When Disinformation Masquerades as Anti-Disinformation, Information Loses its Meaning

The famous culture wars that divide US society are now complemented by the disinformation war that splits society into two. The one point all agree on is that we cannot live without self-promotion and propaganda. It’s just a question of who controls it.

Internet censorship concept. man with smartphone. Pop art retro vector illustration vintage kitsch © studiostoks / shutterstock.com

December 13, 2023 02:12 EDT

Alongside Russell Brand and Michael Shellenberger, author and journalist Matt Taibbi is a key member of an unlikely trio of media celebrities that Politico’s Mark Scott has mockingly dismissed as “the three horsemen of the Censorship Industrial Complex.” Scott characterizes “the Complex” they target as “a conspiracy between non-elected officials, Big Tech executives and unknown academics was working, jointly, to quash people’s views.”

Scott believes he can prove “the Complex” is just the product of the trio’s unbridled imagination, He argues that having “rubbed shoulders with many of the officials, tech executives and outside groups that are allegedly part of the Censorship Industrial Complex,” he has come to understand that “almost all are honest, hardworking and trying to quell a surge in hateful and harmful online content.” 

Scott admits that they are up to something because, like Hamlet considering the prospect of taking “arms against a sea of troubles,” these brave souls appear to be engaged in “quelling a surge.” He simply doesn’t believe it’s conspiratorial. These are good guys who identify with the noble mission of keeping certain pre-selected ideas out of the public’s sight. That is not censorship; it is a form of civic education, akin to denying children access to porn sites.

Despite Scott’s critique, which appeared in September, Taibbi continues his campaign to provide evidence of institutional censorship, whether or not it is conspiratorial. Last week, Taibbi analyzed the work of NewsGuard, the private media watchdog. NewsGuard defines its mission as providing “transparent tools to counter misinformation for readers, brands, and democracies.” Engaged in “credibility assessment,” it aims to “systemically defund sources of harmful misinformation.”

Most people in democracies are suspicious of the practice of blacklisting, one of the principal tools of McCarthyism, which is now considered a shameful moment in recent US history. To avoid such suspicion, NewsGuard has found a clever way of honoring the tradition without compromising the perception of the purity of its mission: they claim to be whitelisting, not blacklisting. “We are also licensing our White List of legitimate news sites to advertisers, which will cut off revenues to fake news sites.”

Taibbi asks an obvious question. “If the company licenses a ‘whitelist’ of ‘legitimate’ sites with the express goal of cutting off ‘revenues to fake news sites,’ aren’t they effectively engaged in a blacklisting service whose real aim is to target what it considers illegitimate sites? Is there any reason, I asked, that this service should not be described as blacklisting?”

NewsGuard eventually responded to Taibbi’s question. “Whatever term you use for our service, what we are providing is simply information — our assessments of sites — so that advertisers can decide where to place their ads.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:


A useful synonym for blacklist that works by designating all those not whitelisted as blacklisted.

Contextual note

Scott tells us that there’s nothing to worry about because, to quote Shakespeare’s Marc Antony, “these are all honorable men.” NewsGuard, as one particular group of honorable men, seeks to be even more reassuring when it explains that it is providing “simply information” in the name of opposing, Hamlet-like, a sea of misinformation. What could possibly be more pure and noble?

But there is a deeper problem. As a civilization, we are faced with a series of questions about disinformation and misinformation to which no one appears capable of providing a truthful and adequate answer. To start with, NewsGuard uses both terms — misinformation and disinformation — seemingly indifferently. NewsGuard obviously believes that both are bad.

Misinformation abounds in journalism any time the reported facts diverge even marginally from observable reality. Claiming, as various “legitimate” news outlets did at the time, that Russia was likely responsible for the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline in September 2022 turned out to be either misinformation (there was nothing to justify it other than suspicion) or disinformation (it was propaganda planted by US intelligence agencies). And what about the cases of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction or the Havana Syndrome, documented over the years as disinformation in this same Devil’s Dictionary. Should the papers that reported such untruths, representing them as probable facts, be removed from NewsGuard’s whitelist?

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Taibbi offers us a dose of realism. “All news organizations get things wrong, but it’s beyond obvious now that organizations like NewsGuard and GDI are measuring something that has far more to do with where the outlets are oriented in relation to official narratives, than with factuality or reliability.”

News is simply not truth. I would dare to make the utterly unscientific evaluation that the news we consume is 20% “phenomena” (which includes facts and observations but also trends) and 80% interpretation of the meaning of the reported phenomena. Much of journalistic content is reasonable supposition. But distinguishing between reasonable and deceptive suspicion (which may also reasoned) can never be easy, nor can the methods we use be totally reliable.

Often, the facts cited in a misleading news story are objectively true, but the interpretation or meaning we attach to them is dead wrong. In most cases, there is no way of knowing. That is why crimes are debated and adjudicated in courtrooms, and even then, the verdict may not be the truth but merely the consensus of opinion among a group of jurors.

NewsGuard and other watchdogs do not even try to distinguish between facts, suppositions and interpretations. Nor do they publish their methods, which seem to consist of little more than lists of propositions categorized as suspect, much as Senator Joe McCarthy’s lists did. 

Historical note

The quandary of disinformation has now become a major political issue. Edward Bernays put the word on the map. It was the title of a book he published. But Freud’s nephew was focused less on the needs of a democratic society than those of the consumer society. For the “father of Public Relations,” propaganda was the mind manipulation science dedicated to “changing public opinion on a grand scale.”

Bernays and his acolytes — not only on Madison Avenue but also in governments across the globe — have effectively transformed human society. We now accept that at the most basic level everyone — individually or as an institution — is busy self-promoting. At the level of our civilization as a whole, those who participate in creating and managing the artifacts of our culture and politics have learned to propagandize in favor of the order they collectively feel comfortable with. That comfort may be defined in terms of economic interest but also in the form of ideology.

Matt Taibbi, like other media celebrities, provides an example of someone who has become successful at self-promotion. Formerly a journalist employed by Rolling Stone and a best-selling author, Taibbi has transformed his journalistic skills to become a social media celebrity. Despite a taste for humor and even triviality, that hasn’t prevented him from taking on eminently serious topics and occupying an important role on the cultural and political landscape. He has accomplished all this without compromising a solid reputation for personal integrity and honesty. His counter-crusade against the crusaders of the disinformation industrial complex owes its credibility to Taibbi’s moral standing.

If Politico’s Mark Scott is both wary of the idea of conspiracy and convinced there is no “complex,” it may be that he is simply playing his assigned role in the complex without even realizing it. The idea of complex, as it used today, came to us not through the propaganda of some marginal ideologue or fanatical extremist, but from President and former General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Through his own military and political eyes, Ike saw that various groups of people and interests ,combined not as a conspiracy but as a web of complementary interests, wielded enough power to remodel civilization itself.

The most credible explanation connecting the two wars raging today in Ukraine and Gaza is quite simply the same, but much expanded, US military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned the nation about back in January 1961. The president apparently entertained the naïve belief that if you tell the truth about something profoundly harmful but too complex to be easily perceived, people might listen and mobilize to eliminate it.

Taibbi seems to share a similar naïve belief.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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