While many major media outlets such as CNN have recently announced large layoffs, one journalistic beat is still booming. Call it the Disinformation Desk. The Washington Post has created a new position exclusively reporting on “health disinformation,” which includes “the forces promoting scientific and medical disinformation on subjects such as vaccines, drugs, nutritional supplements and health-care treatments.” National Public Radio hosts an entire “Disinformation Team” whose mission is broad: “From the lies about the 2020 election to the growing influence of anti-vaccine activists, to the enduring influence of climate-change denialism, lies and conspiracy theories have seeped into nearly all aspects of modern-day life, both in the US and around the globe.”
As NPR’s wording demonstrates, the field is dominated by people on the left who are very worried about misinformation on the right. When the New York Times recently featured “6 Podcasts About the Perils of Misinformation,” the topics covered included January 6, incels, anti-vaxxers, and Alex Jones. And while there is plenty of ground to cover on the spread of mis- and disinformation on the right, the fledgling field’s partisan focus has already produced some cautionary tales.
Consider two exemplars of this new breed of keyboard warrior: NBC News reporters Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny. When executives promoted the two to “senior reporters,” they were credited with creating the “disinformation and misinformation” beat at the network. NBC News executive editor Sally Shin said the pair’s reporting “has served as a wakeup call to the dangers stemming from the dark corners of the Internet.” They often work in tandem.
Like prolific writers of pulp fiction, Zadrozny and Collins have settled on a reliable formula for their work: They examine a shady patch of the Internet, find something terrible, then extrapolate to assert that these fringe views (always conveniently right-wing) are now mainstream and dangerous. This was the template they used to downplay the New York Post’s revelations about Hunter Biden’s laptop in the run-up to the 2020 election. They lumped these in with conspiracy theories involving child trafficking that were making the rounds on right-wing online message boards at the time. The two concluded that the laptop revelations and the conspiracy theories were all “part of a wider effort to smear Hunter Biden and weaken Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, which moved from the fringes of the Internet to more mainstream conservative news outlets.”
Collins did much the same in a piece called “QAnon’s New ‘Plan’? Run for School Board.” He sought to pin the Q label on several people who told him on the record that they didn’t believe QAnon theories but rather were running for school-board elections over concerns about what was happening in public schools. It didn’t matter what they said. Collins had his theme, and he was sticking to it.
That was also the formula for recent remarks by Collins about Kanye West’s anti-Semitic statements. Appearing on MSNBC, Collins asserted, without evidence, that unnamed “Republican podcast circles” were to blame for Kanye’s vile remarks: “There are a lot of people who are pushing those same talking points….They don’t agree with the classification that all the Jews are doing this, that Kanye might have some good points, that’s a lot of stuff you hear in the Republican podcast circles right now.”
It is not news that people post crazy things online, and not a surprise that some people unfortunately decide to believe them. What is new is the industry that has emerged to report on it and police it, and the incentive to see crisis and danger around every corner. The language of military conflict crops up regularly when disinformation reporters describe their work. They note that they are on the “front lines” of an “information war,” as if scrolling through 4Chan and appearing on cable television are akin to risking one’s life in battle.
They also frequently rely on the insights of a small number of disinformation “experts” who share their political views and are willing to overlook the harms of disinformation so long as it benefits their side of the aisle. A favorite expert source for Collins and Zadrozny is Renee DiResta, now of the Stanford Internet Observatory but previously of Yonder (once called New Knowledge). DiResta is an odd person to consult, since she was herself part of a team at Yonder that launched a conscious campaign of disinformation designed to help Democrat Doug Jones defeat Republican Roy Moore in the 2017 Senate special election in Alabama.
Yonder “orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet,” according to an internal Yonder report obtained by the New York Times. Yonder created thousands of fake Russian Twitter and Facebook accounts supporting Moore, bringing negative national media attention to his campaign. When caught out trying to influence an election in this manner, Yonder claimed it was just an “experiment.” Ironically, Yonder’s employees, including DiResta, had also recently worked with Democrats in the U.S. Senate to author a report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Evidently when the Russians do it, it’s dangerous election interference, but when Democratic disinformation experts do it in service of defeating Republicans, it’s “research.”
NBC’s star disinformation reporters are not averse to peddling disinformation themselves. Consider one recent example: In the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting that killed five people at an LGBTQ bar in Colorado Springs, Collins appeared on NBC and claimed the shooter had been radicalized by conservative media and its animus toward gay people. Law enforcement at the time had shared no information about the shooter’s motives, but according to Collins, reporters needed to “have a come-to-Jesus moment.” Appearing on MSNBC, he said: “What are you more afraid of? Being on Breitbart for saying that trans people deserve to be alive? Or are you more afraid of waking up to the news of more dead people? I’m more afraid of the dead people.” Despite his supposed fear of more corpses, he found the time to focus most of his remarks on himself, highlighting many of his own previous stories and asking, “What am I doing wrong?” In a two-minute clip he used the word “I” 15 times.
Collins later appeared on Meet the Press and repeated his claim that “the monthslong campaign of targeting trans and gay-rights events and supporters…has been a persistent narrative by the anti-LGBTQ right in the last, you know, six months to the last year” and that “these narratives have taken such hold that they are, in fact, endorsing violence at this point.”
When the shooter appeared in court, however, he claimed to be nonbinary and wanted to be referred to as “Mx”—a disruption of Collins’s tidy narrative.
But when Collins was asked on-air in 2019 about a mass shooter in Dayton, Ohio, whom authorities had discovered was an avowed socialist with a public history of supporting liberal politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and expressing anger about the 2016 election (a typical tweet: “I want socialism, and I’ll not wait for the idiots to finally come around to understanding”), he refused to speculate about motive. “More neutral than anything,” he said. “We don’t know if there’s any political affiliation.”
His colleague Zadrozny was also quick to blame conservative media for the Colorado Springs shootings. “I’ve been following this since about March and April,” she said on NBC. “We follow online hate trends, I guess. And since April and March, really the LGBT community has been the main focus of this hatred. If there is a pipeline it starts from some smaller accounts online…[then] moves to the right-wing blogosphere, and then it ends up on Tucker Carlson or it ends up out of a right-wing politician’s mouth. And it’s a really dangerous cycle that does have real-world consequences.”
When the Washington Free Beacon tweeted out a clip of the show with a direct quote from Zadrozny, Zadrozny tweeted back, “This [is] absolutely not true and if you had a shred of legitimacy you’d delete and correct. I won’t hold my breath.” Correct what, exactly? Her own words, recorded on video?
Like many reporters in the disinformation space, Zadrozny dislikes Libs of TikTok, a Twitter account that posts snippets from left-leaning social-media accounts. Libs of TikTok tweeted the following after the shooting: “This organization in Colorado teaches kids how to become drag queens and helps kids ‘safely experience the art of drag on stage,’” with direct links to the organization’s publicity materials. Zadrozny tweeted in response: “Hateful and violent online rhetoric targeting LGBTQ people has been ratcheting up for months. Now, just hours after a deadly mass shooting at #ClubQ, the worst of these hate accounts, LibsofTikTok is targeting another drag event in Colorado.”
Zadrozny, the mistress of the motte-and-bailey approach to journalism, believes that a Twitter account that posts publicly available information is “targeting” people for violence—which then becomes a justification for censoring it. In this, she echoes the beliefs of many current and former employees of social-media platforms; Twitter’s former head of safety, Yoel Roth, recently said that Twitter accounts such as Libs of TikTok and the Babylon Bee were not only “not funny” but “dangerous” and their existence “contributes to an environment that makes people unsafe in the world.” “Let’s start from a premise that it’s f***ed up,” he said.
This suggests a broader problem with the disinformation beat. These “reporters” see themselves not merely as reporters but as saviors and advocates, and as such they react badly to criticism of their work. In 2020, when Glenn Greenwald questioned the credibility of some reporters on the disinformation beat, Collins chose to respond by posting a lengthy, self-indulgent Twitter thread of his own pieces. He said of himself: “Should I not have talked to all of those doctors back in April and May who told me disinformation was killing their patients and ravaging their ERs? Should I not have discovered the link between the viral anti-mask freakouts and QAnon’s invasion into wellness and religious groups? Should I not have worked the phones for months, then slaughtered my mental health writing these stories?”
If you’ve read Collins’s stories, the answer is: Probably not. Those pieces are heavy on hyperbole and extrapolation and one-sided in their presentation of the complicated problems of our current information ecosystem. His story about anti-masking and wellness groups was largely about one woman who is bipolar and who, in a manic phase in isolation during COVID lockdown, found herself reading some crazy stuff online and then attacking a display of masks at her local Target. Collins manages to be both condescending and portentous about such “wannabe anti-mask influencers,” as he calls them—which comes as a surprise from someone who says that writing about online wellness groups and 4Chan conspiracy theorists “slaughtered” his own mental health.
In early December, these crack disinformation reporters were given an opportunity to revisit one of their most egregious mistakes: covering for the spurious claim that the Hunter Biden laptop story was a Russian disinformation campaign. Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, turned over many of the company’s files to the independent journalist Matt Taibbi, who then tweeted out details of Twitter’s internal efforts to suppress the New York Post’s story. Collins immediately tweeted, dismissively, that Taibbi was merely doing “PR work for the richest man in the world.” Whatever one can say about Matt Taibbi, and there are many uncomplimentary things one could say about his often-wild work, the idea that he’s a billionaire’s shill is among the most preposterous.
At a time when trust in media as an institution remains historically low, anointing a small cadre of reporters as the judges of what is and is not disinformation is risky at best—especially given their own propensity for glib snark and witlessness combined with their frequent descents into sodden self-pity.
Worse still, those who have been tasked with reporting on the many ways misinformation and disinformation are shared among the masses have decided that it is their job to censor. Their logic is this: The only way to save you from yourselves and the gullibility from which you all suffer is to prevent you from saying and seeing things we have determined are not in the nation’s best interest (as we define it).
In the heady early days of Silicon Valley, its boosters frequently claimed that “information wants to be free.” Today, as the Hunter Biden laptop and other stories demonstrate, almost all mainstream media journalists on the “disinformation” beat think information should instead serve their agreed-upon narrative or be removed from view. Anything less is “dangerous.”
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