Air Date 3/16/2022
[00:00:00] JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: Welcome to this episode of the award-winning Best of the Left podcast, in which we shall take a look at the dynamics of mis- and dis-information, as well as the history of those, primarily Russia and the former Soviet Union, who have been actively using it as a weapon of information warfare against the U S, the West, and democracies around the world.
Clips today are from The Harvard Data Science Review podcast, Democracies Work, Amicus, The Prop Watch Project, The PBS News Hour, and Future Hindsight, with an additional members only clip from the PBS News Hour.
Are you Disinformed or Misinformed? - Harvard Data Science Review Podcast - Air Date 6-17-21
[00:00:38] HANY FARID: We typically talk about misinformation and disinformation as slightly different things. Disinformation is an intentional misleading information. That is, the person that is posting or amplifying knows that the information is wrong and has malicious intent.
Misinformation is a little bit more innocent. Somebody may believe, maybe on Facebook, see something that is incorrect, is the result of a disinformation campaign, and forwards it on to somebody else. So we distinguish those because although the end result may be the same -- bad information, false information is out there -- the intent is very different.
And of course, that just means that the strategy to counteract misinformation and disinformation are going to be very different, because in one case, you have let's call it an innocent bystander. And in the other case, you have a malicious actor.
[00:01:33] LIBERTY VITTERT - HOST, HARVARD DATA SCIENCE REVIEW PODCAST: What about fake news? Where does fake news fall into these two categories?
[00:01:38] HANY FARID: Yeah. I tend not to use that term, honestly, cause it's just gotten so politicized. I think "fake news" unfortunately has meant to mean I read something in the newspaper that I disagree with. I think we should try to stick to reasonably objective measures of truth and falsehood. And I understand, I'm the first person to admit that while there are very clean things that are true and things that are false, they're all a lot of things in the middle. But I think the term "fake news," I don't like it; it tends to malign the media. And I think it tends to create mistrust and distrust of our institutions. And I don't think that benefits us as a society or as a democracy.
You know, I feel like, at least for me, I really only started to hear these terms really 2016-ish. But is this, Scott, is this a new thing? Or is there some sort of precedent to this?
[00:02:27] SCOTT TRANTER: There's certainly a precedent, but I'm glad Professor Farid brought up "fake news." I'll never forget the first time I heard the term "fake news" used. I was watching a CNN broadcast and they were talking about the Russians were basically putting out fake news. And I remember saying to myself, I'm like, oh man, I know what's coming next. The next thing Trump's gonna hear it. And then he's going to turn it. And lo and behold, literally an hour later, Trump's giving a speech. He's calling everyone "fake news." And I remember thinking to myself, it was a lot like yellow journalism in the turn of the 19th century, when you had all these partisan papers and partisan pamphlets. You can even go back to the Revolutionary War and look at people like what Sam Adams used to do, or John Adams or some of these people they would sensationalize information is what I would say.
And I think that's where "fake news," maybe to use a better term, "sensationalized." There might be some truth to it. But you had so much on top of it where it becomes misinformation or right out fake. One of the examples I like to give out of the statement in the Revolutionary War is when George Washington was crossing the Delaware, one of the things his generals and his lieutenants used to tell the soldiers like, look the Hessians across the river, they want to kill you and they want to eat all your babies. Well, they want to kill them, but they don't want to eat the babies. Like that's not, but it was a good sensational thing and it wasn't in a newspaper or anything, but these are the types of things where you take a little bit of truth, you sensationalize it, you can encourage people to do something you want them to do.
So fast forward now. When we see things, especially around 2016, where people talk about what the police want to do to you or what Black Lives Matter or whatever, you basically take it a little bit too far. There's a little bit of kernel and truth there. But they put so much on top of it where it just gets out of hand. And I think that sensationalizing or that spin on news and information, that didn't come out of the last four years, that's been around for hundreds of years.
[00:04:08] XIAO-LI MENG - HOST, HARVARD DATA SCIENCE REVIEW PODCAST: It's really a useful to think about these histories because particularly if anything can inform us, how did they fight then. So I turned the question to Hany: at that time do you know did they, fight back? And particularly newspapers, like the New York Times, at that time and how did they become a more reliable source, at least then?
[00:04:25] HANY FARID: Yeah. So first of all, Scott's absolutely right. The weaponization of misinformation is not new. As long as we've been talking and since the printing press was invented, we have been trafficking in lies and innuendo and sensationalism. What is new however, of course in the last few years, is the scale at which it operates. Now billions of people around the world. And because we've democratized access to publishing information on social media and on the internet, everybody is essentially a threat vector. You don't need a printing press anymore. You don't have to be the New York Times. Anybody can start rumors and innuendos and lies and misinformation and run disinformation campaigns.
And then you have, in addition to democratizing access to that, you also now have the underlying algorithmic amplification that is social media, that promotes the most sensational content, because that's what engages us. And then you have all the users -- getting back to the definition of misinformation -- who then promote that over and over again.
So getting back to your question now, look, when the New York Times gets something wrong, they run a correction. And say what you will, no mainstream media outlet is perfect. They make mistakes. But we have to at least agree that the goal is not to make a mistake. The goal is to get it right. There are editorial standards that most mainstream media outlets, and when they get it wrong, there are consequences to it. People literally lose their jobs. And there are corrections that are being made. You can't say that about Facebook. You can't say that about Twitter and you can't say that about TikTok. The goal is not to inform us. The goal is basically to extract data from us and deliver ads to us so that the companies can make a lot of money. And that's a very different business model.
And I'm not saying the media is not in the profit-making business. They are. Absolutely. I think sometimes to a detriment. But the goal is to inform. And you can't say that about Mark Zuckerberg, that his goal is not to create a more informed citizen. And I think therein lies a tension with the way news has bled into social media. More than half of Americans get the majority of their news on Facebook. And so the mechanisms that we have in place to safeguard: editorial standards, corrections, consequences, libel laws -- don't work in the internet anymore. And that's, I think part of the reason why we're seeing the mess that we are seeing today.
Moving beyond news deserts and misinformation - Democracy Works - Air Date 2-14-22
[00:06:42] JENNA SPINELLE - HOST, DEMOCRACY WORKS: So you know, Victor, there’s a lot of talk these days about how do we fix the problem of news deserts, or decreasing trust in the media, or misinformation, all of these sorts of things. As I understand it, those issues and others like them are all, in your thinking, downstream from a larger disconnect or larger conflict between the role of journalism in a democracy and the way that the media system has evolved financially in the US. Is that a fair characterization?
[00:07:19] VICTOR PICKARD: Yes, it is. You pretty much just beautifully summarized my entire book.
[00:07:24] JENNA SPINELLE - HOST, DEMOCRACY WORKS: So we’re done then!
[00:07:25] VICTOR PICKARD: Yes, we can. We can declare victory. But no, you’re absolutely right. So all those problems that you just mentioned: misinformation, news deserts, just general problems about what’s often referred to as dis- or misinformation, I would refer to it as just low quality information that pervades so much of our news media system in the United States, I would argue that these are actually symptoms of deeper structural pathologies. And what I try to do in my work is penetrate to those root causes what I think we need to address in order to change these things that, as you noted, are downstream from these core problems.
[00:08:03] JENNA SPINELLE - HOST, DEMOCRACY WORKS: And in your book, Democracy Without Journalism, you, I think, wrap a lot of this up in the notion of corporate libertarianism in media. Can you tell us more about what that entails?
[00:08:15] VICTOR PICKARD: So I see this as a kind of libertarian project, where it’s assumed that government has no legitimate role in our media system. And that basically, we should just leave everything up to market-driven mechanisms. And that’s largely what we do here in the United States, which is fairly unique compared to media systems and policy regimes around the world. So I’m really trying to flesh out that what I refer to as American media exceptionalism, in argue that that’s what we need to change first, before we can even begin to change the policies of the media system itself.
[00:08:47] JENNA SPINELLE - HOST, DEMOCRACY WORKS: And does this idea of the government not interfering with the media -- I mean, that’s tied to the First Amendment in some people’s minds, right? Or how do those two things become conflated?
[00:09:00] VICTOR PICKARD: Yes, so typically, what happens, at least in the US context, is that as soon as we consider or propose a policy intervention, and especially where government would do something in terms of regulating a media system or in place in the public interest, protection -- and we can think of anything from Fairness Doctrine, which is something that your listeners have probably at least heard of before, or net neutrality, these are different kinds of policies that the government has tried at various points to impose upon aspects of our media system -- the corporate libertarian reaction to that would be number one, again, as already noted that there really is no legitimate role for such government intervention into our news and information systems; and number two, that the First Amendment forbids any kind of intervention. These are sort of the two knee-jerk reactions that I typically deal with all the time, whenever I trying to propose some of my recommendations for how we can democratize our news information systems. And unfortunately, both of these assumptions are very ahistorical, going back to the dawn of the US republic, it’s always been understood, or at least it used to be understood, that we should never leave our information and communication systems entirely dependent on the market, that the market alone cannot provide for our information needs as a democratic society. And number two, that there has always been this positive side to the First Amendment. So oftentimes is thought of as like a negative protection. So that government, Congress shall make no law that keeps government off our backs, out of our business.
But if you think about freedom of the press, that whole freedom would be rendered meaningless if there was not a press system. So there’s always been this implication that there’s actually an affirmative duty for government to ensure that we have a functional press system. We all learned in school that democracy requires freedom of the press, and by implication, a functional press system.
So this is what I’m trying to draw, bring into focus and show that really, these kinds of policy interventions are as American as apple pie.
[00:11:14] JENNA SPINELLE - HOST, DEMOCRACY WORKS: Yeah, and you talk in your book as well, the founders had some of these things in mind when they were thinking about things like the post office, which was how information was disseminated, and still is today, but much, much differently. And I’m wondering, as you think back over this history, where do things start to go off the rails? Or, where do we start to lose some of that notion about what government really means in a democracy?
[00:11:42] VICTOR PICKARD: In my mind, all roads lead back to the 1940s. And maybe we could hedge a bit and say it started in the 1930s. But it’s really around that time when there was a huge battle over American broadcasting, over the basic contours of what that system would look like. And unlike every other democracy on the planet, we ended up with a predominantly commercial system. Most other countries had robust public broadcasting systems. We did not develop a relatively weak public broadcasting system until the late 60s, early 70s. So we started out -- and there was a real battle, there’s often this kind of lazy historical narrative that we hear today that we just do things differently here, the United States, we wanted more freedom, and therefore, we just left it up to the market, it was laissez faire, we just let what really ended up being a duopoly or an oligopoly of just a handful of major corporations, media companies to take over the public airwaves. And that’s how we ended up with what we have today. And I really tried to show, really try to denaturalize that, and show that actually, there was a lot of conflict that led to this. There were a lot of people who thought we should not hand over the public airwaves to a handful of media firms. And so by recovering that earlier contingency, to show that things could have developed differently, it wasn’t inevitable, it then regains this possibility, this potential that we actually could have something different here in the United States.
And so yeah, that was a very long winded answer to your great question. But I would say it was in the 40s, when we really started to go down a different path.
For print media, just to tack on one last piece to this, for newspapers and print media in general, I would probably pinpoint more in the late 1800s, when it became so heavily commercialized and dependent on advertising revenue. And that is what eventually led us to where we are today in terms of the implosion of the commercial press.
[00:13:46] JENNA SPINELLE - HOST, DEMOCRACY WORKS: And let’s take a step outside the US for a minute. And you hinted at this earlier, but comparing just how different America is when looking at other media systems around the world. I think we can all think of examples like the BBC, for example. But your work really highlights how government spending on media vary so much when you look at the US compared to other democracies, other other established democracies in particular.
[00:14:15] VICTOR PICKARD: Yes, and in fact, when we look at our Public Broadcasting System, which again, was only founded here decades after many countries had established their own public broadcasting systems, we are almost literally off the chart for how little we spend towards our public broadcasting compared to democracies around the world. We spend, it comes out to at the federal level, it comes out to about $1.40 per person per year towards our public media. If you throw in local and state level subsidies, you get it up to about $3.15. Compare that to the UK, which is upwards close to $100 per person per year they spend for the BBC, if you look at Northern European countries, it gets up to close to $200 per person per year. And it really shows. Not only do they have very strong, robust public broadcasting systems that puts ours to shame -- and I should be clear, I like NPR, PBS, I like Big Bird, although Sesame Street has been leased off to HBO, of course, so it’s been it’s gone corporate, it’s been privatized -- but we have to look at the the real structural difference. And another key point here is that, you know, oftentimes there’s a kind of libertarian reaction when we talk about public spending towards our media in the United States, it’s assumed that this will lead to totalitarianism, that any sort of publicly financed media system will become a mouthpiece of the state. But actually study after study, including one that I just co-authored with Timothy Neff shows that strong public broadcasting systems positively correlate with strong democracies. In fact, the strongest democracies on the planet have the strongest public broadcasting systems. So they are not sliding towards totalitarianism. And this is one of the reasons why I advocate for more public spending for own news media system here in the United States, especially as a commercial press continues to structurally collapse.
[00:16:14] JENNA SPINELLE - HOST, DEMOCRACY WORKS: Sure. So can you say more about that relationship between strong public media and strong democracies? Are there more specifics that we know about certain behaviors or certain actions that that robust public media might inspire among news consumers?
[00:16:31] VICTOR PICKARD: There’s always going to be a very legitimate debate about how do we maintain independence for public broadcasting, making sure that it doesn’t come under undue influence from whatever government, whatever regime happens to be in power. And we can certainly point to problems around the world: Hungary, Turkey, Poland, there are many countries where their public broadcasting system -- I shouldn’t say many -- but there are some notable examples where they succumb to a kind of state capture, and that’s something that we must remain vigilant against. So I don’t want to poo-poo all those concerns.
But on the other hand, we have all this growing empirical evidence to show that those democratic countries that do maintain independent, well-resourced public broadcasting systems tend to have much higher levels of political knowledge, especially around international public affairs. They tend to see less extremism, more open mindedness towards immigrants, immigrant communities, more pluralism, what Europeans call media pluralism, we would call media diversity, but just in terms of diversity of views and voices.
And of course, what are the key differences between a public system and a commercial system is that a public system is committed to a universal service mission. I mean, it will make sure that all minority groups will have access to a baseline level of news and information. And that’s something that a commercial system simply can never do. I mean, there are many well-meaning people in the commercial media sphere and commercial news organizations, commercial outlets produce wonderful content. But they’re always going to have to privilege particular audiences over others. It’s just never going to be economically rational for them to try to reach the most far-flung communities or to reach audiences that advertisers are not as keen to reach.
Why "Cheap Speech" Threatens Democracy - Amicus With Dahlia Lithwick - Air Date 3-5-22
[00:18:25] DALIA LITHWICK - HOST, AMICUS: So, there we were, in person, on stage in Washington, D.C. It was February of 2020, and we ran through a bunch of potential catastrophic election scenarios that could go wrong with the upcoming 2020 election. And some of the things you were worried about in "Election Meltdown," both in the book and in our podcast, didn’t really happen; so the electrical grid did not come down on Election Day in Michigan in 2020.
But, as I said in the introduction, a lot of the things you were already worried about, even back in 2020, did happen. So, questions you were raising then about deepfakes, about inflammatory and polarizing rhetoric, real concerns about the impact all of those things might have on voter confidence; some of those things really do form the spine of this new book.
So I think I want to start with the somewhat-- forgive me-- cheeky question, which is: you were already pretty darn worried about many of these things before the 2020 election. Could the subtitle of "Cheap Speech" just have easily have been "You Thought Things Were Bad the Last Time?"
[00:19:37] RICK HASEN: Well, I guess what I’d say is that, "Election Meltdown" was an overly optimistic title for a book.
Where I miscalculated, in thinking back on 'Election Meltdown,' and all the many ways that things could have gone wrong. And as Ukraine is back in the news, I’m thinking about how the Russians practised first on Ukraine, with their attack on the electrical grid, before they were spreading disinformation; they were spreading it there before they were spreading it here.
I think the miscalculation that I made was assuming that, if we could pull off an actual well-run election, that the kind of energy that there would be to spread false election speech, to say that the election is stolen or rigged, would just simply lack the energy and collapse.
And that’s not what happened. It turned out that we had a much harder time running a free and fair election in 2020 for reasons which none of us could have imagined, which was we were running an election in the middle of a pandemic. And even so, it was run remarkably well. We had to make a lot of changes, more people had to vote by mail, polling times had to be changed, primaries had to be moved. And yet the election was maybe one of the best elections we’ve run in the modern period, and it was certainly among the most watched, to make sure that it was fair.
And yet, donald Trump. 400 times between Election Day and November 23rd, claimed falsely on Twitter that the election was stolen or rigged, or some variation on that.
And the end result is: that here we are now, well past the election, right? and already looking towards the next election; and not only do millions of Trump’s supporters believe the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, despite any evidence to support it; not only are states passing new laws that make it harder to vote, especially to vote by mail in the name of preventing this phantom fraud, raising a new risk of voter suppression; but a CNN poll back in September found that for 59 percent of Republicans, believing the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen is a key part of what it means to be a Republican. That is, buying into the "Big Lie" is part of the Republican identity.
And so, what I didn’t realize is how much the power of u mediated lies about elections could permeate even absent a kernel of truth. And that really shows how fragile our election system is, and the confidence in that election system is. Because it really depends on losers consent, on the ability of an election system to produce a result that not only the winners but the losers accept as legitimate.
[00:22:39] DALIA LITHWICK - HOST, AMICUS: My follow on question was going to be why this pivot from all of the complicated machinery of elections in your last book to questions about speech and lying. But I think you’ve just answered it. And the answer is you can have the most highly functioning, immaculately pristine working election machinery, and if the lies somehow subordinated all that, it just doesn’t matter how good the election systems are.
And I think what you’re saying is, that’s why the pivot, that the speech, and I think the attendant loss of, sort of, dignitary or reputational harms for lying-- and I know you talk about that in the book-- but that stuff in the end can swamp everything else.
And it’s so inchoate, it’s so hard to articulate, because it’s just not the same as saying people in Georgia stood in line for seven hours, right? It’s something that is both everywhere and nowhere, and you’re trying to pin it down.
[00:23:47] RICK HASEN: Well, you know, the the book started off, and I had a draft of the book done before the January 6th 2021 insurrection, and I had to completely redo the book, and redo the book’s introduction, because much of what I was talking about as possibilities-- how this kind of rhetoric can lead to violence-- actually led to violence. And how it could lead to attempts to try to subvert election outcomes, actually led to a concerted effort, by Trump and his allies, to steal the election, based upon lies. Lies, which I don’t believe, could have gained the currency if we were living in, say, the same polarized era that we’re in today, but with the technology of the 1950s.
So imagine that Donald Trump comes up to the presidential podium 400 times, over three weeks between, election Day and November 23rd to say "The election was stolen or rigged." Walter Cronkite’s not going to be repeating that to his viewers 400 times. It’s not going to be printed in the local newspaper or in the New York Times, 400 times. It’s not going to gain the same resonance. And there are not going to be Facebook groups, or the ability of people who buy into conspiracy theories, not only to find each other, and to egg each other on, but to be able to organize for political action.
And so, while there are many benefits to our current system of communication-- we have the knowledge of the world in the palm of our hands, we can organize for positive action-- there is a dark side, and the dark side is one that: attempts to be a demagogue, attempts to undermine election legitimacy, just have much more fuel in this communications regime than they would have 50 or 60 years ago.
[00:25:45] DALIA LITHWICK - HOST, AMICUS: It strikes me listening to you, Rick, that one of the conversations we had a lot around the 2020 election was the weird byproduct of having this massively decentralized election system in the United States, which turned out to be actually a perceived weakness that was a strength. Part of the reason the system held is because it’s so decentralized.
And I’m finding it really ironic that one of the things you’re saying about the media, and I think this is descriptively correct, is that part of the problem is that it is so decentralized. And you mentioned in the book that Walter Cronkite example, you know. We don’t all trust anything anymore. There is a third of the population that believes that every word in the New York Times is a lie. And here you have a problem where, as you say, the decentralization of the media solves a lot of problems. It also creates catastrophic problems in terms of misinformation.
[00:26:45] RICK HASEN: And to be clear, it’s not just social media, it’s the fragmentation of news. It’s Fox News. And remember when Fox News was not radical enough for the Trumpists during the 2020 post-election season? Trump told his viewers to go to One America News Network, to go to Newsmax, and they saw a huge spike. So, there are alternative outlets. There are no barriers to entry.
And one of the things I try to argue in the book is that, when it’s really expensive to produce quality journalism, and when it’s really cheap to produce misinformation, and when it’s profitable to produce that misinformation, it can drive good information out.
And that has a number of effects: number one, it’s harder for voters to get accurate information about what’s going on and to discern what’s accurate; and number two, it creates a kind of feedback cycle.
So, one of the things I learned in researching "Cheap Speech" was how much profitability there is to producing the kind of wild conspiracy theories that people want to hear. The rise of QAnon, the rise of conspiracy theories related to vaccines, the rise of election denialism: this is making some people rich.
And it’s also creating this loop where the public demands more disinformation to feed their denialism. And that’s what’s provided.
And even when it’s not intended. So, someone who goes onto YouTube and watches a video that spreads a kind of claim of election denialism-- maybe someone’s not sure about the claims about the 2020 election being stolen-- they will be fed up, by the algorithm at Google that runs YouTube, they’ll be fed up more and more extreme videos that will produce more conspiracism. And that will make people demand more. And so it’s a vicious cycle rather than a virtuous cycle in terms of misinformation.
And, you know, for too long, we’ve given a free pass to these companies that just allowed this stuff to flourish.
The Firehose of Falsehood Effect - The Propwatch Project - Air Date 4-4-21
[00:29:03] STEPHANIE MCVICKER - HOST, THE PROPWATCH PROJECT: Dr. Paul, you wrote, with Mary Matthews, such a seminal piece on a technique you called "the firehose of falsehoods." Can you briefly map out for us the key elements that make up this technique?
[00:29:14] DR. CHRISTOPHER PAUL: Yeah, so, this was in 2015, and we were looking at characteristics of Russian propaganda, and we called it "the firehose of falsehood."
We found four characteristics.
And the main reason for the firehose is that the firehose is high volume and multichannel. The Russians are employing overwhelming quantities of material on a host of different media modes and channels and sources.
Second, it's rapid, continuous and repetitive. If you're not worried about fact checking, you can have the first accounts of events or non events; and if you have enough folks involved, you can run it 24 hours, keep it moving and repeat the same themes over and over again.
Third, it makes no commitment to objective reality. Sometimes it's true-ish; sometimes it's false; sometimes it's false, but backed up with some manufactured evidence; sometimes it's false, but consistent with things that intended audiences might think; sometimes it's false, but presented by sources that look or seem credible.
And then, finally, the Russian firehose of falsehood makes no commitment to consistency. They're not worried about what used to be called information fratricide; having one spokesperson contradict another. They'll quickly change from one theme, or set of lies, to another theme. And the story changes over time to suit the various purposes.
[00:30:36] STEPHANIE MCVICKER - HOST, THE PROPWATCH PROJECT: So, let's talk a little bit about the importance of first impressions. Why are first impression is so important? And how does that relate to the firehose falsehoods?
[00:30:45] DR. CHRISTOPHER PAUL: Yeah, it's hugely important. So, this comes back to two of the characteristics of the firehose of falsehood: one, the rapid continuous and repetitive nature; and two, the lack of commitment to truth. So those two things together, again, if you're making something up, you can have the scoop on it. You can be first-to-market with it, because if it didn't actually happen, you're guaranteed to have the first account.
But even if you're just inventing aspects of something that really did happen, if you don't wait to fact check, if you don't wait for reporters on the scene to verify, you can be first.
Now, why does being first matter? We've all heard of the power of first impressions, or the first-mover advantage, but it's pretty easy to underestimate how powerful that is.
Why is it so powerful? I'll tell you why, it has to do with how we as humans store information. I've said elsewhere that we humans are "homo narratus--" the story animal, or the story people-- because we keep information in a holistic worldview, in a giant story. And so when I receive, or when you receive, some factoid-- and factoid is the word I'll use for something that is presented as fact, but may or may not be-- so, when I receive a factoid, if I accept it, I don't just put it in a mental filing cabinet, I bake it into my worldview.
And so, if someone comes along six seconds, six minutes, six hours, six days later, and tells me that factoid ain’t so, they're not asking me to go to my mental card catalog, find a single card, and tear it up. They are attacking my worldview.
And now, that's not impossible to do, but it requires much more vigorous action. And it requires that you give me something to fix it. So, not only... you can't just tell me, "Oh, that's false." You have to tell me what the truth is, and you have to tell me what the truth is in a more compelling story, that helps me fix my story-worldview.
So that's why the first-mover advantage is so huge, because first impressions are epically consequential.
[00:32:48] STEPHANIE MCVICKER - HOST, THE PROPWATCH PROJECT: Then how do people counter that? How do government officials, or, how do message-makers counter that first impression block that exists?
[00:33:02] DR. CHRISTOPHER PAUL: It's really tricky. And one of the challenges is inherent in that notion of countering. If you think about counter-messaging, you're in this reactive mindset, which is in trouble.
When I get a chance to talk to public relations professionals, or public affairs spokespersons, I understand if you work for a government, and you're the public relations spokesperson, when somebody says something that isn't true about your government, or your military, or your organization, it's incumbent upon you to get out there and set the record straight.
And the psychology says, that has almost no impact at all-- the retraction, or the refutation. So I urge these professionals when they have to do this, to keep the refutation part of it as short as possible. Say what you got to say, but then use your time-- your airtime-- to get in front of the next one. Seize the initiative, turn it around.
So, I've made my retraction. Now say, "Okay, that... that particular Russian source is likely to continue to spread falsehoods and misinformation about these topics, from these sources. And here are the kinds of logical fallacies they're likely to employ."
Now, all of a sudden, you're the first-mover. And maybe, hopefully, the next time someone in the audience hears that kind of thing, instead of... instead of nodding their head, and going, "Oh, that might be true. Maybe I should put it in my worldview," they go, "Wait a minute: that seems like a logical fallacy to me. Maybe that's not right."
[00:34:31] STEPHANIE MCVICKER - HOST, THE PROPWATCH PROJECT: You mentioned that variety of sources matter when it comes to disseminating propaganda. Can you elaborate a little on that please?
[00:34:38] DR. CHRISTOPHER PAUL: Sure. So, when we get into persuasiveness, when you talk about what makes things effective psychologically, the first aspect of the firehose is high volume and multichannel. Well, when you get to what's persuasive, the same arguments from multiple different sources is more persuasive than an argument from a single source.
Similarly, just volume. Quantity has a quality all its own. So, the more information that a recipient is getting, the more likely they are to be persuaded by it.
And baked into that multiplicity of sources is a really important thing: in all the psychology studies, the single most credible and persuasive source for information is someone "like" you. And I'll make air quotes around "like" because that could be lots of different dimensions of likeness. You could be someone who you perceive as a fan of the same sports team as you, or someone who has the same ethnic or religious background as you, or someone who likes the same TV shows or music as you; whatever dimension of "likeness" it happens to be, if you perceive someone as like you, you perceive them more credibly.
So, what does that suggest for volume? Well, what are the odds-- for any given member of the audience out there in the ether-- that a single government spokesperson has characteristics that make them like that individual? Or that one of hundreds, or thousands, of managed Russian personas, or the various anchors on RT, or the various trolls in the comment sections; all of these different possible sources, what is the probability that one of those individuals is more like any one member of the audience than a single government spokesperson?
[00:36:39] STEPHANIE MCVICKER - HOST, THE PROPWATCH PROJECT: You discuss the dark art of Internet trolling. What purpose does trolling serve for those employing it?
[00:36:46] DR. CHRISTOPHER PAUL: Sure. So, trolling can refer to a couple of different things: one is just being a jerk on the Internet; but the other is having or managing multiple personas or personalities on the Internet.
So, when we talk about the famed Russian troll farm-- the Internet Research Agency-- employees there would manage a host of different personas and personalities to pursue their objectives. And so, they contribute to that first characteristic, the high volume, because each individual seems like multiple channels.
But, coming back to just being a jerk on the Internet, that can actually serve Russian purposes too, because part of what Russia wants in this space is what some authors have characterized as a "War on Information." They don't just want to be influential, they want to attack and undermine the credibility of all sources.
Because Russia has engaged in propagandizing their domestic audience for so many decades, they're all very jaded and very skeptical. They want to share that with the West. RTs slogan, "Question More," is an example of this kind of nihilistic attack on credibility generally.
And so, having Russian trolls being jerks on the Internet, polluting common discussion spaces with rude comments, or whether the comments they make are thematic and connect to Russian propaganda, or just make it unpleasant to be there in that space, and drive legitimate participants out of the conversation, that serves Russian interests.
[00:38:19] STEPHANIE MCVICKER - HOST, THE PROPWATCH PROJECT: And what exactly do the Russians tend to focus on? Is it primarily political, or is it health related, or is it something else?
[00:38:28] DR. CHRISTOPHER PAUL: In general, Russia has a number of different themes and objectives for their propaganda. And they're opportunists.
So, this is a nation of chess players. So, some of it is going to depend on what circumstances deliver, and some of it's going to depend on what's happening in other contexts. Again, their primary audience is their domestic audience. And then, out in their near abroad gets pretty heavily bombarded through the rest of Europe, gets less attention, but still pretty vigorous. And then here in the US, we get a pretty good dose too.
And in all those situations, they're trying to widen societal cracks and undermine credibility in general. So they might, in one country, engage in political propaganda, but they might... in one country, they might be promoting a candidate on the left, and in another country, they might be promoting a candidate on the right. If in any country there is an extremist, or absurd, or ridiculous candidate, that's where the Russian attention is going, because they would love to undermine democracy. And democracy looks silly when ridiculous candidates actually get elected.
[00:39:39] STEPHANIE MCVICKER - HOST, THE PROPWATCH PROJECT: You've said that the very factors that make the firehose of falsehood effective also make it very difficult to counter. Can you explain what you mean by that?
[00:39:48] DR. CHRISTOPHER PAUL: So, the things we've already talked about make the firehose of falsehood hard to counter because of the first-mover advantage. That's challenging because official spokespersons are limited in the number of channels and the volume that they can get after.
But I do have some suggestions. I'm not all bad news. I've got several suggestions for countering the firehose of falsehood. And since it's got this firehose imagery, if you don't mind, if you'll indulge me, I will torture the water metaphor a little bit.
So I think the first one isn't too bad a torturing, but: don't expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth. If the Russians have high-volume and first, low-volume and late-after-the-fact isn't going to cut it.
And, following in that vein, put raincoats on those at whom the firehose will be directed. And I think this fits well within your organizational mission. This is about preventative things: forewarning; naming and shaming; some kind of prophylaxis; exposure not just of the falsehoods, but of the propagandists and their mode, and their intent.
So, helping protect, and increase resilience, and awareness, and intention, amongst audiences with inoculation or forewarning.
Then third, don't try to swim upstream, or, don't point your flow of information directly back up at the firehose. If you want to counter propaganda, be thoughtful about the effects and the consequences of propaganda.
Some false information is false, but inconsequential. And some false information is false, but incredibly consequential. Pick your spots; find the falsehoods that are concerning, or that are against your interest, or your collective interest, and rather than focusing on countering the propaganda, focus on countering the effect.
So if, for example, you're the United States, or some other NATO partner, and you see that Russian propaganda is undermining confidence in NATO in a specific country, rather than going after the propaganda-- which you may want to do-- but rather than focusing on that, do something to bolster confidence in NATO in that same audience.
And then, fourth, just increase the flow of positive information, increase the flow of true information. We need to compete. Right now, the information environment is flooded with Russian, and other, propaganda. Let's amp up the level of true and virtuous and persuasive information.
And then finally, and I guess this is specific to government audiences, let's put kinks in the hose. Can we pursue terms of service violations, or FCC violations, or other kinds of things against the propagandists, to reduce their access to these channels.
The long history of Russian disinformation targeting the U.S. - PBS NewsHour - Air Date 11-22-18
[00:42:49] NICK SCHIFRIN: There's a lot of talk about Russian disinformation, of course, in 2016, even 2018, but this started long before, as your film demonstrates.
And I want to show a clip from the film that starts with two KGB defectors who said disinformation had one goal:
[00:43:06] YURI BEZMENOV: To change the perception of reality of every American, to such an extent that, despite the abundance of information, no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community, and their country.
[00:43:26] MAN: Within the KGB is a department that specializes in planting false stories and forged documents.
We know it was run from Department A right to the top of the KGB, and it had a multimillion-dollar budget.
At least 15,000 who, in the Soviet Union and outside of the Soviet Union, are involved in that kind of actions on regular daily basis.
[00:43:51] NICK SCHIFRIN: Fifteen thousand people creating disinformation stories as seemingly crazy as: "The U.S. created AIDS."
[00:43:57] ADAM ELLICK: And many of them were super creative. We're talking about planting fake stories in communist newspapers in India, in South America; we looked at the AIDS campaign, which was launched in 1984, and we found newspaper clippings planted by the Soviets about this story in 80 different countries.
[00:44:16] NICK SCHIFRIN: Did it work? I mean, did those stories end up in the U.S. press?
[00:44:19] ADAM ELLICK: They worked, in the sense that they were toxic, and they were successful in that they sowed chaos.
And even some of the cases, like the AIDS one that we examined, there are millions of Americans who still believe in that hoax today.
[00:44:34] NICK SCHIFRIN: Another conspiracy is, JFK was killed by the CIA, also created by…
[00:44:38] ADAM ELLICK: Soviet origin.
[00:44:39] NICK SCHIFRIN: Let's talk about the responses to that, because for a long time, the U.S. didn't know what to do. And then President Reagan came along, right?
[00:44:47] ADAM ELLICK: Yes, President Reagan changed the policy when it came disinformation. Before Reagan, the thinking went that, if you respond to a fake news story, you dignify it. And that's actually something we have heard a lot in the past few years. But Reagan came in and started throwing punches right away. And his policy was, basically, "We're going to take this on, and we're going to expose it."
And he started a team in the State Department called the "Active Measures Working Group."
[00:45:12] NICK SCHIFRIN: "Active Measure" being the term that the Soviets used to describe their own campaign.
[00:45:16] ADAM ELLICK: Exactly, their disinformation campaigns.
And this was basically a counter group. It wasn't funded lavishly, some of the people worked part-time; but they were really motivated by truth. And they worked day and night, putting out the fire hose of falsehoods put out by the Kremlin.
It was a painstaking process. It took them six years to debunk the AIDS conspiracy. But they did it with many, many reports.
And one of the really heartwarming scenes in our film is, we interviewed a woman who's now retired, but she led that team in the 1980s. And she tells a story that that report ended up in the hands of Mikhail Gorbachev, the premier of the Soviet Union at the time, and he was forced to apologize about the AIDS conspiracy to Reagan.
[00:46:02] NICK SCHIFRIN: So let's fast-forward to today, and perhaps some of the solutions to fake news, some of the solutions to disinformation, today.
And I want to play a clip to tee that conversation up from right near the end of your series.
[00:46:16] MAN: And here's the kicker. The things that make democracy good-- living in an open society, with a free press and political diversity-- those are the things, weirdly, that make us vulnerable.
Any country with an authoritarian leader and limited freedom of speech, they're the ones with the advantage right now, which kind of raises the question that maybe only history can answer. Can the good guys ever win?
[00:46:45] KATHLEEN BAILEY: You absolutely never win, never.
[00:46:48] DR. CLAIRE WARDLE: This problem is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.
[00:46:51] MAN: The next few years are going to be worse than the last few years.
[00:46:55] LADISLAV BITTMAN: And they will continue using it, regardless of what we say here in the discussion, regardless of the outcome of the discussion, and investigation.
[00:47:05] KATHLEEN BAILEY: But we will not always be losers in this game. There will be victories here and there. It's only when we quit the game, quit trying to expose them, that we lose.
[00:47:18] NICK SCHIFRIN: "It's only when we quit the game that we lose."
So there's a lot of talk about the media aspect to try and solve this, right? Fact-checking, media literacy, good journalism.
Then, of course, there's the social media aspects, the tools that the Russians and others have used to spread disinformation much faster now than they have in the past. Can social media companies do this alone?
[00:47:39] ADAM ELLICK: Certainly not. I think they have failed at that opportunity over the past four years. These attacks started in 2013, 2014. And they have taken some baby steps, but it's not enough and it's not being treated with the urgency that the... that the crisis demands. So I think it's time for the government to get involved.
[00:47:58] NICK SCHIFRIN: The U.S. doesn't think this way, does it? It doesn't think of disinformation as some kind of battlefield, right, whereas Russia does think of it that way.
[00:48:06] ADAM ELLICK: Yes, and it's not military warfare, but it's still warfare. It's disinformation warfare.
[00:48:11] NICK SCHIFRIN: That's certainly how the Russians see it.
[00:48:13] ADAM ELLICK: Oh, for sure. I mean, they operate in a constant state of wartime. And we... our politicians are elected for idle peacetime.
[00:48:22] NICK SCHIFRIN: The way they define that wartime, the adversary is still the United States and the West, and an attempt, whether it's disinformation or military, right? to try and weaken the transatlantic alliance and try and weaken the United States and the West from within.
[00:48:36] ADAM ELLICK: Yes. As the old spies will tell you, America is target number one, enemy number one. And when you can fracture and weaken Western countries, both from their international alliances and even within, by sowing chaos, then you can bully countries one-on-one, as opposed to taking on the entirety of the West when it's unified.
[00:48:57] NICK SCHIFRIN: And that is what disinformation does, right?
[00:49:00] ADAM ELLICK: Very effectively.
I don't want to simplify the solution, but it's one that we need to be grappling with much more aggressively, as opposed to the current state of American politics, which is, even trying to come to terms, whether or not these attacks happened.
Post-Truth: Lee C. McIntyre - Future Hindsight - Air Date 5-14-20
[00:49:14] MILA ATMOS - HOST, FUTURE HINDSIGHT: How are we susceptible to this kind of political manipulation of what we accept as truth?
[00:49:23] LEE MCINTYRE: Post-truth didn't come out of nowhere. There are several routes. The first one is science denial. I talk about how the fact that we've had science denial for the past 60 or 70 years, created a blueprint for what post-truth was going to look like, because if you could deny the truth about climate change or evolution, you could deny the truth about just about anything, like how many people were at an inauguration or the path of a hurricane. Some other routes are cognitive bias that's built into all of us through evolution. And then these days, the decline of traditional media and the rise of social media, really the internet has been the gas on the fire. So it's not that people have never lied before, people have never tried to manipulate reality for their own benefit. It's that these days it can happen much faster than it used to be able to happen, more widespread.
[00:50:19] MILA ATMOS - HOST, FUTURE HINDSIGHT: Can you give an example for how we have accepted some climate denial, 'cause that's the easiest one, or even maybe with tobacco, and how that has worked in creating in our brains an idea that things are not settled and therefore there is doubt.
[00:50:39] LEE MCINTYRE: Yeah. The blueprint for post-truth was 60 or 70 years of science denial. The best example is maybe the one that you bring up where the tobacco companies freaked out in the 1950s, because there was a scientific study that was going to show an all but causal link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. They hired a public relations specialist who advised them that what they needed to do was fight the science. And so they needed to manufacture doubt where there was none. And what happened with this is that it created the idea that you could manipulate public opinion simply by raising doubts. They didn't have to be scientific doubts. What they did was they exploited the idea that lay people have about science, which is that science is about certainty and proof, that you need a hundred percent certainty before you're justified in believing something. And that's not actually the way that science works at all.
So, you see this ripple through climate change. You hear people say, well, have you proven that climate change is caused by greenhouse gases? Are your models a hundred percent? Can you tell me what the temperature will be in five years? Aha! If you can't, then they think that they've got enough room for doubt. But that's just the way that science works. Science is about warrant, not about proof. When we get enough evidence that it makes it reasonable to believe something, that's when science moves forward. People who are motivated not to believe something call themselves skeptics, wait for a hundred percent proof, and then they never end up believing anything that they don't want to believe.
[00:52:17] MILA ATMOS - HOST, FUTURE HINDSIGHT: Yeah, it's very convenient to do it that way. And we're seeing that. We're really seeing that right now in real life.
Before we get there, I wanted to talk about what you said on the demise of traditional media and the fragmentation of the news industry, together with the rise of social media.
But let's start with the idea -- or the reality, I should say -- that we now have partisan media outlets and they pursue essentially profit. Whereas in the old days, it was that the news was only half an hour of a network's time and they had investigative reporting and they basically told you what's right and what's wrong and what's true and what's not. And once you had CNN and Fox News and MSNBC, they have morphed into purveyors of opinion, as opposed to facts. And one of the things that they do is they present both sides of an issue and give false equivalence. Can you explain what false equivalence is? Because I think that's very ill-understood.
[00:53:33] LEE MCINTYRE: Sure. I think you're absolutely right about the history of the way that things have gone. The news media used to be that news was a loss leader for the station. So they had news divisions because their broadcast license said that they needed to do work in the public interest. And the entertainment is where they made their money.
After CNN, they discovered, well, you can make money on news, and let's try 24/7 news. Well then all of a sudden you've got to make money on it. It's much more expensive to do actual news, investigative reporting, than opinion, and so opinion sort of took over.
And the false equivalents that you talk about is important, especially for science debates. If you look at the way that the news media used to present science topics -- and they still do, to some extent -- you would find a split screen debate where they would have somebody from the National Academy of Science talking about the importance of climate change. And then you'd have some climate denier who had a website and a following, and they would give them both equal time to talk. And then at the end, make it sound like it was a debate and look at the audience and say, you decide. That's maybe the worst possible way to present it. Because they're making it seem as if there's doubt, where amongst the scientists, there really isn't any. One reason that this happens is because the news media have always been allergic to the idea that they would be accused of bias, and the simplest way to show that you're not biased is to let both sides talk.
But here's the problem. The halfway point between the truth and a lie is still a lie. Objectivity in journalism doesn't mean that you're indifferent between truth and a lie. It means that you don't want to leave your audience less well-informed after they finished watching your program than they were in the beginning.
The media has changed a little bit, the way that they do science reporting now. But they still with factual matters are bending over backward too far to show that they're not politically biased and in some cases not reporting the truth.
[00:55:40] MILA ATMOS - HOST, FUTURE HINDSIGHT: Yeah. Yeah. So the media right now, instead of facilitating the truth by really doing objective reporting, they instead do this both sides-isms in a reduced manner, of course. But still, when you do that, do you confuse the public?
So what would it actually look like? What would be good truthful reporting, let's say, on the signs of climate change?
[00:56:05] LEE MCINTYRE: Okay. There's a brilliant psychologist named George Lakoff, who has a model called the Truth Sandwich, where he said that when you are reporting on a factual matter that's in dispute, what you should do as a journalist is present the truth, then present what the person said that was a lie, and then fact check the lie. There's a way to make it clear that you don't present it as if both sides are equally credible. Reuters had a story a few months ago in which they found that climate change was now at the Five Sigma level, which means that there's only a one out of a million chance that the climate change deniers are correct. So why would anybody give equal time to that? If you think about it, they don't give equal time to flat earthers. They don't give equal time to people who claim that we never went to the moon. There are other sides of all sorts of debates where the facts have been settled a long time ago. But the other side, if it's not based on any sort of warrant, any sort of evidence, any sort of reason, it doesn't deserve to be on the news.
[00:57:18] MILA ATMOS - HOST, FUTURE HINDSIGHT: Yeah, well said.
I think this leads me perfectly to my next question about fake news. What is fake news and how does it fit in with post-truth?
[00:57:28] LEE MCINTYRE: These days, some people have said that we should stop using the term "fake news." And I pushed back against that. Some people think that we shouldn't use the term because Trump has made it a term of derision that he uses against the mainstream media, which is a tactic of post-truth.
I think that we need to keep the term, but realize what it really is: "fake news" is news that is intentionally false. There are several different motivations for this. And in the 2016 election, we saw this. We saw propaganda out of Russia. We saw fake stories created in the United States about Hillary was dying or just things that people make up out of whole cloth and put it out there because they know that a certain number of people are going to click on it. And you can never correct it fully, once the misinformation has gotten out into the mainstream. And that's why fake news is so powerful.
There's a hidden danger to fake news. Fake news is not just when you report something that's false and hope that somebody will take it as true. Just the very existence of fake news can have an effect where when the information stream is so polluted with false stories, people can become cynical and just stop believing that there's any such thing as truth at all outside of political context.
And remember, that's the goal of post-truth. The goal of post-truth is to make people so cynical and just so uncertain and used to the chaos that they begin to believe that they really can't find the truth. One of my favorite quotations on this is by the Holocaust historian, Hannah Arendt, who said, "In an ever-changing incomprehensible world, the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true." That's the problem, right? Fake news is a tactic of authoritarians, within the context of post-truth, to try to get people to give up on the idea that they can know the truth, because then the population's easier to rule.
[00:59:35] MILA ATMOS - HOST, FUTURE HINDSIGHT: It creates an environment that is not conducive to democracy.
[00:59:40] LEE MCINTYRE: That's absolutely right. If you'll indulge me, I've got another quotation from Hannah Arendt. She says, "The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists."
Inside Estonia's approach in combating Russian disinformation - PBS NewsHour - Air Date 1-15-22
[00:59:58] HARI SREENIVASAN - HOST, PBS NEWSHOUR: Russian disinformation campaigns aren't confined to attempts at tampering with US elections. In fact, they are rife in countries once ruled from Moscow. Some former soviet states have tried to suppress the propaganda by banning Russian television stations, and even limiting the use of the Russian language on their domestic channels, but as NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports, one country — tiny Estonia, which sits right on Russia's western border — is trying a different approach.
His story was produced with support from the Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellowship.
[01:00:34] SIMON OSTROVSKY: This is the Bronze Soldier, a monument commemorating the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Prior to 2007, it was prominently situated in the center of the Estonian capital, Tallinn, but when it became a flashpoint for competing nationalist narratives, it had to be moved.
The Estonian authorities moved the statue here, to a military cemetery on the outskirts of Tallinn. But according to some of the wilder reports in the Russian media of the time, this statue doesn't even exist.
[01:01:09] CHANNEL ONE RUSSIA: The Bronze Soldier has been cut into pieces and taken to an unknown destination. This photograph appeared on the Internet and immediately went around the globe. This is what's left of the monument commemorating Soviet soldiers.
[01:01:21] SIMON OSTROVSKY: This doctored photo, which Russian state-owned news outlets purported showed the total destruction of the statue, was part of a months-long media disinformation campaign that ultimately led to the 2007 riot among Estonia's Russian-speaking minority, members of whom had clashed with estonian far right nationalists who wanted the statue to be torn down.
The uprising lasted several days and resulted in the death of one man. These events, known as the Bronze Night, are seen as the fallout of the first modern Russian disinformation campaign of its kind. They marked a turning point for this small northern European country.
[01:01:59] TOOMAS ILVES: We have never had a riot before. No riots. Zero. None. This is, as you... I don't know if you've been here before, but it is rather kind of a quiet, quiet place. We don't have riots.
[01:02:17] SIMON OSTROVSKY: Toomas Ilves, who grew up in New Jersey, was Estonia's president from 2006 to 2016. He told NewsHour Weekend that the events of the Bronze Night forced Estonia to look for new ways to make its Russian speaking minority less susceptible to propaganda from Russia.
In the United States, when we're talking about fighting disinformation, we're often thinking about doing things like tweaking the algorithm on social media or putting legislative pressure on big tech companies in Silicon Valley, but when your border with Russia is this close you really don't have that option because it's enough to turn on your television set to get an earful of propaganda from the other side. So Estonia has decided to choose a different path.
Meet Dmitri, he's a Russian-Estonian and a father of three from Estonia's eastern-most city, Narva. Like many members of this group he struggles with the Estonian language, even though he's lived here all his life.
[01:03:16] DMITRI: The problem is that Estonian just isn't used in Narva. At work, we only speak Russian. You get the feeling that there's a wall between us because I don't have a single Estonian friend I can speak Estonian with.
[01:03:27] SIMON OSTROVSKY: Dmitri and his kids are taking part in a government-sponsored course for а group of Narva residents who've been bussed into the Estonian capital Tallinn.
This is a very unusual cooking class, because the point here isn't to learn how to make pizza, the point is to learn how to do it using the Estonian language.
The goal is to enable Russian-speaking Estonians to interact with typical Estonians who they wouldn't otherwise meet in their day-to-day lives.
[01:03:55] DMITRI: I'm really glad these women who organized this today aren't even trying to use a single word in Russian with us.
[01:04:04] SIMON OSTROVSKY: Cultural courses like this one are just one part of the suite of integration efforts Estonia has enacted to make the Russian-speaking community feel more welcome and, it's hoped, less susceptible to grievance-based narratives spread by Russian state media.
Ekaterina Taklaja is a Russian-Estonian and the editor- in-chief of ETV+, a new Russian-language channel that's part of Estonia's public broadcasting system. Since becoming independent, Estonia has made knowledge of the Estonian language a requirement for gaining citizenship, a rule she told me angered many Russian-speakers who found themselves stateless when the Soviet Union collapsed.
[01:04:46] EKATERINA TAKLAJA: This provoked a kind of rejection, a sense of protest in them. After the 2007 events of the so-called Bronze Night in Estonia, the authorities thought it might not be such a bad idea to have a TV channel created in Estonia for the Russian-speaking audience in order to inform them and give more objective local information about what is happening in Estonia, in order to create an alternative to Russian media.
[01:05:14] SIMON OSTROVSKY: Perhaps there's no area in which reaching Russian-speaking Estonians is more crucial than in the country's pandemic response. In Narva's local hospital, Dr. Tetiana Slavkina tells us many of her patients end up in her care because they've refused vaccines available in Estonia, like the American Pfizer vaccine.
[01:05:35] DR. TETIANA SLAVINA: I'd say about 85 to 90 percent of them aren't vaccinated. There are a lot of explanations. The first is "if we'd known we'd get so sick we would have gotten vaccinated." We're a border town and of course the broadcasts and other channels of information we get talk about the effectiveness of the Sputnik vaccine so people really want that specific vaccine.
[01:05:56] SIMON OSTROVSKY: The broadcasts she's talking about are Russian news reports like this one. A year ago, as Covid vaccines were rolled out around the world, Russian state-owned news outlets sowed mistrust of the Pfizer vaccine and promoted the much less effective Sputnik V vaccine, which is manufactured in Russia and which Moscow aimed to sell all around the world.
[01:06:17] CHANNEL ONE RUSSIA: World leaders have started getting vaccinated with Sputnik V. The president of Argentina got his first dose. The United Arab Emirates have switched to the Russian vaccine after saying "no" to the American drug from Pfizer. After all, seeking medical help after getting vaccinated with Pfizer has almost become the norm. In Estonia about a dozen medical workers got COVID after their first dose. In Israel, almost half the doctors experienced side-effects after their second dose.
[01:06:44] SIMON OSTROVSKY: Estonia has invested a lot of time and resources into integrating its Russian speaking minority over the last three decades of independence, but what the last couple of years of the pandemic have revealed is that its two main communities, Estonian speaking and Russian speaking, still live in somewhat separate information ecosystems.
I asked Katri Reik, the mayor of Russian-speaking Narva, if she thought integration was possible.
Despite all of Estonia's efforts at integration you still have a big difference—for example, in the number of people who want to be vaccinated. Russian-speakers are far less likely to get vaccination. How do you explain that?
[01:07:30] MAYOR KATRI RAIK: When you turn on the TV and are told everyday that Western vaccines are poison, you have to understand that this is going to have an impact.
[01:07:37] CHANNEL ONE RUSSIA: In the US, another medical worker has been hospitalized after the Pfizer shot. What is this? Experimentation on people or an absurd accident?
[01:07:47] SIMON OSTROVSKY: Raik told me the drumbeat of negative Russian reports as well as lingering distrust of the Estonian authorities meant that only 58% of the residents of the European Union's most Russian-speaking city had chosen to be vaccinated as of this past December. Compare that to a nationwide average of 72%.
We stopped by a small outdoor market to learn about the local media diet. Vjatseslav Stolfat, a grocer, told me he stopped watching broadcasts from Russia because of the unending coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.
[01:08:20] VJATSESLAV STOLFAT: I'm so tired of this Ukraine scandal. It's the same thing on every channel. And I don't really care about news from Russia. I'm more interested in what's happening over here.
[01:08:30] SIMON OSTROVSKY: But older residents have remained loyal to some of the most provocative propagandists on air in Russia.
[01:08:37] OLDER WOMAN: I never miss Solovyov or 60 Minutes. I don't watch "Health" though. Don't want to.
[01:08:44] TAMARA LEVINA: The old man and I mostly watch Russian Channel One. We only watch Estonian TV for the news.
[01:08:51] PRODUCER: Did you get vaccinated?
[01:08:53] TAMARA LEVINA: No. My son has been trying to get me for a while, but I told him we don't go out—just to the store, nowhere else.
[01:09:01] SIMON OSTROVSKY: When it comes to Estonian integration efforts, the pandemic has yielded a silver lining. Viewership of Estonia-based outlets has increased dramatically over the last two years as Russian-speakers sought out health advice and local pandemic regulations, and, as Narva's mayor pointed out, the vaccination gap between majority-Russian areas and Estonia overall has shrunk significantly over the course of the year.
[01:09:28] MAYOR KATRI RAIK: We can't ban Russia. Just walk a hundred meters and you can go look at Russia, see what it's really like. And no one, not you or I, can come into an old grannie's apartment and take her remote control and pick the channels that we want. No. That's the wrong way. You have to offer an alternative.
[01:09:46] JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: We've just heard clips today, starting with:
The Harvard Data Science Review podcast explaining mis- and dis-information, and the history of sensationalized news;
Democracy Works looked at the dangers of for-profit media, and the absence of well-funded public media for democracies;
Amicus looked at the resilience of the "Big Lie" about the 2020 election and the impact of profit-driven media;
The Prop Watch project broke down the psychology of the effectiveness of disinformation;
The PBS news hour highlighted the U S efforts to counter Russian disinformation; and
Future Hindsight looked at strategies to overcome this information.
On that note, we are also including resources of our own in the show notes today, so please check those out.
That's what everyone heard, but members also heard a bonus clip from the PBS News Hour, looking at how Estonia has been working to counter Russian propaganda for their Russian speaking citizens.
To hear that and have all of our bonus content delivered seamlessly into your new, members-only podcast feed that you'll receive, sign up to support the show at bestoftheleft.com/support, or request a financial hardship membership, because we don't make a lack of funds a barrier to hearing more information. Every request is granted. No questions asked.
And now, we'll hear from you.
Seeking power from the right and left - Alex from Maryland
[01:11:06] VOICEDMAILER: ALEX FROM MARYLAND: Hey Jay!, this is Alex from Maryland.
Regarding your thoughts at the end of episode #1473 on the Democratic Party, I don’t disagree that the Green Party is a bit of a trap, electorally speaking. They seem more interested in public troll campaigns every presidential cycle than in running candidates in small local races that are actually winnable, which would be a necessary step towards building a viable party. However, you seem to minimize or ignore the real dangers of continuing the demonstrably failed strategy of trying to take over the Democratic Party. You also ignore a fundamental difference between left and right wing radicalism.
On the Democratic side, we’ve seen that the party is significantly more resistant to change than most of us first imagined, both in terms of policy and of people. We can exert significant pressure in the primary campaigns and extract policy endorsements that were previously unimaginable, but once in office the Democrats ignore everything they campaigned on and govern as Republicans.
Even positions like bargaining for drug prices and expanding medicare, which were themselves presented as the “moderate” alternatives to true progressive reforms, are reframed as radical leftist extremism by the very people who proposed them to begin with and who then oppose them vigorously. Or if we get fed up with the hypocrites and succeed in the herculean task of beating an incumbent in a primary with someone like India Walton, Democrats ally with Republicans to ensure that such monumental victories are never realized.
You pose the example of Republicans as a model, but this misses the fundamental difference between left and right wing radicalism. Left-wing radicalism will ALWAYS be opposed by the political establishment of any party, because our goal is to subvert the existing hierarchies which empower that establishment. Right-wing radicalism, on the other hand, will ALWAYS be supported by the political establishment of any party, because their goal is to reinforce the existing hierarchies. Power is always the ally of right-wing insurgencies, it is always the enemy of left-wing insurgencies, so the strategies that work for the right will usually not work for the left.
The Democratic Party is not just an imperfect but necessary vehicle for progressive change, they are actively opposed to any and all progressive change. They turned on a dime from “Black Lives Matter” to “fund the police.” They went from promising green energy during the primaries to bragging about how much oil they are drilling. They went from “no kids in cages” to caging more kids and whipping people on top of that. They don’t just embrace reaction, they even drag well-meaning progressives to the right.
We get Bernie Sanders pushing the bipartisan infrastructure deal which sabotaged “Build Back Better.” We get “The Squad” rotating who takes heat but always providing enough votes to fund genocide. The Democratic Party isn’t even serving as a bulwark against further civil erosion, they have been promising to write Roe into law my entire life, but refuse to act even in the face of the anti-abortion movement enacting full scale Christian fascism all over the country.
So what’s my “theory of change”, as you love to say? I am actively trying to avoid becoming “doomer-pilled,” but I can’t escape the conclusion that, at the very least, things will still need to get significantly worse before they can get better. I think the Democratic Party cannot become the vehicle for change we all need until it gets absolutely destroyed in at least one election cycle. I think the out-of-touch, corrupt dinosaurs blocking change need to get their electoral asses handed to them and lose credibility forever, so that those of us who actually want a functioning government instead of predatory wealth extraction can take the reigns.
In the meantime, we need to actively build community power independent of political parties. When we have fully realized resilient community networks, taking over the Democratic Party will be possible. This will not be easy, but hard and possible is better than familiar and impossible. And plus, if society does continue to collapse around us, such community networks are our only chance of survival.
I’ll be the first to admit that my words outpace my actions here, as my significant social anxiety has hampered my engagement for a while. When I do manage to drag myself to leftist actions and events, I mostly just sit back and don’t talk to anyone. I pass out goods or point the way to others more capable of engaging, but I recognize that this is the only realistic path forward in a political system designed at every level to hamper our efforts.
Thanks so much for your time and thoughts. I very much appreciate the perspectives you highlight, as well as those of other listeners.
Final comments on avoiding the nihilism strategy of the Underpants Gnomes
[01:15:04] JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: Thanks to all those who called into the voicemail line or wrote in their messages to be played as VoicedMails. If you'd like to leave a comment or question of your own to be played on the show, you can record a message at 202-999-3991, or write me a message to [email protected]m.
Now in response to Alex's message that we just heard, I would argue that, although I definitely see a fundamental difference between right-wing and left-wing radicalism, that the effects that we are seeing or that Alex is pointing to is not so much about left-wing versus right-wing radicalism being either supported or opposed by the establishment within the existing parties. I think it has more to do with right-wing ideology, which is to tear down government, at least in this country, compared it to left-wing ideology, which is more or less to build and use government responsibly.
The Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, and now the MAGA waves within the Republican party have been able to sweep into power and hold sway over their party so quickly because they were willing to be ruthless in their opposition to anything reasonable.
Alex says that these movements were supported by the establishment within the party, but they were actually sort of hated by the establishment. You can look up stories of how John Boehner, the then-majority leader in the House, hated dealing with the far right of the GOP during that early 20 teens period. And ultimately the radical right actually ran John Boehner out of politics.
So that far-right wing have significant sway in their party due to their willingness to be utterly intransigent. If you are a far-right idealogue, stopping legislation, or better yet, dragging the gears of government to a complete halt, it's not so much a price to be paid for fighting for the policies you're passionate about. If you're anti-government, then breaking the government is basically good.
So what Alex is seeing as the establishment welcoming in the radical right, I think it's actually more a function of their willingness to use their harmful radicalism to demand the establishment bend to their will. Whereas less radical conservatives of a bygone era who came into Congress would be more willing to compromise.
Now on the flip side of that coin is the progressives who get elected and then seem to become more moderate. This, I think, is the manifestation of the natural inclination of progressives, which is to reduce suffering whenever possible in the short term and the longterm, trying to balance those interests.
Yes, Bernie, the Squad and others certainly vote for bills and even publicly advocate for the passage of imperfect and sometimes downright bad legislation. But I think it's less about them having been absorbed by the moderate Borg of the democratic party and more about calculating that that poor legislation they're supporting is better than no legislation, in terms of reducing suffering.
And I think that makes instinctual sense to most people on the left, from moderates all the way to radicals. But the counter argument goes like this: The progressive left needs to be willing to be as intransigent as the far right during negotiations, be willing to block passage of imperfect legislation, completely blow it up, in the hopes that after that legislation fails, the establishment of the Democratic party will be forced to take threats from progressives more seriously and capitulate to their demands during the next round of negotiations.
Now, unlike the radical right, who don't seem to mind inflicting suffering on people, the progressive left will have to pay for this strategy with more short-term suffering, that they would very much not like to inflict. It goes against their core philosophy to knowingly allow suffering when it could otherwise be prevented with compromise.
Of course, the idea behind the strategy is to prioritize greater long-term benefits over the short-term suffering that'll be inflicted, but that's still a bitter pill to swallow, and a lot of progressive politicians have a hard time doing it.
So in essence, I do agree that there is a fundamental difference between right-wing and left-wing radicalism. And I don't even disagree with Alex's premise that the left and right are accepted to different degrees within the existing parties, particularly the right wing who are more accepted by the moneyed interests and those who are mostly looking to maintain the status quo, but possibly work to deregulate even more, that sort of thing. Whereas the left is not going to be accepted. But I just don't agree that the far-right wing radicals are like accepted and welcomed with open arms by the status quo politicians in the Republican party. And I see the starker difference to be in how their opposing ideologies manifest in the real world, sort of "rubber hits the road" sort of politics.
Right wing politics is a "tear down" mentality in America, while left-wing politics is "build up." And it's simply easier to destroy than to build, especially when you don't mind hurting people in the process. I mean, in fact, it's easier to build if you don't mind hurting people in the process too. And that is part of the strategy debate for progressives.
Now I have to mention that Alex's message started with agreement about the Green party being a bit of an electoral trap, and then had some good things to say about the benefits of community engagement and all of that, but then also fell into the nihilist trap of almost hoping for things to get worse so that they can get better. Hope that the moderate Democrats lose so badly to Republicans that their movement is forever discredited, paving the way for a progressive takeover. And I call this the "nihilist strategy" because it's basically the "I don't know, fuck it" strategy. I mean, it's technically a theory of change, but only in the same way that the underpants gnomes from South Park have a business model.
[01:21:39] UNDERPANTS GNOME: This is where all our work is done.
[01:21:41] KYLE: So what are you going to do with all these underpants that you steal?
[01:21:43] UNDERPANTS GNOME: Collecting underpants is just phase one. Phase one: collect underpants.
[01:21:48] KYLE: So what's phase two?
[01:21:53] UNDERPANTS GNOME: Hey, what's phase two?
[01:21:55] UNDERPANTS GNOME 2: Phase one: we collect underpants.
[01:21:58] UNDERPANTS GNOME: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what about phase two?
[01:22:03] UNDERPANTS GNOME 2: Well, Phase 3 is "Profit." Get it?
[01:22:04] STAN: I don't get it.
[01:22:05] UNDERPANTS GNOME 2: You see, Phase One: Collect Underpants.
Phase Three: Profit.
[01:22:11] JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: So phase one: moderate Democrats are obliterated by Republicans. Phase two:_____ and phase three: progressive takeover. So not only would I think that that's, let's call it an unfinished strategy during normal times, but in our current times, what is waiting to fill that gap between phases one and three is not so much a conservative political party taking temporary power as it is a fascist cult of personality looking to destroy democracy.
And, you know, earlier in the message, Alex writes, quote, "You seem to minimize or ignore the real dangers of continuing the demonstrably failed strategy of trying to take over the democratic party" unquote, and then a few paragraphs later suggests that the only path to a progressive takeover is to allow the country to fall into the hands of fascists. And I can't think of a much worse danger to minimize or ignore.
So anyway, the actual problem is that these are dangerous times, and there are no easy strategies that don't have downsides and significant possibility of failure. But hoping for failure because that's easier or it seems more doable, is not a good strategy. I hate to have to point this out as often as I do, but I can promise you that the nihilist strategy will not get you to where you want to go.
So kind of like how, in this episode, it was said that we need to get away from the debate over whether disinformation is being maliciously spread and decide on productive strategies going forward, I also think that progressives need to get past this debate on whether the best way to gain power is to try to gain power in the institutions that have power. Or, not do that.
Now, of course, gaining power within the political system isn't the only thing worth doing. Alex's ideas about community organizing are great, and dovetail perfectly with political organizing. So playing the outside game can be a great addition, but we ignore the inside game, or worse, hope for destruction, at our peril.
As always, keep the comments coming in at 202-999-3991, or by emailing me to [email protected]
That is going to be it for today. Thanks to everyone for listening. Thanks to Deon Clark and Erin Clayton for their research work with the show and participation in our bonus episodes. Thanks to the Monosyllabic, Transcriptionist Trio, Ben, Ken, and Scott for their volunteer work, helping put our transcripts together. Thanks to Amanda Hoffman for all of her work on our social media, activism segments, graphic designing, web mastering, and the bonus show co-hosting. And thanks to those who support the show by becoming a member or purchasing gift memberships at BestoftheLeft.com/support, through our Patreon page, or from right inside the Apple Podcast app. Membership is how you get instant access to our incredibly good bonus episodes, in addition to there being extra content and no ads in all of our regular episodes, all through your regular podcast player.
So coming to you from far outside the conventional wisdom of Washington, DC, my name is Jay!, and this has been the Best of the Left podcast coming to twice weekly, thanks entirely to the members and donors to the show from BestoftheLeft.com.