“Disinformation” was the liberal Establishment’s traumatic reaction to the psychic wound of 2016. It provided an answer that evaded the question altogether, protecting them from the agony of self-reflection. It wasn’t that the country was riven by profound antinomies and resentments born of material realities that would need to be navigated by new kinds of politics. No, the problem was that large swaths of the country had been duped, brainwashed by nefarious forces both foreign and domestic. And if only the best minds, the most credentialed experts, could be given new authority to regulate the flow of “fake news,” the scales would fall from the eyes of the people and they would re-embrace the old order they had been tricked into despising. This fantasy turned a political problem into a scientific one. The rise of Trump called not for new politics but new technocrats.
Like other pathological reactions to trauma, the disinformation neurosis tended to re-create the conditions that produced the affliction in the first place. (Freud called this “repetition compulsion.”) By doubling down on elite technocracy — and condescension toward the uneducated rubes suffering from false consciousness — liberals have tended to exacerbate the sources of populist hostility. As Joe Bernstein documented in Harper’s last year, the “antidisinformation industry” has attracted massive investment from wealthy Democratic donors, the tech industry, and cash-rich foundations. Hundreds of millions of disinfo dollars are sloshing around the nonprofit world, funding institutes at universities and extravagant conventions across the world. Last month’s “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” conference was headlined by Barack Obama and featured Anne Applebaum, David Axelrod, Jeffrey Goldberg, and a lengthy list of other academic, journalistic, and political luminaries. I’m sure very interesting ideas were discussed there. But gathering the leading lights of liberalism to an auditorium at the University of Chicago — so that they together can decide which information is true and safe to be consumed by the rabble outside — strikes me as a hollow exercise in self-soothing, more likely to aggravate the symptoms of our legitimacy crisis (distrust and cynicism) than resolve any of its impasses.
Don’t get me wrong: There are obviously hard problems to be worked out regarding technology, speech, and democracy, and I have great respect for scholars working in that nettlesome nexus. But as Bernstein put it, the new class of disinformation experts, however well intentioned, “don’t have special access to the fabric of reality.” If faith in our institutions is to be restored, I don’t think it will be accomplished by stigmatizing doubt or obstructing the dissemination of falsehood. After all, faith is not a matter of fact and fiction.