During the pandemic, the term ‘misinformation’ has been used to describe a variety of individuals, groups and political parties. Vaccine rollouts and mandates have exacerbated this trend, and it peaked with Joe Rogan, the podcaster behind the Joe Rogan Experience. Over a year ago, Rogan made headlines with a $100 million deal with Spotify, who streams his podcast to millions of listeners.
This article is not about the pandemic or Joe Rogan’s claims. Rather, I am interested in the history of ‘misinformation’ and what we can learn from it. There are many articles online about misinformation, especially from ‘mainstream’ sources. However, there’s little writing offering scepticism towards the concept of ‘misinformation’ as well as acknowledgement of a broader historical context. This article hopes to rectify this by concentrating on Early Modern history (circa 1450 – 1789 A.D.) and the era’s flow of information. This article attempts to correct this trend, as well as present an argument against censorship. Particular attention is given to the witch trials, printing press and Reformation; three crucial aspects of early modern history.
Why Is It Used?
Misinformation has always existed. Throughout history, different terminology has been used against heterodoxic beliefs, such as blasphemy or hate speech. No historical era seems to be immune from this, either. Whether we analyse The Cathars or the current policing culture in the United Kingdom, there has always been a tendency to censor and control. Although this is detestable, censorship becomes desirable when one wants to establish authority or give order to an influx of information. In most cases, censorship arises when a group or individual feels threatened. The National Socialists, famously, warned against Bolshevik and Jewish outside influences. This meant key figureheads, such as Joseph Goebbels, attempted to order and restrict the information citizens had access to. Information, regardless of its form, posed a threat to the Third Reich’s control over the citizenry.
Censorship, as one investigates, is the practice of limiting available information. However, misinformation is not the same as censorship, sure. Yet information can still be attacked, even if it is not banned. For example, YouTube has disclaimers for ‘fact-checked’ information on many topics, ranging from climate change to the flat earth theory. By deeming other viewpoints as heretical or ‘misinformed’, one can gain legitimacy. Even the term, ‘fact-checker’, is an appeal to authority. This situation is made complicated when one considers the ongoing scepticism regarding authority and so-called ‘esteemed institutions.’
Problems With Misinformation
There are many problems with the term, and practice, of ‘misinformation.’ For one, it promotes the falsehood that knowledge, whether scientific or historic, is ‘settled’ and above questioning. Of course, the earth isn’t flat and global warming is a thing. But that doesn’t mean someone questioning certain policy choices, especially regarding taxation and energy, is ‘spreading misinformation.’
I’m concerned that this term is used to stifle debate, a crucial aspect of being an expert. As someone with a background in history, I know my field has contested topics and controversies. Also, even if someone is spreading misinformation, they could just be exploring a badly-formed idea needing further evidence or support. Unfortunately, the current use of ‘misinformation’ translates into ‘opinions I do not like.’
Lastly, misinformation uses an awful epistemology, where ‘true knowledge’ is gated and can only be accessed through ‘expert’ permission. In every argument about misinformation, someone will say ‘listen to the experts’ as if they are guardians of true knowledge. My disagreement with this philosophy is clear: experts do not own, nor do they have a monopoly on, knowledge. It is sheer arrogance to confuse authority with absolute truth.
History Of Misinformation
Misinformation is not new. It has always existed, yet with a different name: blasphemy, as stated earlier. Heresy in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period was treated with utmost seriousness by both Catholics and Protestants. A well-known example is the Cathars from southern France and northern Italy. Their heresy culminated in the Albigensian Crusade, the 20-year military campaign by Pope Innocent III. Centuries later, Henrich Kramer published ‘Malleus Maleficarum,’ or, Hammer of the Witches. Kramer evaluates sorcery and witchcraft in a criminal light, and even though many Catholics in Cologne were uncomfortable with Kramer’s suggestion of illegal and unethical practices (torture and the death penalty), the treatise has become the most cited work on witchcraft in European history.
However, Kramer’s thesis can only succeed due to technology. The printing press assisted the rapid spread of Malleus Maleficarum all throughout Europe. As the historian Russell warns: “The swift propagation of the witch hysteria by the press was the first evidence that Gutenberg had not liberated man from original sin.” Those, typically women (depending on the European region), faced accusations of witchcraft stemming from certain beliefs, mannerisms and behaviours. Or often, an individual faced a witchcraft accusation due to jealousy or revenge. Of course, sensible individuals in the 21st century condemn the witch trial frenzy. Both the Catholic and various Protestant churches are no longer interested in harsh penalties for heresy. However, we should not interpret this to mean that mob behaviour no longer exists, or that information can no longer be wielded in a propagandistic way.
Scientists and politicians now occupy the same power in today’s world as Cardinals and judges of heresy. This isn’t necessarily a negative, as hierarchies help structure our society. Yet there is no foul in questioning the degree of power each individual has, and whether it is used for good. Scientists are not angels. They are not above questioning or error. Unfortunately, during this pandemic, we’ve treated ‘expert advice’ as gospel wisdom. Crass statements such as ‘the science says’ or ‘listen to the experts’ treats information into binaries of true or false. Rather, we should view science, and our understanding of it, as ever-changing and evolving. Just as Henrich Kramer lacked humility, so do our fact-checkers and so-called experts.
There are two problems with suppressing so-called misinformation. The first one is that censorship, as a whole, is unethical. In a free society, individuals have the right to convey any message. Whilst there is no freedom for violent threats or serious defamation, there is the liberty to hate, to question, to speculate. No one is obligated to believe a particular doctrine or opinion, regardless of how ‘scientific’ or ‘politically correct’ it is.
The second reason to oppose the suppression of misinformation is the lack of positive outcomes. Typically, the quest to ‘fight misinformation’ involves over policing, treating adults like children, censorship and growing mistrust in fellow citizens. All four can lead to the eventual breakdown of our society. There is also no evidence that methods to ‘fight misinformation’ are actually effective. The general public will correctly interpret ‘fighting misinformation’ as censorship. If Spotify banned Joe Rogan, this increases the appeal of the Joe Rogan Experience.
Likewise, it is not healthy for any society or individual to allow ‘experts’ to decide what information they engage with. Part of being an adult is dealing with complex data with ambiguous findings. Although this can be stressful, it is vital to our development as sophisticated, functioning adults. We are not children who align with black and white morality. For us to maximise our superior agency, adults must engage, not censor, with misinformation. When experts support censorship, any rational individual will see it as an assault on his liberties. The natural result is a breakdown of trust.
Lastly, ‘fighting misinformation or hate’ leads to over-policing in our societies. This takes away resources, manpower and valuable time away from actual crime. The most unfortunate example is the United Kingdom, where police are more bothered by someone’s tweets than grooming gangs or knife crime. Of course, going after a violent criminal poses more challenges than Henry Miller posting an innocent poem. Yet it’s okay, even desirable, to have high expectations of the police.
The outcome of fighting misinformation will mirror the attempts to ‘fight hate.’ Meaning: those who seek to remove, or censor, misinformation will not become victorious. This is because their crusade is doomed from the start.
Many supporters of free speech argue that the best way to counter offensive, or damaging, speech is through offering alternative speech. It’s easy to see the appeal of this argument, but it’s insufficient. To support free speech is to accept that others will use it in ways deemed harmful or even malicious. Whilst I am fine with free speech existing as a double-edged sword, I can understand the potential dangers of bad information. For one, calling a bottle of poison ‘medicine’, is obviously deadly. Yet if we want individuals to stop drinking poison, it’s best to develop competence in dealing with information. This is done through critical and analytical thinking, as well as having a keen awareness for S.W.O.T (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats).
For example, a historian will use a variety of sources in his research. However, he must assess the quality of each source and question the assumptions made.
The ideal scenario is not suppressing misinformation; but everyday individuals having the wisdom and intelligence to ignore nefarious and false data. In our fears to fact-check everything, we act like an overbearing mother who does not acknowledge the need for her daughter to grow. The most obvious approach is through education. If teachers and parents instil strong analytical skills from a young age, this will reap benefits forever. Also, students benefit when they are exposed to a variety of source material and information. One way a student can learn critical thinking is through exposure to multiple points of view. As this essay asserts, it’s foolish to presume that ‘science’ or ‘history’ is ever settled in stone.
Fears over misinformation are not valid excuses for censorship or removing Joe Rogan from Spotify. Much of societies moral panic over misinformation stems from a false epistemology and a lack of nuanced understanding of history and science. Knowledge, has never been, and never will be, a settled matter, only for ‘experts’ to lecture the common people about.