Ballot box outside Hartford City Hall. Credit: Christine Stuart photo

It is a sad day when people seeking truth turn to the government to find out the real story. After all, public officials have a pretty poor track record in leveling with us about matters consequential and trivial. But such are the times in which we live.

Social media platforms give any keyboard-pecking liar a megaphone with which to broadcast distortions, half-truths, and outright falsehoods. Audiences are composed of just enough gullible folks guided by confirmation bias that the misinformation – whether it originates from the right or left – can spread faster than COVID at an orgy.

This presents a problem for both governments and the taxpayers who fund them, especially during elections when false information can influence outcomes or depress turnout. Enter the office of Democratic Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, which has proposed to add a position to its payroll with a fancy title: election information security analyst (EISA).

As my colleague Hugh McQuaid reported last week, the new post is “part of a broader, $2 million campaign to root out bad voting information ahead of the 2022 statewide elections.” Merrill’s chief of staff, Gabe Rosenberg, says the new hire’s charge “will be limited to election administration.” The analyst will not referee political disputes or personal attacks among candidates for office. Sounds harmless enough, right?

This development was first reported in a New York Times article last month as part of a larger story about the steps several states have taken to combat disinformation about elections.

The successful applicant will monitor social media and video sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tik-Tok to online forums like Reddit and 4-chan. If the EISA is able to identify incorrect information related to voting in Connecticut, they will report it to administrators and ask that it be taken down, so the state government itself will not be censoring anything.

As examples of the kind of misinformation the EISA would fight, Rosenberg cited a pair of false assertions: a social media user claimed he received an absentee ballot for a dead family member before any absentee ballots had even been printed or mailed; a Twitter user reported that a truck transporting ballots had flipped over on I-95, spilling completed ballots all over the roadway.

Fair enough. The promulgation of this kind of fantasy not only influences the outcome of elections but, if unchecked, it casts unwarranted doubt on the legitimacy of our electoral system itself.

The problem with government fact checkers is both substantive and presumptive. Public officials sometimes put out false or misleading information themselves. For a recent example, check the information recently promulgated (and later retracted) by police in Uvalde, Texas, the site of the most recent mass school shooting. Bad information coming from the private sector is bad enough, but government misinformation is perhaps the most pernicious sort.

“This is because when the government lies, it threatens the ability of the people to perform their basic democratic function: namely, to judge whether their elected representatives are representing their interests satisfactorily,” according to the First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. In addition, adds the FAI, “government falsehoods are far more difficult to regulate because courts have consistently found that the constitution is essentially powerless to “constrain the government’s capacity to lie.”

Predictably – though not entirely without merit – Connecticut Republicans have seized on the issue and cast it as a case of government overreach. Dominic Rapini, the endorsed Republican candidate for secretary of the state, pledged on Twitter to immediately put the kibosh on the newly created $150,000-a-year position upon taking office.

Dominic Rapini's tweet
Dominic Rapini’s tweet. Credit: Screengrab / @dominicforct via Twitter

Echoing the oft-expressed concerns of Republicans nationwide concerning “censorship” by Facebook and Twitter, GOP U.S. Senate candidate Leora Levy claimed Connecticut Democrats will use the EISA to shut down conservative voices on social media.

Ben Proto, the chairman of the Republican State Central Committee, claimed the Democrats “are seeking to silence dissent and control political discussion through … infringement on the First Amendment rights of voters,” the Republican-American’s Paul Hughes reported.

Most of the comments above are simply political posturing but House Minority Leader Vince Candelora got it right when he said the “initiative deserves ongoing scrutiny to ensure it doesn’t devolve into a political witch hunt backed by the bureaucracy of state government.”

Exactly. The new watchdog will have to be watchdogged. After all, the EISA will make $150,000 per year and will report to an elected official. Merrill is great at her job and is one of the most nonpartisan elected officials I’ve ever observed. We might not be so fortunate if her replacement is a political hack who might use the EISA to gain political advantage.

There’s a reason why Rapini referred to the EISA as “the ministry of truth.” That term of derision was widely used by conservatives against the Biden administration’s attempts to establish a Disinformation Governance Board whose goal would be to “coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security.”

Ironically, so much derision about the board was posted on social media and elsewhere that the Department of Homeland Security felt compelled to counter the disinformation with its own “fact sheet” dispelling the unfounded rumors.

After a scant three weeks, the board was put “on pause,” which is probably a nice way of saying it will be put to death. The suspension caused much snickering among the political and media classes that the disinformation board was itself a victim of disinformation. All kidding aside, the board’s demise does illustrate how difficult it is to combat bad information – even for the people who are supposed to be running the show.

Moreover, those who cheered the creation of the disinformation board and the EISA might want to think twice about it. You might think those truth tellers are fine if they are guided by elected officials that you like, but imagine for a moment what a ministry of truth would look like in the Trump administration.

As I tweeted at the time: 

Terry Cowgill's tweet on the failure of the Disinformation Governance Board.
Terry Cowgill’s tweet on the failure of the Disinformation Governance Board. Credit: Screengrab / @terrycogwill via Twitter

Fact-checking is best left to the press. We’re not the most trusted institution in America either, but what other credible alternatives are there?

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.