On June 8th, the Washington Post ran, “These academics studied falsehoods spread by Trump. Now the GOP wants answers,” a story about how “records requests, subpoenas and lawsuits” were wielded as “tools of harassment” against “scholars” in the “field of disinformation.” In photo portraits, Kate Starbird of the University of Washington stared plaintively in the distance, a caption under one: “The political part is intimidating — to have people with a lot of power in this world making… false accusations about our work.” Starbird sits on an advisory committee for the 245,000-person, $185 billion Department of Homeland Security, but perhaps she meant “a lot of power” in a different sense?
When Bari Weiss, Michael Shellenberger, and I first started working on the Twitter Files, none of us knew much about people who did “anti-disinformation” work. Before it became controversial, these “experts” didn’t seem bashful about security-state credentials. For instance, New Knowledge, the firm profiled by Susan Schmidt last week that authored a Senate report on Russian interference and was caught creating fake accounts in an Alabama Senate race, gained this cheerful description in VentureBeat after raising $11 million for “anti-disinformation”:
What further distinguishes New Knowledge is that its founders are AI and Homeland Security experts who grew up in the NSA and have worked as security advisers. [CEO Jonathon] Morgan, for instance, was an adviser for the U.S. State Department and published research at the Brookings Institution.
When lawsuits like Missouri v. Biden and then the Twitter Files began shining light on this direction, experts reinvented themselves as “scholars” or research fellows. That their LinkedIn pages often featured odd gaps, or periods listed as “consultants” to the military or the FBI, was apparently not important, nor that “anti-disinformation” is not an academic discipline. Even if they were very new arrivals to campuses, we were expected to show deference to new roles as “researchers,” much as campaign reporters were asked to stop calling Rick Perry a dummy when he put on glasses.
Reporters once didn’t fall for this sort of thing, reserving special bile for politicians or spooks who tried to pass themselves off as intellectuals. But these days they swoon like teen girls seeing the Elvis wiggle for the first time for “anti-disinformationists,” with anchors like Nicolle Wallace, Brian Stelter, and Rachel Maddow giving the “We’re not worthy!” treatment to anyone with intelligence credentials who utters dire prophecies about Trump and “fake news.”
Even the once-mocked “smart glasses” trick became foolproof, as former counterterrorism warriors like Hamilton 68 frontman Clint Watts earned plaudits as bespectacled “disinformation experts,” and even media figures who once went for hunky or fetching in headshots donned solemn expressions — and glasses — when moved to the disinfo beat. I don’t remember Rick Stengel wearing specs much as editor of Time magazine, but he accessorizes nicely in his new role as former head of the Global Engagement Center, pimping books like Information Wars.