All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
– Sun Tzu, the Art of War
In recent years, prominent national security officials and media outlets have raised alarm about the unprecedented effects of foreign disinformation in democratic countries. In practice, what they mean is that democratic governments have fallen behind in their command of the methods of information warfare in the early 21st century. As outlined herein, while information warfare is a real and serious issue facing democratic governments in the 21st century, the war on disinformation, as currently practiced, has backfired spectacularly and done far more harm than good, as evidenced most clearly by the response to COVID-19.
We begin with the definitions and history of a few key terms: Censorship, free speech, misinformation, disinformation, and bots.
Censorship and Free Speech
Censorship is any deliberate suppression or prohibition of speech, whether for good or ill. In the United States and countries which have adopted its model, censorship induced by governments and their appendages is constitutionally prohibited except in the narrow category of “illegal speech”—e.g., obscenity, child exploitation, speech abetting criminal conduct, and speech that incites imminent violence.
Because censorship involves the exercise of power to silence another individual, censorship is inherently hierarchical. A person who lacks the power to silence another cannot censor them. For this reason, censorship inherently reinforces existing power structures, whether rightly or wrongly.
Though the United States may be the first country to have enshrined the right to free speech in its constitution, the right to free speech developed over centuries and predates the Western Enlightenment. For example, the right to speak freely was inherent to the democratic practices of the political classes in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, even if it was not enshrined in words. This is only logical; because these systems treated all members of the political class as equals, no member of the political class had the power to censor another except with the consent of the body politic.
The right to free speech developed and receded in fits and starts over the coming centuries for a number of reasons; but in accordance with George Orwell’s view of institutional evolution, free speech developed primarily because it afforded an evolutionary advantage to the societies in which it was practiced. For example, the political equality among Medieval British lords in their early parliamentary system necessitated free speech among them; by the 19th century, the cumulative benefits of this evolutionary advantage would help make Britain the world’s primary superpower. The United States arguably went a step further by enshrining free speech in its constitution and extending it to all adults, affording the United States a still greater evolutionary advantage.