The press is supposed to serve as a watchdog over the government, exposing government abuses of power, not be the government’s lapdog. So the press should criticize the government when it misbehaves. But the government’s allies may label such criticism as “disinformation.” A recent example of this is the government-funded “Global Disinformation Index,” which blacklists news outlets critical of the Biden administration in an effort to starve them of advertising dollars. Meanwhile, it praises progressive pro-Biden “news” outlets such as HuffPost that have lost libel lawsuits after repeatedly making false claims, giving them its highest ratings despite their history of factual errors because of how they gullibly repeat Biden administration talking points praising Biden and attacking his critics.
As Professor Michael Munger notes, “the worrisome thing” about this “is that the U.S. government pays substantial sums to a foreign organization whose literal, self-professed job is to pressure advertisers to boycott publications that….disagree with the U.S. government.” As the New York Sun notes, the London-based “Global Disinformation Index defines ‘disinformation’ as narratives that are ‘adversarial’ to democratic institutions” — that is, the government — “or at-risk groups.”
As a result, GDI views publications that publish criticism of the government to be “misinformation,” even when they make no factual errors. GDI claims that the 10 “riskiest” news outlets for disinformation are the New York Post, Reason, the American Spectator, Newsmax, the Federalist, the American Conservative, One America News, the Blaze, the Daily Wire, and RealClearPolitics. These are all either conservative publications that criticize the Biden administration, except for Reason, a libertarian magazine that criticizes civil-liberties violations by both Democrats and Republicans, and RealClearPolitics, a political news and polling-data aggregator.
Its explanation for giving these publications bad ratings does not even suggest that most of them made factually false claims. GDI’s explanation of its rating for the New York Post admitted that “GDI’s study did not review specific high-profile stories and attempt to determine whether they were disinformation.” The closest it came to asserting factual inaccuracy was in explaining its rating of the American Conservative, which it alleged — without any specific examples — was prone to “unsubstantiated claims” and “logical fallacies.”
By contrast, GDI gave high ratings to left-wing publications such as HuffPost that frequently make false claims and engage in slanted, sensationalistic coverage. GDI’s co-founder, Clare Melford, wrote for HuffPost in the past. GDI claimed that “HuffPost largely featured fact-based, unbiased content free from sensational text or visuals. This domain also refrained from perpetuating divisive narratives…” It claimed that the “ten lowest risk online news outlets” included Huffpost, Buzzfeed News, NPR, ProPublica, the Associated Press, Insider, the New York Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post.
As the New York Post notes, these left-leaning publications given good ratings by GDI are all friendlier to the Biden administration: “The outlets it labels less risky — NPR, BuzzFeed, the AP, The New York Times and the like — are all those that happily parrot whatever actual disinfo comes from the White House or other corridors of power, up to and including the 100% fake Steele Dossier.” GDI has nothing bad to say about left-wing news outlets that have committed libel or journalistic hoaxes, such as Rolling Stone, which peddled a gang rape hoax and had to pay $1.65 million to settle a defamation lawsuit against it.
The Global Disinformation Index was funded by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, and the State-Department funded National Endowment for Democracy.Despite the poor quality and ideological bias of GDI’s ratings, the National Endowment for Democracy may continue funding GDI in the future. The Daily Signal reports that
The National Endowment for Democracy—technically a nonprofit but funded mostly by Congress through the State Department—isn’t closing the door on providing more funding for the Global Disinformation Index in the future.
“Our staff look at all of the proposals and monitor for grant consideration,” [NED’s Leslie] Aun said. “Our board of directors … will make the decision. I can’t speak to the future. All grants will be reviewed for specificity.”
The Global Disinformation Index has targeted American news outlets and provided a list to U.S. advertising companies, the Examiner reported separately…..The endowment gave $230,000 to the AN Foundation, a GDI-affliliated group also known as the Disinformation Index Foundation. The grant was to “deepen understanding of the challenges to information integrity in the digital space” in Africa, Asia, and other foreign countries, the Examiner reported, and to “assess disinformation risks of local online media ecosystems.”
The grant also stipulated that the Global Disinformation Index could compile “risk ratings” for advertising companies and others to assess “risks that arise from funding disinformation.”
A State Department spokesperson told the Examiner that Disinfo Cloud, a now defunct appendage of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, gave a total of $100,000 to the Global Disinformation Index between 2018 and 2021.
As Jacob Sullum notes in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Global Disinformation Index’s methodology is rife with contradictions. It claims that “disinformation” is inherently “intentionally misleading” yet its “its ‘risk’ ratings do not require any actual examples of inaccurate reporting, let alone deliberate misrepresentations” by the web sites it gives bad ratings to in its Disinformation Index. According to GDI, a bad rating does not even require proof of “intent to deceive” because, GDI says, that “cannot be directly measured.” Nor does it even require a showing that a news outlet has made a claim that “at the very least,” is factually “false,” because that, GDI claims, is “extremely difficult to assess at scale” and because “a statement that is technically true can be presented out of context in a misleading and harmful way.”
In short, GDI labels news outlets as “intentionally” deceptive even when they say nothing untrue, and have no “intent to deceive.”
Despite the shoddy, contradictory nature of GDI’s ratings, its ratings have been used by major advertising firms to exclude the news outlets GDI gave bad ratings to, such as the Daily Wire. One major internet ad agency, Xandr, told companies last year that it “is partnering with the Global Disinformation Index (‘GDI’) and will be adopting their exclusion list.” Former State Department official Mike Benz says that the fiscal impact of these blacklists is “devastating.” He says “ad revenue crushing sentinels” like the Global Disinformation Index have “crippled the potential of alternative news sources to compete on an even economic playing field with approved media outlets.
Earlier, the Washington Examiner reported:
The Department of State has funded a deep-pocketed “disinformation” tracking group that is secretly blacklisting and trying to defund conservative media, likely costing the news organizations vital advertising dollars…The Global Disinformation Index, a British organization … is feeding blacklists to ad companies with the intent of defunding and shutting down websites peddling alleged “disinformation”…This same “disinformation” group has received $330,000 from two State Department-backed entities linked to the highest levels of government, raising concerns from First Amendment lawyers and members of Congress….
GDI compiles a “dynamic exclusion list” that it feeds to corporate entities, such as the Microsoft-owned advertising company Xandr, emails show. Xandr and other companies are, in turn, declining to place ads on websites that GDI flags as peddling disinformation.
The Washington Examiner revealed on Thursday that it is on this exclusion list. The list includes at least 2,000 websites and has “had a significant impact on the advertising revenue that has gone to those sites,” said GDI’s CEO Clare Melford on a March 2022 podcast….
The federal government could run into legal trouble depending on the extent to which it’s paying or directing GDI to “censor information, pressure publications to censor, or pressure advertisers not to publish, in a way that harms U.S. citizens or companies,” Ilya Shapiro, director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute, told the Washington Examiner.
The Global Disinformation Index also defines “disinformation” to include “narratives” deemed adverse to “at-risk groups”, even when no false claim is made. That includes stating true facts that depict minority groups in an unflattering light. When a Haitian-American lawyer accurately noted that the crime rate is higher among his fellow blacks than among whites, his blog post “Jailing Violent Criminals Is Appropriate,” was labeled by the Global Disinformation Index as “white supremacy content” that advertising should not appear next to. His blog post was branded as hateful, even though it accurately cited federal crime statistics and accurately described a Supreme Court ruling noting that crime rates are indeed different for blacks and whites. It cited as an example of “conspiracy stories” and “white-supremacy content” another lawyer’s blog post that discussed racial differences in the crime rate, discrimination against blacks in police stops, how higher black crime rates contribute to higher black arrest and incarceration rates, and how gender actually is a bigger factor in sentencing than race (with men receiving longer sentences than similarly situated women, according to federal statisticians and academic research).
Eight of the ten publications given GDI’s worst ratings were conservative. None were left-of-center. One of the ten is libertarian, Reason Magazine, which has won journalism awards for its reporting on civil-liberties violations and government abuses of power.
As syndicated columnist Jacob Sullum notes, “NewsGuard, a service that rates adherence to basic principles of good journalism,” gives “Reason magazine, its highest possible score. Yet the Global Disinformation Index, a British organization that aims to steer advertisers away from disreputable websites, claims Reason is one of the 10 ‘riskiest’ online news sources in the United States.”
GDI’s hostility to Reason may be due to the fact that it criticizes civil-liberties violations, even when they are demanded by feminists, or committed by government officials in the name of promoting “equity” or helping historically disadvantaged groups like blacks, women, and LGBTQ people. GDI views even truthful media coverage as “disinformation” when it is adversarial to members of “at-risk groups” like women, blacks, and transgender people. Reason debunked a gang rape hoax at the University of Virginia that feminists were citing as example of how we supposedly all live in a rape culture. Feminists called a Reason reporter a sexist, a rape apologist, and an “idiot” for correctly saying the alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity was actually “a gigantic hoax.” Thus, Reason’s true facts are perceived as adversarial to “at-risk groups.”
In its explanation for Reason’s poor rating, GDI falsely claims Reason articles are unattributed, when all Reason articles have bylines, as Professor Munger and journalists have noted. As Munger observes, “The Global Disinformation Index (GDI) says that REASON Magazine provides: ‘no information regarding authorship attribution…’ But….ALL of the articles in REASON are bylined, with author biographies.”
HuffPost, the low-quality publication GDI founder Clare Melford once wrote for, is a hotbed of feminist activism, and has attacked Reason for opposing restrictions on campus free speech and due process supported by leading feminists. GDI gave Huffpost its top rating, calling it one of the “ten lowest risk online news outlets.” HuffPost has been found guilty by judges of committing libel, and has repeatedly been sued for libel for making false claims.
GDI falsely claims HuffPost avoids slanted coverage and sensationalism, even though it runs puff pieces about how Biden is a “healthy, vigorous” man, and parrots Biden administration talking points in articles with slanted titles such as “Biden Slams Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Relentless Push to Dumb Down Florida Education,” which ignored the fact that Florida students’ performance on national standardized tests has improved in Florida compared to other states under DeSantis’ administration, and instead parroted hyperbolic allegations by Biden as if they were undisputed facts. “President Joe Biden snidely ripped a major push by Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron Desantis to dumb down his state’s schools,” HuffPost wrote, alleging that “furious Florida parents” are “concerned about deteriorating education in the state.” DeSantis, A Republican, was easily reelected in 2022 in a landslide, in a state that Democrat Barack Obama carried twice, because many Florida parents agreed with his stances on education, such as keeping schools open despite pressure from teachers’ unions to close them, and refusing to dumb down instruction to promote “equity.” (Unions’ demands to close the schools were rooted in politics, not science or safety considerations, as journalists like CNN’s Jake Tapper have pointed out).
Yet GDI falsely claims that “HuffPost largely featured fact-based, unbiased content free from sensational text or visuals. This domain also refrained from perpetuating divisive narratives via negative targeting of groups or individuals.”
To State Department officials, criticism of the government by conservative publications may be very unwelcome, and partisan disagreements about how to run the government may seem like ignorance, dishonesty, or “disinformation.” It must be very tempting to use taxpayer money to brand criticism of the government as “disinformation.” That’s true whether the State Department official is a liberal career State Department employee processing a grant application, or a Biden political appointee pondering whether to renew a grant to the Global Disinformation Index.
State Department employees are famously progressive. State Department employee Walter Kendall Myers, who was later convicted of spying for Communist Cuba, would go on angry rants denouncing conservatives to other State Department employees, who would respond by giving him rousing applause. Kendall was a staunch leftist, but that did not make him stick out like a sore thumb in the State Department, where many other State Department employees were staunch leftists, too. He and his wife were “true believers” in the Cuban communist system. He wrote in his diary, “I can see nothing of value that has been lost by the revolution. The revolution has released enormous potential and liberated the Cuban spirit”, and referred to Fidel Castro as “one of the great political leaders of our time.”