[Fis] Brenner 2020 New Year Lecture

Joseph Brenner joe.brenner at bluewin.ch
Thu Jan 2 09:33:14 CET 2020

Dear FIS Friends and Colleagues,


My best wishes for a healthy, happy and productive New Year!


As requested by Pedro, following a dialogue with him on the subject of
disinformation, I attach below a few pages that I have prepared on the
subject. I have also attached the file, but the system may not accept it. If
anyone needs a separate Word copy, please let me know.


I look forward to your comments, criticisms and suggestions of examples. I
will let the format for summaries ‘emerge’ from your responses and the
subsequent discussion.




Joseph a.k.a Joe




Joseph Brenner


These notes summarize some of my recent thoughts about disinformation as a
valid subject of discussion within FIS. They have emerged in part from the
massive amounts of disinformation produced by, among others, the current
Administration of the United States and its most partisan supporters. The
notes are not intended for publication as such, but, as usual to generate
exchanges. I certainly urge readers to provide their own examples of forms
of disinformation to complete the few noted below.





1 The Structure of Information

            Those of us who have been able to learn from the FIS discussions
of the last, now, 20 years will realize that they have not led to a fully
agreed-upon definition of information. This is perhaps an indication that a
single ‘clear’ definition is neither possible nor desirable, but even this
meta-question has not resulted in a consensus.

            A key related concept, only touched on in prior discussion, is
the structure of information.  In the comments to the subject “Revisiting
the Fluctuon Model”, of which I was one of the two organizers. Loet
Leydesdorff wrote (25 Sep 2010, in part): “In the Informational Structural
Realism of Floridi, reality is an informational structure. The It-part (of
the It-from-Bit model) is in the “structure” which assumes the specification
of a system of reference. In evolutionary terms: structure is
deterministic/selective; Shannon-type information measures only
variation/uncertainty.” The immediate corollary is that the structure of
information is both real and dynamic. It is a meaningful process, in my
opinion insufficiently recognized (cognized) as such. The idea that
structure is an ontological/dynamic process is to be found in the work of
Stéphane Lupasco “Qu’est-ce qu’une structure?” In contrast, Floridi’s
description is static, epistemological only. More familiar to most readers
will be the work of Anthony Giddens who captured the dynamic properties of
processes by the terms ‘structuring’ or ‘structuration’, also used in French
by Lupasco. Other key structural properties of information include -
breadth: a scalar measure applicable to categorization and comprehension (or
comprehensibility): presumably a higher dimensional parameter.

            In this period of 2011 and after, additional seminal ideas about
the structural aspects of information were presented by Mark Burgin,
Terrence Deacon and Stuart Kauffmann and their colleagues which centered on
the concept of information as a constraint on the evolution of processes.
Deacon went further in relating information to absence rather than only to
the uncertainty in the original concept of Shannon. I expanded this to the
duality absence-presence. Today, I would ask what can we say about the
structure of information that is new and that we have learned in the last 9+


2 The Structure of Disinformation

            Some people have suggested that disinformation is radically
different in kind from information. I believe that disinformation has a
structure close to if not identical to that of information. The big
differences lie in the intentionality behind it and its meaning content and
its consequences. For discussion, we may try to see if there are ‘signs’ of
the falsity and intent to deceive that are perceptible and hence may
characterize disinformation. In any case, its consequences can be same as
for misinformation, but the intentionality is clearly different, as
indicated below. 





1. Information

              For the purposes of this exercise, I will give my own
definition of information as a process of informing, a transfer of knowledge
from one human being to another that is meaningful in the sense of having
value for his/her survival or pleasure. It supervenes on the definition of
information as data (Floridi). The theory of information includes its
communication or messaging, Angeletics in the term of Capurro.


2. Misinformation

              Misinformation is false information that has been generated
and transferred by accident, without any intention on the part of the
sender. Any negative consequences, even if they are disastrous, does not
imply negative intent, but the sender may still be held responsible for
them. Negligence, at least in a somewhat decent society, cannot be allowed
to go without suitable reaction.


3. Disinformation

              As I have just learned from Wikipedia, we have Joseph Stalin
to thank for the invention (and use) of the term dezinformatsiya, which then
entered French and English. Today, disinformation has become a major topic
of concern at the level of the European Union as evidenced in this March,
2019 article,
), “Regulating disinformation with artificial intelligence. Effects of
disinformation initiatives on freedom of expression and media pluralism”.

For me, disinformation – disinforming - is an intentional process whose
objective is to subvert information for criminal and/or selfish purposes. It
is characterized by having no meaning, since there is no dialectical
relation between message and intent, and any meaning, for the disinformer,
is subordinate to his/her underlying – lying – objective. In other words,

disinformation is a lie, characterized by the logical properties of
semantic, mathematical and visual paradoxes, namely, the perceivable
oscillation between limiting binary logical states of yes or no, truth or
falsity, 0 and 1. In the social domain, disinformation is a tool, a method
of attempting domination by any means, ipso facto immoral or unethical. 

My definition can be compared with that of the EU study: “false, inaccurate
or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally
cause public harm or for profit”. The difference with misinformation is as
in the above in its intentionality.





1. Forms

              Typical forms of disinformation consist of messages that are
incomplete and misleading as well as directly false. Disinformation in this
sense is close to lying by omission, and in fact one could consider
disinformation as describing lying in the social sphere. People who withhold
information about their physical condition in connection with their
employment are ‘engaging’ in this form of disinformation, and I point here
to the utility of using the verb form instead of the noun.


2. Domains. Socio-politics of Disinformation

              Disinformation in all walks of life is so prevalent that it
becomes – almost – taken for granted. This is becoming an increasingly
greater danger for the society in view of the influence of social media,
some of which can now only be described as anti-social media. In fact, the
only question may be to what extent political and narrow economic objectives
can be maintained without disinformation.

            There is no obvious solution, as we are very close here to the
domain of belief, from which science is excluded. There is no overlap or
interaction possible in the information/disinformation content of the
following two statements: “Climate change is an impending disaster for which
there is almost no remaining time to avoid,” and  “Climate change is a hoax
propagated by Communists  to weaken the U. S. economy.”


3. Philosophy

              Philosophy and the social sciences in general benefit from the
vast capacities for identification of sources that are now available. On the
other hand, these are more than compensated by the information explosion,
such that finding all relevant references is still a difficult process.
Disinformation can come down to a very specific, at least partly intentional
process of ignoring easily available references.

Other methods include swamping of new results by overemphasis on classical
sources of only historical value.


4. Scientific Literature

            In general in science, disinformation becomes roughly equivalent
to fraud, the dissemination of data not obtained by actual experiments.
However, for data with major social implications, such as data on climate
change, its misuse is a clear example of disinformation including a major
ideological component as in 2 above.. 

             In addition, false accusations of fraud or plagiarism are
usually supported by a mass of disinformation which can become


5. Advertising. Gambling and Lotteries

              In my opinion, there is a difference between making people
aware of the availability of consumer goods and services and aggressive
advertising of them. The latter will generally involve recourse to clearly
unethical practices based on psychological tools, known since antiquity, but
whose effectiveness is unfortunately enhanced by modern technology.
‘Creating demand’ is an accepted professional objective, despite being
probably counterproductive for the common good.

              Promotion of gambling and lotteries always overemphasizes the
potential gains compared to their low probability in a specific instance. To
be fair, some TV advertising for sports now includes the message “Bet
Responsibly”, calling attention to possible, if not probable losses which
the bettor might not be able to afford.. This opens up the entire domain of
the ethics of production and marketing of goods that are not vital to
existence. The authors of disinformation are watching closely the outcome of
the related debate


6. “The Informer”. Délation or Denouncement

              As a different topic in these notes, I would like to mention
the 1935 movie “The Informer”, starring Victor McLaglen. The main character
provides a canonical example of a negative transfer of information that is
true! What is involved is the treacherous transfer of correct information
about one group to its controlling opposition with disastrous results for
the former, in this case, during the ‘troubles’ in Ireland. The
disinformation, of course, lies in the concealing by the informer of his
intentions and actions. The French term délation, and native French-speakers
may wish to correct this, always has for me the implication that the
denouncement carries disinformation.


7. Combating Disinformation

              There are several levels on which disinformation can be
combated: 1) on the personal level, correcting false information in one’s
personal network; 2) on the institutional level. Let me define an
institution as a group that is present in the public domain with sufficient
resources to insure the reception of its messages by a wide audience. I
separate this from individuals accessing masses of people through social
media. Let us assume that the Foundations of Information Science initiative
is such an institution. Then its members – we – must, can and should, report
instances of disinformation to an organ in the institution that would insure
its dissemination.

              I have no idea whether or not this would ‘work’, but I feel
that it could do no harm for anyone with the access to the FIS site to see a
regularly up-dated Section listing examples of disinformation which we have
encountered. Many further details on regulatory and technological responses
to disinformation are provided in the EU study, and some of them should be
addressed in the forthcoming discussion



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