In 2009, the Obama administration conscripted citizens to join the government in helping to monitor the emails, casual conversations and activities of their neighbors, friends and co-workers by reporting “misinformation” about Obamacare.
Creating the email address, email@example.com, the administration encouraged citizens to inform the government of inaccurate information — or information that was counter to what the president was telling them — about the health care act.
The response to the attempt to create an informant society was immediate — and angry. Two weeks later, responding to growing public criticism about the idea of neighbors informing on neighbors on the proposed health care bill, the White House announced it had deactivated the “flag” email.
Did they? Despite the administration’s announcement that the “flag” had been deactivated and removed, we have found that today, more than four years later, the email address still appears on the White House webpages (https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/Facts-Are-Stubborn-Things), accompanied by the same invitation to citizens to report anyone who is disseminating misinformation about Obamacare.
On the Whitehouse.gov website, visitors are still encouraged to “help end the disinformation” about health-insurance reform:
“There is a lot of disinformation about health-insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end-of-life care. These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation.
“Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the Web about health-insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
It is reasonable to think that the White House, like many other organizations, simply forgot to remove the Web pages. This is unlikely because the Web page that showcases the “flag” email inviting informants to report on others was updated as recently as November 2013. At the top of the Web page is an update featuring a recent interview with President Obama.
On Aug. 19, 2009, The Washington Post indicated that emails to the canceled “flag” email address now refer people to the White House’s “Reality Check” site, where they can report distortions through an online interface.
It is likely that to quell public criticism, the White House may have created a pass-through system by which someone who wants to report “misinformation” that “traveled just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation” about Obamacare can still do so.
The invitation is still there, and the platform for soliciting and gathering information is still very much in place. Citizens are still being invited to inform on their friends and neighbors’ email or conversations.
This is a problem. From the first day the “flag” email site was announced, its creation symbolically signaled that the Obama administration intended to do everything it could to promote its social policies and suppress all dissent. Some worried whether the creation of the site to inform on dissenters from the president’s policies was just a ploy to gather information about potential political enemies.
Lawmakers knew this. Even when the site was reported to have been removed, Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, noted that “questions still remain about information that’s already been collected over the past few weeks.”
One pundit asked why there was such little hue and outcry from individuals otherwise vexed by President George W. Bush’s “TIPS” program, which invited citizens to inform the government about potential terrorist threats in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and not an effort to collect information about persons exercising their First Amendment rights in dissenting from Obamacare.
It is still possible to report fellow citizens. For those adventurous enough to test it — those who want to report on those still spreading erroneous information about the act — all one has to do is to go to the whitehouse.gov site, find the “flag” link to the White House, and inform away.
Anne Hendershott is director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Brian Simboli writes on religious-freedom issues.