November 18, 2021
Yesterday the House of Representatives censured Congressman Paul Gosar. His offense he said, was a misunderstanding about how he was urging people to join him in “a battle between lawful and unlawful policies.” He had used the internet to “share” an anime showing his avatar brutally murdering fellow Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and threatening to do the same to President Biden. Over two million people watched his video before he took it down.
Last January, two women chartered a new nonprofit organization, Moms for Liberty to “stand up for parental rights at all levels of government…. Moms for Liberty is dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating, and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” By January, according to the Washington Post, they had grown dramatically with “135 chapters in 35 states, with 56,000 members and supporters…” They have a force in making school boards and education policy another battleground in the nation’s struggle to decide its future and to reconcile with its past.
One message is harsh, the other much softer. Different styles but the same goal: tap into the underlying fear and bias of White America.
This was the conclusion reached by a group convened by the Aspen Institute to look at how the spread of misinformation and untruth could be curtailed. Co-chaired by Katie Couric, Color of Change president Rashad Robinson and former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Chris Krebs the Commission on Information Disorder just published the results of their “in-depth investigation aimed at better defining the causes and challenges of information dis-order…”
Gosar’s message spreads not just because it is titillating. Moms for Liberty grows rapidly not because they have a new way to improve educational outcomes. Each, and those who support their efforts, know that they are inflaming fear and bias. This is what the Aspen Commission found:
“Disinformation is a symptom; the disease is complex structural inequities. Mis- and disinformation are not the root causes of society’s ills but, rather, expose society’s failures to overcome systemic problems, such as income inequality, racism, and corruption, which can be exploited to promote false information online. As Mike Masnick has written, “Saying that the disinformation is the problem—rather than a way in which the underlying problem shows itself—misses the point entirely.” Mis- and disinformation do not exist in a vacuum. The spread of false and misleading narratives, the incitement of division and hate, and the erosion of trust have a long history, with corporate, state actor, and political persuasion techniques employed to maintain power and profit, create harm, and/or advance political or ideological goals. Malicious actors use cheap and accessible methods to deliberately spread and amplify harmful information.
“Disinformation inflames long-standing inequalities and undermines lived experiences for historically targeted communities, particularly Black/African American communities. False narratives can sow division, hamper public health initiatives, undermine elections, or deliver fresh marks to grifters and profiteers, and they capitalize on deep-rooted problems within American society. Disinformation pours lighter fluid on the sparks of discord that exist in every community.”
The problem is not just an out-of-control internet. To focus only on Facebook and other platforms is to treat the symptom and ignore the serious underlying disease.
This is when we need to see clearly that racism, sexism, genderism, and all the other isms that describe how we stigmatize and marginalize need to be called out and not allowed to sit in shadows, covered by a veneer of courtesy and civility. This is when the truth of our history must not be re-written to make it more comfortable and inoffensive. We remain in the midst of a struggle between those who desperately want to retain the status quo, a status quo which protects their wealth and power and those who wish to move this nation beyond its past and to fulfill the promise that it is a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
To take our eyes away from the real struggle is to risk losing it.