Disinformation terraforms its information environment

Art from Daein Ballard, CC-BY-SA

Terraforming is a process found in science fiction novels of deliberately modifying the atmosphere and ecology of a planet to make it more habitable for a given life-form. In early sci-fi, that life form was human — drop a few machines on a planet, watch them spin up an atmosphere and ecology, have the humans come back in a few decades or centuries and settle. In later sci-fi, it was often aliens intent on terraforming earth, creating a planet more habitable for them, but deadly for us.

Disinformation can have a terraforming effect too, in the second sense. One of the prominent trends of the past year has been that the disinformation around the Big Lie has created momentum around a host of legislative and policy changes that will make disinformation both cheaper to produce and more impactful.

For instance, the false story that Ruby Freeman was caught on video taking ballots from a “suitcase” was made possible by the transparency measure of having publicly viewable video of the counting facility. This false story in turn created outrage — some genuine and misguided, some cynical and strategic — that has resulted in a push for more counties to have more live feeds from which more video can be deceptively clipped and inaccurately summarized.

False concerns about supposed ballot irregularities have led to publicly available ballot scans in some places, and imperfections in the process by which those scans are stored or released create new news pegs on which to hang dubious fraud allegations. False stories about the Arizona election result in the creation of a bogus external “audit” which generates daily misinformation, which fuels the push in other states for similar external audits.

Each step seems to lead to another, where the material and processes that misinformation thrives on becomes more ubiquitous, more compelling, more ever-present.

Of course, there are people behind all of this, just as in science fiction there’s always someone who dropped the terraformer on the planet’s surface. But there’s also a certain emergent momentum to the whole process that is bigger than any given actor. Seen from this perspective, disinformation is quickly terraforming its environment, making it more habitable and productive for disinformation. In the end, that is going to make it a whole lot less habitable for all of us.