26 March 2021

With his new job, Prince Harry is fully signed up to the misinformation delusion

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When the Duke and Duchess of Sussex broke with the Royal Family, they promised that their “life of public service” would continue. Already, Prince Harry has found a useful role: as a leading indicator of which ideas, trends and fads have become nothing more than the shallow fixations of bien pensant jet-setters.

A day after being hired as the ‘Chief Impact Officer’ of Silicon Vally start up BetterUp, Harry bagged a second job, as a member of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Of the new role, Harry says that “the experience of today’s digital world has us inundated with an avalanche of misinformation, affecting our ability as individuals as well as societies to think clearly and truly understand the world we live in”.

The prince says he believes this “is a humanitarian issue and as such it demands a multi-stakeholder response from advocacy voices, members of the media, academic researchers, and both government and civil society leaders. I’m eager to join this new Aspen commission and look forward to working on a solution-oriented approach to the information disorder crisis”. 

Appointing an unqualified royal? A heavy sprinkling of meaningless jargon?  Amping up the issue as a “humanitarian” problem? These are all very encouraging signs. Maybe the craze for blaming the world’s ills on “misinformation” has finally jumped the shark.

Like many bad ideas, the notion that misinformation — incorrect information usually spread with the express intention to mislead —was a major problem plaguing public life bubbled up in 2016. Blindsided by Trump and Brexit, elites on both sides of the Atlantic faced a choice: reckon with what the meaning of these revolts or cite a range of sinister one-off factors to explain away the results. Most chose the later, spending years obsessing over Russian interference, Cambridge Analytica, social media, how the media covered Trump and so on. 

They all boiled down to complaints about the supply of information available to the voters – complaints about misinformation and how it was handled, in other words. None of this would have happened if only CNN chyrons had pointed out that Trump was lying when he said Mexico would pay for the wall, or Facebook moderators had more zealously flagged the many dubious claims posted on the site. There aren’t honest disagreements or good-faith differences in priorities and values, only “low-information” voters. If only they were high-information then they might “think more clearly” (to use Prince Harry’s phrase). Let’s call this the great misinformation delusion.   

The irony, of course, is that the crazed misinformation hunt led impeccably well-educated Americans to believe some of the most implausible theories going: that Trump was a Russian agent, that an algorithm could “hack” a voter’s brain, that the Kremlin hacked voting machines in 2016.  

Just as the misinformation delusion was petering out, Trump decided to drop the mother of all whoppers by claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from him. After January 6, when violent Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, the calls for a misinformation crackdown were more zealous than ever. Time to ban Fox News, argued one New York Times columnist. Time for Biden to appoint a ‘reality czar’, said a group of experts. Another wants the US government to set up a “counter-conspiracy task force”. (Do I need to make the obvious dystopian literary analogy?) 

The weeks that separated November 3 from January 6 were a horrendous experiment in just how much damage the most powerful man in the world can do with the most incendiary possible lie about American democracy. The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot. 

But I suspect the Washington-based journalist Damir Marusic is right to speculate that “the ‘rigged election’ narrative is just a rallying point for opposition — that most people who say they believe in it instead believe a deeper ‘truth’: that the system is fundamentally rotten and that they are unable to do anything about it. To express that dissatisfaction, they are doubling down on a falsity in order to stick it to the establishment”. In other words, the establishment doesn’t have a truth problem, it has a legitimacy problem. 

Again, none of this is to say that misinformation doesn’t exist. There really are Russian bots sowing doubt ahead of American elections. Malicious falsehoods are spread all the time (as they always have been). But the effort to root them out is not one of the primary political challenges of our age, as some seem to think.   

The misinformation delusion is almost certainly more damaging than the misinformation itself. Misinformation hunters soon start to see it everywhere they look and the public debate erodes not because of the lies themselves but because of the assumption that misinformation is behind every unwelcome political development. There are right answers and wrong answers, and misinformation is assumed to be to blame for the latter. After Trump’s surprisingly strong showing among Hispanic voters in November, for example, liberal newspapers were suddenly fixated on the dangerous misinformation that they claimed had gone viral among Latinos. 

As importantly, the misinformation delusion is built on an epistemological arrogance that leaves very little room for genuine uncertainty. As is well documented, mask-wearing was sneered at by the experts at the start of the pandemic. Concern about the emergence of a novel coronavirus was fear-mongering – until it wasn’t. The idea that the virus may have originated in a Chinese laboratory was prematurely dismissed as a conspiracy theory. We can separate truth from falsehood, but we should also acknowledge how little we know. 

The sooner the misinformation delusion passes, the better. Until then, we will have to endure patronising speeches by a prince.

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Oliver Wiseman is US Editor of The Critic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.