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House Bill Calls for an End to Government Funding of Censorship

David Inserra

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The First Amendment and a robust culture of free expression mean most Americans understand that our society addresses hard topics through robust speech and debate. The way we handle disagreements among Americans is not to have the government wade into highly subjective, highly political issues to declare one group correct and silence the others as dangerous or wrong. Instead, we allow the free speech of Americans and the press to openly discuss and persuade each other of the truth or best course of action.

Unfortunately, this cultural dedication to expression is under pressure from government efforts to fund counter “disinformation” projects that are often thinly veiled efforts to suppress the speech of Americans. In response, Rep. Thomas Massie (R‑KY) introduced HR 8519 to prohibit the funding of research of disinformation and online trust and security. The Massie bill recognizes such funding for what it is: government funding of censorship. 

The short bill would prevent the government from funding three things:

(1) Disinformation research grants. 

(2) Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace grants. 

(3) Programs within the National Science Foundation’s Track F: Trust and Authenticity in Communications Systems.

Before we get into what each of these prohibitions are, first a little bit of background. The terms mis‑, dis‑, and mal‐​information are similar and often used somewhat interchangeably as different experts and groups do not have uniform definitions. But here are the main differences:

  • Disinformation is the purposeful spread of false or misleading information designed to cause harm. This is often thought of in the context of governments trying to harm other nations or societies—indeed the term comes from the Soviet term “dezinformatsiya.”

  • Misinformation is the spread of false or misleading information but without the clear intent to do harm.

  • Malinformation is factual information that is out of context and thus could mislead (notice the overlap of “misleading” speech in each term depending on the definition that is used).

Together, these terms are often referred to as “MDM.”

But as high‐​profile incidents over the past few years have shown, MDM efforts and claims often got things wrong. Take claims about the source of COVID-19, the efficacy of vaccines in preventing sickness and the spread of COVID-19, debates over masks or school closures, the Hunter Biden laptop, and others. Even if well‐​intentioned, many claims of misinformation are little more than an effort to invalidate certain political or ideological views on important social issues. 

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Yes, some misinformation is clearly false, but the more obviously wrong it is, the easier it is to refute. Most of the prominent and impactful MDM circulating today is just material that may be viewed as misleading, incomplete, or out of context, but it isn’t objectively false. It’s the opinions, biases, and contexts that any American may choose to express that some find persuasive while others find misleading. It’s the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal that emphasizes certain details, facts, and context while the New York Times editors emphasize different pieces of information about the same story to reach a different perspective. Researching misleading or out‐​of‐​context arguments is about as objective as researching whether the Times or Journal is more correct or whether MSNBC or FOX is better news.

So broadly forbidding government disinformation research grants is a great start for this bill. My only constructive criticism is that I would broaden the term to include the full trio of MDM research and any effectively similar terms or euphemisms. A clever politico or bureaucrat could argue that while disinformation funding is prohibited by this bill, it didn’t prohibit misinformation or malinformation funding. Out of an abundance of clarity and to prevent definitional gymnastics, I would expand the terms used, but this is right on target.

The final two lines are specific sets of funding within the National Science Foundation. Track F has funded the creation of AI tools that tech companies could use to combat MDM. As might be expected with research on subjective and political issues, the projects funded under Track F advance ideological biases under the guise of advancing “trust and authenticity” online.

Take, for example, the Co‐​Insights project funded by NSF, which presented itself as the “world’s best system for matching social media posts to facts.” The types of “common misinformation narratives” that it was working to counter were: 

  • Fearmongering and anti‐​Black narratives;

  • Undermining trust in mainstream media;

  • Glorifying vigilantism; and

  • Weakening political participation.

Each of these issues is linked to incredibly divisive political speech and events in which Americans have very different First Amendment‐​protected views. There is no reason for the government to be funding tools that seek to counter American viewpoints. 

If you don’t see a problem with the government funding this sort of research, imagine this: Your most hated political opponents have just been elected president and to a majority in Congress (which they will at some point). They are now able to funnel your tax dollars to fund efforts that label your views as misleading and harmful misinformation. For example, imagine the government funding research and tools to counter this alternative set of misinformation narratives:

  • Climate change catastrophism;

  • Anti‐​white CRT narratives;

  • Glorifying violent riots; and

  • Undermining trust in the independence of the Supreme Court.

No matter who the target is, this is censorial and wrong. 

The Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace grants similarly include some inappropriate government funding of MDM research. While it also has other more technical and cybersecurity‐​focused grants, this is also a field where the private sector is already very active, so it is not clear we need to fund such projects generally and certainly not those that are working on misinformation. 

We also need to be vigilant for other ways that the government is funding the suppression of American speech. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) funded the British Global Disinformation Index (GDI) that blacklisted American news organizations. The GDI created various lists of organizations that it considered spreaders of harmful misinformation and sold these lists to help big advertisers avoid these dangerous spreaders of misinformation. This resulted in any organization that didn’t match the GDI’s politics losing a significant amount of advertising revenue.

The GDI targeted mostly libertarian or conservative organizations, with the New York Post, the Daily Wire, Real Clear Politics, and Reason being listed as the highest‐​risk spreaders of misinformation. This is already in the courts and last year’s National Defense Authorization Act took aim at the GDI and similar entities at least for DOD funding. Rep. Massie’s bill might consider adding a broader restriction on government contracts—not just grants—along the lines of the NDAA’s limitation.

Many Americans feel overwhelmed by misinformation and long for help in determining what is true and false. Businesses, non‐​profits, and other private actors have dedicated significant time and money to stopping it, each with their own views on what should or should not be considered misinformation. Ultimately, it is up to each individual to be a good consumer of information and to critically analyze what is presented to them. 

The government cannot fairly adjudicate misinformation, nor can it fund research into such a subjective topic without trampling on the viewpoints of Americans. Rep. Massie’s bill is right to get the government out of the business of funding misinformation research.

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