You can’t turn on the news, listen to a podcast, or read an article these days without the word “misinformation” slapping you in the face. It’s become such a ubiquitous word in the zeitgeist, like “unprecedented” or “spiritual” that it has started to mean so much that it might mean nothing. More than just the word though, there is a phenomenon occurring that we must address: misinformation has become doublespeak for “people are making decisions I don’t like” in a current moment. What was “misinformation” one month has become “the science has changed” the next. Information, it would seem, is in a tough spot right now and we need to talk about it.
Regardless of the definition, misinformation has become the cudgel-word for impolitically “correct” life choices individuals may make for themselves and their family. People have moved away from choices having consequences to information and dialogues having consequences that merit censorship, restriction, and warning labels. This is a truly terrifying paradigm shift in language, born from the malaise of misinformation.
Let’s take a closer look. We allow individuals to do all kinds of things that are bad for them; for example, I’m writing this as I drink a Dr. Pepper and eat a bag of peanut butter m&m’s. I could also buy some cigarettes. Yet, I can see the health information on the back of the product. If I bought a cigarette, I would see the warning label. How is a “misinformation” label any different? The premise for such a thng is that certain information leads people to make choices that could be dangerous for them and the public health. We can see this dilemma brought up Twitter and other social media platforms and in the current debate of removing Rogan from Spotify.
Didn’t you hear? Joe Rogan is “a horror! A horror!” decried Joe Behavior of The View. Sunny Hostin went on to say: “I do think, as the podcast platform, you have to have some sort of guidelines. How about a disclaimer on his podcast, that says ‘This is misinformation.’ How about removing some of the podcasts that disseminate this misinformation?” And there it is. That comfortable, paternalistic labelling people love from the government is now being applied to information. So, what, create an FCC panel, like the FDA, that labels some programming as “problematic”, “triggering”, or “This may contain misinformation”?
Or just trust Spotify to regulate stuff? Trust in a corporation? What happened to the liberals?!
Does anyone see the irony of a show called the View that publicly and regularly disseminates their own subjective morality, life choices, and misinformed points of view to be decrying a platform and program for doing the exact same thing? The View has had a panelist question the legitimacy of the earth being round, had a literal anti-vaxxer as a panelist that once argued that pre-COVID vaccines were connected to autism (before the word anti-vaxxer was updated meaning to include governmental mandates), and has a moderator who has articulated on several occasions that the Constitution once said she was only 3/5 of a person. So what? This is all “misinformation”. My comparison here highlights the broad puritan cudgel that the word “misinformation” has now become. It is not that it is wrong to be misinformed, it is that it has become wrong to make choices that others would not make for themselves.
I am a teacher and have been in countless professional development where people espouse “learning styles”. You may have heard of them. “I’m a visual learner” you might think. Wrong. Humans learn by analogy and memorization — that’s it. There is no unique, special snowflake learning style. We all learn the same and most of the work is on the learner, not the educator. In fact, the whole learning styles in academia myth has largely rendered the entire education field a laughing stoke by authentic scientists and intellectuals. If you think you have a “learning style”, you are misinformed. But the solution to the myth is not to put a warning label on the “ideas” of people who buy into the categories of learning styles or to stifle discussion on it. The solution is to produce the studies that have not been able to replicate the pseudo-science of the original study. In other words, we must continue the dialogue. Instead, though, we have people who would want us to shut others up for being “misinformed”.
Think of information like a basket that others walk around with trying to get it full. Some people put in fruit that is rotten. Decrying misinformation is like pointing out the basket is “ugly” as opposed to talking about how that fruit might be rotten, maybe even trying to prove it if you care enough. The irony of telling someone to shut up if they confront you about your fruit is that you suspect they do not have your best interest in mind. Are we really looking for rotten fruit? Or are we trying to make sure everyone is eating the same kind of apple? If someone decides to eat rotten fruit, given all the information to stave off such a fate, that’s their choice.
So why does the View not get a “This could potentially contain misinformation” but Rogan does? Their baskets are ugly sometimes, right? Is listening to his podcast like smoking a cigarette that merits a WARNING label, but there’s not? People watching him could cause COVID? People have gone on to argue that he has caused fatalities by spreading his “misinformation”.
The solution to information that is erroneous is not banning it, restricting it, or the “might contain soy” warning label. Instead, it is further dialogue. More talking. More information. More exchanges of ideas.
For example, I could write a blog that said “The pandemic is over and the vaccines don’t work.” What would the ramifications for such a social display of information be? Would a reader understand that I meant, “for me” the pandemic is over? Do I have to qualify my statement to avoid being fired from my public school job for “misinformation”? What if by “the vaccines don’t work” I mean in contracting COVID and getting symptoms — which I just did this past week after being fully vaccinated. Does any of this matter? If I tweeted that quote, it would be considered misinformation. At least for now. It would have been definitely so four months ago. So “misinformation” can change? What does that reveal about what is actually misinformation? If my blog or tweet is labeled or taken down, so is my message. In other words, the dialogue and inquiry for pursuing understanding of my message is ended once the label occurs. In fact, the dialogue is over. The bureaucracies have decided for us the meaning of my message.
The reality is that if something could be different in the future, then we cannot call it misinformation — misleading information is not malleable to context. I say this in the broad sense of public decisions, such as bureaucratic committees in corporations or governments making labels and decisions. In one article published in the late 90’s, a pseudo-scientific connection was made between vaccines and autism. The damage was done. People were “misinformed” and did not read the follow up studies. Much like learning styles. Much like many things — so what do we do? What do we do with so much information and so many dialogues taking place at once?
First: Be wary of those who want dialogues to be over. History is laced with the carnal urge of those with a microphone or a throne demanding no one questions them, reports on them, or wants a discussion about information. But what about “harmful” information, you might ask? What about information that leads people to make choices that are bad for them? Oh, get off of it! There is no such thing as “harmful” information. There are choices, choices people make, that could be harmful. Humans are fallible and the world is not without risk! Driving is more dangerous than COVID, yet we are all still doing it, right? Why are so selectively outraged by masks and vaccines, but not people speeding on the road or driving recklessly? We know the consequences, that’s why. And we are making a choice.
But what about information and labels? We do not need someone else stepping in to parent us about what to know and not know. Ratings for film and television are for children and the pearl-clutching neo-Victorians, not for reasonable and mature adults. Information labels are equally for maladapted neurotics who want someone to make their choices for them and never have to hear something that challenges those who they gave that power to.
I just read an article about a man who would rather die on the waiting list for a transplant than get a COVID vaccine. Is he dying by harmful information? No. He is making a choice. Perhaps additional information would change his mind, who knows? Maybe no one is actually having a dialogue with him? Or maybe he is making the right choice for himself. Either way, it’s none of our business.
Perhaps that is why we turn to misinformation as some disease we must remove from society, yet I see the removal of perceived “misinformation” as little more than the removal of necessary dialogue. I compare this dialogue to the playwrights of Elizabethan England and the ancient Greek dramatists, works of literature that prioritize and emphasize the dialogic nature of humans.
In Greek plays, the Chorus was a character in itself, present in just about any play, and it represented the citizenry or general population of the setting. Oftentimes, the Chorus actually takes a position on the matter-at-hand. The strophe, which means “turn” would be where the Chorus moves from one direction of the stage to the other. There would then be an antistrophe, or “turn back”, where the Chorus goes the other way. While mostly melodical, the strophe and antistrophe can sometimes be seen as representing that citizenry is rife with conflict and disagreement; disagreement that was welcome and necessary to finding meaning within the play.
Take Euripedes’ Medea. In this story, the heroic Jason returns from adventure with a new woman he plans to marry. Sounds nice, right? Well, the problem is that he is already married. Medea, his current wife and mother of two sons, is rumored to be cast from the city along with her children so that Jason may have his happy-ever-after with his new wife. The Chorus, representing the general population of women in the city, sympathize with Medea.
As Jason and Medea argue over Jason’s infidelity and choices, the Chorus continiously interrupts and opines on the matter, much like the audience is:
“Jason, you’ve composed a lovely speech.
But I must say, though you may disagree:
you have betrayed your wife. You’ve been unjust.” (596-8)
Most of the audience likely agrees with this. Medea, who is utterly outraged and wrathful, is not dismissed as a hysterical woman; instead she is justified in her rage. The Chorus sees instruction in what Jason has let happen. There is a condemnation of him: “Desire, when it comes on too forcefully, never bestows / excellence” (651-2). And there is prayer inspired by his folly: “Please, let me be cherished by Wisdom, be loved by Restraint, / loveliest gift of the gods” (658-9). Further, the Chorus goes on to fear the notion of not having a “fatherland”, like Medea does not, and how we cannot “call such a man my friend” that would not “honor friends” (670-675). The Chorus, then, is all of us. As a character, as an audience, we react to the story, the scene, the information we are given. It does not tell us how to react, it gives us insight into how one might.
But then Medea goes too far. She curses a crown and causes Jason’s newlywed to die a horrific death and then she murders her own children in a terrifyingly glorious scene that rivals anything composed in literature. These scenes are truly one of the pinnacles of literary achievement. Before it happens, though, the Chorus is all of us, hoping it not to happen at all:
“O Earth, O radiant beam
of Helios, look down and see her–
this woman, destroyed, before she can lay
her hand stained with blood,
her kin-kiling hand,
upon her own children
descended from you
the gods’ golden race;
for such blood to spill
at the hands of a mortal fill sus with fear” (1276-86)
Further, the Chorus wonders “Shall I go inside? / I out to prevent this, / the slaughter of children” (1312-4). As we watch the tension build for Medea to potentially murder her own children, we pray, hope, beg her to stop — we then, as an audience, wonder if we should stop it. The Chorus echoes the inclination most people might have to the ruination of innocent children: help them.
But we cannot. Jason goes to confront Medea about the murder of his new wife and is met with the Chorus that plays the role of telling him his children are dead. He believes it, but must see for himself. He has to witness their death. “let me see this double / evil: their dead bodies” (1360-1). Medea reveals herself and her children on a flying chariot and off she goes with her two sons, now corpses.
The play ends rather bleakly — it’s a true tragedy. I wonder at the play without the Chorus, without the general population feeding the narrative and the dialogue. I think the play stands without it, but it strangely gives it heart, character, and insights that are worth reflecting on. I think that is what happens when you censor, cancel, or de-platform; we lose the dialogue and the potential for insights.
I listen to Rogan and I watch the View. I have heard plenty, from both platforms, that I disagree with, that I find suspect, that I want to vehemently argue with. But that is the point of watching and listening. I would much rather be left to my own devices and figure out information than to trust someone to filter it. But perhaps that is what this malaise of misinformation really is: these are difficult dialogues that some people just do not want to have. Some people have trusted others to make choices for them, such as experts and politicians. The notion of disagreeing with those “experts” is like saying there are other choices worth making. This is cognitive dissonance at its finest.
But there are a litany of uncomfortable questions around the corner: How does admitting that the pandemic is over address the fears many still have over it? How do we cope with the decisions we made, once it’s over, and the ramifications of our choices? Did we harm our children by our school policies? Did we kill small businesses without needing to? In our hope for vaccination, did we stifle authentic medical pursuits for early treatment of COVID? Did we hurt more lives than we saved?
One of the foundations of the Enlightenment era is that humans are fallible, but the more information we have the better the outcome of choices. Let people make up their own minds, but first educate them. There is no way to label platforms as “misinformation” without bureaucracy. Bureaucracy leads to mistakes and abuses of power. We cannot legislate our way to insights and better choices. We have to have the dialogue. We need information much like we need the Chorus. We need more, not less. We need Rogan, more View, more debate, more disagreement, more discussion, more, more, more. Not less.
Because when you say we need “less” and “labels” there is always someone who trims the fat, who applies the label. No one should have that much power over what information you are given. The WARNING label on that box of cigarettes is an objective display of information about what may happen, it is not an ominous subjective apprehension to the overall air of the product, much like an “misinformation” label is. Why not have labels in the library or bookstores, then? “WARNING: Self-Help section may not actually help.” The library is an unrestricted zone for a reason; it is the herald of knowledge and exploration of stories, information, and points of view. Yellow caution signs do not belong in libraries, and misinformation labels do not belong on points of view.