An unattributed Japanese proverb has it that “if you understand everything, you must be misinformed.” Clever, no? If a bit twee. This word, “misinformed,” has taken on a political dimension that has totally cleaved it from its actual, literal meaning: mistaken, wrongly taught, in error, or incorrect. That’s because of its cognate cousin, “misinformation.” “Misinformation” was the dictionary.com word of the year for 2018, when the reference website wrote that there had been a "recent explosion of misinformation.” There was apparently a “growing vocabulary we use to understand” misinformation, as of four years ago, one including “disinformation, echo chamber, confirmation bias, filter bubble, conspiracy theory, fake news, post-fact, post-truth, homophily, influencer, and gatekeeper.”
By 2019, disinformation was the late NPR linguist Geoff Nunberg’s word of that year, writing that “over the past couple of years ‘disinformation’ has been on a tear — it’s 10 times as common in media headlines as it was five years ago, to the point where it's nudged its siblings aside.” As Nunberg also notes, disinformation has a long history: “The term ‘dezinformatsiya’ was reputedly coined by no less than Josef Stalin in the 1920s as the name of the section of the KGB tasked with deceiving enemies and influencing public opinion.” Russian disinformation ops include Operation Infektion, which involved placing a story about the U.S. government creating AIDS in a lab intentionally, an idea that continues to be remarkably widespread and persistent, especially among left-wing radical groups. It’s even in an episode of The Chappelle Show.
But although they once meant something, both “misinformation” and “disinformation” have taken on new usages in the last couple of years, and now they mean nothing except that whoever uses them believes it should be somewhere between logistically difficult and illegal to voice disagreement with them. In a recent speech at Stanford University, former President Barack Obama gave a speech about “technology and democracy,” implying the former imperils the latter. How? Because it allows for the spread of disinformation, of course. After acknowledging that social media circa 2008 is “what elected me,” Obama made the case that private social media companies should create filter bubbles less and censor more — though he called himself an absolutist on First Amendment restrictions against government censorship of speech, which is nice to see. His ideas are a mixed bag, frankly; some are good. But nothing about the case he is making is helped by the disinformation frame since that word has become just a meme or a signal that its user is up with “The Current Thing” among CNN and MSNBC viewers — doubtless two categories that have a significant Venn-diagram overlap with Obama Foundation donors.
Talking about the “issue” of disinformation like some new technology-borne crisis creates its own filter bubble. It sorts the people who have glommed onto this word as the latest thing to panic about (as though people thinking untrue things is somehow at its peak in 2022) from those of us who think it was disinformation when Obama told us “if we liked our health plan, we could keep it” (Politifact’s 2013 “Lie of the Year”).
Some things are objectively untrue, and sometimes bad people knowingly spread untruths to try to damage America. But “disinformation” is a category that is too appealing to apply to everything we don’t agree with, not just moderately damaging tools of Russian spycraft. And that is, in fact, what’s happening. That’s why the more dangerous “rise” in recent years isn’t the rise of disinformation, but the rise of complaints about disinformation.