themselves putting misinformation out into the marketplace. We are free to say what we believe, even if it’s untrue.

Steve Krakauer is the founder and editor of Fourth Watch, a media watchdog newsletter.