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“Disinformation”: Do We Really Need a “Reality Czar”?

Canada dodged a bullet in 2014. The United States will not be so lucky if it adopts Big Tech's new proposals against “disinformation” online

Recently, a New York Times technology columnist, back from a consult with Big Tech in Silicon Valley, urged U.S. President to appoint a “reality czar” to go after people who provide “disinformation” online. He concedes, “It sounds a little dystopian, I’ll grant.”

Well yes, rather. And the czar would probably soon find himself in conflict with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But Kevin Roose (pictured), who says he has spent several years tackling “our national reality crisis”, begs us to hear the czar’s supporters out:

This task force could also meet regularly with tech platforms, and push for structural changes that could help those companies tackle their own extremism and misinformation problems. (For example, it could formulate “safe harbor” exemptions that would allow platforms to share data about QAnon and other conspiracy theory communities with researchers and government agencies without running afoul of privacy laws.) And it could become the tip of the spear for the federal government’s response to the reality crisis.

Several experts recommended that the Biden administration push for much more transparency into the inner workings of the black-box algorithms that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other major platforms use to rank feeds, recommend content and usher users into private groups, many of which have been responsible for amplifying conspiracy theories and extremist views.

“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,” Dr. Donovan said.

Kevin Roose, “How the Biden Administration Can Help Solve Our Reality Crisis” at New York Times

Joan Donovan is the research director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. She suggests, according to Roose, calling it a “truth commission.”

It’s hard not to think immediately of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984. That people are even discussing this sort of crackdown on free speech favorably should be cause for concern.

Canadian commentator Mark Steyn has his own thoughts on the proposed “reality czar” because he clashed with just such forces in Canada in 2008:

“The problem is there are an ever-expanding range of issues that are added to the list … [like] in United States, where disagreeing with the official state position on, for example, a new coronavirus that nobody heard of a year ago and nobody knows anything about — just disagreeing with officialdom now is forbidden.

“That is why the weasel phrase ‘disinformation’ — what is the information you are dissing? It’s official information. Ministry of Information information.”

Mark Steyn, “Mark Steyn slams ‘weasel phrase’ of ‘disinformation’ as NY Times begs Biden to appoint ‘reality czar’” at Fox News Media

Here’s what happened in Canada when government attempted to police “hate” earlier this century:

The free speech wars broke out in Canada in the first decade of this century when Mark Steyn, among others, was prosecuted in several jurisdictions under Section 13 of the Human Rights Act, essentially for insulting Islam. Loose laws against hate speech enabled him, and others, to be prosecuted for what would — in most Western jurisdictions — be regarded as fair comment: As a journalist wrote at the time,

Normally, that’s the sort of proceeding you’d expect to hear about in Saudi Arabia or Iran, not the West. But the British Columbia Human Rights Commission, in the cause of protecting minorities, asserts its right to judge and even restrict speech.

Currently, it is hearing a complaint about Steyn’s book from Mohamed Elmasry, head of the Canadian Islamic Congress. Elmasry is going after both Steyn and Maclean’s magazine, which excerpted his book when it was published two years ago.

The complaint states that the article “discriminates against Muslims on the basis of their religion. It exposes Muslims to hatred and contempt due to their religion.” Elmasry complains that Steyn’s book tars entire Muslim communities as complicit in violent jihad.

Neil Macdonald, “Free speech, eh? Why is Canada prosecuting Mark Steyn?” at CBC News (June 13, 2008)

The book in question is America Alone (2006), excerpted by McLean’s, an iconic national Canadian magazine.

Most observers would not agree that either the book or the excerpt “tars entire Muslim communities as complicit in violent jihad.” Steyn’s point, as per the excerpt, is, “The Muslim world has youth, numbers and global ambitions. The West is growing old and enfeebled, and lacks the will to rebuff those who would supplant it.”

Canada’s hate speech law exposed Steyn to the wrath of those who did not even want the subject discussed except in their own approved terms.

After growing public disgust with the way Section 13 was being used by aggrieved parties to target whatever they did not agree with, the section was repealed in 2014. But in recent years, there has been pressure to restore that type of legislation, in order to fight “hate” online. In 2019, Steyn testified at the House of Commons against such a move.

The problem with legislation against “hate” or “disinformation” is the obvious one: If a concerned party hates hearing something, that party may assume it is “hate” directed at them. That’s what happened to Mark Steyn and others in Canada in 2008.

“Disinformation” will, of course, be treated the same way. If the opinion, however well-sourced, goes against an official consensus, then it is “disinformation.” Proposals to entrench a reality czar are a one-way ticket to an authoritarian state that withers intellectually because only the approved people are allowed to circulate opinions.

Canada dodged a bullet in 2014. Will the United States be so lucky?

Note 1: I was a combatant in the original conflict in Canada, on the free speech side, and was also present at the House of Commons hearing in 2019.

Note 2: The photo of Mark Steyn is courtesy the Manning Centre, (CC 2.0)

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Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

“Disinformation”: Do We Really Need a “Reality Czar”?