In George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist, Winston Smith works for the state in a bureau called the Ministry of Truth. Winston’s job at the Ministry is to attend to “news items which for one reason or another it was thought necessary to alter, or, as the official phrase had it, to rectify.” Every day, he systematically edits old articles and official government statements to ensure they remain consistent with a constantly updated stream of government propaganda messages and made-up forecasts. So complete is the state’s control of information that once Winston’s job is done, it is impossible “to prove that any falsification had taken place.” Winston helps the government concoct disinformation, with the purpose of perpetuating a system of total control under which the individual is alienated and suppressed.
Although it exercises nothing like the level of control contemplated by Orwell’s novel, our own government is very much like the Ministry of Truth in that its stated goal of combatting disinformation is a piece of performance and propaganda. As a matter of cold fact, the U.S. government is American society’s (and the world’s) foremost source of lies and disinformation, and it always has been. Much as the Party in Orwell’s book, our government lies to cover the terrible crimes it commits here and abroad, and it lies as a way to exercise control over us by making us question ourselves and reality itself. Through various bodies, such as the FBI, CIA, and NSA, the U.S. has waged a consistent and concerted disinformation war against American citizens, a war designed to put us in a position of permanent vertigo, off-balance and unable to grasp reality. These bodies continue to prosecute this campaign today.
We know, for example, that the U.S. government has consistently lied about its war-making and imperialism, lying both to get us into wars and about the wars it’s fighting. Indeed, there seems to be nothing the U.S. military and intelligence communities won’t lie about; they’ve lied about targeting U.S. citizens for extrajudicial murder, they’ve lied about their use of torture, they’ve lied about violently meddling in other countries’ sovereign affairs, and they’ve lied about illegally, unconstitutionally spying on us and our representatives. Like Winston Smith, they’ve changed facts and figures and destroyed or buried the truth over and over on matters of the utmost importance to democracy and a free society—these concepts they honor only as means to cynically manipulate us and, paraphrasing Tolstoy, debauch us in their patriotism. All of the flag-waving and pledging of allegiance is a way to switch off your critical faculties and sense of questioning and curiosity. As in Oceania, if they’re protecting us from dangerous foreign powers, if we’re permanently besieged, how can we question them?
It should not surprise us, then, that they wish to steer the conversation that has emerged around the notion of online disinformation. They are the seasoned experts in its use and its spread. There is nothing the United States government does better than deceit and psychological manipulation. Volumes have been written on the FBI’s use of deceitful smear campaigns and illegal covert tactics against disfavored political groups; for its entire existence, the FBI has violated the rights of Americans with impunity and used its unaccountable power against activists, dissidents, and civil libertarians of all stripes. We are once again at a turning point in our history, ruled by a near-omnipotent government totally deaf to calls for accountability and the rule of law.
In a famous appearance on Meet the Press in 1975, Idaho Senator Frank Church delivered an ominous warning, stating that if the vast powers of the federal government’s intelligence agencies were ever “turned around on the American people,” we would have no privacy and no place to hide. “If this government ever became a tyranny,” Church warned,
“if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know, such is the capability of this technology.”
To say that the power and technical capacities of the intelligence agencies have grown tremendously in the almost 50 years since Church’s warning would be an understatement.
If we have a democracy at all, it is totally powerless to stop the intelligence agencies or to hold them to account. The officials who oversaw the most dangerous and violative of intelligence agency policies—policies aimed at American citizens—and then lied to Congress about them not only walk free, but are lavished with praise and cushy positions at elite institutions. We’re at a point in our history today that Church probably couldn’t have imagined, when his own party, the supposedly liberal one, gushes over the FBI and CIA, and inexplicably dismisses their critics (many of whom are avowed leftists) as right-wing conspiracy theorists. A Frank Church today would be branded an un-American traitor and a kook just for asking pointed questions about whether the country’s democratic institutions have any control at all over spies and secret police.
If we judge them by their deeds, America’s law enforcement and intelligence bodies seem to hate and fear the American people far more than any putative foreign enemy. One thing we don’t do very well in the United States is speak truth to power; after all, we quite like the powerful and want them to like us back. We don’t want to be like one of those dirty, obnoxious hippies. Learn to love the powerful. Learn to love the bomb. These scared, emotionally and intellectually stunted attitudes creep into the way we think about the definition of “disinformation,” compelling us to give credence to the claims of the powerful regardless of their track record or the evidence in favor of their claims. We do just about the opposite of what we would do were we really interested in the truth: our journalists, obsessed with uninterrupted access to the powerful, repeat the most glaring untruths without hesitation or critical challenge, sure that power and authority are always right, always honest.
We know this as authority bias, roughly, the (usually unconscious) tendency to trust those in positions of power, to take in a title, or a uniform, or a badge, etc., and assume that it signifies wisdom or special access to the truth. Human beings are notoriously incapable of thinking for ourselves after we’ve been confronted with the opinions of people in power—either because we fear the powerful, or we want to impress them, or some perverse combination of both. In a psychology profession with a well-publicized replication crisis, the human inability to critically challenge authority is one of the few replicable findings about the mind of our species. This unconscious deference to authority is the upshot of an evolutionary history that made it dangerous to oppose or resist those in power; meek submission was a life-or-death matter, and we’ve inherited submission and life from our ancestors. As evolutionary psychologist David Buss has observed, “we’re an intensely coalitional species.” We want the approval of powerful, violent males and of our peers, worried about the survival risks of nonconformity.
We need a radically reevaluated public conversation of the idea of disinformation, one informed by our country’s history of bogus, socially disastrous wars and rogue intelligence agencies waging illegal campaigns against Americans concerned with peace and civil rights. Today, Washington and its mouthpieces in the legacy media have convinced our country’s “liberal” class that concern about disinformation means obsequiously praising the FBI and CIA, ignoring their history of violating the rights of Americans and wreaking havoc around the world. We need to revive the left-wing tradition of challenging authority and speaking truth to power, whatever the costs.