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Who decides what is “misinformation”? Humanist accused of flat-Earthism by Green Party candidate

Report by David Warden

On Saturday 13th April, Dorset Humanists hosted a hustings event for four Prospective Parliamentary Candidates in the Bournemouth East constituency. After the refreshment break, two of the candidates were available to take more questions from the floor. The first question concerned media censorship and the control of alleged misinformation, particularly by an organisation called Trusted News Initiative, a partnership founded by the BBC that includes organisations from around the globe, including: Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, BBC, CBC/Radio-Canada, European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Financial Times, Information Futures Lab, Google/YouTube, The Hindu, The Nation Media Group, Meta, Microsoft, Thomson Reuters, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Twitter, The Washington Post, Kompas (Indonesia), Dawn (Pakistan), Indian Express, NDTV (India), ABC (Australia), SBS (Australia), and NHK (the Japan Broadcasting Corporation). According to its own website, TNI members “work together to build audience trust and to find solutions to tackle challenges of disinformation. By including media organisations and social media platforms, it is the only forum in the world of its kind designed to take on disinformation in real time.” In response to the question, the Liberal Democrat candidate said “I'm against the censorship of news” but he went on to add that “there are times when I think it’s useful to prohibit some speech”. The Green Party candidate, Joe Salmon, became increasingly exasperated by the discussion and dismissed it as akin to someone claiming that the Earth is flat. Here's how the dialogue proceeded:

Questioner: I wanted to ask the two representatives on the left this afternoon what are your feelings on TNI the Trusted News Initiative?

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): When you tell me a little bit more about it I'll share some views with you… I'm not aware of that particular initiative… give me a quick rundown but it sounds like it may be parallel to lots of things that do capture my imagination.

Questioner: Trusted News Initiative was actually kicked off by the BBC on 7th September 2019 in order to censor, shadow ban, eliminate any conversation on vaccines that didn't encourage the public to take them [Joe Salmon (Green Party) visibly reacted at the mention of vaccines] and the other tranche was to do with making sure that the right people got elected in democratic governments by censoring, shadow banning, and having [the wrong people] banned from social media platforms to make sure that the selection the public selected from was already pre-selected.

Joe Salmon (Green Party): So I'm vaccinated, I’ve probably not got long to live as a result, I'm not interested in discussing vaccines today. It’s a real abuse of...

Questioner: I'm not discussing vaccines and you shouldn't get emotional on a subject that actually affects the health of five and a half billion people on the planet. You should stick to facts and logic. But anyway, so Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Financial Times, London Times, New York Times Washington Post, Associated Press, Reuters, every magazine, every newspaper, all of your information is filtered through the Trusted News Initiative and it was that secret organisation which is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. It was specifically set up to avoid you as a member of the public or an MP from finding out why your opinions are not appearing in Facebook, not appearing on Twitter or any kind of public forum whatsoever and I think it's incredible that, and the other two gentlemen would have been exactly the same as you two, this is no criticism of you.

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): I haven't spoken yet!

Questioner: Okay, yeah, but sorry if you don't know what Trusted News Initiative is.

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): No I think I've heard of it in a different guise and can I speak now? I think I get your position.

Questioner: I'm simply saying I should be entitled to hear all views and I don't want them censored certainly not by the BBC at all.

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): No I in my heart of hearts I am a liberal in terms of you know freedom of information. You seem to have researched it in far more detail than I have. What I would say to you is parallel to this I don't think I share your views on a number of the issues but that's neither here nor there because we're talking about freedom of speech and access to information which is the key thing. Unless it's pernicious or dangerous or deliberately divisive, unless it's demonstrably violent rhetoric, then I think we have a duty to allow access of information. However when information could be potentially misleading we need to have different safeguards and such.

Questioner: No, no, such as? Give me an example of misleading information. Don't just say it.

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): Injecting chlorine into your body to kill a virus.

Questioner: And you think we're all too stupid to work that out for ourselves?

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): Well this is my point now I think broadly speaking we have deficits of education and awareness. We can't combat that by censoring news. That's my fundamental belief.

Questioner: So you're against TNI.

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): I need to look into it more but in terms of principle I'm against the censorship of news. However I would say to you that my work brings me into contact with extremists. Either people on the route towards extremism or those who have left extremism of all levels of all shapes. People who were certainly by their own confession or by analysis of others on the route towards something dangerous for themselves or the communities around them. One of the things that is often said is “We can't have this information, we're not allowed to have this voice.”  You can demonstrate fairly swiftly that you can find access. There's a newspaper that's delivered to me with views similar to your own. There are assemblies all over the country.

Questioner: Sorry, what views have I got… that should be censored?

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): No I don't think any of it should be censored, that's my point, I'm against censorship but I'm saying that when I talk to people who are claiming that there is censorship...

Questioner: You don't think there is?

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): The processes that I'm involved in, what I'm saying to you is if people say “You're not allowed to say this” you'll find a public forum where people have said that. You talking now in a public forum.

Questioner: Yes so what I'm saying is backed up by facts

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): Your facts from your perspective

Questioner: No, no.

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): You're getting passionate now you told Joe not to be passionate. You're getting emotional.

Questioner: Okay so when Pfizer released their post-marketing Adverse Events did you read it?

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): Uh, no.

Questioner: I'm talking about Pfizer's own document. It was free due to a judge. They tried to keep it secret for 75 years. I think we should listen to Pfizer and Pfizer told us in their post-marketing, I've got it here printed off if you think I'm making it up.

Jon Nicholas (Liberal Democrat): No I don't think you're making anything up. I think we come from different angles. I'm broadly against censorship and access to information but there are times when I think it’s useful to prohibit some speech because it's [inaudible].

Joe Salmon (Green Party): I really appreciate everybody staying on to have more of a discussion and I think there's a whole debate about censorship which may be really interesting that some people could go off and have if they want to but I think in a lot of modern discourse at the moment there comes a point where everybody else is kind of planning a trip which takes a basic understanding of geography and they want to have that discussion about how they get from A to B and then all of a sudden somebody bursts in and goes “Oh actually the world is flat”. Now everybody else feels like they've finished that discussion. You know they figured that out when they were two and they don't want to talk about whether the world is flat or not and all the people who go “The world is flat” go “Oh I'm being shut down, no one's listening”, and it's not that no one's listening to you, ignoring you, it's just no one's interested. You know I'm not interested about it let's talk about something different more interesting. Can we have some more questions?

Another member of the audience interjected: “I'm absolutely interested in what he's got to say. It may be a diversion for you but I've never heard of this before. I had my suspicions.”

Joe Salmon and the questioner started talking over each other at this point and I had to call the meeting to order. Trusted News Initiative may be the kind of organisation that Mike Flood has in mind in order to inhibit the flow of misinformation and disinformation (see his article in this edition of Humanistically Speaking). But the question which then arises is who exactly are the actors who are trusted to determine the difference between truth and “misinformation”? Are they controlled by powerful actors in, say, the pharmaceutical industry? Is “misinformation”, by definition, something which disrupts a narrative which politicians and other members of an “elite” are keen to promote for the purposes of social control? If an elite class of powerful actors wish to inhibit dissent from a mainstream consensus, there is an obvious strategic advantage in labelling such dissent as “misinformation” or “disinformation” or as “harmful ideas”. Colin Crouch, Emeritus Professor of Governance and Public Management at Warwick Business School, warned in 2016 in his book The Knowledge Corrupters that “executives in profit-maximising corporations have incentives to ignore or distort knowledge, especially firms in the information business of the mass media themselves, as financial knowledge increasingly trumps the other kinds of knowledge that business needs. Firms also seek to take control of public knowledge and use it for their own ends, often at the cost of other stakeholders in society”. How can humanists navigate this complex and confusing information war?

The online magazine UnHerd recently found itself on the Global Disinformation Index for alleged anti-LGBTQI+ narratives because one of its authors is Kathleen Stock, the British philosopher who has criticised trans ideology. Whatever your views of Stock, at what point does the concept of “disinformation” become weaponised as a sinister new form of totalitarianism, which seeks to suppress and delegitimise alternative points of view in a free society?

More information about the Trusted News Initiative

Participating Organisations: The initiative includes major broadcasters, tech companies, and publishers such as the BBC, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Reuters, The Washington Post, and others. These entities collaborate to share information about emerging disinformation threats and coordinate their responses.

1. Goals and Actions:

  • Rapid Alert System: TNI established a system where partners can alert each other about disinformation that threatens human life or the integrity of national or international electoral processes. This system allows participants to quickly take action to address the misinformation.

  • Shared Standards and Technologies: Participants work together to develop shared industry standards and technologies that help improve the reliability and trustworthiness of news content.

2. Focus Areas:

  • Elections: TNI focuses on safeguarding electoral processes from misinformation that could undermine the fairness and credibility of elections.

  • Emergencies: The initiative also addresses misinformation during major global emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring that the public receives accurate and life-saving information.

3. Impact and Criticism:

  • Impact: The initiative has been credited with fostering greater collaboration between different sectors of the media and technology industries, enhancing their ability to respond to misinformation quickly.

  • Criticism: Despite its objectives, the TNI has faced criticism concerning transparency and the potential for censorship. Critics argue that the initiative might suppress legitimate discourse under the guise of fighting misinformation, thereby impacting free speech.

Criticism of the Trusted News Initiative (TNI) has come from various quarters. These critiques generally focus on the notion that while the initiative aims to combat misinformation, it could also inadvertently or deliberately limit legitimate discourse and diversity of opinion. Specific critics and types of criticism include:

  1. Media Critics and Academics: Some journalists and academics have expressed concerns that the TNI could lead to an overly centralised control of information. They argue that determining what constitutes “misinformation” can be subjective and might be influenced by political or commercial interests.

  2. Free Speech Advocates: Organisations and individuals advocating for free speech rights have expressed worries that such coalitions could stifle legitimate speech by labelling it as misinformation or disinformation. There's a concern about who decides what is considered “trustworthy” and the criteria used for these decisions.

  3. Alternative Media Outlets: Some alternative and independent news sources view TNI as a mechanism that could favour mainstream or established media organisations, potentially sidelining or delegitimising alternative viewpoints that don't align with consensus perspectives from major media entities.

  4. Political Commentators: Commentators, especially those with views that might oppose the mainstream or established narratives, have criticised the initiative as a way to control the narrative and suppress dissenting voices under the guise of combating fake news.

  5. Public Figures and Intellectuals: Figures like journalist Glenn Greenwald (an American journalist, author, and former lawyer) and others have pointed out that initiatives like the TNI risk being used to enforce a particular worldview while potentially censoring conflicting reports or analyses under the broad and sometimes vague banner of fighting “misinformation”.

The debate surrounding the TNI underscores the complex balance between combating “misinformation” and upholding the principles of free expression and diversity of opinion in the media landscape. These concerns highlight the need for clear, transparent guidelines and the inclusion of a broad range of stakeholders in conversations about media integrity and misinformation.

It's common for individuals from the following groups to voice concerns about initiatives like the TNI:

  1. Independent Journalists and Bloggers: These individuals might feel that their work is marginalised or unfairly labelled as misinformation by larger media entities and platforms cooperating under such initiatives.

  2. Academics in Media Studies or Communications: Scholars in these fields often examine the impacts of media control and information gatekeeping, and some may critique the effects of such collaborations on public discourse.

  3. Political Activists: Especially those from political fringes or who engage in advocacy against mainstream political positions, might view TNI as a threat to diverse political discourse.

  4. Libertarian Thinkers: Individuals or groups who champion minimal regulation of speech and media by either government or corporate entities often critique any form of centralised media control.

Additional information about TNI was sourced from ChatGPT.

Further reading and watching

Dorset Humanists hustings event video is here - the exchanges discussed above start at 1.37

Trusted News Initiative Wikipedia

Trusted News Initiative website

UnHerd report is here

Global Disinformation Index website

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (2021) Jonathan Rauch

The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life (2016) Colin Crouch

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