Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Disinformation and Censorship, 1984–2023

Americans’ free speech is threatened as never before.

Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 Ð 21 January 1950), better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an influential English author and journalist, c. 1940
(Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Orwell, again. 1984 seems written for the Biden era. Underlying it all is the concept of disinformation, the root of propaganda and mind control. So it is in 2023. Just ask FBI Director Chris Wray. Or Facebook.

George Orwell’s novel explores the concept of disinformation and its role in controlling and manipulating society. Orwell presents a dystopian future where a totalitarian regime, led by the Party and its figurehead Big Brother, exerts complete control over its citizens’ lives, including their thinking. The Party employs a variety of techniques to disseminate disinformation and maintain its power. One of the most prominent examples is the concept of “Newspeak,” a language designed to restrict and manipulate thought by reducing the range of expressible ideas. Newspeak aims to replace words and concepts that could challenge or criticize the Party’s ideology, effectively controlling the way people think and communicate (in our own time and place, think of “unhoused,” “misspoke,” LGBTQIAXYZ+, “nationalist,” “terrorist”).


Orwell also introduces the concept of doublethink, which refers to the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs simultaneously and to accept them both as true. This psychological manipulation technique allows the Party to control the minds of its citizens and make them believe in false information or embrace contradictory ideas without questioning (think mandating masks that do not prevent disease transmission). The Party in 1984 alters historical records and disseminates false information through the Ministry of Truth. This manipulation of historical events and facts aims to control the collective memory of the society in a post-truth era, ensuring that the Party’s version of reality remains unquestioned (think war in Ukraine, Iraq, El Salvador, Vietnam, all to protect our freedom at home.)

Through these portrayals, Orwell highlights the dangers of disinformation and its potential to distort truth, manipulate public opinion, and maintain oppressive systems of power. The novel serves as a warning about the importance of critical thinking, independent thought, and the preservation of objective truth in the face of disinformation and propaganda.

Disinformation is bad. But replacing disinformation with censorship or replacement with other disinformation is worse. 1984 closed down the marketplace of ideas. So for 2023.

In 2023 America, the medium is social media, and the Ministry of Truth is the executive branch, primarily the FBI. Topics that the FBI at one point labeled disinformation and sought to censor in the name of protecting Americans from disinformation include, but are not limited to, the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, the Covid lab-leak theory, the efficiency and value to society of masks, lockdowns, and vaccines, speech about election integrity and the 2020 presidential election, the security of voting by mail, and even parody accounts mocking the president (for example, one about Finnegan Biden, Hunter Biden’s daughter).

When asked before Congress to define disinformation, FBI Director Christopher Wray could not do it, even though it is the basis for the FBI's campaign to censor Americans. It's a made-up term with no fixed meaning. That gives it its power, as “terrorism” was used a decade or so earlier. Remember “domestic terrorism”? That stretched to cover everything from white power advocates to January 6 marchers to BLM protesters to Moms for Liberty. It just can't be all those things all the time, but it can be all those things at different times, as needed.


The term “hate speech” is another flexible tool of enforcement, which is why efforts to codify banning hate speech under the First Amendment must be resisted so strongly. Same for QAnon. We’ve heard about QAnon for years now but still can’t figure out if it even exists. To read the mainstream media, you would think it is the most powerful and sinister thing one can imagine, yet it seems to be imaginary, another Cthulhu. Do they have an office, an email address, a lair somewhere?

In simple words: The government is using social media companies as proxies to censor the contrary thoughts of Americans, all under the guise of correcting misinformation and in direct contrivance of the First Amendment.

How bad does it get? As part of its 2023 investigation into the federal government’s role in censoring lawful speech on social media platforms, the House Committee on the Judiciary issued subpoenas to Meta, Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, and Alphabet, Google and YouTube’s parent. Documents obtained revealed that the FBI, on behalf of a compromised Ukrainian intelligence service, requested and, in some cases, directed, the world’s largest social media platforms to censor Americans engaging in constitutionally protected speech online about the war in Ukraine.

Another tool of thought control is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was supposed to be used to spy on foreigners but has been improperly used against thousands of Americans. Over 100,000 Americans were spied on in 2022, which is down from the nearly 3 million spied on in 2021.

Does all that sound familiar? An amorphous threat is pounded into the heads of Americans (communism, Covid, terrorism, disinformation) and in its name nearly anything is justified, including in the most recent battle for freedom, censorship. The wrapper is that it is all for our own protection—Biden himself accused social media companies of “killing people,” the more modern version of the terrorism era’s “blood on their hands”—with the government assuming the role of knowing what is right and correct for Americans to know.

The target in name is always some Russki-type foreigner; in reality, what happens is the censorship of our own citizens, who are tarred with the suspicion of being “pro-Putin.” Yet Meta’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, admitted that the government asked Facebook to suppress true information. He said during the Covid era that the scientific establishment within the government asked “for a bunch of things to be censored that, in retrospect, ended up being more debatable or true.”

Under President Joe Biden, the government has undertaken “the most massive attack against free speech in United States history.” That was the extraordinary conclusion reached by a federal judge in Missouri v. Biden. The case exposed the incredible lengths to which the Biden White House and its federal agencies have gone to bully social media platforms into removing political views they dislike. The White House is appealing and obtained a stay, hoping to retain this powerful tool of thought control right out of 1984. A victory for censorship of Americans and their thoughts could be the greatest threat to free speech in American history.