The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America is sick with information disorder. Time for a cure.

Trump supporters gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (John Minchillo/AP)

Information disorder” is a malady that comes in many forms, from made-up news to manipulated media to misunderstood satire. According to a six-month investigation by a commission at the Aspen Institute, the United States is not trying nearly hard enough to find a cure.

The report starts, as any study aimed at restoring trust and truth ought to, by acknowledging reality: “In a free society, a certain amount of misinformation will always exist.” The hope isn’t to punish every exaggeration, piece of propaganda or flat-out lie but to home in on the most egregious damage caused by specific types of mis- and disinformation — by discouraging people from spreading falsehoods and minimizing the fallout when they do. This is easiest in “empirically grounded” areas, in which facts can most clearly be found: public health and election integrity foremost among them.

How do we do it? Some steps are obvious, such as mandating more transparency from technology companies. Platforms should be required, for instance, to publish data about the content, source, targeting and reach of posts seen by large audiences, as well as produce standardized archives of the material they remove or otherwise moderate. That’s the only way researchers, lawmakers and the rest of us can understand what policies cause what problems, as well as what interventions work to solve them. The report also calls on companies to take concerted action against superspreaders of mis- and disinformation. And it urges carveouts to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally provides legal immunity to platforms for content they host from third parties, such as advertisements and algorithmically amplified content — though these suggestions should be viewed with caution.

The rest of the report treads fresher ground, asking not only how social media sites can scrub out the scourge of information disorder but how the rest of society can, too. This includes a White House-led anti-disinformation strategy as well as a congressionally funded education and awareness effort. Crucially, it also includes investment from the government in alternatives to the free-for-all of today’s ad-centric Internet: tools and networks designed to build bonds within and between communities, rather than grab attention and generate revenue. The report also argues for supporting reconciliation and healing initiatives, especially as they expose how propaganda historically has been used to marginalize the vulnerable.

Disinformation, the authors say, often isn’t about persuading people to believe something new but about giving them permission to believe things they were inclined to think from the start — exploiting bigotry and division where it already exists rather than creating it where it doesn’t. At the same time, these malignant campaigns are real, and require concrete action to confront. The Aspen Institute’s report recognizes that these two forces — existing misconceptions and social media’s tools that amplify them — work in tandem. Any comprehensive government strategy to treat the country’s information disorder must do the same.

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