On April 27, the Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of a Disinformation Governance Board. So far, what we know of the council is that it is a “task force” that seeks to counter disinformation that potentially threatens national security without restricting free speech. However, exactly how the council plans to do this remains unclear.
Nevertheless, the critics of left and the right have warned that the council is reminiscent of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth 1984, due to its perceived threat to civil liberties. In fact, within a week, Republican representatives in Congress drafted a bill to end the council’s existence.
The concern over misinformation is likely a residual effect of the post-2016 moral panic over fake news. At the time, the Democratic Party and the liberal media repeated ad nauseam that the election of Donald Trump was due to the dissemination of fake news from Russian or conservative sources. And, if these lies could be stopped somehow, they thought that would be enough to save democracy. The Disinformation Governance Council, in a way, is a continuation of this same kind of wishful thinking.
But, as I noted in my book The anatomy of fake news, censorship is an ineffective solution that only complicates the threats posed by fake news. Censorship often backfires, making the content in question more desirable, a phenomenon known as the Streisand effect. Worse still, it creates a chilling effect, where, for fear of reprisals, citizens refrain from engaging in free and open dialogue.
Censorship is an ineffective solution that only complicates the threats posed by fake news.
Instead of trying to control the flow of information from top to bottom, the best solution to dealing with the threats posed by fake news is to ensure that schools teach critical information literacy, where students can learn to be a journalist, assess and analyze sources, separate fact from opinion, interrogate the production process and investigate the politics of representation.
According to researchers Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share, media education focuses “on the critique of ideology and the analysis of the politics of representation of the crucial dimensions of gender, race, class and sexuality. ; integrating the production of alternative media; and expanding textual analysis to include issues of social context, control, and pleasure. This approach encourages readers to examine the power dynamics expressed in the media.
It’s the opposite of how the media is presented and discussed in many classrooms across the country. Rather than being tasked with asking questions about how a news source is funded, for example, students are instead exposed to a range of business-focused media, such as Facebook, Google and Nickelodeon, which discourage critical thinking while improving brand awareness.
Fake news – which I define as any false or misleading information presented as factual information – is nothing new. There is a long history, particularly in the United States, of people in power who trick the public into believing lies in order to pursue a political goal. But today, in a society totally immersed in social media and streaming news, people of all ages and ideologies are finding it increasingly difficult to determine the veracity of content.
The decentralized nature of the American education system has prevented Americans from providing students with a solid media education, as many other countries have done. Programs like the University of Southern California’s Critical Media Project, Mass Media Literacy, and Project Censored have attempted to fill this gap, but what we really need is a stronger funding structure. And though the post-2016 moral panic over fake news saw many states propose legislation to expand media literacy in K-12 schools, the bills often lacked a mechanism to require it.
So if Reps really care about the threats posed by fake news, they would be wise to fund critical information literacy education across the United States, rather than a shadowy, unaccountable disinformation board that arbitrarily lists what is true and what is not true. The strength of democracy comes from a well-informed public, and the public becomes well-informed when citizens sharpen their critical minds and have access to a free and robust information system.
The public needs support and resources for critical media literacy; they don’t need the Disinformation Governance Council.