Users are much too quick to reach for explanations like "you must be a foreign agent" when even the public record of the other user's comments—let alone the private data we look at—show that to be trivially unlikely. Foreign agents exist, of course, but foreign agents as an explanatory device for things one finds provocative online is, to a first approximation, a fiction. Same for astroturfing, shills, and the other things users accuse each other of in arguments.
That doesn't mean ignoring the possibility of manipulation—it just means that we should look for evidence. I can tell you that when we look for evidence, we basically never find it. Even if we're being fooled by clever manipulation in some cases, it's painfully clear that in the overwhelming majority, there's no there there. What there is, is people reaching for 'disingenuousness' as a simple explanation for what they find painful and offensive.
That assumption blocks any solution. There's no way to resolve pain and offense without recognizing the experiences of the other side.
You mention China. I can tell you that all the flamewars I've seen about China since they started blazing in the last year or so have been examples of what I've said here.
That is to say that China was chosen for reasons beyond the literally obvious example of state agents. I know from experience state actors are rare, as well as being rare to detect. My rub is that latching onto China or Russia state agents as the only concerning actors that spread misinformation is not accurate. Somewhat more common are paid or unpaid social media shills/trolls that have many generalized accounts to forcefully influence topics.
But in my experience misinformation is spread most by those with vested interests, deeply gross misunderstandings of the world, strong attachment to personal biases they only believe and never bother to confirm or disprove empirically, reductionist and oversimplifications and un-nuanced tidbits learned from an introductory course of some topic, and so on.
These individuals overwhelmingly choose to ignore facts presented to them and espouse their incorrect views (perhaps hiding behind politeness or qualifications or an institutional authority). The view that such an individual will eventually with enough patience, see truth... is rather intractable and untenable.
I’m afraid you have latched onto but one example, possibly missing its purpose of imagery in the comment and neglecting to consider the other examples of bad information and bad actors which are actually fairly common that spread damaging tropes (that while inaccurate, continue to circulate nonetheless).
When people argue like this, in my experience, what they mostly want is for us to ban the views they disagree with. We can't do that. Running a complex community like HN is nowhere near that simple.
Modern times have also brought on about a host of new issues where technology can be both beneficial and a detriment to society. The rapid spread of misinformation is a major technological and social issue. How are we going to navigate the new era that is becoming more complex, conflicts are increasing, and people are becoming more partisan and incorrectly reinforced because technology and modern life makes it very easy to filter out the inconvenient facts that they need not be confronted with?
My point is we should not be assisting the enablement of misinformation. Being a hotbed for powerful people and powerful ideas, there is a certain amount of responsibility that needs to be accepted in preventing the spread of misinformation. Rules of discourse that prevent resolutions is something I believe is harmful rather than helpful at HN, and enables the spread of misinformation.
Alternatively, those that don’t like an atmosphere where less than well informed views are actually challenged may very well choose to leave on their own accord, and they will no longer be spreading misinformation here. Bans are probably not needed at all really, we just shouldn’t be enabling.
Very well put. This is my biggest concern as well. HN mods prevent resolution by punishing participants in back and forth discussion for being part of a “flame war”. It is an incredibly coarse and un-nuanced view of debate.