It's no secret that governments worldwide are increasingly hostile to scrutiny of their conduct. But, at a moment when too many media outlets see their role as working with the state to reinforce official narratives, one advocate of press freedom reminds us that the struggle isn't over the "disinformation" and "misinformation" called out by opportunistic politicians, it's over control of information. Will people be free in the future to decide for themselves what's truth and what's BS? Or will we be spoon-fed whatever the powers-that-be endorse?
"Governments realize that they are in an existential battle over who controls information, who controls the narrative, and they are waging a frontal assault against independent journalism around the world," Joel Simon, the exiting head of the Committee to Protects Journalists (CPJ), told CNN's Brian Stelter.
"This is the information age, and we are in a kind of millennial battle over who controls information," he added. "Who controls it? That's the power struggle. And so, governments recognize—repressive governments, but even democratic governments—that this is an essential tool that they need to maintain power and journalists are their adversaries."
Simon spoke after the release of a CPJ report warning of escalating attacks on journalists, demonstrating that the stakes for those who offend government officials are very high. The report found 293 reporters jailed for their work around the world, and at least 24 killed because of their efforts.
CPJ isn't the only organization recognizing that independent sources of information are under attack. Last October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov for their coverage of government conduct in the Philippines and Russia "in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions."
"Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda," the committee added.
Unfortunately, the award illustrated the extent to which journalists can be co-opted as gatekeepers. Ressa sniffed in 2019 that "the wholesale dumping of Wikileaks actually isn't journalism," distinguishing her efforts from those of the organization's founder, Julian Assange, who languishes in prison, awaiting his fate after exposing abuse of power, lies, and war propaganda by the U.S. government. Too many journalists are open to cultivation by politicians as a separate class from purveyors of alleged "misinformation," disinformation," or "extremism" depending on what's convenient at the moment.
Before the pandemic, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern joined with French President Emmanuel Macron to develop the Christchurch Call targeting "extremist content" online. Since then, New Zealand in particular has moved to emphasize "freedom from misinformation" especially with regard to efforts against COVID-19.
Similarly, the British government commissioned a 2021 report from RAND Europe promoting practices by "civil society, government, media and social-media-company actors in terms of reducing the spread of false information and building societal resilience" with regard to "hateful extremism within society during COVID-19." The report highlights Germany's notorious NetzDG Act as an example that "levying large fines on tech companies that do not remove false information and hateful extremist content in a timely way can increase companies' responsiveness in removing this content from their platforms."
Despite robust First Amendment protections for free speech rights, the U.S. is not immune to powerful people's desire to control information.
"We're going to have to figure out how we rein in our media environment so that you can't just spew disinformation and misinformation," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) insisted last year.
In July, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called on social media companies to act as government proxies by removing what the administration flags as "narratives dangerous to public health."
Interestingly, CPJ's Joel Simon predicted the pandemic would empower efforts to control information.
"[W]e must be mindful that when we get to the other side of the pandemic, we may be left with a narrative, being written by China, that government control over information was essential to combating the crisis," he warned in March 2020. "That would be a devastating blow to the global information system, one that could endure even as the memories of the terrible pandemic we are currently facing slowly fade."
Since then, he's been proven painfully prescient as politicians' concerns have morphed from fighting "extremism" to suppressing "disinformation" to a weird amalgam of the two, unified by the alleged need to control what the public says, reads, and shares.
That's not to say, by the way, that material tagged as extremism isn't extreme, or that posts called out as disinformation aren't false. To open a web browser is to encounter a wide world of bigotry, bogus concerns about vaccine safety, nonsensical charges about election integrity, and fact-free arguments over whether or not COVID-19 even exists. But bullshit isn't a recent invention.
Free societies recognize that it's a lot more dangerous to let government officials designate what constitutes capital-T Truth than it is to respect people's rights to decide for themselves. When officialdom makes the call, legitimate news outlets get called "fake," as former President Trump often smeared his critics, extremists get conflated with opponents of school policies, as the Justice Department did last fall, and claims that COVID-19 originated in a lab leak in China are suppressed as conspiracy theories before later earning respectful treatment.
Truthful information doesn't require a government seal of approval because government officials are as flawed and biased as anybody else. They're prone to declaring debates over for convenient reasons of their own even as new evidence emerges and disagreements remain unresolved not necessarily because of rejection of facts, but often over fundamental differences in values and preferences. Powerful figures are in no position to save us from bad information because they're a major source of the stuff themselves and, if allowed, can use force to impose their versions of reality on dissenters.
We really are in an existential battle over who controls information, just as Joel Simon warned. It's not a battle over what constitutes truth, which remains as hard as ever to determine. Instead, this battle over control of information is a struggle over our freedom to decide for ourselves without having other people's decisions crammed down our throats.