From 1949 to 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee ran 20th-century America’s largest disinformation campaign. Their circus of investigations spuriously accused hundreds of Americans of being Communist spies involved in what McCarthy called “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” McCarthy’s claims were fantastical, but he always found an audience for them. In part, this was because he could honestly claim that the FBI held a secret list of Communist spies that the bureau refused to share with anyone outside the executive branch.
The real list was short and those on it were closely watched, but by keeping it top secret, the FBI essentially let McCarthy make unfalsifiable claims about who was on it, leading to blacklists, arrests, and suicides in Hollywood and the highest branches of government.
Today’s disinformation problems far exceed those of the 1950s, in large part because of the amplifying effects of social media. But blaming disinformation solely on the rise of the attention economy overlooks the role of government secrecy and the consequent erosion of public trust. QAnon conspiracy theories and Alex Jones’s deep state mutterings feel less preposterous when you consider that only eight years ago, Edward Snowden revealed America’s secret global surveillance system. And the right is not alone in its conspiratorial thinking — many on the left still believe Trump’s concealed tax returns and shady dealings with Russia imply he was a “Manchurian Candidate”-style sleeper agent.
Though some government secrecy is necessary for keeping sensitive information safe from bad actors, much of it in this country is excessive. Intelligence agencies and other government entities are incentivized to overclassify rather than overshare, rendering even mundane information top secret. It creates a climate that makes it easy to hide scandal and politically inexpedient information — and it means that regulating social media will not be enough to slow the spread of disinformation in the long term.
It may be too late to win over hardcore conspiracy theorists. But the Biden administration can still save those who teeter close to the edge by regaining public trust with a more transparent, less secretive government.
Government secrecy has been on the rise since the start of the Cold War, and occasional leaks have whet the American appetite for conspiracy. During the Vietnam War, the leak of the Pentagon Papers led to the publication of a rash of “secret histories,” which portrayed the war as either a left-wing or a right-wing conspiracy, depending on the author. In the 1980s, that mindset moved inside the government, when intelligence agencies withheld information about the crumbling USSR from the executive branch. In that information vacuum, the Reagan administration imagined a powerful Soviet menace and, egged on by the military-industrial complex, escalated the Cold War accordingly. Time and again, government secrecy has created opportunities for the paranoid, the self-interested, and the demagogic to turn a reasonable shadow of a doubt into a disinformation bogeyman.
Today, social media magnifies the power and reach of disinformation. Platforms profit off the ad revenue generated by attention-grabbing disinformation campaigns and multiply their earnings by algorithmically amplifying them in echo chambers fueled by confirmation bias. Proposals to clean up this toxic environment include promoting social media literacy, stimulating “counterspeech,” and content moderation. There may finally be the political will to enact such interventions, but their effects will be limited because they treat disinformation as the disease rather than a symptom of a broader distrust in democratic institutions.
In the last two decades, the federal government has done much to create that distrust by opting to operate in even deeper secrecy. The post-9/11 Patriot Act created countless new avenues for secrecy in the name of counterterrorism. Not only did President Obama reauthorize some of these measures when they were set to expire, but his administration also reduced public transparency by refusing to respond to more Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests than any previous administration. And President Trump, despite calling himself “the most transparent president, probably in the history of this country,” pushed government secrecy to new heights, making staffers sign nondisclosure agreements, phasing out briefings, withholding visitor logs, and refusing to comply with House Oversight Committee requests during his first impeachment.
President Biden has already stopped many of Trump’s most egregious secrecy practices, but there are three ways his administration can go above and beyond and create the government transparency we need to combat disinformation.
First, the administration can increase response rates and improve response times to FOIA requests across agencies. The Freedom of Information Act is the bread and butter of watchdog groups and investigative journalists, and re-empowering those actors can help rebuild their reputations and improve government accountability.
Second, Biden can reduce what legal scholar David Pozen calls the “depth” of government secrets. Pozen describes secrecy as not a binary but a spectrum that goes from shallow to deep depending on how many people know something, how much they know about it, and how soon others will know. Deep secrets — ones where the government hides that it is hiding something — are especially dangerous. They can incite virulent public distrust when they come out.
One way to lessen deep secrecy is by forbidding “general secrets” about the goals and high-level plans of a government program while permitting “particular secrets” about the program’s methods and identifying details.
There’s precedent for this. The Privacy Act of 1974, for example, generally requires government agencies to reveal what kind of data they collect on individuals. Recently, this law forced the Department of Homeland Security to disclose that it began collecting social media data as part of its immigration vetting procedures. This created an opportunity for advocacy groups such as the Center for Democracy & Technology to make FOIA requests about the practice, and just a few weeks ago, they sued when the government failed to release information. But the Privacy Act and other laws that follow these “fair information practice” principles are kneecapped by exemptions and loopholes that need closing. More recent legislation may show the way forward — like New York City’s POST Act, which requires the New York Police Department to disclose which surveillance technologies it uses and how.
Third, Biden can instruct regulators to break corporate trade secrecy when it gets in the way of transparent governing. This is particularly relevant today to COVID-19. Pharmaceutical companies routinely withhold clinical trial data on drugs and vaccines from the public, purporting that they are trade secrets. In turn, the companies potentially contribute to the rampant mis/disinformation circulating about vaccine safety and effectiveness. Legal scholars Chris Morten and Amy Kapczynski argue that the Food and Drug Administration can and should disclose this data to allow watchdog and advocacy groups to double check the pharmaceutical companies’ work. If this transparency increased public trust in the vaccines, it would have meaningful consequences for everyone’s health.
Social media platforms play a large part in our current disinformation boom, but they are not alone. Facebook and Twitter may give conspiracy theorists megaphones, but the audience for such bunk exists only because of broad public distrust in government. Regulating platforms may be a medium-term fix, but in the long term, it will take a more open, transparent, trusted government to build a disinformation-resistant society.
Gabriel Nicholas is a research fellow at the Information Law Institute and the Center for Cybersecurity at New York University. Follow him on Twitter @GabeNicholas.