In Marion County, Florida, election observer Wesley Wilcox has stopped using the word "disinformation."
Not because lies or misleading rumors about elections in his county are less common than in the rest of the country. Wilcox says he regularly interacts with groups trying to uncover what they see as rampant election fraud.
But Wilcox, a Republican, had to change his vocabulary to discuss this falsehood because others in his party view the term as a code for conservative censorship.
"In Republican circles, 'disinformation' is a dog whistle," Wilcox said. "Suddenly, dude, you've got a target on your back if you even mention the word."
The Election Integrity Partnership, led by Wilcox, even stopped advertising a service that allows local officials to report false voting information online, fearing backlash from conservatives.
Experts say a campaign of legal and political pressure from the right has led to censorship in the fight against rumors and conspiracy theories. As a result, they argue, tools and partnerships that tried to identify and stop falsehoods during recent election cycles have been reduced or dismantled. This is despite the threats coming from foreign governments and artificial intelligence, and former President Donald Trump, who still falsely claims to have won the 2020 election, is likely to use the same tactics when pursuing the White House in 2024.
Wilcox added, "Everyone is afraid of the weapon."
According to Nina Jankowicz, the first shot was fired in the spring of 2022 when a right-wing campaign quickly suppressed the Department of Homeland Security's "Disinformation Steering Council."
Jankowicz, who joined the DHS to combat disinformation, says she was thwarted by... disinformation. POLITICS She joined DHS to fight disinformation. She says she was thwarted... by disinformation. The council was led by Jankowicz, who has written books on Russian information operations and online harassment. The federal government described it as a "working group with no operational authority or capabilities" tasked with coordinating efforts to identify false and misleading claims and exchanging facts on security issues, from elections to natural disasters.
But the ominous name of the board and the poor efforts of the DHS to inform the public about its goals made it a lightning rod for influential right-wing figures who quickly seized on the board and Jankowicz herself as the embodiment of a sinister conspiracy to censor Americans.
"The Biden administration's decision to create a 'Ministry of Truth' is dystopian in nature," said current House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, soon after the board's composition was announced. "The government plays no role in determining what is true or acceptable speech."
After a torrent of death threats and insults, Jankowicz resigned, and the DHS disbanded the steering council altogether. Jankowicz told NPR that the federal government's feeble efforts to protect her or push back on accusations sent a clear signal.
"It showed... that it's open season on researchers, public servants, anyone working in this space," Jankowicz said.
In the midst of this furor, Republican attorneys general from Missouri and Louisiana filed a lawsuit in May 2022 accusing the Biden administration of conspiring with social media companies to censor conservative speech and pressuring platforms to take action against misleading posts about COVID-19 and elections.
In July of this year, a federal judge appointed by Trump ruled that the government had likely violated the First Amendment and issued a strict court order blocking agencies from contacting platforms about most content. The injunction was softened by an appeals court and was suspended last month by the Supreme Court, which is set to hear the case this term.
Pressure is also coming from Congress, where a special subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee on government interference led by Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a Trump ally, is conducting its own investigation into the alleged conspiracy between the Biden administration and tech companies to unconstitutionally curb political speech.
Of course, there are open debates about the role government should play in countering rumors or falsehoods on high-risk issues such as elections and public health, and there is widespread skepticism about the influence of social media companies on public discourse.
But government, platforms, and researchers argue that the lawsuit and investigation unfairly distort their messages. They say that while officials and third-party groups flag content they believe may violate social media rules, ultimately, technology companies should decide what actions to take.