Paul Nash, “We are Making a New World” (1918) oil, 27.99 in by 35.98 in, at the Imperial War Museum, London (image courtesy and via Wikimedia Commons)

In public policy, metaphors are medicine with side effects, and these days a whole lot of prescriptions are being written for our disinformation problem. We seem to agree that disinformation is a critical problem for democracy, but what, exactly, is it? We’re confronted by an urgent socio-political predicament of global scale that is also fundamentally philosophical. Caught in this double bind, we look for ways out via metaphor. Disinformation therefore becomes a disease, a pollutant, a wildfire, a weapon. These metaphors have proven immensely useful for civil society, politicians, researchers, and the public as we try to make headway, but each of them has its own history and carries ideological freight that we ignore at our peril.

A metaphor is never just a figure of speech. For many philosophers and linguists, metaphors are fundamental to how we make sense of reality: They encode and abet power even as they crack the door open to new ways of seeing. As the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze summarizes it at one point,

The real and the imaginary — that is, the real beings who come to occupy places and the ideologies which express the image that they make of it — are narrowly determined by the play of these structural adventures and the contradictions resulting from it.

Our disinformation metaphors help us see new possibilities (how might we “clean up” disinformation, or treat “information disorder”?), but obscure others (if disinformation is a pollutant, why is it such a useful political tool? If disinformation is an attack, why does it seem so sociological?). Metaphors shape our discourses, ideologies and histories.

Let’s look at “disinformation is a disease.”  In 1992, during a previous wave of disinformation anxiety, a decade-long KGB disinformation operation named “Project Infektion” came to light. It had sought to convince the world that HIV was engineered by the United States as a biological weapon. One of the sneaky things about Project Infektion rhetorically is the way it conflates the ideas of communicable disease and disinformation. Does “Infektion” refer to the disinformation or its subject? The metaphor cropped up again early this year, in the World Health Organization’s 13th “Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Situation Report.”  It asserted that “the 2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’ — an overabundance of information (some accurate and some not) that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”  This strangely humoral warning proved highly effective as a public health message: It was relevant, timely, and understandable.  As a result, the “infodemic” now has approximately 1.5 million results on Google, its own Wikipedia page, and coverage in the highly respected medical journal The Lancet.

A Petri dish, via the Communications Office of the Alessandria and Biomedical Library Documentation Center (photo by Antonio e Biagio and Cesare Arrigo via Wikimedia Commons)

The question is: Why was the “infodemic” neologism intuitive enough to go viral? To better understand what paths disinformation/disease opens and forecloses, we need to delve further back, finding its origins in the conceit of the body politic. The body politic analogy emerged in medieval Europe to describe the supposed naturally symmetric ordering of society in terms of the anatomical structure of the human body. It was conceived that the monarch was to society as the brain to the body, and so on. In this schema, each institution and individual had its proper and necessary function, and as a body could be healthy or diseased, ordered or disordered — so could society. As early modernist Jonathan Gil Harris has shown, this metaphor proved useful in not only schematizing the social order but in justifying anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and xenophobic discourses, in which the “foreign bodies” of othered communities became cast as the bodily equivalent of disease agents (“cankers”, “plagues”).

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse (image by unknown artist, via Wikimedia)

The idea of the body politic has been wielded for good and ill and its biopolitical and necropolitical potency continues to shape modern ideas and identity globally. Artists have used it as well as demagogues. Shakespeare, for example, would later deploy it proto-humanistically to critique Elizabethan culture and power.  Well in advance of COVID-19 or 1992, it had hopped the Atlantic and found its way into United States discourse on civil rights and free expression. One example: Teddy Roosevelt, in his “Man in the Arena” speech of 1910, decried “The phrase-maker, the phrase-monger, the ready talker, however great his power, whose speech does not make for courage, sobriety, and right understanding, is simply a noxious element in the body politic, and it speaks ill for the public if he has influence over them.”  This contraposition of the healthy body politic with unfettered free expression is in turn the mirror image of recent, promising, research into “misinformation superspreaders,” and “inoculation theory” (try the video game!). Today we also hear echoes of the past — be it cankerous foreign bodies, Project Infektion, or Roosevelt — in the US current president’s xenophobic pandemic rhetoric and assault on politically inconvenient science and public health reporting.  As Joseph Nechvatal recently wrote for Hyperallergic, our anxieties about the body, viruses, online life, and the state are all interweaving, as are our artistic responses to them.

President Donald J. Trump greets supporters during a drive by outside of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Bethesda, Md. (official White House photo by Tia Dufour via Flickr)

Where does all this leave us? For Deleuze, the question is never whether a given metaphor or discourse is “good” or “bad,” but what meanings and perceptions it generates or ossifies. In the case of the WHO’s infodemic, the deployment of an ancient and potent metaphor has galvanized efforts to connect the world with authoritative health information at a critical moment and undoubtedly saved lives. Nevertheless, the difference between a virus and a cell is more clearly apprehended than that between truth and falsehood, and “overabundance of information” is a troubling frame. Authoritarians and aspiring ones around the world are rushing to restrict free expression and the press with COVID-19 as their justification. We can usefully regard disinformation as a disease but we simultaneously have to ask where the metaphor fails us. Where does over-reliance on any given metaphor fail us?

Whether we’re combatting disinformation, cleaning it up, or inoculating against it, the danger is not so much in the use of a metaphor but in forgetting where it came from, its embroilment in power, and its inevitable inadequacy. Judith Butler intervened when she asked us whose bodies are political, and which ones matter? Disinformation researcher Joan Donovan intervened recently when she compared disinformation to secondhand smoke. Everywhere, artists are using glitch art, meta-ironic meming, hyperpop, and other emerging aesthetics to ask new questions and give us new vantage points. This is a call to action for artists and writers to satirize or resuscitate this tired metaphor, to pose new ones, and to help us see truth, disease, and the body in new ways. This is a call to policy makers and politicians to listen up.

Matt Bailey is a technology activist, artist, and sometime civil servant. He serves as PEN America's Digital Freedom Program Director and lives in DC.