Censorship’s Permanent Home In Academia: Harvard Journal Bragged ‘Mis/Disinfo Studies’ Is ‘Too Big to Fail’

  • Harvard’s in-house censorship journal published an article declaring the field of “mis- and disinformation studies” to be “too big to fail” and “here to stay.”
  • Citing government funding to academic departments who study how to optimize online censorship, the Harvard magazine embraced language from the 2008 financial crisis language reserved for major banks.
  • The Harvard authors openly acknowledged the troubling links between today’s censorship regime and civil liberties violations during 1950s Cold War propaganda efforts.
“The field of mis- and disinformation studies is here to stay.” So declares the opening line of a report titled “Mis- and disinformation studies are too big to fail: Six suggestions for the field’s future,” published last September by the Harvard Misinformation Review, housed within the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy and Government.  “Disinformation studies” is academic speak for online censorship. As the Harvard report itself concedes, the field was born “after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump—arguably catalysts for the emergence of the field.” That is, per Harvard, the involvement of US academics in online censorship happened as a reactionary response to right-wing populist political success on both sides of the Atlantic.  As a technical matter, “disinformation studies” is a merger of social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology) and computer sciences (AI, machine learning, network theory), each converging on a common target (law-abiding citizens) to censor on social media. University social science teams conduct a “network mapping” of so-called “misinformation communities” online for takedown, and their findings are converted into specific algorithm targets by the university computer science teams. The Harvard report defines “mis/disinfo studies” as such:
It is firmly entrenched in various academic disciplines, with work coming from areas such as sociology, communication, medicine and pharmacology, as well as computer science (Righetti et al., 2022).
This above definition’s references to “medicine and pharmacology” appears to emphasize the “misinfo” field’s censorship of critics of Covid-19 policies or vaccines. The below definition, from influential “disinformation studies” figure Caroline Orr (Twitter: @RVAwonk) is more comprehensive — albeit stripped of all self-awareness of its Orwellian overtones: “Disinformation studies” is an emerging multidisciplinary speciality that brings together psychologists, computer scientists, sociologists, engineers, philosophers, mathematicians, behavioral scientists, military scholars, historians, political scientists, linguists, and more. Too Big To Fail Wikipedia summarizes the economic theory of “Too Big To Fail” thusly:
Too big to fail (TBTF) is a theory in banking and finance that asserts that certain corporations, particularly financial institutions, are so large and so interconnected that their failure would be disastrous to the greater economic system, and therefore should be supported by the government when they face potential failure.
With Too Big To Fail in 2008-2009, a government backstop (in the form of taxpayer dollars) was a key part of the plan to preserve the permanent perch of Big Banks. Here too, in the case of Big Tech’s merger with academia for the field of censorship studies, Too Big To Fail also relies on government financial support.  The Harvard Misinformation Review report begins its “Too Big To Fail” argument by citing “A broad range of funding bodies and governments [that] have devoted significant financial resources” to academic departments involved in censorship studies. Foundation for Freedom Online has already documented how in just the first two years of the Biden Administration, 64 government censorship grants were spread across 42 different colleges and universities. This incredible range of recipients covers every level of the country’s higher education institutions, both regionally and in terms of prestige: Throughout the Harvard Misinformation Review “Too Big To Fail” report, authors Chico Q. Camargo and Felix M. Simon betray the hubris and sense of entitlement that pervades the censorship industry, providing suggestions for how institutions can be more effective at stifling disfavored speech. Such suggestions contains all the obligatory woke vocabulary words: a reference to the need to “achieve equity;” lamenting about “a neglect of issues and conflicts of race and ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality, as well as status, inequality, social structure, and power;” and concerns that the field is “often too U.S.-focused and Anglocentric.” The overall sense is that Camargo and Simon believe the censors aren’t woke enough. Harvard’s own actions under cover of “mis- and disinformation studies” reveal academia’s increasing direct involvement in government and Big Tech censorship operations. As FFO previously reported, Harvard University’s Belfer Center – a “research” center within the same Kennedy School that publishes the Harvard Misinformation Review – has extensive links to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) domestic censorship operations at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Belfer Center even produced a plan for CISA and DHS officials to censor individuals who opposed mail-in voting or vote-counting procedures ahead of the 2020 election, all under the label of “mis- and disinformation studies.” But they weren’t just studying content they viewed as mis- and disinformation – they were actively engaged in censoring that content.   Yet another Harvard censorship center, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, contributes to the US government censorship and surveillance apparatus. Late last month, the center hired former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as its first “tech governance leadership fellow.” Ardern pioneered one of the most expansive global censorship endeavors to date through her “Christchurch call to action,” and has demanded “international rules, norms, and expectations” governing what people can say online about topics like “climate change” and “human rights.” Ardern famously instructed New Zealand citizens that the government was the “single source of truth” for all issues related to Covid-19: But Harvard’s abundant connections to government censors should perhaps be unsurprising given that, as Camargo and Simon put it, the field of mis- and disinformation studies is the direct descendant of “mass communication and persuasion, propaganda studies, and behavioral science” that emerged during “the U.S. Cold War environment of the 1950s.” The authors concern both today’s “mis/disinfo” fields and the US Cold War mindwar apparatus were “concern[ed] with the manipulation of supposedly gullible populations and their implicit emphasis of technocratic control continue to shape the field of mis-/disinformation to this day.”  In other words, Camargo and Simon freely admit that the field of mis- and disinformation studies exists to stop gullible people from believing what they see with their own eyes – through the intervention of government censors. A Chink In The Censorship Armor? When assessing Harvard’s “Too Big To Fail” declaration, it is important to bear in mind the environment of the time in which this piece was published. In September 2022, Elon Musk had not yet completed his acquisition of Twitter. The Twitter Files were still months away. Every mainstream journalist and media outlet still derided talk of government-Big Tech-academia collaboration on censorship activities as a “conspiracy theory” and the stuff of far-right blogospheres. It must have seemed in that moment, as this Harvard Misinformation Review report captures, that the party would never end. The government money would keep rolling in, and the censors would be free to throttle and shadowban their ideological opponents into oblivion. Now, as the whole-of-society censorship industry is exposed to the public light and backlash is mounting, such braggadocious declarations of victory seem rather premature. Frequent Harvard Misinformation Review contributor and prominent Harvard censorship figure Joan Donovan was forced out of her position following controversy, in what some termed “Harvard’s Misinformation Meltdown.” Donovan herself lamented in April 2023, six months after the publication of this piece, “I see institutions taking a step away from addressing [social media misinformation]. I see gov agencies backing away from taking action.” Is censorship studies really “too big to fail”? If Congress pulls the government funding, we can put that theory to the test.