Using Misinformation and Disinformation for Political Purposes

Using Misinformation & Disinformation for Political Purposes

“A relentless barrage of misleading pronouncements about a given subject,” writes Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind, “can deprive one of one’s prior knowledge of that subject by muddying the waters and making one mistrust one’s own judgement.”
This sentence seems to perfectly describe the four year presidency of Donald Trump. The former President of the United States said a lot things that could not possibly be true, and didn’t seem to care whether his statements were accurate or inaccurate. There were times when he was clearly trying to mislead the nation, and times when he simply didn’t seem to know what he was talking about and made up claims that sounded good in the moment. Regardless of whether he was trying to deliberately mislead the public or not, his statements often had the same effect. They often created confusion, a buzz around a particular topic, and a dizzying array of rebuttals, of support arguments, and complicated fact-checks.
The President’s epistemic insouciance created confusion and bitter arguments that the President could spin for his own political gain. He would lie about meaningless topics and then criticize people for focusing on narrow and unimportant falsehoods. He would say random and sometimes contradictory things which would create so much confusion around a topic that people had trouble understanding what the argument was about and began to doubt factual information and reporting. The result was a blurring of the lines between reputable and fact-based reporting and hyperbolic opinionated reporting.
A clear lesson from Trump’s presidency is that we need to do a better job of holding elected officials to a higher standard with their statements. Unfortunately, it often goes against our self or group interest to hold the elected officials we favor to high standards. If we generally like a politician who happens to be epistemically insouciant, it is hard to vote against them, even if we know what they say is wrong or deliberately misleading. As many of Trump’s supporters demonstrated, it can be more comfortable to do complex mental gymnastics to make excuses for obviously inept and dangerous behaviors than to admit that our favored politician is lazy and incompetent. 
Knowledge and accurate beliefs are important. We have entered a period in humanity where we depend on complex systems. Whether it is infrastructure, supply chains, or human impacts on climate, our actions and behaviors are part of large interconnected systems. None of us can understand these systems individually, and we depend on experts who can help us make sense of how we relate to larger wholes. We need to be investing in and developing systems and structures that encourage and facilitate knowledge. Using misinformation and disinformation for political purposes inhibits knowledge, and makes us more vulnerable to system collapses when we cannot effectively and efficiently coordinate our actions and behaviors as complex systems change or break. Going forward, we have to find a way to prevent the epistemically insouciant from muddying the waters and clouding our knowledge.

Designing for Two Goals

“Savvy institutional designers,” Write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “must … identify both the surface goals to which people give lip service and the hidden goals that people are also trying to achieve. Designers can then search for arrangements that actually achieve the deeper goals while also serving the surface goals-or at least giving the appearance of doing so. Unsurprisingly, this is a much harder design problem. But if we can learn to do it well, our solutions will less often meet the fate of puzzling disinterest.”

 

In public policy research, there is a framework that is used to understand the legislative process called the Social Construction Framework (SCF). When examining the world through the SCF, we look at the recipients of particular policies and ask what social constructions are at play that shape the type of legislation surrounding these recipients. We also group the recipients into four broad groups: Advantaged, Contenders, Dependents, and Deviants.

 

Advantaged are those who have strong political power and public respect, like veterans and small business owners. Contenders have lots of political power, but are not viewed as warmly in the public eye, such as big business or unions. Dependents are socially sympathetic groups that don’t have much political power, such as sick children who can’t vote but evoke sympathy. The final group, Deviants, are socially scorned and politically weak, such as criminals or drug users.

 

The way we think about who belongs to which group is a social construction. That is, we attribute positive or negative qualities to groups to make them seem more or less deserving. Businesses always highlight the jobs they bring to communities, the innovations they create to make our lives better, and the charitable activities they contribute to. This is all an effort to move from a Contender status to an Advantaged status. Similarly, we see movements where people look at drug addicts and criminals in new ways, seeing them more as victims of circumstance than as entirely bad actors, moving them from Deviants to Dependents.

 

The reason this is important is because we introduce policies that either reward or punish people based on the groups they belong to. It all ties in with the quote from the book because we can either openly distribute a reward or punishment or distribute it in a hidden manner. Our policies might have stated explicit goals, but they may also provide a big business a hidden tax break. Our policies might be unpopular if they directly provide aid to former felons as they leave prison, but offering policy that is nominally intended to help the poor may provide a greater benefit to formerly incarcerated individuals than anyone else.

 

Hanson and Simler call for more sophisticated policy design that addresses our stated high-minded motivations and at the same time helps fulfill our more selfish and below the surface policy goals. SCF is a powerful framework to keep in mind as we try to develop policies and think about ways to actually enact policy that has both open surface level implications and addresses our deeper hidden purposes. This can, of course, be used for good or for ill, just as the tax code can be used to hide tax breaks for unpopular companies or help new homeowners, and just as social programs can be used as cover to assist individuals who are typically seen as Deviants.