Disinformed to Death

Members of a CIA-sponsored West German group using a weather balloon to deliver leaflets to East Germany, early 1950s
BStU/Enrico Heitzer
Members of a CIA-sponsored West German group using a weather balloon to deliver leaflets to East Germany, early 1950s

For the better part of four years, those sounding the alarm about the dangers of fake news and the perils of a post-truth world struggled to make the case that this was a matter of life and death. Try as they might to argue that a secure foundation of facts was the very basis of a liberal, democratic society—that such a society could not function without a common, agreed-upon basis of evidence—the concern seemed somehow abstract, intellectual, even elitist. Their angst was easily dismissed by their populist foes as the self-interested whine of a snobbish establishment. And then came the coronavirus.

When a pandemic is raging, it becomes harder to deny that rigorous, truthful information is a mortal necessity. No one need explain the risks of false information when one can point to, say, the likely consequences of Americans’ coming to believe they can deflect the virus by injecting themselves with bleach. (The fact that that advice came from the podium of the president of the United States is one we shall return to.) In Britain, Conservative ministers who once cheerfully brushed aside Brexit naysayers by declaring that the country had “had enough of experts” soon sought to reassure voters that they were “following the science.” In the first phase of the crisis, they rarely dared appear in public unless flanked by those they now gratefully referred to as experts.

So perhaps the moment is ripe for a trio of new books on disinformation. All three were written before the virus struck, before we saw people refuse to take life-saving action because they’d absorbed a baseless conspiracy theory linking Covid to, say, the towers that emit signals for 5G mobile phone coverage. But the pandemic might mean these books will now find a more receptive audience, one that has seen all too starkly that information is a resource essential for public health and well-being—and that our information supply is being deliberately, constantly, and severely contaminated.

The most vivid example remains the intervention by Russian intelligence in the US presidential election of 2016, in which 126 million Americans saw Facebook material generated and paid for by the Kremlin. But the phenomenon goes far wider. According to Philip N. Howard, professor of Internet studies at Oxford, no fewer than seventy governments have at their disposal dedicated social media misinformation teams, committed to the task of spreading lies or concealing truth. Sometimes these involve human beings, churning out tweets and posts aimed at a mainly domestic audience: China employs some two million people to write 448 million messages a year, while Vietnam has trained 10,000 students to pump out a pro-government line.…

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