“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” – John 8:32
In 2018, Theresa May, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, appointed the nation’s first Minister of Loneliness. Many around the world chuckled, amused in equal parts by the novelty of the post, its title and that a nation known for its grin-and-bear-it ethic would admit to having an emotional problem. One writer likened the step to the United States’ appointing of a Secretary of Humility. May’s decision, however, did not occur in a vacuum. A study conducted a year earlier had found loneliness to be a significant mental health problem potentially costing the UK billions annually. May chose to address the challenge directly, appearances be damned.
The United States must similarly face its own modern problem: digitally-enabled mis- and dis-information. The country is awash in both and they are no longer a mere inconvenience, something to be worked around or cynically used as a tool of politics, but an existential threat that may justify the creation of a dedicated governmental organ.
Though the definitions are politically fraught and far from universal, misinformation is generally understood as false information that is in good faith believed to be true and disinformation as the intentional distortion of information for the furtherance of some purpose. This post conflates them—d/misinformation—because in effect and common parlance the two are often inseparable and the distinction is irrelevant for its purposes; what is pertinent here is that both are false.
Jason Young of the University of Washington captured their socio-political implications and far-reaching effects when he described them as more than just “a set of incorrect facts but also … a colonizing knowledge and value system that’s designed to undermine some of our basic values as a community like trust in institutions, trust in sciences, public debate, even … our own families.” The current U.N. Special Rapporteur on the freedom of expression will also note, in her upcoming report, how d/misinformation has endangered lives worldwide by undermining democracy, human rights, sustainable development and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most concerning in the U.S. context are its implications for national security. By exacerbating the country’s complex and multilayered divisions, fomenting extremism, and exaggerating policy differences, d/misinformation is weakening the country from within. Ordinarily, policy differences, even vast ones, would be benign and evidence of a vibrant democracy, but driven by d/misinformation they become malignant and evidence of a disintegrating one because when a society ceases to share the same facts, the basis for collective decision-making is compromised. Moreover, as already seen in 2016, the possibilities of AI-enabled d/misinformation as a tool of destabilization or warfare are staggering.
Americans are largely aware of the problem. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that 68% of U.S. adults believed “made-up news and information” was negatively impacting confidence in government institutions while 54% said it was having a negative impact on people’s confidence in each other. Nearly 60% blamed politicians, 53% activist groups and, although there were partisan divides in attitudes towards the media, 36% blamed journalists, noting their practice of inserting opinion in the reporting.
Americans are also pessimistic about resolution. Although 79% believed steps must be taken to restrict d/misinformation, only one in ten thought any progress would be made in addressing it and 56% percent said it would only get worse within the next five years; only 20% viewed d/misinformation as protected speech. Interestingly, despite misgivings about the media, 53% still gave them the primary responsibility of addressing the problem.
The question now confounding academics, analysts, human rights advocates, and policymakers is how to address d/misinformation ethically and lawfully without infringing on fundamental freedoms of expression.
Because strategies like blocking websites or accounts, Internet shutdowns and so on threaten the freedoms of expression and opinion, many are focusing on increasing the regulation and accountability of tech companies and social media platforms and perhaps even creating a government agency that focuses on the regulation of the fast-changing technical dimensions of digital media. Others have emphasized community-based approaches (e.g. teaching media literacy or “information hygiene”) that leverage the resources provided by public libraries and focus on addressing the affective elements of the spread of d/misinformation.
Time for a Truth Bureau?
Given the scope of the problem and the diverse actors contributing to it, the government should also consider creating a national truth bureau whose mission would be to ensure that the public has access to factual information on consequential matters of public interest. I will acknowledge that the idea of “truth” seems utopian and belonging to theologians and philosophers, but here I’m focusing on facts, those empirically verifiable data upon which a rational society makes judgments and bases action. The name Truth Bureau is nonetheless appropriate because it captures the core idea that there are some things that are knowable—not everything is a matter of opinion.
This solution considers all information, even disinformation, protected speech (as under international human rights law, with the exceptions noted in Art. 19(3), ICCPR) and does not infringe on the freedom of expression. It does, however, require that we rethink the role of government concerning information.
Human rights law recognizes a broad “right [of people] to seek, receive and impart information” (RTI) derived from the freedom of expression (Art. 19(2), ICCPR), which is found in the national constitutions of most countries. Governments of advanced democracies have largely observed the negative obligation to respect that right by neither interfering with press freedom nor restricting people’s access to various kinds of information, but that is no longer sufficient. The unrestricted free flow of information has, through d/misinformation, become a restricting mechanism that prevents people from being well-informed, so the government must now also perceive itself as having a positive obligation to provide accurate information to ensure both the meaningful exercise of the freedom of expression and participation in democratic processes.
Tools like the U.S.’s Freedom of Information Act, India’s RTI Act, or the European Union’s Freedom of Information which focus on the provision of information concerning the government and its workings, are not built to address the present challenge.
A viable truth bureau would be established as an independent organization and its officers would be experts from various fields (not political appointees), sworn to impartiality. Unlike communications commissions, which focus mostly on high-level communications law and regulation of the media space in general, the truth bureau would focus on content and be responsible for:
- Disrupting d/misinformation networks. Through various channels, the bureau would use its sophisticated media presence to inject factual information into public discourses. It would issue ongoing statements, opinions, tweets, create informercials, and so on, to counter false or misleading information, careful to indicate where matters are unsettled.
- Supporting independent journalism. The bureau would find innovative ways to support the important but struggling journalism industry. For too long, the effectiveness of traditional media as truth-tellers who check the government’s power has been compromised by (a) their concentrated corporate (and finance) ownership, which prioritize ratings and revenues at the expense of the content, diversity and quality of the news, (b) little investment in the critical and time-consuming work of journalism, and (c) the ease with which the powerful are able to access and use them to shape worldviews, change inconvenient narratives and further their interests. Now with competition from digital platforms, traditional media need help to not only stay afloat, but to also develop a sustainable model that prioritizes keeping audiences well-informed.
- Measuring levels of disinformation and improving methods of detecting it. Given the speed with which d/misinformation travels, the Truth Bureau would create sophisticated instruments for measuring national levels of d/misinformation and keep the public aware of all available tools for fighting disinformation online. It would also address visual disinformation and Big-Tech’s algorithm driven disinformation silos or assign the responsibility to a capable entity under its oversight.
- Making recommendations for addressing d/misinformation in various sectors. The bureau’s recommendations may include providing technical or normative guidance on (a) the regulation of tech companies, (b) how to address obstacles to press independence, or (c) whether the country needs to establish truth commissions to address long-standing social problems like racism.
- Becoming a national resource in the fight against d/misinformation. The Bureau would employ researchers to cover various subjects, but it need not do all primary research. It may refer citizens to other appropriate sources, making sure the information is accessible in presentation and content to the average citizen. The Bureau would have a mechanism through which Americans can contact it with requests for information. If it succeeds, in the long term it would reduce the ill-effects of d/misinformation by training the population to become more sophisticated consumers of information, able to wrestle with complexity and draw their own conclusions. It would also be a model for other countries facing a similar challenge.
A Truth Bureau may share the quirky nomenclature of Theresa May’s Minister of Loneliness (which, interestingly, Japan recently adopted), but if given a chance, it may accomplish the unthinkable: begin to heal and unite a dangerously fractured nation.