Why We (Still) Shouldn't Censor Misinformation
Reason magazine|April 2021
Trump’s loss in 2020, a majority of his supporters believed the election had been rigged. Some adopted wild conspiracy theories involving Chinese supercomputers, Hugo Chavez, and state-level Republican officials. These beliefs culminated in an attack on the U.S. Capitol that left five people dead. To make sense of these events, many officials have argued that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter allowed conspiracy theories to spread unimpeded, leading to erroneous beliefs and deadly behaviors. In other words, they blame misinformation for the violence.
By Joseph E. Uscinski

AFTER PRESIDENT DONALD

But it strains credulity to believe random tweets can lead otherwise normal people to drive across the country and stage an insurrection. That places an undue focus on misinformation itself, rather than on the people and institutions sharing it and on the people who choose to access and believe it. It also seems odd to call for more government intervention into our information ecosystem when government officials—the president, members of Congress—were, in this instance, the biggest purveyors of misinformation.

Since he became a candidate in 2015, Trump and his high-profile supporters in Congress and the media have repeatedly claimed that elections are rigged. Since his loss last year, he has become only more vociferous about this. It should come as no surprise that the person with the biggest bully pulpit in the world was able to convince some voters he was cheated. This is what politicians do: They build and mobilize coalitions. On the other side of the ledger, electoral losers are naturally prone to believing they were cheated, and Trump’s claims only exacerbated this tendency among his core supporters.

Once we account for the influence that politicians have, as well as the dispositions of core audiences, the role of misinformation and mediums of communication in fomenting events like the Capitol riot become highly conditional and much smaller than many are arguing.

Nonetheless, pundits have called for interventions ranging from the benign (more journalistic fact-checking) to heavyhanded (internet censorship, the nationalization of social media). While these calls have intensified recently, they are not new. After the 2016 election, many journalists declared that we had entered a “post-truth” world in which lies, misinformation, and groundless conspiracy theories carried as much weight as statements of fact, if not more. Such sentiments grew more widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The desire that others believe the “right” things and act the “right” way is often well-intentioned. I too would prefer that people not inject themselves with bleach because they heard that it can prevent COVID-19. But designs on others’ beliefs are sometimes little more than expressions of crass self-interest or, worse, authoritarian tendencies.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM REASON MAGAZINEView All

‘HERO PAY' FOR GROCERY WORKERS IS TERRIBLE FOR GROCERY WORKERS

“HERO PAY” LAWS, which require big wage increases for grocery store workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, are sweeping the West Coast. Store closures, unemployment, and lawsuits have followed in their wake.

2 mins read
Reason magazine
June 2021

THE PANDEMIC WILL MAKE KIDS OR BREAK THEM

THE COVID-19 ERA has worked as a stress test for parents and kids alike, breaking some while bringing out reserves of strength and resilience in others.

3 mins read
Reason magazine
June 2021

The Era of Small Government Is Over

IS THERE ANY HOPE TO CHECK THE GROWTH OF THE STATE?

10+ mins read
Reason magazine
June 2021

Grant McCracken on How To Reengineer the Honor Code

IN THE NEW Honor Code: A Simple Plan for Raising Our Standards and Restoring Our Good Names (Tiller Press), anthropologist, brand consultant to the stars, and past Reason contributor Grant McCracken explores the history and use of the honor code, arguing for its relevance to our private and public lives today.

3 mins read
Reason magazine
June 2021

When the Government Makes Wildfires Worse

FEDERAL POLICIES ARE SUBSIDIZING PEOPLE’S CHOICES TO BUILD HOMES IN HARM’S WAY.

10+ mins read
Reason magazine
June 2021

CULT COUNTRY

IS THIS A NEW AGE OF CULTISM— OR A NEW CULT PANIC?

10+ mins read
Reason magazine
June 2021

THERE'S NOTHING MODERN ABOUT MMT

MODERN MONETARY THEORY (MMT) tells us that governments should finance public spending by creating money.

4 mins read
Reason magazine
June 2021

AN $86 BILLION MORAL HAZARD

THE $1.9 TRILLION emergency spending bill Congress passed in early March was full of items that had little to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ostensible justification for the package.

3 mins read
Reason magazine
June 2021

'THE INTELLECTUAL JOHNNY APPLESEED OF THE COUNTERCULTURE'

A conversation with Whole Earth Catalog founder, Merry Prankster, and woolly mammoth de-extinctionist Stewart Brand

10+ mins read
Reason magazine
June 2021

Scott Wiener Is California's ‘YIMBY' State Senator

IN NOVEMBER, VOTERS in San Francisco reelected California Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat, over his opponent, democratic socialist Jackie Fielder.

3 mins read
Reason magazine
May 2021