Why Republicans keep balking at efforts to combat disinformation

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State Department officials were scheduled to meet yesterday with a Facebook team to discuss security measures surrounding the 2024 election cycle. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have been an especially unusual occurrence: These officials have been meeting every Wednesday.

But this week’s meeting was canceled — because a Trump-appointed judge imposed a July Fourth injunction, prohibiting U.S. officials from interacting with social media companies as part of the larger effort to combat misinformation and disinformation. A Washington Post report noted that the cancellation helped show that Judge Terry Doughty’s order is already having an effect.

“There is so much wrong with this decision — not least of all that it will make us less secure going into the 2024 elections,” wrote Yoel Roth, the former head of Trust and Safety at Twitter, in a social media post. Roth said the most glaring problem with the decision is that it asserts the companies were “coerced” to remove posts simply because they met with government officials. “That’s just … not how any of this works,” he wrote.

By any fair measure, the Trump-appointed jurist’s provocative injunction is tough to defend — in part because of its dreadful reasoning, and in part because it included basic factual errors.

There are also the consequences to consider: U.S. officials have spent many years communicating with social media companies in order to help combat everything from human trafficking to terrorist threats. Now, those efforts have stopped — or are at least on hold — because a far-right judge apparently wants to make a name for himself.

But there’s also a bigger picture to keep in mind. The only reason this lawsuit exists is because a couple of Republican state attorneys general were outraged by efforts to combat falsehoods about vaccines. Federal agencies asked companies such as Twitter and Facebook not to contribute to vaccine hesitancy during a pandemic, and two statewide GOP officials took the matter to court, condemning the work as unacceptable. They then found a judge who’d take their side.

The New York Times quoted Alice E. Marwick, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and expert in disinformation, who said the injunction could impede work meant to keep false and potentially dangerous claims from spreading.

The court order, Marwick said, followed other efforts, largely from Republicans, that are “part of an organized campaign pushing back on the idea of disinformation as a whole.”

I think that’s both true and underappreciated.

In April, for example, the Department of Homeland Security stepped up its efforts to counter disinformation coming from the Kremlin and Mexican smugglers. Republicans were apoplectic.

Two months later, as my MSNBC colleague Ja’han Jones noted, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan’s so-called “weaponization” panel released a report that also condemned efforts to combat disinformation.

Now, Doughty’s injunction is another brick in an ugly wall.

To be sure, if Republicans had credible evidence of officials executing a partisan plot, that would matter. If they could prove that social media companies were coerced into targeting legitimate content as part of some kind of political crusade, we’d have a very different kind of conversation.

But that’s not what has happened. By all appearances, a few too many prominent GOP officials seem desperate to stop efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation, working from the assumption that any such efforts to curtail dangerous lies would necessarily hurt the right.

And if that is the motivation, it says more about the state of Republican rhetoric than these partisans probably intended.

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”

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