Information is power, it’s said, but increasingly — especially with today’s sophisticated, speedy technology — so is disinformation. In elections, maybe such fearmongering was always powerful.
Commentator H.L. Mencken in 1918 wrote, “Democracy tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobglobins, most of them imaginary.”
Disinformation isn’t misinformation, which is incorrect material spread without the intent to mislead. For instance, after years, polio has resurfaced, but unlike decades ago, when people saw the polio vaccine as a way to avoid paralysis, anti-vax misinformation created doubt, and risk. Another example is illegal fentanyl produced in colors that look like candy, sparking a drug scare somewhere between “reefer madness” and toxic “brown LSD” at Woodstock. Despite the Illinois State Police and many sheriffs and local police not seeing the “rainbow fentanyl,” a near-panic arose, like mythical “razor blades in apples” scares around Halloween.
Unlike MISinformation that can grow into exaggerations, unintended consequences and danger, DISinformation is false assertions intentionally distributed in an act of deception for gain: to elect/defeat a candidate, to accept/reject people’s rights, to expand/contract the market for a product or service …
For Illinois’ election this month, there’s been misinformation and disinformation about the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity Today Act (SAFE-T) and its Pretrial Fairness provision on cash bail. Honest confusion about how suspects will be treated after arrest makes some people anxious, and dishonest hyperbole about possible outcomes leads people to fear the worst.
Good-faith questions about implementing the law, taking effect Jan. 1, are being discussed by reasonable people in a positive, bipartisan way. Already, people are clarifying language and debunking lies like jails will empty come 2023, that police won’t be able to arrest trespassers, that courts henceforth can’t jail suspects awaiting trial. Actually, no offense is “non-detainable.” Judges will have discretion to hold suspects if they’re flight risks, present a danger to the community, are on probation or parole, have been released on another charge, etc. (And, obviously, those convicted of crimes aren’t affected.)
The 700+-page act, signed last year, stems from the American ideal that defendants are “innocent until proven guilty” and therefore shouldn’t be punished while innocent. A recent Loyola University study found the average pretrial detention to be more than a month behind bars, and 89% of incarcerated people haven’t been convicted — they just don’t have the money to be released.
Besides Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and a nonpartisan task force set up by the state Supreme Court helping with implementation, lawmakers including Jeremy Karlin, a Knox County Democrat, and Jim Rowe, a Kankakee Republican, are working to clear up ambiguities and make the nation’s ideal real.
However, some candidates and issue opponents use false claims to frighten and curry favor. “This [law] is a step forward,” said Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell. But “you have people out there who have high office, who you would think have a duty to the truth, quite frankly just telling lies about what the law does.”
One figure attacking the SAFE-T Act might be right-wing radio host Dan Proft, whose “People Who Play by The Rules” PAC’s commercials and mailers mimicking newspapers seem derived from the despicable Roger Stone or Lee Atwater, political consultants who made old-fashioned mud-slinging seem like tame tactics compared to the last 50 years.
“Proft’s papers have been accused of deliberately spreading disinformation and amplifying racism and homophobia,” wrote Capitol Fax columnist Rich Miller.
Actually owned by LGIS (Local Government Information Services), the mailers resembling newspapers include at least 34 titles, according to the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which lists the Peoria Standard, McLean County Times, Galesburg Reporter, and Illinois Valley Times.
“When a half-truth or outright lie appears in a Proft broadsheet, it’s not a flaw — it’s a feature,” said David Greising, president of the Better Government Association.
Will the SAFE-T Act work, or will disinformation succeed?
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October 28, 2022 at 06:48PM