Michael Shellenberger recently testified about the Censorship Industrial Complex (CIC) before Congress. He described an interlocking network of government agencies, social media companies, and—most important for the concerns of the National Association of Scholars (NAS)—university professors, who work together to identify “disinformation” or “misinformation,” encourage such “disinformation” to be removed from the Internet, and, indeed, removed from all sites of public discussion.
Certainly Shellenberger has identified a true and important phenomenon, for a great many academics proudly identify themselves as working on “disinformation.” In the fields of communication and media literacy, “The Department of Homeland Security awarded two Syracuse University professors nearly $600,000 in October  as part of the fight against disinformation.” The Arizona State University on Narrative, Disinformation and Strategic Influence has hired a professor who specializes in “counterspeech”: “Counterspeech is a strategy to oppose hate speech and falsehoods online. It works by flooding a post that is hateful or misleading with comments that are positive or that reinforce the facts. Citizens are the drivers of counterspeech and can even form special groups to coordinate their efforts.” Psychologists, meanwhile are experimenting with “anti-misinformation interventions.” Then too, a professor at the New School’s School of Media Studies has created “Fighting Disinformation: A News Media Literacy Video Series to teach methods to help New School students, particularly undergraduates, learn to sort through online content and become more critical users of online information sources.”
Tufts University’s Fletcher School demonstrates global ambitions, for it aims to provide its disinformation services to countries that lack such expertise:
“We know the number of people who are moderating content in Brazil is a fraction of the number of people who are moderating content in the United States, because the US is a more important commercial market and the social media platforms pay more attention to US legislators and regulators; so we might end up with more Brazilian insurrections happening and maybe fewer US insurrections," said Chakravorti. "Is that a price that we as global citizens and global scholars here at the Fletcher School are willing to pay, or should we be thinking about this differently?”
A skeptic might put it that American censors seek to expand their reach worldwide.
The National Association of Scholars (NAS), along with Michael Shellenberger and other critics of the CIC, indeed is skeptical about claims of “disinformation.” Our skepticism comes from long experience with academia’s withdrawal from institutional and intellectual neutrality, and willingness to consider different points of view. While the academic component of the CIC has gone into overdrive since the emergence of President Trump as a political figure in 2015, the roots of academia’s censorial mentality far antedate that event.
All academia for some generations has been increasingly reluctant to allow the expression of non-progressive points of view. The most obvious early censorialism was on the topic of climate change, where climate skepticism was early calumnied as “climate denialism.” The word denialism of course presumes the truth of the theory of manmade catastrophic climate change—and, unpleasantly, harkens back to the concept of denying Christ, the occasion for two thousand years of casual Jew-beatings and more serious pogroms.
This presumption that one thesis is true, and attendant desire to censor opposing evidence and arguments, has spread to virtually every area of academia. Censorialism and censorship has been most blatant in the last decade upon a range of especially politicized topics, including:
- Biden-related current events, especially the Hunter Biden laptop.
- China (with the Chinese government aiding domestic censorialism and censorship, via programs such as Confucius Institutes).
- Climate change.
- COVID-19 causes and public health policy.
- Environmental policy.
- Israeli history and current events.
- Race, sex, and sexual orientation, in a broad range of fields from genetics to psychology.
- The Russia-Ukraine War.
- Trump-related current events, from “Russiagate” to January 6.
While Shellenberger testified in particular about the role of academics cooperating with the government to censor American citizens by way of “disinformation research,” this censorialism has had far broader effects in academia. The NAS has concerned itself with violations of institutional neutrality, shoutdowns, firings of dissenting professors, forced removal of published research, and the extension of a “diversity, inclusion, and equity” (DEI) bureaucracy tasked with ensuring the suppression of all dissenting speech. We also have noted with alarm the extension of “media literacy,” to K-12 and undergraduate education, where such “media literacy” thinly euphemizes the extension of “disinformation” censorship into the structure of American education. In our research on COVID-19 public health policy, we have explored the unsettling desire of public health officials, epidemiologists, and computer scientists to use algorithms and epidemiology as combined methods to change public opinion, as a supposed measure of public health, to insure it follows what the government believes to be best policy. We have noted, moreover, that all Critical Theory, which aims at power rather than truth, underwrites the attitude that opposing points of view should be suppressed on principle.
Shellenberger’s Censorship Industrial Complex is only the most dramatic element of a broad shift by academia toward embracing censorialism and censorship as a standard procedure and goal of higher education.
And if the use of the phrase “denialism” is the verbal cue for a pogrom of “deniers,” “disinformation” is the phrase of wartime work. “Disinformation” is the work of a hostile power, either an avowed enemy or (as the Soviet Union during the Cold War) an obvious enemy with whom one maintains a formal peace. All the scholars and bureaucrats who work on “disinformation” have decided to treat their domestic opponents as enemies of the state. To work on “disinformation” is to declare war on your fellow citizens who happen to disagree with you on a matter of public policy.
The NAS supports Shellenberger’s recommendations that the federal government defund all “disinformation” work by federal agencies and prohibit them from cooperating with private actors. We believe that there should be further reform of academia, to disentangle it from the CIC—but we are not yet sure what form it should take. Some possibilities might include:
- Federal and state laws could prohibit grant agencies from funding any research, teaching, or other grant that supports work on “disinformation,” “misinformation,” “media literacy,” or any other euphemism for censorship.
- Federal and state laws could mandate transparent reporting of all such research, so that America’s policymakers and citizens can know the precise locations and personnel of the CIC.
- State policymakers could prohibit the use of state funds for such research, and reduce state support for institutions of higher education that receive state funds if they host such research.
- State policymakers could condition their support for candidates for Boards of Trustees and public university presidencies upon their commitment to end the ability of the CIC to work in their universities.
Yet we are not certain if such policies might not have unintended consequences, or how they should harmonize with the broader campaign for education reform. We sketch such policies speculatively, to spark a discussion on how higher education reform should address the CIC.
More broadly, however, the issues of “disinformation” and of the CIC highlight why a growing number of America’s policymakers and citizens have ceased to respect our institutions of higher education. America’s universities should not be institutions of propaganda and censorship—and to the extent they have become so, they have ceased to be institutions of education. America’s policymakers and citizens have called upon our universities with increasing vigor to listen to their better angels and rededicate themselves to depoliticized education. A demonstration of good faith would be for the education establishment to remove the CIC forthwith from our institutions of higher education, and to state as a matter of principle that no personnel in American universities should be involved in censorship, whether of their fellow citizens or of foreigners.
America’s policymakers and citizens will be able to judge the character of our universities if they cannot make even that limited commitment, and to act accordingly as they work for higher education reform.