If you want to understand how the public is being harmed by disinformation, start with state violence. Only then can we account for the unequal social terrain produced by forms of interlocking oppression.
Research in disinformation productively unites many disciplines to investigate or intervene in the flow of vital public information, especially information deemed necessary for representative democratic governance (Bennett & Livingston, 2020; Freelon & Wells, 2020; Marwick & Lewis, 2017). Broadly, disinformation concerns strategic circulation of media for purposes of altering government policy or other significant forms of collective action (e.g., corporate policies, philanthropy, legal actions).
A narrower definition of disinformation concerns manipulation of online social media network sites to magnify the reach and impact of politically motivated communications, thereby allowing interested parties with limited appeal or a small constituency to appear popular, widespread, and effective in subsequent media coverage (Donovan & Friedberg, 2019). Research on disinformation relies on implicit norms of representative governance, namely the commitment that democratic life requires trustworthy channels of public communication, particularly in the form of legally protected journalism. Analyses that center disinformation—even those critically attuned to power, history, and overlapping forms of oppression—presume a normative conception of the public. This presumption ignores the ways that a majoritarian public sphere might be conceptualized and controlled in ways that favor the interests of elites, dominant cultural groups, or other powerful actors.
Disinformation points to willful manipulation of media, but also implies that some other, shared frame of reference would result in more authentically democratic public policy (Habermas, 1991, for example), a proposition frequently disputed by critical political theorists (Mouffe, 2000; Foucault, 1991). The term “disinformation” itself, given its strong associations with Cold War-era spycraft, calls back to fears of undemocratic foreign states unduly influencing the free exercise of democratic rights.
Disinformation as the focus for a body of research reinforces the primacy of the state as the sole representative of free peoples, such that morally repugnant or harmful acts of the state can only be conceived of as having occurred because of improper informational processes and external machinations. Thinking in terms of disinformation (and its logically necessary counterpart, accurate information) draws analysis inexorably toward technical solutionism. Putting disinformation center stage invites the dissatisfying and implausible conclusion that the rise of right-wing ethno-nationalism in the United States and other fundamental challenges to representative democracies all across the world might be found in anodyne content moderation policies or user interface nudges.
In response, an emerging counter-discourse in critical disinformation studies challenges the under-theorization of disinformation in terms of known antagonisms in the constitution of the public sphere (Muñoz, 1999). Critical studies of disinformation have challenged the norms and assumptions that undergird disinformation studies, particularly as they concern minoritized communities (Marwick et al., 2021). In this vein, the object of disinformation only becomes coherent against the background of an idealized model of political discourse that ignores many fundamental oppressions that give the polity its particular shape.
We argue that even the critical disinformation studies approach, which attempts to remediate a simplistic approach to disinformation through reference to overlapping forms of oppression, is an insufficient analytical approach precisely because it retains disinformation as the primary object of inquiry. This tendency to center disinformation as the object puts emphasis on the technical apparatus instead of the conditions of possibility and dynamics of public knowledge in a historically situated way (Marres, 2018). Our interest in disinformation studies is influenced by Trouillot’s (2001) methodological intervention of distinguishing between an object of study and an object of observation.
As writings in intersectional and queer of color critique have argued persuasively for several decades, public life is shaped by interlocking axes of power (Bassichis, & Spade, 2014; Combahee River Collective, 1977). As it concerns minoritized subjects in particular, the state is structured by a number of norms and values that differentially value the lives of some for the benefit of others. Access to citizenship itself is a field of racial differentiation—and therefore simultaneously a field of subjugation shaped by gender, sexuality, class, and ability (Ferguson, 2004). As Simone Browne (2015) writes in her studies of surveillance, for example, public-ness itself is predicated on a number of strictures that apply differently to Black people, and, by extension, also to people and communities marked by any socially sanctioned forms of difference. To put it another way, the public sphere is always already marked by violence. Police killings of unarmed civilians, imprisonment of migrant children, and impunity for white nationalist terrorism are not aberrations in correct democratic action caused by the canny manipulation of media. They are the logical consequences of a coherent political philosophy, organizing strategy, and policy framework that seeks to direct state violence to disfavored groups within the polity.
Recognizing this different starting point, we propose state violence as analytic to think through the raced and gendered hierarchy that is the public sphere and the role of minoritization in maintaining it. Shifting from disinformation to state violence begins a reckoning with the long histories of oppression of minoritized people and the unequal social terrain produced by multiple forms of interlocking oppression. It also points to more complex relations of power, to the durability and inevitability of state violence, to complicity in selecting targets of state violence, and to forms of harm or benefit enacted via state violence at the individual and group level. Recent work in environmental justice, for example, defines state violence as “the myriad ways in which state and corporate violence against Indigenous peoples and communities of color manifest themselves in multiple, intersecting forms,” and uses this definition to reinvigorate moribund policy and scholarship frameworks in light of recent, seemingly contingent events (Kojola & Pellow, 2021).
The analytic of state violence centers “interlocking systems of racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and enslavement” (ibid.). Nixon (2011) characterizes the cumulative effects of environmental degradation on peoples in the Global South and minoritized peoples in the Global North as a violence that occurs on a slow time scale, often in the form of group differentiated vulnerability to death. State violence also names the beneficiaries of such policies. In the United States, the state in all its various forms becomes a toolkit deployed according to the interests of dominant cultural and economic elites, especially those who are propertied and/or racialized as white. In this way, state violence allows us to locate those who must benefit, those who are expendable, and those who must be harmed by the slow processes that maintain racial capitalism and settler colonialism across time and space.
State violence as an analytic addresses a number of difficult methodological and theoretical problems. In our own ongoing empirical research, we are working toward incorporating state violence in the study of financial disinformation. As Rucks-Ahidiana (2021) argues, a supposed lack of “financial literacy” among minoritized groups is insufficient to understand economic inequality because racially distinct financial practices should be understood as rational, reasoned responses to ongoing exploitation, differential lack of access to wealth, and discriminatory lending. Theorizing financial actions in a framework of disinformation runs the risk of reifying a norm of white, upper-class participation and may overdetermine inclusion and reform as proper responses. In terms of methods, our work incorporates ethnographic methods and community-based participatory design to probe the relationship between minoritization and participation in approved forms of financial life (e.g., banking in the formal sector, use of credit, financial reporting, and consumer credit scoring).
Existing research has frequently shoehorned questions about working-class people of color and economic participation into a framework of financial disinformation, as if the failure of working-class people of color to participate in capitalism correctly results from their own faulty understanding of how the economy works. By way of rebuke, we argue that state violence points to the differential stakes of correctly participating in public: privileged acts from privileged actors invite reward from the state, while similar actions from minoritized subjects invite punishment in the form of violence, imprisonment, or neglect. We locate state violence as one aspect of “state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death” (Gilmore, 2002). Our conception of state violence takes “extra-legal” to refer to those forms of violence (slow or quick) which the state regularly metes out but which the state will never account for, halt, or recognize.
State violence is just one possible analytical tool for breaking out of a conception of faulty public information and subsequent action as a simple case of cause and effect. Likewise, state violence directs us to the material consequences of public life and forecloses an overemphasis on media consumption. State violence points not to structural barriers to social, racial, and economic justice that might be mitigated, but to the very real harms guaranteed by the hierarchical systems that create the public. In this limited, tentative way, we point to a path beyond disinformation, to a more realistic reckoning of who will be the victor/victim of state violence.
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