Perhaps Joe Biden’s White House staff is too dumb to understand the line it crossed yesterday when Jen Psaki casually said, “We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.” Psaki said “about twelve people” (among them, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) are responsible for spreading most misinformation. So: Let’s just have a simple public–private crackdown on twelve individuals to get us through this moment of peril, and that’ll be it for this new censorship program, right? We’ll sweep away a handful of bad actors who have lost touch with reality and restore truth to the public square.
Truth, though, is rarely a settled thing. Less than 18 months ago the government-approved truth according to Anthony Fauci was that risk from the coronavirus was “minuscule.” Less than 17 months ago he told us that wearing masks was counterproductive. For a few days in April, the “truth” according to the FDA was that no one should use the J&J vaccine because it was too dangerous. And just two months ago, it was accepted, government-backed fact that the coronavirus could not possibly have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Facebook labeled anyone who claimed otherwise guilty of propagating misinformation.
What is and is not “misinformation” is and ought to continue to be the subject of robust public debate, without the government’s acting as referee. (I don’t think Facebook should do so either, but for the government to force private companies to say things is as much a First Amendment violation as it is to forbid private companies to say things.) What Psaki is proposing sounds like a Ministry of Truth empowered to work closely with a major private-sector political ally to stamp out information the government would prefer you not to hear.
Even without public encouragement from Joe Biden, Twitter and Facebook worked fanatically to suppress the true New York Post stories generated by its access to Hunter Biden’s laptop. How much more closely do we want the Biden administration to work with Silicon Valley and friendly news providers to muzzle this or that media outlet? Glenn Greenwald calls this “one of the classic hallmarks of fascism.” Is he wrong? Liberals used to say, “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” They used to defend the rights of Nazis to speak. Now the Democrats won’t even extend this courtesy to Bobby Kennedy Jr.
Just as the goal of “progress” can never be reached, the urge to eradicate “misinformation” can never be satisfied either. Today it’s a few pesky anti-vaxxers, tomorrow it’ll be anti-vaxxers on TV. Yet TV talk-show hosts say false things every night, and if the Biden administration decides to shut up Tucker Carlson, it can hardly stand on principle if, say, a future President DeSantis decides to shut up Rachel Maddow. A democracy that cuts down every law in the land to get at the devil won’t remain standing for long.
Labeling assertions “disinformation” is in most cases simply begging the question; virtually everything is disputed. Liberals used to grasp that the way to win an argument is to have the facts on your side, not appeal to an authority figure to gag your opponent.
Americans have been disseminating false and misleading information throughout our entire history. Are we in more of a state of “emergency” today than we were in World War I, World War II, the Jim Crow era, the McCarthy era, the Cold War, the post-9/11 era, or indeed last year? Of course not. Whenever politicians ring the alarm bell, it’s almost always because they want more power. Shame on the many journalists who are nodding vigorously along as the White House proposes to shred the First Amendment.
National Review is an American conservative editorial magazine, focusing on news and commentary pieces on political, social, and cultural affairs.