The danger of trying to minimize ‘confusion’ is loosely defined

NewsGuard, a service that rates adherence to the basic principles of good journalism, gave this website its highest score possible. Yet the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), a British organization that aims to steer advertisers away from disreputable websites, claims because One of the 10 “riskiest” online news sources in the United States

The stark contrast between these two assessments illustrates the challenge of defining “confusion,” an increasingly vague concept that invites subjective judgments driven by political loyalties and policy preferences. This problem is particularly acute when the government claims that the website takes steps to reduce “confusion” by portraying it as a serious threat to public health, democracy and national security.

The GDI, which receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, aims to provide “unbiased” estimates of the likelihood that a website will promote disinformation. Conversely, its “risk” ratings require no actual instance of misreporting, let alone intentional misrepresentation.

The GDI rating is based on 16 “indicators” under two “pillars”: “Content” and “Operation”. The company says becauseIts “high” risk rating is due to a lack of clearly stated policies on “authorship attribution”, fact checking, corrections and moderation of reader comments.

GDI emphasizes that its “content” judgments are based on a sample of articles that reviewers analyze without knowing the source or author, which it says helps “maintain rigor and impartiality.” But several “indicators” require judgment which is bound to be influenced by the reviewers’ personal opinions.

For example, in assessing the “bias of the article,” reviewers should consider whether the author used “flawed arguments” or “unfairly conflated with different views on the story.” Reviewers also look for “negative targeting” of “individuals or institutions”, which is considered distinct from “criticism” based on “strong arguments” and “strong evidence”.

GDI says its ratings do not depend on whether it agrees with the authors’ opinions. But it beggars belief to assume that those who read articles that contradict their own views will not be particularly interested in perceiving “flawed arguments,” insufficient attention to other viewpoints, weak arguments, and insufficient evidence.

So it’s not surprising that all 10 of the “most risky” sources identified by GDI are conservative or liberal, while nearly all of the 10 “least-risky” sites, which include NPR, The New York Times, HuffPostAnd BuzzFeed News, lean left. Although the GDI insists that “the index does not assess partisanship or a site’s specific political, religious or ideological orientation,” it clearly considers “the degree to which the site may adhere to an ideological affiliation.”

GDI combines questionable methods with an ugly definition of “confusion”. You might think that misrepresentation, as distinct from misinformation, requires intent to deceive. But the agency rejects that requirement because it “cannot be directly measured.”

The GDI’s definition of misleading nevertheless describes it as “deliberately misleading”. The agency contradicts itself again when it says “all newsrooms are vulnerable to the risk of confusion, starting with Everyday human mistakes More dastardly tactics” (emphasis added).

You might think that confusion, at the very least, must be false. The GDI thinks the criterion is also too demanding, because it is “extremely difficult to assess at scale” and because “a technically true statement can be presented out of context in a misleading and harmful way.”

In short, the folks at GDI know misinformation when they see it, although they don’t claim that “high risk” websites actually promote it – only that they may be. This attitude reflects a larger problem: Everyone agrees that confusion is bad, but people disagree about what the category includes.

Given this confusion, the federal government’s efforts to curb “confusion,” including pressure from social media platforms and subsidies to groups like GDI, are particularly chilling. Even “intentionally misleading” speech is protected by the First Amendment, and a government that respects free speech has no business deciding how to apply that slippery label.

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