Presidents Bush and Obama Mistakenly Think We Need Their Warnings About Disinformation

Thanks, but we lived through the lies of their administrations that they used to sell us war and intrusive government meddling in health care.


This week, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama will be at conferences lecturing about democracy and apparently warning against the spread of disinformation.

Yes, it's a real "[checks notes]" meme moment. The Bush administration launched a post-9/11 war that had almost no relationship with the terrorists responsible, based on bad intelligence and misleading the public about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Obama's signature domestic accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, was dependent on him selling Americans a lie that they would be able to keep the health insurance they had.

Bush will be interviewing Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (via live feed) as part of "The Struggle for Freedom Conference" in Texas on Wednesday. Obama will be speaking alongside former Philippines Vice President Leni Robredo on Thursday in New York City as part of an Obama Foundation panel that discusses topics like "tackling disinformation and protecting democracy; pluralism, identity and democracy; and inclusive capitalism."

It makes for an easy round of "whataboutism," and to be fair, they both deserve it. Neither of these men is speaking on the issue from a position of credibility.

The lies that spun out of these two administrations weren't just simple errors: They had a purpose. The lies they presented were intended to convince Americans to support their political goals, both of which involved broad government interventions abroad and at home. And so, when these men talk about fighting "disinformation," it's very easy to assume that they are referring to messages that may cause the public to distrust government decisions, despite whether these messages are accurate or not.

Worse, both teams here seem to be arguing that the solution to disinformation is for the government to get further entangled in what is supposed to be independent journalism in order to fight whatever they're deeming is disinformation. The George W. Bush Presidential Center's page about "combating disinformation" leans heavily on supporting "local journalism" as an antidote for disinformation in disconcertingly vague terms: "The public, along with the executive and legislative branches, should take the lead in defending and promoting freedom of the press and the role of journalism. The private sector, Congress, philanthropy, and news readers/viewers should support local journalism."

But to what end? The fact that both of these presidents used the media to peddle disinformation when they were in office should give us all pause at the idea that the government should get even further entangled in anything the press does.

We have seen now that the federal government has been quietly pushing social media companies to delete content that government officials have decided is disinformation, regardless of whether that classification is accurate. Nobody who serves as a president, as a member of Congress, or in any of these political positions should be looked to for guidance when it comes to fighting disinformation.

A government that gets more involved in the media is a government that will get more involved in controlling what the media says. This is not a recipe for fighting disinformation. This is a recipe for controlling whose disinformation gets presented.