June 10, 2020
1 Hour 1 Minute and 43 Seconds
The spreading of misinformation about the novel coronavirus has serious implications not only for our ability to vanquish the virus, but also for the health of our democracies. Listen to this Wiener Conference Call with Nancy Gibbs who discusses this problem and more.
Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Good day everyone, I am Mari Megias in the office of Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard Kennedy School and I’m very pleased to welcome you to this Wiener Conference Call. As we all continue to navigate the new normal, we’re providing more opportunities for you to connect with Harvard Kennedy School Faculty, so watch your email for future invitations. Also, given that we are running these calls remotely, please accept our apologies for any technical issues we may experience.
Today we are joined by Nancy Gibbs who is the Director of The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics and Public Policy. Until September of 2017, she was the editor-in-chief of TIME Magazine, the first woman to hold this position, where she directed news and feature coverage across all platforms for more than 65 million readers worldwide. She has also served as a consultant to CBS News and is an essayist for the NewsHour on PBS. She’s the co-author of two best-selling presidential histories and has lectured extensively on the American Presidency. We are so fortunate the Nancy Gibbs has chosen to share her thoughts on US and international situation with regards to misinformation with Kennedy School Alumni and friends. Nancy.
Hi everyone, it’s nice to be with you. I’m eager to hear from you so I’m going to talk for a few minutes at a very high altitude and then I’m looking forward to diving into questions about the remarkable moment we find ourselves in, in our history. I will say as in 30 years in newsrooms, I never covered anything like we’ve seen in the spring of 2020. I find it challenging to write about, challenging to get our heads around so I feel like we are all on a journey trying to understand where we are.
So let me offer some thoughts, particularly about the information challenge. At the Shorenstein Center as many of you know, we think of ourselves almost and information environmentalists. We are fighting the pollution of our information streams of which we have seen so much right now, while trying to promote access to good information, which has never been more important than right now. Early on in the pandemic the World Health Organization called this an infodemic, that people were being drowned in information, some of it reliable, much of it not and that was making it very hard for people faced with a global public health crisis to know what to do, what to think or who to believe.
Whatever else the WHO might have gotten wrong, they got that right. This pandemic has accelerated everything as you know, the move to online shopping, to remote work, to remote education. It has also been a bonanza for the purveyors of snake oil and disinformation of all kinds. I feel as though, this spring we have watched every trend that has configured our politics and our social climate, everyone is on steroids right now.
I just want to think for our purposes about the big three that I think and write most about which are related and which I think help explain why this pandemic has also created such a damaging infodemic and why disinformation has become even more challenging. Those three are polarization, the collapse of trust and information warfare. So, the short version, I don’t need to tell you about how divisive our political arena has become, and we can talk later on in this hour about the roots of polarization and where it started and why it has gotten so bad but, suffice to say when I want to pick just one statistic that captures the generational change. If you asked people back in the 1960s how they would feel about their son or daughter marrying someone of a different race or different religion, that tended to be of much more concern than the maybe 5% of people who worried if their son or daughter married outside of their political party.
Now, people are far less concerned if their white son married a black girl, their black son married a white girl or a Catholic married a Jew or a Muslim married a Mormon. None of that bothers parents as much as the press back that their children married outside of their political party. That I think tells us maybe in as an effective a shorthand as I can think of about the extent to which political polarization which used to kind of be contained in the political arena, has now jumped its boundaries and affects everything. It affects how we live and how we eat and who we socialize with, it certainly affects our media diet.
You know how much the media... And I will stipulate as someone who found it ever harder to run a newsroom that tried to build trust and speak to as broad a national and international audience as possible, how much further that became as people were able to customize their information diets, live in their filtered bubbles, be much less exposed to points of view and experiences that did not conform to their own. So the challenge of polarization was one piece of the context for what we’ve seen this spring.
The second is the collapse of trust in institutions. It’s very easy to imagine that this is a recent phenomenon that arose from the attacks we have seen in recent years on the media, on the breach state, on institutions of all kinds. In fact, the groups and the researchers that have been tracking institutional trust can show a fairly steady decline going back 40 years. So one thing that is worth bearing in mind when people compare this moment to 1968 as a moment of great division in our country, in 1968 the level of trust in institutions was significantly higher than it is now. And so as much as we saw disorder in the streets and enormous backlash against social injustice and demands for change, that those protests took place in a context when people’s general faith in government to generally do the right thing, was significantly higher than it is now.
The problem with that is that if a great deal of your coverage is focused on what is not working and where institutions are failing, then it is not a particular surprise that trust in those institutions should fall. If people believe that they are performing badly because they are reading regularly that they are performing badly and it’s a cliché to say that you seldom will see a reporter land in a country and say, “I am reporting from this country where war has not broken out.” It’s much harder for us to cover slower trends that are less headline grabbing. We know statistically the extraordinary numbers of people who’ve been lifted out of poverty in the last generation, we know the extraordinary progress that has been made in biotechnology, in poverty alleviation on all sorts of measures and yet it is partly human nature that people pay more attention to what might pose a threat to them and it is certainly within the economic model of media that being an early warning system, and for that matter, speaking to people’s sources of outrage, has been much better for the business model at a time when media organizations have been so challenged.
As news organizations lost their monopoly as information gatekeepers and had to compete for our attention with ever more sources of information and then with social media, the power of outrage to drive engagement and therefore sustain the economies of media, became harder and harder to resist. So we hunker within our tribes, consuming our custom media diet and even when what’s in shorthand referred to as fake news is posted, we share it. Not necessarily because we believe it, but because it’s a signal of our loyalty to our team and it’s usually more interesting, which is why we saw in the last election that a lot of pieces of fake news were shared six times as much as actual factual information.
Which brings me to the third leg of the stool, polarization, trust and disinformation. Social media of course has made it so much easier to spread. The leader at The Shorenstein Center of our major project fighting media manipulation and disinformation is Dr. Joan Donovan, who many of you have seen regularly in news accounts about the infodemic, and she points out, and I think this is important to remember, that information is very cheap to produce, and that’s why misinformation is such a problem. You don’t need any evidence, you don’t need an investigation, you don’t need methods to produce it. Knowledge is incredibly expensive to produce. Experts aren’t going to work for free and knowledge is time consuming and slow and information is fast and cheap and easy.
In an early notion that internet users could be both producers and consumers of information, turned platforms into what Joan calls information landfills. People have to sift through increasingly dangerous garbage in the search for real information. That’s the context at which we then find ourselves, come January, February facing this global pandemic. The first problem of something this important and big and new, is the challenge of uncertainty. Scientists, epidemiologists face a steep learning curve, this was a novel coronavirus and so what they didn’t know led to changes in the guidance that we as citizens were getting. Probably the most obvious was, first we were told it was not necessary to wear a mask and then it became necessary to wear masks and then it became mandatory in many contexts to wear masks. How could that be?
Well, partly it was a concern on the part of some public health leaders that we had a significant shortage of surgical masks and N95s and that if people thought that they needed masks and started hoarding them that it would put our healthcare providers at even greater risk. So you could call that a noble lie to prevent hoarding of masks, I have a problem with that as a reason but I think it coincided with the fact that early on a lot of people did not know how great a risk asymptomatic spread was, and as it became clearer, the people who were infected with the novel coronavirus but not yet showing symptoms, could still easily pass it on to other people, then the need for everyone to be wearing masks if they were going to be out in public became clearer.
Some part of this is just the nature of the scientific method that as you learn, as you test your hypothesis, you have to be able to adjust. By and large our era and certainly our media doesn’t handle uncertainty and adjustment terribly well. We tend to condemn it as flip-flopping rather than as maturity and greater sophistication of information. I think that covering uncertainty is always hard, covering uncertainty in times of emergency is even more difficult. Then you add on top of that the fact that lots of people had a financial or a political interest in driving disinformation. There was just a lot of money to be made.
I had held out hope that even as we all experience and I think are often troubled by the depth of division in our politics, that a true national or global crisis, God forbid another 9/11, would shock us out of our trenches and invite us to put trust back in institutions, rely on science, restore some common sense and a sense of common good. And you could say that we actually saw that happen. It in many ways was amazing how fast countries all around the world, how fast this country adapted to the threat that this virus presented. The shutdowns, the shutting down of the economy in many ways the dramatic amending of people’s livelihoods and lifestyles, the closing of schools, it was extraordinary how much basically voluntary compliance with quite draconian measures worldwide, how quickly that happened.
I had occasion to be driving across New York State yesterday and as I drove with each mile further away from the hot zone of the Tri-state area into the countryside, into farm country, into counties in the state that had barely a dozen confirmed cases and few or no deaths. It became clear to me how extraordinary it was that all over the country, whether or not people had any direct exposure or fear of exposure or knew anyone who had experienced symptoms or had become sick themselves, still joined into this common effort. On the other hand, we also know that we have watched what has felt often like a festival of polarization and distrust and rebellion and doubt. We saw the fight over the Michigan anti-lockdown protesters and whether they were threatening public health with their protests that then being revisited with the protests over racial justice in the last couple of weeks. The flip side of that you could argue was how the Michigan protestors were treated and viewed by law enforcement compared to how protestors in these last few weeks have in many cases been viewed and treated by law enforcement.
But the top line here, is that COVID-19 was an unique opportunity for many conspiratorial and fringe communities to recruit new believers, sell products and be amplified by the media, often even benefiting from the exposure that debunking in the mainstream media brought them, in to increase institutional distrust generally. And while many of the super spreaders of conspiracy theories use pseudonyms and may not be held directly responsible, most that we can trace go back to some ideological or profit-driven motives. I get why it is disorienting for us to live in these dual realities of watching countless acts of individual courage, especially by frontline workers, by essential workers, by healthcare workers, within communities. Extraordinary acts of courage and kindness at the same time that we’re witnessing a national pageant at times that what looks like recklessness or irresponsibility and then on top of both of those, in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, an enormous national breakdown over what we know and understand and see and believe and can do around basic social justice in this country.
It’s extraordinary for any nation to handle one dramatic crisis or emergency at a time. Handling three, I can’t think of a precedent for this, it tests us as individuals, it tests our institutions. At a place like the Kennedy School I think it certainly is going to shape how I teach what I hope will be the next generation of public leaders at a moment when the need for excellent, informed, committed public leaders, we are seeing the importance of that every single day. So let me leave it at that so that we can open up the floor and I can hear from you. I’m happy to go down any of these roads, there’s so much to talk about in every new cycle that I need to hear what is on your mind.
Q: What are the principle COVID-19 narratives being pushed by major misinformation producers and what are the strategies and goals behind these narratives?
That’s a great question. Our misinformation project, the Technology and Social Change Project at Shorenstein has been tracking these because many of them have long-term implications even beyond the COVID crisis so, what are the top ones? That COVID is spread by 5G towers, partly that was because the rollout of 5G in many places coincided with the pandemic and 5G skepticism, mainly fueled by anti-tech activists but was amplified by RT and other Russian media. Motivations? Anti-development, recruitment for their movement, sale of natural products. Much of this goes back to alternative supplements and medicines.
Second, Bill Gates who became an even bigger target after he criticized the United States defunding the WHO. People started fighting his 2015 Ted Talk where he warned of a pandemic as evidence that he had prior knowledge, in which case I guess I did too because I was editor of TIME, we did a cover in 2017 called, “The Coming Pandemic.” The conspiracy theory around Gates says that he is using the pandemic to gain powers, spread mass immunization and implant microchips that will let him track and control people. There the motivation is a merger of anti-vax activists, QAnon, anti-New World Order fringe pundits. It’s a kind of anti-liberal recruitment for their movement.
Third, that the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab which is pushed by general conspiracy theorists and anti-China hawks. There are a couple of versions of this, one was that this was virologists doing research on bats who had an accident. One of those researchers, who’s a prominent virologist Shi Zhengli, who did spend years collecting bat dung samples and was an expert in the previous SARS outbreak, went back and checked lab records to see if anything had gone wrong. It is fairly recently that the current coronavirus, it’s genetic sequencing does not match any of the viruses that were being sampled and studied by her team. But the other version is not that this was an accident from virologists studying bats but that this was a bio weapon and the sheer coincidence that China’s lead institute for studying bat corona viruses was in the same city as the origin of the outbreak, was irresistible for conspiracy theorists. Again, motivations are Sinophobic.
Its probably worth realizing the Pew Research Center found that nearly three in 10 Americans believe that COVID-19 was made in a lab, either accidentally or intentionally. The flip side of this is that the Chinese have accused the US military of importing it to China.
Another very dangerous conspiracy theory was that African Americans can’t get COVID. That was pushed by alternative health sites, by some black news sites, there’s scattered evidence of white supremacists and foreign actors amplifying that. Some of the motivations are a misguided distrust of the military establishment by African Americans, and in other cases were genuinely designed to be anti-African American in the case of some of the foreign actors, or white supremacists. We’re about to release a paper on this topic. There’s a theory that GMOs created COVID, again, pushed by the fringe anti-GMO industrial farming activists. The theory there is that GM crops cause genetic pollution that allows viruses to spread due to environmental imbalance.
The biggest one in a way, the most problematic maybe, that COVID isn’t real. That it’s either no worse than the flu or that death rates are inflated or that swallowing bleach will kill it or any number of cures that the Alex Jones’ of the world are trying to sell, or that it was designed by liberals to deny Donald Trump his rallies and wreck his economy. It’s important to note I think that in some ways all of these feed into each other, which is why the conspiracies endure. Every time a major publication reports on a pre-print study, and we’ve been trying, our Journalist Resource Project has tried to give guidance to journalists about how to responsibly report on pre-prints, Any time that those guidelines are then changed or a pre-print study turns out to be inaccurate, those changes are used to reinforce distrust and conspiracism that then benefits a handful of bad actors, so it becomes very, very hard to get reliable information to cut through the noise and for people to feel like they know who they can trust.
Q: My compliments to your tour de force which, agreed, is complex, but I’m going to pose an individual that you may be familiar with, Walter Bagehot when he made reference to the monarchy, that he suggested that this mysterium tremendum, that you need to keep the veil somewhat closed because too much exposure may very well diminish the ontologic integrity of the monarchy in terms of power and prestige. And now I’m segueing to 21st century in terms of, communication is virtually held by everyone regardless of intellectual integrity, regardless of terms of thought, values and ideas. Basically, anyone is able to put forward on a platform, rhetoric and now there is so much. There is so much to be consumed, to be accessed and as you said, the aspect of trust is absolutely paramount and that is hideously complex because it is so simple therein the complexity and many people are scared, they are fearful. They do not control or know what is happening today or in the future and they don’t even know what to anticipate for their children. How would you try to assuage those mass majority of people which agreed, includes myself, in terms of how to deal with what is happening today? And for this I thank you.
So, you’re quite right that the fact that all of us now, absolutely anyone who has a smart phone or a laptop can be a publisher, can be a filmmaker, can be a content producer of any kind and in many cases build an enormous global audience, is unlike any time in human history. Pretty much every major social, economical or political people I can think of in human history, tends to have a communications revolution driving it, Whether it’s Guttenberg laying the predicate for the renaissance and the reformation or the rise of radio and television and mass communication or talk radio and now the internet, upending the way we see one another and what we understand of each other. I don’t think there’s any way to put the genie back in the bottle. I say this as somebody who spent my journalistic career at what we now call the legacy media, at a mainstream news organization, that in the 20th century, places like TIME Magazine or NBC News or CBS News or the Wall Street Journal had an enormous and almost monopolistic control over information and what people knew.
That marginalized a great many people who’s lived experience was not represented by those institutions, but it also made it much easier to suppress extremist views and to have a certain base line level of fairness, accuracy, fact-checking, that now we all have seen. It is simply extraordinary, the kind of currency that a conspiracy theory is able to get. I think that because so much of the responsibility for this does fall to the platforms, that it’s no surprise to me that we’re seeing an even more ferocious debate over their public responsibility. This has not been going on for quite some time but the pandemic... Because it literally became a matter of life and death, whether or not people were getting accurate information or whether they were being told, “Yes, go inject bleach.” The platforms had no choice but to act with far more editorial control than they were comfortable demonstrating.
Their position has always been that we are platforms, we are not editors, we are not media companies. That has been not difficult to reject as a premise, but it’s now even more the case that there’s simply a profound global need for accountability and a kind of serving awareness of the public interest among the platforms, and I think we’re going to look at many different proposals for content moderation for how to protect not just users’ privacy which is a whole other debate where Europe is much further along than I think the United States is, or trying to sustain other forms of media by making it harder for the platforms just to take their content and not compensate them, which we’re seeing now in Australia and in France. They’re requiring the platforms to help support actual journalism.
But even more, to be more rigorous in not providing so much oxygen to the most dangerous, most extreme, most outrage-inducing news. The business model of platforms is in so many ways at odds with what is in the public interests and so I think that that reckoning, which was already happening is another of the things that has been accelerated by this pandemic because again, here we’re not just seeing the amplification of information that you may not like, you may not agree with, you may think is hateful or racist or misogynistic, add on top of that the amplification of information that may be deadly. And so I think I’m watching closely and we’re trying to provide the research that will help policy makers know how to approach this regulatory challenge, but this is going to be... We’re likely to see it as even more significant issue in the coming campaign and in legislative battles both at the state and the federal as well as internationally in the coming year.
Q: When the Twin Towers, 9/11 in short and in response to that, I wrote a paper in one of my classes on what would happen if terrorists would use smallpox and went, for example, to the Superbowl where you have people coming from places across the country in an enclosed stadium and exposed the people to smallpox, and what the response would be. I wrote that and it’s exactly what has happened with the coronavirus. And I’ve let several friends read it and they were amazed, they called me a predictor but no, I did that to get the degree. Now, I believe that these consequences that you are talking about is a result of poor leadership, there’s no doubt in my mind.
To give you an example at an earlier date, during the Cuban missile crisis when I was in a segregated school, and when John F. Kennedy was president, everybody in the country knew that the Russians had nuclear missiles just outside of Florida in Cuba and we went through these routines, which are probably useless as I found out when I took physics, of whenever an alarm would go off, we would hide under the schoolhouse so we had a place to hide as if nuclear weapons was not going to destroy that. But at least, from a psychological standpoint, we were prepared for it, and based on my information, we could have been better prepared for this coronavirus given information that we had. But it’s poor leadership that’s a consequence of all this because we listened to Walter Cronkite, as my mother said, not CBS News. Walter Cronkite and he gave it to us straight, and so that was the best representation of leadership at the top and I remember John Kennedy coming on the television and telling us about this crisis. We didn’t get that this time and we should have got.
I definitely think you’re exactly right and of course maybe I’m extra sensitive to this, being at a school of public leadership, that we’re having quite a conversation about the responsibilities of public leaders and how they should handle something like this. And I think this is where it’s been particularly painful when a country has an emergency, whether it’s the Cuban missile crisis or it’s a global pandemic, if you feel as though your public leaders are either divided over the best course of action or not communicating clearly or don’t have a plan. And so the guidance we have gotten... let’s leave aside from Washington. The difference between how different states have handled this and the experience the people around the country are having, and beyond that The Atlantic calls this a patchwork pandemic, where the difference in the economic impact and the public health impact, is so profound in different parts of the country that even though we’re one country facing this stack of crises, we’re experiencing it so differently and our leaders are responding so differently.
But I do think, and this is why I talked about trust in my opening remarks, if you look at New Zealand, which is the one country that has managed to completely lift all restrictions because they’ve completely eliminated the virus, you can say, “Yes, they’re an island nation of four million people that were able to have huge advantages in eliminating the virus.” But it is also true that there were much higher levels of public trust in public leaders in that country and the strict lockdown measures and public health measures that were put in place there, were followed without as much push back or questioning as here.
I think the leadership within the private sector is actually one of the things that I take real heart from, particularly at a time when we have a real challenge in our public leadership. I think seeing individual business that are realizing that them serving their workers effectively, serving their clients or their consumers and their own success and our collective success, is going to depend on them being proactive and very creative. I’m proud of Harvard, frankly, that present Bacow and the leadership of the university, and this is obviously the institution I had the front row seat to watch, moved very quickly and very creatively to guide us, as members of this community, about what we were going to do to both be safe and continue our mission as an university together.
And so, we’ve seen many, many examples I think of excellent leadership that has come sometimes from unexpected sources, from very local leaders, from small town majors, more recently from governors and from the private sector. And so I think that we are going to be autopsying the response to this pandemic for the rest of our lives and we’re going to be studying it at places like the Kennedy School for the rest of our lives and I really hope that one of the results of it, is that it gives us insight into maybe some qualities of public leadership that we’ve underestimated, and some values in the approach to public leadership during a crisis that we should not take for granted.
There are any number of things, I think any of us, if we could turn the clock back, do we wish we had done differently as a country? Do we wish that we had been more prepared going into this crisis? That the playbook for confronting a pandemic had been taken seriously and that the kind of bureaucratic infrastructure and preparedness and stockpiles had all been in place? Absolutely. At the very least, I certainly hope that we are going to learn and I think the case studies that we will be writing and studying and teaching at the Kennedy School will be anchored in the experience of these last weeks, for the rest of our lifetimes.
Q: I’m calling from London and I wanted to talk a little bit about the different experience here in London, here in the UK. Misinformation that is disseminated in the public media, there’s a strong legal penalty for it, it’s been a long tradition in the UK the libel and slander laws especially are vigorously enforced in this country and it’s quite a sport here. We don’t have Fox News, much of the media is state-owned here and the press is widely spread between extremely liberal and extremely conservative journals, but we’ve not experienced any of the crazy misinformation that you’ve been experiencing in the US and I just wonder whether it’s the fear of the law that make people behave better? In other words, should the US get a little bit tighter with outlets like Fox News. They would be fined, by the way I think in the UK for doing some of the things that they’ve done.
That’s a fascinating question and there may be many of you on this call who have a better answer and a more sophisticated understanding of some of the legal frameworks. I think the values around free speech, including speech that you abhor, are so deep in the American DNA that some of the kinds of libel laws for instance, the Official Secrets Act in the UK just have never gotten any traction here. But I don’t rule out the possibility that that can change, but more importantly in the case of the platforms which is where again, where so much of the most dangerous disinformation spreads, the platforms don’t have a First Amendment obligation, they are not censoring somebody if they deny a platform, if they block someone’s Tweet, if they don’t instruct their algorithms to promote the most hateful or dangerous content. And so this is where I come back to I think, some of this is not just about the legal frameworks, it’s about the policies and principles of these private companies of who they give a platform to and what penalty they may put on those who abuse their platform.
Fox News is such an interesting case because I often think there is not one Fox News, there are multiple Fox News’. Their own empires, each adjacent to each other, some much more responsible, some much more irresponsible and it’s one of the reasons I have my students who are not regular Fox watchers, watch it. The reason I have my students who are not regular CNN or MSNBC watchers, whatever your normal media diet, you need to vary it. I don’t know that a situation in which an opinion journalist on Fox or anywhere else is held liable for their point of view even if it is an egregious one, is one that American tradition about free and open debate would sit well with.
I will say, we embrace the Lewis Brandeis, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” theory of information but in the moment we find ourselves in now, I’m reminded of the scholar Whitney Phillips who says, “Sunlight also makes things grow.” And so I think the problem we’re facing and that you’ve put your finger on, is that it isn’t just a few bad actors who are promoting a conspiracy theory, it is even the efforts that responsible actors may make to disavow and debunk those theories tend to spread them. Joan Donovan who I’ve mentioned, is the scholar who coins the term strategic silence where there are times where it’s best not to write about something, not to call more attention to something. One of the best examples has been during some of these horrific mass shootings, when the shooters have posted online manifestos from fringe white supremacists sites and there’s important research that shows how important it is not to, in covering those shootings, not to link to those manifestos. Not to give them any more daylight, any more oxygen than they already get.
I do think that there are maybe social and historic differences between the US and the UK that explain the differences in how we approach this, and I think I probably put more faith in the possibility of private self-regulation or regulation of the platforms than in a whole new legal framework around speech.
Q: I would like to ask you, going back to the question about misinformation. I would like to ask about the intersection between misinformation and political motivation. So, what are the new trends? What are actors coming on stage that are coordinated and have a political agenda? And what are their tactics? So, if IRA was using false accounts in 2016, who is your equivalent IRA now, and what are they doing now? So, what are unknown unknowns of things we’re going to encounter in the next election and beyond in terms of this politically motivated actors, foreign and domestic? Thank you.
You’ve certainly asked the key question that keeps international security experts and election integrity experts and researchers like ours, up at night. You’ve I’m sure seen reports of not just continued Russian activity but Iranian and Chinese and other actors who... They have different agendas of what they would like to see happen in this country and in our elections, but one thing I think that’s important to bear in mind is that a certain amount of the disinformation and the coordinated disinformation is less about promoting one political agenda or the success or failure of one or another political candidate, than it is simply about sowing chaos. Or in the case of some foreign actors, of discrediting the functions and values of democracy itself and discrediting the entire democratic enterprise.
The efforts to delegitimize our elections, to sow doubt about the fairness and legitimacy of our elections, to turn us one against another, to sow distrust in our institutions and in our leaders. Some of this is just nihilism, some of it is just chaos merchants for whom their adventure, their triumph, their competitive sports is to either manipulate the media into publishing something that isn’t true or to manipulate a public figure into retweeting them, or buying their conspiracy theory. Some of this is just a horrible game to them. This is not to say that there are not bad actors at different levels at home and abroad who have specific political agendas and things that they would like to see supported or defeated, but we are also dealing with a certain amount of nihilism and a certain amount of just chaos as sport as played out in the darker corners of the internet.
One of the challenges in trying to study these groups, and I have endless respect for my colleagues who are doing this, is this isn’t just hard work, it’s dangerous work. It puts you in the position of being the target of tremendous online harassment, of doxing, of having your personal information revealed. Of swatting, which is having police called to your house with a 911 emergency saying that there’s an emergency at your house and the next thing you know you have an SWAT team at your door with guns surrounded. There are all sorts of forms of online harassment that people who study white supremacy, who study online hate groups, who study the chaos merchants, subject themselves to.
In addition to that, the nature of their work means they have to watch and see all kinds of truly horrifying content. Just a shout-out to the academic community, the research community that recognizes the challenge to free and open societies that these kinds of actors represent and are willing to do the hard and difficult work of studying them, studying their network, studying how they... We’re building a casebook at The Shorenstein Center of 100 case studies in media manipulation to really understand how they manage to get these conspiracy theories, to get these false reports into mainstream coverage, out of the dark corners of 4chan and Discord and Gab and into mainstream discourse.
It is critically important. This goes back to my analogy with environmentalism. These are the worst toxins that pollute our information streams and that poison our discourse and we have to understand where they come from, how they flow, what can work to neutralize them or we don’t stand much of a chance. Again, the pandemic has highlighted the fact. It was painful for me to watch some of the early public service announcements from the Centers for Disease Control which has been and should be the global gold standard in public health information, but their public service announcement about how does coronavirus spread and how can you keep from catching the virus, it wasn’t that they were false, it wasn’t that any of them were wrong, but they were so much less compelling, less likely to be seen and shared. Less reflective of the way information flows and goes viral than the extremely skillful bad actors whose entire mission is to get their false video, their false conspiracy theory to spread as widely as possible. That’s the challenge that we’re up against.
This is why we’re trying to work with the WHO, we’re trying to work with Harvard School of Health Institute with other public health leaders in how do you promote the spread of good, reliable, authoritative information so that as many people as possible are seeing it? In addition to what can we be doing to limit the spread of bad, damaging and dangerous information?
Q: You brought up a notion of regulatory and applied in some of the conversation about First Amendment, free speech etc., and I’m just wondering and harken back a bit to the old fairness doctrine. Is there a possibility like a new Green Deal for a new fairness doctrine and what might be the outline for that? Thank you.
Thank you for that question, there are lawmakers who have proposed reviving the fairness doctrine, as many of you know was a provision in the wake of having broadcast licenses that broadcasters were required to provide an opportunity for different points of view to be heard in their public interest content, and it ended up being repealed in 1986 I think. That helped to give rise to the more opinion driven partisan media that characterizes our current media landscape. There has been a call among lawmakers to revive the fairness doctrine. I don’t know if we just have reached a point where that is almost hard to imagine how that would work. Not just because of the level of polarization we’re now seeing, but I’m thinking as the editor of TIME, how I would have managed that requirement. I viewed it as critical to our success as a news organization to solicit the most interesting, provocative, thought provoking points of view on topics that we all would talk about as a country.
As long as the arguments were made I’ll say in good faith, where they weren’t distorting information, they weren’t cherry picking their data and therefore creating a misleading fact set, that I wanted as wide a range of views represented in our pages as possible. We’re seeing now that that very notion of what I thought of, of fairness, and what I thought of as giving our readers and our audience the information to make up their own minds about where they come down. What do you value more highly, your privacy in terms of your health data or your safety and security because contact tracers need to know whether you’ve tested positive or not. These kinds of debates like privacy and security we’ve been having in this country for years, they’re really important debates to have.
But, we’re now seeing particularly with what’s happened with The New York Times in the last week that there’s a fundamental debate within media about what counts as fairness. Whether objectivity is an appropriate value and what it even means. When it is necessary to give multiple points of view a platform and when that is normalizing hate or normalizing points of view that some people think should be completely discredited. And so this is a fascinating, important inflection point about what the very purpose of journalism is. And we’re seeing this fight, The New York Times is the one that has been the most public, but it’s occurring all across the media landscape and so I think in this context, how you would frame a fairness doctrine, how you would legislate and enforce it is almost impossible for me to imagine.
What I would like to see actually is almost a demand side revival of people seeking out points of view that differ from their own rather than feeling most comfortable with a media diet that generally confirms their pre-existing beliefs. And there are many people like that and there are various actual start-ups that are trying to address the desire for, “Don’t give me one point of view on this, give me three points of view on this.” Not just a left/right, but I want a libertarian point of view, I want a foreign point of view. I want this argument in a historical context. I would love to see us, as citizens demand of our media that they challenge us and that they provide... You can call it fairness, you can call it diversity of viewpoints, diversity of experiences and lenses through which we study what’s happening around us.
Because I feel as though there’s significant evidence of an exhausted majority in this country that is just tired of how divided our discourse is, how divided our public sphere is and feel that it does not reflect their beliefs or their experience or their desire for how we view and talk to one another. The less that we can rely on caricatures of our opponents, the more we can genuinely engage. Again, there’s all kinds of research that supports this, that if you can get past the documented misperceptions that the left has of the right, that the right has of the left, and actually engage in the substance of the issues and the challenges we face as a country, that that yields much better decision making, much better outcomes.
So while we watch the media broadly have this existential crisis over it’s mission and duty, which has been long time coming and it’s playing out before us as we speak, I think we all have the choice of news consumers, and everyone on this call I can confidently say, is a sophisticated consumer of news and information. So here’s my challenge to you as we run out of time is, go a little further in seeking out viewpoints that you would not otherwise encounter. And it doesn’t mean that you need to seek out the crazy conspiracy theories of the left or the right but, there are plenty of places that host really intelligent conversation from a conservative point of view, from a liberal point of view or from a foreign perspective or a completely data-driven analysis of problems.
So, we should all maybe try being more adventurous news consumers and seeing how that affects our view of what we’re watching play out in this country because at the moment, as I think we all know, we are living through a stack of crises and it is going to test every one of us, as voters, as leaders, as decision makers, as communicators, as scholars and teachers. It’s going to test every one of us to get us to a place where the common good fed by common sense, with a feeling of common purpose, is what defines our approach to the kinds of problems we’re facing right now.
Great. Well thank you very much for that question and answer and thank you very much to Nancy Gibbs for joining us today.