"Is it still disinformation if the speaker believes it’s true?"
Scholars have been debating that question for ages, along with “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around, does it make a sound?” and “Why don’t we see any baby squirrels” and “What the heck is happening on ABC’s Lost?”
[BTW, if anyone actually knows what the heck is happening on Lost, how Sayid ends up being Ben’s hitman (!), let me know — I still believe the “island is purgatory” theory — it certainly is for viewers — even though it has been debunked by the show’s creator. As if! I guess that makes me a Lost denier … but I digress.]
I was inspired to re-examine this age-old question after the recent remarks of the Disinformer-in-Chief in his keynote address at the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference (WIREC), a ministerial-level conference hosted by the U.S. government. He said:
Now, look, I understand stereotypes are hard to defeat. People get an image planted in their head, and sometimes it causes them not to listen to the facts. But America is in the lead when it comes to energy independence; we’re in the lead when it comes to new technologies; we’re in the lead when it comes to global climate change — and we’ll stay that way. (Applause.)
[Side note: The “Is it still disinformation if the speaker gets applause?” question was actually settled by Aristotle himself in his little known book — The Duh of Rhetoric.]
Now I do think that the President actually believes what he is saying — even though he has been no friend of renewables and even though the second sentence obviously applies better to him than anybody in his audience, perhaps than anybody who ever walked the Earth. Indeed, if Bush were on the new reality show The Moment of Truth, strapped to a lie detector, I’m sure he’d break the bank.
If the speaker actually believes the utter falsehoods that he or she utters are true, then technically those words probably qualify as “misinformation.” I am, however, here proposing Romm’s Rule of Disinformation: Even when speakers believe the nonsense being spouted, misinformation becomes disinformation if it meets at least 2 of these 4 criteria:
- The speakers ought to know that the words are false — either because they and/or their advisors have been repeatedly informed of the truth or they could find out the truth in under 15 minutes using Google.
- The words are not merely untrue but are in fact the opposite of the truth — for instance, not only aren’t we in “the lead when it comes to energy independence,” we are arguably the biggest laggard in the world and we have become steadily less energy independent by all measures under the policies of President Bush.
- The speaker is following a well-established disinformation strategy — in this case not only is “we’re in the lead when it comes to new technologies” the exact opposite of the truth (we have been falling farther behind Europe and Asia in clean technology development and deployment under Bush), but Bush is merely echoing for the umpteenth time the “technology, technology, technology, blah, blah” rhetoric recommended by master GOP disinformer Frank Luntz.
- The words directly conflict with well-established science.
Bush’s statement meets at least the first three criteria, so yes it is disinformation. I would have said he also meets the fourth criterion, but his final clause is (or was) technically accurate:
… we’re in the lead when it comes to global climate change.
Obviously if he meant we’re in the lead when it comes to solving global climate change, that would be contrary to well-established science, which says to solve the climate problem you need to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, rather than increase them [note to self — in the future, avoid humor that is too dry].
But America is certainly in the lead when it comes to changing the global climate — or at least we were the top emitter of GHGs for most of the Bush presidency. I can’t fault Bush for not knowing China has probably surpassed us. In fact, I’m sure Bush never would have consciously let that happen.
Anyway, I hope this post proves useful to future philosophers and rhetoric/media scholars.