Last month, I noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had repeatedly exaggerated the scientific evidence supporting face mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Facebook attached a warning to that column, which it said was “missing context” and “could mislead people.”
According to an alliance of social media platforms, government-funded organizations, and federal officials that journalist Michael Shellenberger calls the “censorship-industrial complex,” I had committed the offense of “malinformation.” Unlike “disinformation,” which is intentionally misleading, or “misinformation,” which is erroneous, “malinformation” is true but inconvenient.
As illustrated by internal Twitter communications that journalist Matt Taibbi highlighted last week, malinformation can include emails from government officials that undermine their credibility and “true content which might promote vaccine hesitancy.” The latter category encompasses accurate reports of “breakthrough infections” among people vaccinated against COVID-19, accounts of “true vaccine side effects,” objections to vaccine mandates, criticism of politicians, and citations of peer-reviewed research on naturally acquired immunity.
Disinformation and misinformation have always been contested categories, defined by the fallible and frequently subjective judgments of public officials and other government-endorsed experts. But malinformation is even more clearly in the eye of the beholder, since it is defined not by its alleged inaccuracy but by its perceived threat to public health, democracy, or national security, which often amounts to nothing more than questioning the wisdom, honesty, or authority of those experts.