Misinformation: The First Digital Drug

By Ebenezer Mann

Ebenezer Mann

noun: a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.

Where We’re At

The current situation in the US is challenging. Misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories are rampant in every cohort of society. Technology has fueled this evolution. There’s no denying it: misinformation is the first digital drug and America is hopelessly addicted.

I’ve been trying to wrangle my own thoughts on how we can solve this issue. I’m usually strongly on the side of free speech. However, framing misinformation as a drug problem has helped me refine my thinking around where lines can be drawn.

A Layperson’s History of Drug Policy

My understanding of the story of drug policy in the US has been:

  • All drugs were once legal, then some hardcore ones were banned, then recreational drugs became political, subject to fear-mongering, and banned arbitrarily based on lobbying (for or against), fear, or as a tool to oppress people.
  • All of that policy failed miserably
  • Most progressive thinking is moving towards more legalization and treatment, vs banning and punishment
  • Notably, in all cases one consistent rule is that, no matter the policy, operating under the influence of drugs at work is still prohibited, especially in roles that can have serious negative impact when mistakes happen.

A Layperson’s Advocacy for Misinformation Policy

It seems like we only have a few paths forward for misinformation:

  • Keep it as it is — mostly unregulated.
  • Treat it like we’ve historically treated drugs — thoroughly regulate; punish rule-breakers
  • Treat it like we’re starting to treat drugs

Given our failure on drug policy in the last century and the gravity of the current misinformation situation, I’m starting to formulate my own advocacy based on where progressive drug policy is going. Improvements to the status quo could include:

  • Have better definitions and a taxonomy for misinformation. Right now we’re doing the equivalent of saying misinformation is either poison or isn’t poison.
  • Develop non-partisan agencies tasked with helping label and categorize misinformation.
  • Cigarette cartons have lung cancer photos and warnings; dangerous information can come with similar labels.
  • Develop treatment and other measures to push back against the proliferation of misinformation.
  • Have better-defined rules for what constitutes acting under the influence of hardcore misinformation, and introduce rules to prevent leaders from doing so.

As I wrote these out, they make the defend-free-speech center of my brain light up a bit, but not as much as I thought they might. We need to do something.

In any case, thinking about misinformation as drug has helped me come to a better understanding of the problem and helped me leverage existing knowledge to shape my advocacy.

Author’s Note: ok, porn was the first digital drug. But this title reads better.