Free speech has small victory as Paypal makes reversal on 'misinformation'
Under new definition word used to stifle discourse, unflattering material or dissenting views
There was a small victory in the news last week not just for free speech, but halting the degradation of our language — in this case, the use of the word misinformation — into wordspeak with no purpose other than keeping the population in line.
It might well have been a setback. The tech company PayPal, a premier source for financial transactions in today's online economy, had sought to update its acceptable use policy to declare it would fine promoters of “misinformation” up to $2,500, as first reported by conservative website The Daily Wire.
But the proposed change wouldn't last long. PayPal was swiftly punished as shares fell more than five percent in the markets, wiping $6 billion of the company's value. Echoing the financial consequences was outrage among users on social media, who form a significant base of individuals using the company's services. PayPal, challenged with financial loses and faced with public backlash, announced it would make a reversal. A PayPal spokesperson later denied the controversial change was ever formally made.
Why that moment is important is because the concept of "misinformation," as it has been rebranded in recent years, has taken on a purpose more than labeling something as an untrue statement, and more like a cudgel for suppressing a dissenting view and shaming others who would express it.
The label misinformation is a great way to make something seem obviously bad. After all, who would want to have information out there that could potentially mislead or harm someone? By the same token, however, increasing the definition of what is misinformation could also be dangerous tool if the effect is to suppress and ridicule dissenting voices or discredit out-of-hand embarrassing material.
One prominent case in point is its new use within the Democratic Party: Misinformation was blamed for the Hillary Clinton's loss in the 2016 election. The word in its traditional sense would be appropriate for something like "Pizzagate," which famously to led a incident that stopped just short of violence after someone brought a gun to D.C.-based pizzeria expecting to see a Clinton-run child prostitution ring in a non-existent basemen. Misinformation with to respect Clinton's candidacy, however, appears to have taken on a broader context to mean dissatisfaction for any reason, including concern over her coziness with neoconservative principles in American foreign policy or skepticism among left-wing progressives she was the right candidate to champion their cause.
Another recent example would be the Hunter Biden laptop. Although Democrats sought to discredit as misinformation the salacious content found its hard drive just before the 2020 election, no one has put forward any evidence indicating the discoveries were erroneous.
As such, Democrats are now commonly using the term misinformation — along with the descriptor of someone being a Russian agent — to denigrate anything that would disaffect its supporters. The inherent condescension of the word is quite consistent with the approach of the modern Democratic Party, which has sought to take on an air of moral superiority as denigrates opponents of its values as unenlightened or uneducated. Misinformation, in many ways, is the same for Democrats as the term "fake news" was for President Trump as he sought to discredit news stories, except with a tone more appropriate for the party.
The concept of free and open democracy rests on accepting false information can out in the marketplace. But the system is buyer beware, not seller beware. Our society has to have faith people are able to determine what is correct and what is not, not rely on powerful systems like government or technology companies to make that decision for them, especially if that means these entities are allowed to use fear of misinformation to stifle views they don't like.
The answer to misinformation in a free-speech society is simply more speech. If a concept is readily apparent as misinformation, the act of free speech in refuting that misinformation would readily make it apparent as false, Misinformation, after all, isn't automatically beamed into anyone's brain as undisputed truth despite the claims of proponents who seek greater actions from our institutions to contain it.
Let me go out on a limb: Misinformation, even in its more traditional meaning as an untrue statement, may also have value as form of information, therefore should be able to flow freely. If misinformation can be found, it could be used as signal to alert people have a certain mindset, which can lead to ask why they have this view and possibly implement strategies to change that. The use of misinformation may also be a metaphor for people to express genuine feelings or suspicions, or may contain a germ of truth that can revealed with further refinement.
One thing I have to concede: The flip-side of people being able to freely state views without it being censored is institutions and others being able to label any speech they don't like as misinformation. That includes PayPal, which at the end of the day, is a private businesses and should be able to act on free speech principles. But in many ways, the market reaction was the act of free speech countering that expression expression of individuals withdrawing financial holdings from the company.
The outcome, however, may have gone the other way. When these supposedly neutral companies with profound impact on the basis of our daily interactions and economies get away with taking on positions that effectively limit free speech, it's another example of institutions that have traditionally accepted all sides using their power to control the population and suppress dissenting views.