by Matt Welch
Pessimistic technology reporter Kevin Roose has a piece in Tuesday’s New York Times with the disconcerting yet accurately representative headline, “How the Biden Administration Can Help Solve Our Reality Crisis.”
Pegged to the twin anxieties over right-wing conspiracy theories and violence, Roose’s article contains one of the most blink-inducing paragraphs I have ever encountered in a respected journal:
Several experts I spoke with recommended that the Biden administration put together a cross-agency task force to tackle disinformation and domestic extremism, which would be led by something like a “reality czar.”
These thought bubbles may sound like unintentional self-parody to libertarian ears, but they are common both among the people who just re-took power in Washington and the knowledge workers who are glad they did.
Cue scores of snorting noises on Twitter about our new “Ministry of Truth.”
“It sounds a little dystopian, I’ll grant,” Roose concedes. “But let’s hear them out.”
OK, let’s. Harvard’s Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, joins the recent political-class chorus calling for a “truth commission,” and pushes for the feds to have access to Facebook/Twitter/YouTube algorithms: “We must open the hood on social media so that civil rights lawyers and real watchdog organizations can investigate human rights abuses enabled or amplified by technology.”
Stanford Internet Observatory disinformation researcher Renée DiResta advocates a centralized counter-conspiracy task force, because if federal agencies are doing that work separately, “you run the risk of missing connections, both in terms of the content and in terms of the tactics that are used to execute on the campaigns.”
Various pols and pundits propose rewriting Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act while using anti-trust threats to tame Big Tech; counter-extremism specialist Micah Clark plumps for a “social stimulus,” and hate-group deprogrammer Christian Picciolini opts for the kitchen-sink approach: “We have to destroy the institutional systemic racism that creates this environment. We have to provide jobs. We have to have access to mental health care and education.”
These thought bubbles may sound like unintentional self-parody to libertarian ears, but they are common both among the people who just re-took power in Washington and the knowledge workers who are glad they did. “We’re going to have to figure out how we reign in our media environment so that you can’t just spew disinformation and misinformation,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) warned on Jan. 13. A day earlier, Politifact founder Bill Adair and Duke professor Philip Napoli argued that Biden “should announce a bipartisan commission to investigate the problem of misinformation and make recommendations about how to address it. The commission should take a broad approach and consider all possible solutions: incentives, voluntary industry reforms, education, regulations, and new laws.”
So merely as a matter of prevent defense, it’s worth taking these ideas both seriously and literally. Starting with a point so obvious that only journalists and academics could miss it:
Proposed changes to government policy should always be visualized with the opposing team in charge of implementation. Imagine as the annointer of a Reality Czar not Joe Biden, but President Ted Cruz, or President Tucker Carlson. You people do remember that the White House was the scene of insane meetings like this all of two weeks ago, right?
There are also several structural problems with tasking government to encourage and adjudicate society’s net store of capital-T Truth. Politicians (such as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris) are incentivized to embellish their credentials, fictionalize their biographies, and misrepresent their records. Government agencies, given their druthers, would rather operate like the CIA—funding essentially guaranteed, details not available on request. As our resident Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filer C.J. Ciaramella frequently reminds us, it’s the norm for bureaucrats to “flout the spirit and, quite often, the letter of federal record law.” And the last time Joe Biden was in the White House, his boss left “a blueprint on how to suppress information and get away with it.”
Truth is but one of many interests grasping for the steering wheel on the ship of state, and its lobbyists are comparatively underpaid. Realpolitik, interest-group payouts, and paternalistic efforts to shape citizen behavior all warp the common use of language and fact.
There’s a reason why U.S. officials can’t gin up the courage to call the century-old Turkish genocide of more than 1 million Armenians a “genocide,” yet are currently characterizing China’s brutal, though non-mass-murderous, suppression of its Uighur minority with a G-word even while several human rights groups do not (see also: “states that sponsor terrorism”).
The Food Pyramid and its antecedents have been many things, but revealed truth is not one of them.
The Centers for Disease Control, name-checked in Roose’s article, changed its recommendations on masks based more on behavioral effects than science. War is a perpetual lie-making machine, and that includes the War on Drugs.
The messy reality of overlapping bureaucracies and their conflicting interests may be one reason why pundit imagineers are tempted by “centralization” and the notion of a “czar.” It’s the eternal lure of a single magic wand. And about as childish.
“The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use,” F.A. Hayek famously observed, “never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.” The more you centralize the processing and dissemination of knowledge, the greater the range and effect of potential error.
The centralization of U.S. intelligence under a single Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 was supposed to make us smarter and faster, and yet its single most visible impact on our lives is invasive and ineffective security screening at airports.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has throughout the COVID-19 pandemic kept “key virus data out of public sight,” the Associated Press reported Jan. 22, lest the little people get confused. In related news, Newsom kept outdoor playgrounds in sunny California closed for several months after a preponderance of studies had demonstrated that kids were not spreading it to one another outdoors.
Here’s yet another political-class endorsement of that idea, from Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch last month:
Congress needs to create a Truth and Reconciliation process — a commission, perhaps, or even just an open forum — that will allow some or hopefully most to acknowledge Biden’s victory, state for there record that there was no election fraud in 2020, and maybe even apologize for saying otherwise.