NEWS REPORT Well, I don't think from a ratings perspective or a, cha-ching dollar perspective, it makes all that much sense as a political decision. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Instead of a second debate, we got two networks airing dueling town halls. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Pollsters took a lot of heat in 2016 when their models predicted a Trump loss, and it's making them a bit defensive this time around.
NATE SILVER So in the long run, you know, Biden should win seven out of eight times. You know, I know we'll probably get more crap if the one out of eight times comes up, but I can't do anything about that. I think it's the right forecast.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, a walkie-talkie-like app that works as a recruitment tool for right wing militias.
MILTIA MEMBER It's us or tyranny. It's us or failure. It's us or a post American world. Are you all game over?
RECRUIT I ain't got nothing holding me back. If it kills me, it kills me. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Thursday night, dueling town halls. One likened by a Trump senior adviser, no less to Mr. Rogers neighborhood.
STEPHANOPOULOS Mr. Vice President, if you lose, what will that say to you about where America is today?
JOE BIDEN Well, you could say that I'm a lousy candidate and I didn't do a good job. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The other town hall, more like shootout at the O.K. Corral.
GUTHRIE Now, why would you send a lie like that you your followers?
TRUMP I know nothing about it.
GUTHRIE You retweeted it!
TRUMP That was a retweet. That was a an opinion of somebody. And that was a retweet. I'll put it out there. People can decide for themselves.
GUTHRIE I don't get that, you're the president, You're not like someone's crazy uncle. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Joe Biden event was on ABC. The president's on NBC. Airing simultaneously, after the president rejected the idea of a virtual match up.
TRUMP No, I'm not going to waste my time on a virtual debate. That's not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate - its ridiculous and then they cut you off whenever they want. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In that interview on Fox Business, he talked about how he easily won the previous debate, but was energetically lowering expectations for the Greenville, North Carolina town hall for NBC.
TRUMP So you're not being set up tonight, right? So, I'm doing this town hall with Con-cast. C-O-N, con and it's NBC, the worst. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE So he's participating out of charity- courageousness, such as the world has never known? Or...
TRUMP So they asked me if I'd do it, and I figured, what the hell? We get a free hour of television. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But enough of Buck Rogers. Mr. Rogers, let's talk about NBC going along with the president's demand to counter program his town hall with Biden's. It seemed so unnecessary, venal, even. Though NBC's is Savannah Guthrie's tough grilling may have blunted some of the criticism after the fact. Was this all because the president is and will always be a ratings magnet? Because ABC is saying Biden won that fight this week. According to Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU and is the founder of the blog Press Think. It wasn't about the ratings.
JAY ROSEN Would it be smart for the NBA to run Game six of the NBA finals against Monday Night Football, for ratings? It doesn't make any sense. They wanted to show Donald Trump they could play ball.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So why did they want to show Donald Trump that they would play ball?
JAY ROSEN We've seen a lot of small signs that NBC is concerned about its reputation leaning too left coming from the opinion hosts in MSNBC's primetime lineup. That's partly what the hiring of Shep Smith is about. The emphasis that his show will be straight down the middle. Executives at NBC want to assure Donald Trump that they are still evenhanded.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What is evenhanded mean in this formulation?
JAY ROSEN Well, I'm not saying they have a compelling or intellectually coherent view of that. This is a case where decision making by executives has caused a great deal of anger and resentment in NBC staff. I mean, last night on MSNBC, Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow were rolling their eyes about NBC's decision. Maddow asked Kamala Harris...
MADDOW Are you as bad as everybody else is that NBC is doing a town hall with President Trump tomorrow, [KAMALA LAUGHS] instead of the debate? At the same time that Vice President Biden is going to be on ABC? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Every year, we talk about what's wrong with election coverage, too much horse race, too little about the issues, clinging to the narratives about the candidates supplied generally by their opponents. Have the conventions of political journalism changed at all since 2016?
JAY ROSEN Yeah, at the margins, there are some changes and there's a little more caution about predicting the race, a little bit more focus on social media spending and foreign interference. But the fundamentals of the coverage hasn't changed at all. You know, we're trying to game out how the race will wind up. There's an emphasis on strategy and the role of the journalists is sort of to chronicle who is ahead and why they're ahead. That hasn't changed at all. Even though journalists are constantly reporting that this presidential election is unlike every other because of the pandemic and the incredible damage to the country happening at the same time, and therefore the campaign story - the pandemic story can't really be separated. And in that sense, it's not like any other election cycle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Hm, this week, you were part of a group of political scientists and scholars who released a manifesto. It was called "Election Coverage and Democracy Network," and one of its main points is to make the voter the protagonist of election stories.
JAY ROSEN Voters struggling to get their concerns addressed by the candidates and also struggling with the simple act of voting should be the central character in the narrative for election coverage. And I have advocated for a long time, a completely different model of election coverage called the Citizen's Agenda Model, in which, rather than starting with the candidates and their struggle to win. You start by asking the people you are trying to inform. What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? What do you want this campaign to be about? And if journalists could begin their election coverage with a very solid inquiry into that question, they could develop a list of priorities coming from the voters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That didn't include questions like your opponent says you broil puppies. W/hat do you say to that?
JAY ROSEN And those kinds of questions sometimes got gotcha questions are part of a larger style of journalism. I call it the savvy style in which journalists perform for us as insiders who know how the political game is played. They're trying to anticipate what sorts of controversies could affect the outcome. My basic rule for understanding press performance during the age of Donald Trump is that the routines of journalists are built on assumptions about how candidates will behave. And Trump violates all those assumptions, and so the routines break and the practices break and they don't want to reinvent their routines. So they sort of keep on with the tools they have and they don't apply to Donald Trump. And one of the best examples of that is the whole notion of a gaffe. A candidate lets something really damaging slip from his or her tongue, and it becomes a controversy and distracts from what the candidate's trying to accomplish. The entire presidency of Donald Trump is a gaffe. It's a 20 times a day gaffe. And so to even use that term with Biden, which the campaign press did earlier in the year, talking about his gaffes is kind of crazy. There's something lunatic about it, but it's an example of clean to your practices after the premises underneath them have fallen through.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You called on news organizations to switch to an emergency setting, and that meant, among other things, not to cover live - any speech, rally or press conference involving the president because the risk of passing along bad information was too great.
JAY ROSEN By pushing the emergency button, you allow different rules to come into play for an exceptional situation. And when the president of the United States is the most potent force for misinforming the American public about a public health emergency, you have a civic emergency. And so I tried to game out, what would the rules look like for Trump coverage? One of them is don't take any of his virus briefings live. Instead, watch them on television. If he makes news, report it. If he doesn't, don't. Fact check everything he says before you pass it along. It's not a question of censoring the president or making it impossible for people to listen to him if they want to. We know that state TV, Fox News is going to carry it. It's always on C-SPAN. WhiteHouse.gov, youTube, you can find it, right? Yes. If it's a politically significant lie that has some sort of cultural valence or breaks new ground in presidential lying, then maybe you decide to do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you're saying if it doesn't, then a responsible network might decline to cover it.
JAY ROSEN Absolutely. It's called news judgment, it's one of the basic principles of journalism, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But there is this reflex and this tradition that says anything the president says is news.
JAY ROSEN Yes, absolutely. What the president says is news is an example of a practice based on a premise that presidents don't waste the podium. They don't just talk without thinking about what they're saying. They don't lie constantly from the perch of the presidency. Trump doesn't obey any of those principles, and so if you continue to say what the president says is news, you open yourself up to a new kind of propaganda method, which Steve Bannon described as flooding the zone with sh*t, and in the Russian context, its called the firehose of falsehood. You flood every platform and every delivery device with your voice. You don't care if it's true or not. You multiply the number of arguments that you make and you don't care if there's contradiction between them, because the purpose of the firehose of falsehood is not to convince anyone. It's to confuse and dismay people and drive them from the public arena. So if you continue on with what the president says is news, you are pursuing a broken practice and a busted premise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So, we should be asking ourselves, you say, is this thing that he said something we should be amplifying?
JAY ROSEN Correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For instance, this week in Iowa, he was basically with his hands swatting away the story of Iowa floods, saying the media was covering Iowa floods and not covering my Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
TRUMP The networks and most of the news didn't cover it. Can you imagine?
BROOKE GLADSTONE I mean, it reveals something about his character, something that most people would already know. What should we do with that?
JAY ROSEN President Trump has hacked the newsworthiness formula. There's like criteria that makes something news in most mainstream newsrooms. If it was never done before, it was never said before. If it's conflict, if it involves a celebrity, if it's very consequential for lots of people, if it contradicts our expectations and in the traditional newsworthiness formula. Donald Trump makes news every time he opens his mouth. And so if you continue to follow that formula, you are going to, sooner or later, start collaborating with him in his firehose of falsehood style. And that's why you can't keep from getting sucked into Trump's agenda without an agenda of your own. You have to have something you're trying to defend. Now, what is that thing? Because journalists are taught not to have agendas. One is standing up for a public debate in which the candidates start with a common world of fact and tell us what they're going to do about those facts. If Trump is behaving within that frame, then what he's saying is worth amplifying. If he's trying to bust out of that, then we have to ask ourselves different questions. Another agenda you could have is standing up for free and fair elections that could become like a cause the newsroom is pursuing through its journalism. A third would be the right for people to participate. That voting is a good thing. And we're going to do everything we can as a newsroom to make that easier, to protect the integrity of the vote, etc. They have to decide what they're for in the age of Hurricane Trump or they will get blown away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One thing that seems easy, though, is de platforming. You can curb misinformation by kicking certain outlets off of social media networks, for instance. Supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory are finding it harder to congregate on Twitter and Facebook, now. This week, Facebook and Twitter restricted the reach of entirely unsupported New York Post screed against Hunter Biden. Is there any way that could be applied to the president?
JAY ROSEN You can't make decisions like that. Should we stick a label on this thing the president said? Should we simply take it down? Unless you know what you're trying to protect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Which brings us to a point you've made for decades that you have to declare your values. There's a great risk in that because the consensus on what is good and what is right is a moving target. I mean, once slavery was debatable, but you can't have news without a value system.
JAY ROSEN And most journalists know that when they go into journalism. As their careers unfold, they learn the value of something I call the view from nowhere. The illusion that by advertising your viewlessness, you are somehow becoming more trustable. In the age of Donald Trump, it's pretty easy to see how the view from nowhere opens you up to manipulation. And so eventually, if you want to improve your coverage, you have to ask yourself, what are you for? What are you trying to defend? And especially now, in 2020, when American democracy itself is under attack, asking that question is vital to doing journalism at all. And I want to say one more thing here. Whether Trump wins or loses, the American press is in for a confrontation with the view from nowhere, for this reason: the Republican Party has become a minority party. And just as it can only win if it makes voting harder. It can only prosper if it makes understanding the party harder, because if it stands for what it believes in will never win elections. And so the conflict with journalism is structural. The American press is in for a confrontation with a Republican Party that can only win elections by obscuring the truth about itself. And it can delay this confrontation. It can deny it. It can claim not to see it. But eventually there's going to be a crash.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jay, thank you very much.
JAY ROSEN All right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. His bracing and clarifying observations can be found at PressThink.org.
BOB GARFIELD Up next, the maddening metaphysics of Meta-data from pollings most prominent proponent, meaning Nate Silvers, still 'splaining.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Nate Silver, founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.com. Never claimed to be an oracle, but after his precient 2012 forecast of an Obama victory, he was instantly anointed. Here's Jon Stewart.
JON STEWART Nate Silver, lord and God of the algorithm. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Four years later, the Oracling racket got a little harder. The 538 model, based on an amalgam of polls across the country, predicted a 70 percent chance of Hillary Clinton winning. Which was probability, like a 70 percent chance for a cloudless day, but what hit was in the 30 percent. A violent thunderstorm and Silver has spent four years explaining that the forecast itself wasn't wrong. That's because the public, especially the Democratic public, had interpreted the 70-30 ratio as a near certainty. And in their disappointment, they blamed the polls.
NEWS REPORT There's a lot of distrust when it comes to polling out there, after all. Donald Trump did win the election. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Well, here we go again. Silver has adjusted his methodology based mainly on unique circumstances, but the model remains the model. Nate, welcome back to OTM.
NATE SILVER Hey, how are you?
BOB GARFIELD Splendid, thank you. So in 2016, when Trump beat the odds, a lot of people wanted to run you out of Dodge.
NATE SILVER Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD You have stood by the model, but also tinkered at the margins - in what ways?
NATE SILVER Well, I would say that our forecast did a great job in 2016, because there are very few people that gave Trump a 30 percent chance. And 30 percent is kind of a lot. It's like a good Major League Baseball player getting a base hit. So I don't think there's anything about our model that would intrinsically have necessitated change 2016, except we do have a global pandemic. We have uncertainty about how people are voting where many people are voting by mail for the first time. We have some of the worst economic data that we've had in the history of the country. We have all types of crazy news stories developing. We had a Supreme Court justice die, another one being nominated by the president himself get COVID. So, our model does try to account for the extra uncertainty in this election. And as a result, it winds up being a bit more conservative relative to how it might have been in the more, quote, unquote, normal year.
BOB GARFIELD A lot of the grief in 2016 had less to do with your forecast than partisan expectations and polling illiteracy. What are you doing in 2020 to manage public and especially media understanding and expectations?
NATE SILVER One thing I think is we don't foreground the probabilities as much. Right, you can see them. Right. But if you actually click on 538, the forecast, you see a bunch of different maps simulating different worlds that the election could turn out to be. And there's verbiage. Then you have this kind of scroll down to see the numbers. Right. Because one thing about numbers is once you put a number in front of somebody, then they kind of stop seeing anything else or thinking about anything else. We want to provide the context for people and for them to understand where the uncertainty comes from, something about what we're simulating, what we're not. It's important, by the way, to note that, like, our model does make some assumptions. And one important assumption is that all votes are counted and that the Electoral College respects the popular vote in each state. And those things are not certainties. So there's an attempt to steal the election that would be outside the scope of our model.
BOB GARFIELD What else are you doing to change your presentation?
NATE SILVER Part of it is the messaging that we have when we're doing media interviews like this or going on Twitter. Right. It's kind of a matter of tonally how people interpret things. In some ways, though, it's a little easier after 2016 that people have a visceral experience with the lower number coming up. And so people don't need as much persuasion as they might have to take stuff seriously.
BOB GARFIELD First time. Shame on you. Second time. Shame on me.
NATE SILVER Yeah. So one thing about sports fans, right. Sports fans don't tend to get mad at you if your model says oh, there iss only a 13 percent chance that the New York Giants win this football game and they win. Right. Because they see enough games where they seem 30 percent chances come up all the time. And I have you down to one percent or something. You know, the Atlanta Falcons blowing a Super Bowl, it might be different. But people are used to dealing with probabilities when it affects things they have to deal with every day. When it seems like something abstract that maybe they don't grok it as much, but we're trying to de-abstract what we're saying, I guess. Right. And make people understand that, like, look, even if Trump's chances go down to five percent. Well, five percent is fairly high when you're talking about potentially a world changing and a life changing outcome.
BOB GARFIELD We are speaking on Thursday, October 15th, with less than three weeks to Election Day. What does your data forecast for the presidential race?
NATE SILVER So as of this very moment, it has Trump with a 13 percent chance of winning Electoral College and Biden with an 87 percent chance. So it's about one in seven. Let's have you round it up to. Six for Trump. You can kind of think of it as a game of Russian roulette. Where one out of six times, the chamber comes up where Trump would win. So he's far from out of the running. At the same time, there's not really a precedent for a candidate overcoming this large a deficit this late in the race. You can maybe go back to Dewey versus Truman in 1948, where Dewey was ahead by about five points over Truman and Truman won. In this case, Trump's down by more than that. So mathematically, our model thinks it's possible that he could win, but we're running out of historical precedents that are favorable for him. So in some sense, I think given how light Biden's lead in the polls is, I tell people to look at 13 percent and say, hey, that's not a sure thing. At the same time, this is not one of the more competitive elections that we've seen, at least based on if the polls are right, obviously.
BOB GARFIELD To use the football analogy The New York Times embraced last time around: Biden is looking at a very short field goal, but as you said, these are unprecedented times. What could happen between now and November 3rd to make him to miss that little chip shot?
NATE SILVER Well, this is, in some sense, where it gets harder, right? It's kind of one reason why I like to stick to the mathematical modeling is like it's hard for me to come up with a narrative by which Trump comes back. But there are a couple of things. Maybe some big pharma company announces progress on a COVID vaccine. You won't get people vaccinated, but that might make people feel a bit more optimistic. Maybe there's a stimulus package that gets some money in voters hands before the election, again, that's looking a bit less likely. But I should say, by the way, one crazing that could happen is that what if one, the Democrats were to get COVID. There are people in Kamala Harris orbit who were diagnosed with COVID. They are doing campaign events, too, and so that's something that could happen, but it's hard to know. I mean, I think Trump seems to be doubling down on all the strategies that put him 10 points behind to begin with. And so instead of pivoting, he's repeating a lot of very unpopular messaging on COVID, for example. Actually, most voters favor precautions on COVID. There's a myth of Trump as being as masterful campaigner that I don't know has really borne out. I think it was very clever in how he won the GOP primary, but he just barely beat Hillary Clinton. His party lost a ton of seats in the House in the midterms in 2018. And now, if polls are right, we keep using that phrase. He's in a lot of trouble in 2020. And so I'm not so sure that Trump's instincts are as good as sometimes they're made out to be.
BOB GARFIELD You mentioned that football fans have somehow managed to internalize on any given Sunday and, you know, maybe the New York Giants could trounce the Kansas City Chiefs. Is it a good thing that people have learned that the polls are not an absolute prediction?
NATE SILVER Yeah, I mean, they never were an absolute prediction. Polls have not gotten any less accurate or any more active, for that matter, over the long run. And Clinton lost despite only a fairly normal small polling error because she was not that far ahead in the first place. So, yeah, people, I hope, would internalize the lesson that if a candidate is only a couple of points ahead in the polls, then they're going to lose not half the time, less than half the time, but fairly often. Again, this race is different in that Biden is more than a couple of points ahead. You'd have to have maybe twice the polling error that you had in 2016 for Biden to lose, and that can happen, but now we're getting a little bit more out on the tail of the probability distribution. But polls are always imperfect instruments for sure.
BOB GARFIELD Look, I am obliged to observe that after 2016, first you got dumped on for somehow misleading the entire world about Hillary Clinton's chances. Then when you did interviews saying approximately what you have said today, you got dumped on for being a defensive jerk. I think, as you put it. The conversation we're having now, is this a way of inoculating you and 538 against, you know, whatever outcome we should see on November 3rd.
NATE SILVER It's not a strategy at all? It's just me being honest. You know, it was it Mark Twain that whatever you said, if you're just honest, you don't have to worry about kind of saying the wrong thing? The honest truth is that Joe Biden is way, way ahead in polls. I don't connect those polls, but I think it's pretty reasonable to think that given where the country is at, that Joe Biden would have a lead given things people are going through. And how many people have died of of COVID. Empirically, could the polls be wrong enough for Trump to win? Yes, it's not likely, but it's it's hardly unfathomable. So, you know, I have to give people the best information that I can. And I would love to hedge more. I'd love to say, oh, it's 60-40. We don't know who is going to win, right. But that wouldn't be honest and that wouldn't be responsible given what the data showed. So in the long run, you know, Biden should win seven out of eight times, you know. I know we'll probably get more crap if the one out of eight times comes up, but I can't do anything about that. I think it's the right forecast.
BOB GARFIELD Nate, thank you so much.
NATE SILVER Definitely. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Nate Silver is the founder and editor of FiveThirtyEight.com and author of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, But Some Don't.
I just want to point out that I was never mad at you. I understand how the weather forecast works.
NATE SILVER [LAUGHS] I appreciate it. It was a good interview, though.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, an app that offers a haven for the convenient recruitment of online militias.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. With 14 so-called militiamen charged within the past two weeks in a kidnap plot against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, it has not been difficult to make certain critical connections.
TRUMP Stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what. [END CLIP]
WHITMER Stand back and stand by, he told them. Hate groups heard the president's words not as a rebuke, but as a rallying cry, as a call to action. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That was Whitmer, and yes, there has been action. Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer Militia inciting violence in Portland. The neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division now rebranded as the National Socialist Order linked to five murders. Alleged teen shooter Kyle Rittenhouse unaffiliated but taking up arms with militiamen in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This week, secret tapes surfaced of a neo-Nazi group calling itself The Base planning recruitment of current and former military, all with dog whistles, retweets and sometimes direct incitement from the president. So, yes, easy to connect those dots. In a moment, we will look at how these groups themselves connect to fellow travelers and just among themselves. But first, let's consider yet a third kind of connection. The language we use to put a name to the various activities and pathologies on the violent far-right.
What these locked and loaded paramilitaries called themselves is militias. And that term has taken hold in the media, too. Gretchen Whitmer's great chagrin. They're not militias, she tweeted this week, they're domestic terrorists, endangering and intimidating their fellow Americans. University at Albany Professor Sam Jackson, who studies antigovernment extremism, agrees that whatever the Wolverine Watchmen are, it sure isn't the militias our founders envisioned in the Constitution.
SAM JACKSON It seems that those who wrote the Constitution had this clear idea that there would be a standing military. And then there would be this militia force, which was organized by the states. And the federal government had the authority under certain conditions to temporarily take control of those militia units.
BOB GARFIELD Kind of like what is now the Army National Guard.
SAM JACKSON Exactly. Over the course of a number of decades, what was originally described as the militia through a series of incremental changes in law became the National Guard.
BOB GARFIELD But what has sprung up over the past 30 or 40 years. Sure. Isn't that these are unregulated paramilitaries, not only independent of government, but often hostile to government.
SAM JACKSON Exactly. These are people who have adopted the label of militia pointing back to those founding documents in order to legitimize their paramilitary activity.
BOB GARFIELD Yeah, they called themselves militias. Did the press just get suckered into accepting this constitutionally memorialized term?
SAM JACKSON I don't know if I would go that far. I think it's reasonable for the media and for other observers to use labels that these types of actors create for themselves as long as the use of those labels comes with an explanation of what they mean and how they're being used.
BOB GARFIELD On the other hand, there are other words that do convey so much more. Vigilante comes to mind.
SAM JACKSON When I think of vigilante's, I think of Wild West Frontier Towns. Posse's taking it upon themselves to enforce the law. And while it may be true that some of these actors, like those who are accused in Michigan in this plot to kidnap the governor, while it may be true that they think of themselves as trying to enforce the law, I think that vigilante maybe gives a little bit too much credence to that.
BOB GARFIELD And just terrorist?
SAM JACKSON Because of how language works. We label acts as terrorism and then we sort of adopt that same label to describe people who commit those acts. There's a little bit of potential confusion there, though, because if someone lies one time, do we call that person a liar? Or do they need to have a habit of lying before we call them a liar? Does someone need to commit an act of terrorism to be a terrorist? Do they need to just plot an act of terrorism? Do they just need to express admiration for or support for an act of terrorism?
BOB GARFIELD Strictly speaking, terrorism is political violence that is committed in order to focus attention on the cause. So an assassination, for example, isn't necessarily terrorism, but something designed to terrorize the public at large for sure. Do you know where these Michigan guys fall in?
SAM JACKSON The question is, would the kidnaping be an attempt to communicate to other people involved in government? Hey, this fate will happen to you as well if you also engage in similar sorts of activity, or if they were much more instrumentally, just thinking this governor is a problem. Therefore, we will kidnap this one person.
BOB GARFIELD Can you give me a roster of the most prominent militia organizations?
SAM JACKSON I'll offer a caveat before I do that, though, which is I tend to think of this as a movement rather than focusing in on groups. When scholars talk about movements. We often think about coalitions that are united by similar ideas or similar goals. The difference between that and an organization or a group is that groups have relatively clear boundaries about who is a member versus not a member. But social movements scholars, for example, would talk about a social movement as being made up of multiple groups and independent actors who are working together to promote similar goals. I do want to push back a little bit on something, which is that some of these militia groups are explicitly white supremacist. And I think that that is by and large not true. In the 90s and in the historical predecessors of these militia groups, there was more explicit racism. But as we saw, the second wave of this movement emerge in two thousand eight or so, we really saw a rejection of racism. And this is not oh, I'm a white nationalist, not a white supremacist. This is people who are prominent and important within the movement saying we reject racism full stop.
BOB GARFIELD Such as the Oath Keepers.
SAM JACKSON Exactly. So Oath Keepers is a really prominent group within this movement now. Oath Keepers formed in 2009. And they actually went through the trouble of writing up formal bylaws for their organization. And one of the clauses in their bylaws is that they prohibit anyone who has ever previously been affiliated with a racist organization from joining their group. And in fact, the president and founder of Oath Keepers. When people ask him this question, his response is always, I'm a quarter Mexican. How could I possibly be racist? Now, this is a little bit more complicated, of course, than than these actors would like to portray it because there is still bigotry within their ranks. They would say we're not opposed to all immigrants were opposed to those who come in the wrong way. We're not opposed to all Muslims were opposed to radical Muslims. That distinction breaks down a little bit when you look at their actual actions. However, I think it's really important to recognize that white supremacist groups, organizations and movements perceive a racial identity and they organize around that racial identity. For those in militia groups, the identity that they're organizing around is a patriotic one or a nationalist one, not a racial one,.
BOB GARFIELD Um, except when it isn't. Tell me about the boogaloo movement.
SAM JACKSON Boogaloo fundamentally refers to this idea that America is soon to face a second civil war. It refers to this Internet meme of anytime you're describing the second version of something, you call it the thing two electric boogaloo referencing this awful 1980s movie. So for the Boogaloo folks, they think that soon we're going to see Civil War two Electric Boogaloo. What gets complicated is there are anti-government elements that are explicitly organized around that anti-government stance and others who are explicitly organized around a sense that this second civil war that's coming. This will be the race war that that we've been anticipating for so long.
BOB GARFIELD What about the Three Percenters? We've discussed them on the show. Where do they fit into this ecosystem?
SAM JACKSON Within the Patriot militia movement? The second wave that began in 2008, there are two dominant factions. One is Oath Keepers and the second is Three Percenters. Unlike Oath Keepers, Three Percenters is not a formal organization with clear membership lists or anything like that. Instead, Three Percenters refers to this dubious notion that three percent of those who lived in the British colonies in the late 18th century fought back against the British and won America's independence. And people who adopt this language believe that if three percent of Americans today resist the tyrannical government, they can also defeat tyranny. What we saw was this language around three percenters emerged around the two thousand eight point, and people around the country started adopting that rhetoric. And the related symbol, the roman numerals three surrounded by a circle of stars. And these different organizations that have incorporated Three Percenters into their name, in some way, don't necessarily have any relationship with other groups that have Three Percenters in their name. And in fact, there have been some call them, internecine squabbles between different actors who adopt Three Percenters rhetoric and symbols.
BOB GARFIELD Three percent is 10 million people in the United States. We're not at that threshold, are we?
SAM JACKSON No. Although the gentleman who came up with the idea, the three percenters, his name is Mike Vanderboegh. He used to say we only need three percent of gun owners. There are 100 million gun owners in America, so that's three million people. What is an uncomfortable coincidence? I hope people who study gun ownership in America have found that three percent of gun owners own something like 50 percent of all of the guns held in private hands in America.
BOB GARFIELD Oh, sweet mother of God. I hope those are different three percents.
SAM JACKSON I really hope that it's a very unfortunate coincidence.
BOB GARFIELD Sam, thank you so much.
SAM JACKSON You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD Sam Jackson is a professor of emergency preparedness, homeland security and cybersecurity at the University at Albany.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As we slouch toward November 3rd, the fear of organized political violence looms large. But how exactly do such vigilantes or militiamen, white nationalists, terrorists? Call them what you will organize, mobilize and coordinate their activities. How can they be deterred? On the Media, reporter Michael Lowinger revisits the communications app far right groups use to fight the fight.
MILTIA MEMBER It looks like we are going into the fray too much to keep us in your prayers. I just left to voice messages one for my father, one for my wife. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This is a militia members speaking on a walkie talkie app called Zello .
MILTIA MEMBER If I should fall, I want to be remembered as a patriot. Let history show that I stood up against this tyranny, but I'm not gonna fall because I'm a warrior, and I'm going to kick some f*ckin' ass [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER He was psyching himself up before a showdown with ANTIFA, that never happened. I ran across many other violent fantasies like this while monitoring militia groups on Zello. But the app is better known for other things, like communication by overnight truckers, activists in Venezuela and humanitarian aid efforts.
HAMPTON STALL Basically, the way that it works is people join a chat room and you push a button to talk. And when you release the button and you're done talking, it cuts your mic again.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Hampton Stall, an Atlanta based researcher and founder of a blog called Militia Watch. We teamed up on this story when we learned we shared a strong interest in tracking far right activity on Zello.
HAMPTON STALL There's like a little bit of a fetishization of ham radio operation in the armed militia, right. The difference between ham radio and Zello is that Zello allows for very fast audio communication between a pretty good amount of people across any distance, as long as people have connection to either wireless or cellular Internet.
MICAH LOEWINGER Another difference is that Zello records and saves everything that's said. Users can also set a password and decide who is allowed to talk. Some miltia's we found operate several Zello channels at the same time. One for interviewing new recruits, one for leaders to discuss operations, one for training in the woods and another for sharing intel in small talk.
HAMPTON STALL Any regular radio commands you would hear in the military are often replicated in militia use of walkie talkie apps,.
MILTIA MEMBER A solid copy of that intel you gave me. [END CLIP].
HAMPTON STALL Like solid copy.
[CLIP] MILTIA MEMBER Radio check [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER To an outsider hearing this kind of talk, it plays in to a perception that it's a big LARP. You know, it's a big live action role play. Grown men playing army.
HAMPTON STALL But I think it kind of stops being LARP when the weapons are real.
MICAH LOEWINGER In the past decade, people associated with far right militias have plotted to bomb mosques, shot protesters and kidnaped migrants at the southern border. We found a couple hundred such groups on Zello, everything from Boogaloo boys to Proud Boys to outright white nationalists. But the vast majority of such channels belong to Three Percenter militias. These groups have drawn the media spotlight this year by rallying behind a steady stream of culture war causes. There was the gun rally in Virginia, known as lobby day.
NEWS REPORT Gun rights supporters gathered in huge numbers today in Richmond, Virginia. They are protesting a wave of gun control measures being proposed by the newly elected Democrat. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The COVID lockdown protests in Michigan.
NEWS REPORT As protesters moved into the Capitol building, Democratic State Senator Dayna Polehanki posted this photo saying directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bulletproof vests are wearing them. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd.
NEWS REPORT Peaceful protests, met by armed men and Confederate flags. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And conspiracy theories of ANTIFA infiltrating white suburbs.
NEWS REPORT Stay safe and lock and loaded. That's the warning in this Facebook post made Tuesday afternoon. Police call it a false rumor that claimed ANTIFA had three bus loads of members ready to hit neighborhoods in. [END CLIP]
JOAN DONOVAN It's an interesting situation that we find ourselves in where America is heavily armed. Right.
MICAH LOEWINGER Joan Donovan directs research at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.
JOAN DONOVAN And there are a lot of folks right now who have been socially isolated for a very long period of time, and have been reaching out through social media because they don't know how to assess the risks posed by the pandemic political environment that we're in.
MICAH LOEWINGER The heightened polarization, the increased visibility of these armed groups, combined with the anxiety and anger about the news, drove prospective recruits to right wing forums and Facebook groups where militia guys shared passwords with step by step instructions about how to join their zealot channels.
HAMPTON STALL And so you joined the group and then the officers will invite you for an interview. They'll ask you some questions about what area you're in, whatever sort of ideological requirements there are for joining said militia.
RECRUITER What interested you in the three percent movement where you heard about the three percent?
CANDIDATE I was actually approached in conversation during a anti-war protests of ANTIFA and BLM in Brandon, Mississippi. [END CLIP]
RECRUITER Do all of you have the backing of your family? Do they know that you on an interview tonight?
CANDIDATE I'm the man of the house, so, you know, if I need to go somewhere or do something that's going to happen. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER To be clear, neither Hampton nor I ever pretended to be a militia guy or a potential recruit. We merely lurked in the background.
RECRUITER So what do you got? What kind of experience you got? Military, law enforcement, medical?
CANDIDATE 3-1 Bravo. Military police. I know a lot about weapons, munitions, and a fair amount of gear. [END CLIP]
RECRUITER It's like a second job. It's us tyranny. It's us or failure. It's us or a post-American world. Don't give two shits about anybody that's less than 100 percent all the f*ck in. Are you all the f*ck in, over?
CANDIDATE I ain't got nothing holding me back. If it kills me, it kills me. [END CLIP].
JOAN DONOVAN The ways in which those groups come together and do recruitment through platforms really has to do with them unapologetically believing that they can actually become a proxy for law enforcement.
MICAH LOEWINGER Joan Donovan.
JOAN DONOVAN And, so I think the continuous engagement with one another through social media has really normalized the notion of the vigilante.
MICAH LOEWINGER Vigilantes, of course, are not law enforcement. They're not accountable to the public or trained to de-escalate violence. That's why some observers shudder at the thought of armed militias, say standing guard at polling stations in November. Monitoring Zello, we did hear some references to violence surrounding the election, but it was about how to react to it.
MILTIA MEMBER 1 We have to stay vigilant, stay well trained and maintain our composure so that we don't ever fire that first shot. That would kill us. [END CLIP]
MILTIA MEMBER 2 Yeah, Roger that, sir. We fired the first shot, we're done. I mean, the public view is turning around about us. And that's the way we need to keep it. We don't need to do anything to tarnish that. [END CLIP]
MEGAN SQUIRE They're fantasizing, again. Oh, there's gonna be all this, you know, riots in the streets, we gotta be ready, guys. We got to be ready. But they're not talking about themselves going out there and doing it.
MICAH LOEWINGER Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University, has been tracking discussions of the election from far right groups online.
MEGAN SQUIRE The whole vigilantism is couched in this language of protection, and that's started in earnest with the reopened protest element to protect your business from the police who are trying to shut you down. And then it went to George Floyd, "oh, I'm going to protect you from the looters." And that's persisting, now. I'm going to protect Trump from election meddling. That idea that this vigilantism is justified from a protection standpoint - yeowch. That's terrifying, because now they have a reason. Right. And it's a reason that makes them look like a hero.
MICAH LOEWINGER And then there's this growing body of evidence that some local police departments are enabling it. Hours before Kyle Rittenhouse shot three protesters, killing two in an alleged act of self-defense, he and the Kenosha Guard, a local militia, were thanked by law enforcement. They even offered the vigilante's bottles of water.
MICAH LOEWINGER Rittenhouse provides a template for examining how violence might unfold in the coming months. Here was an armed vigilante who use social media to find other armed vigilantes. With the approval of law enforcement, they patrolled the streets looking for conflict. But Rittenhouse was overwhelmed when he found it, and so he shot his way out.
For better or worse, police and social media play crucial roles in the likelihood of these scenarios recurring. Let's start with the cops. While listening to Zello, Hampton and I observed three times when militia members claimed they had coordinated with law enforcement. For example, one group called the Georgia Three Percent Martyrs expressed deep distrust of the police in their chat room, but claimed to have teamed up with them at a BLM protest south of Atlanta.
MILTIA MEMBER When Payne, Ivo, J3 and myself rolled up Southlake Mall and assisted the Morrow Police Department, we were in full battle rattle and Payne, even cited in on somebody and they didn't mess with us. [END CLIP]
HAMPTON STALL The fact that the police are, you know, allegedly standing next to a militia member who is pointing a rifle and looking down his sights, said protester, is highly troubling.
MICAH LOEWINGER I was interested in this, so I reached out to a reporter named Robin Kemp, who wrote for a Web site that she started called the Clayton Crescent. She was there at Southlake Mall and she sent me audio of the scene.
MICAH LOEWINGER She walked with the protesters, about 150 of them,.
ROBIN KEMP Almost all African-American people who are marching. There was no violence or vandalism or anything like that. It was like a very joyful, family oriented feeling of people assembling for the march in the parking lot of the shopping mall on the weekend.
PROTESTERS And this time that we speak up, we stand up and we make the world know that Black Lives Matter. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Was this like the only Black Lives Matter protest at the Southlake Mall over the summer?
ROBIN KEMP Yeah, I think. That was the only one.
MICAH LOEWINGER She did not see very many police officers there and she did not see any militia guys there. If this did happen, then the police and the militia were out of sight off to the side.
HAMPTON STALL It's very common for militias to either go on roofs or go around corners and just be staged nearby. There was a Black Lives Matter protest here in Atlanta back in 2016 that I attended. And as I was leaving, I took a wrong turn in the parking garage and ended up on the on the roof and two spaces over there was a jeep with four men with rifles in their hands looking out over the protest. There's a lot of work that happens that isn't super visible.
MICAH LOEWINGER It's worth noting, too, that Zello is just one app that militias use for organizing. So I wouldn't have access to their communication on, say, telegram or Facebook chat. In a written statement, the Georgia Three Percent Martyrs' denied that they were at this event. The Morrow Police Department did not respond to our request for comment. A month after the mural protests, I caught wind of another potential police militia relationship in Georgia.
MILTIA MEMBER 1 I got word from Douglas County Sheriff's Department today that they're supposed to have a protest in Douglas County where their monument and civil war monument. They said within the next week they may reach out and ask for assistance.
MILTIA MEMBER 2 And if possible, we'll will give it. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That's two guys from the Three Percent Security Force speaking on July 2nd. One week later, there was, in fact, a Black Lives Matter protest at the Civil War monument. But we're not sure the three percenters ever showed up. The three percent security force militia denied that they had contact with the police. The Douglas County Sheriff's Department did not respond to our request for comment. The third example of alleged coordination between armed vigilantes and local police actually reveals a course of action for reducing violence in the future. It involves the Michigan Home Guard, a militia that made national news in May when it defended Carl Minkey, a barber shop owner who defied state lockdown measures by reopening his business.
NEWS REPORT Members of the Michigan militia say they will take action to keep Nanking from going to jail. [END CLIP]
HOME GUARD We are willing to stand in front of that door and block the entrance so that the police will have no entry there today. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER A few weeks later, word begins to spread that there's an upcoming Black Lives Matter protests in the works. A couple local politicians and at least a couple armed militias, including the Michigan Home Guard, are preparing to attend. Then Livingston County Sheriff Michael Murphy posts this video to his department's Facebook page.
MURPHY So here's the deal. I've had personal conversation with Rob from 2A, Mike Detmer and former Sheriff Bob Azat asked both to stand down to not show up tomorrow. Let me tell you a little story. Back in the mid 90s, there was a KKK rally held on the steps of the old courthouse. That was the biggest non event that this county has ever seen. The community really banded together and had other activities to do. A handful of people, maybe 20 at the most, showed up for the KKK to do their thing. They realized that they didn't get the reaction that they were looking for. They packed up and left. So it was a beautiful thing. That said, my plea is if you just stay away, there's no stage for anybody to make this thing go sideways. [END CLIP]
HAMPTON STALL That's fascinating.
MICAH LOEWINGER Isn't that fascinating?
HAMPTON STALL I hadn't seen that.
MICAH LOEWINGER I think it's a little problematic to compare the KKK to Black Lives Matter protesters. But I understand the point that he was trying to make, which is that showing up in force in response to something could have the effect of pouring gasoline on the fire.
HAMPTON STALL Yeah. Michigan has an extensive history with right wing militias referring to these militia as the 2A community is laundering that history through something that is deemed a little bit more politically neutral, a constitutional amendment.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's a good point. And as I listen to the Michigan Home Guard on Zello kind of making sense of the message from the sheriff, there was some frustration and anger. And I would also say confusion.
HOME GUARD So Livingston County sheriff there requested Hungary and other vetted militia groups to come and help him with extra security. And then later came out publicly and said he did not do that. He does not want any 2A people there to stay away. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER There was a rumor that spread in the Michigan Home Guard Zello group that even after he made that video, he secretly said, no, Michigan Home Guard should come.
HOME GUARD 1 No, I still want you there. I just want you to stand back and make sure nobody sees you more or less. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER I still want them to come. I basically just want them to keep a low profile.
HOME GUARD 2 Well, that's not shady, at all.
HOME GUARD 3 Pardon me, that bullsh*t, and, you know, he should have just kept his mouth shut. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The next day, the sheriff posted to Facebook denying this rumor. And again, there's a lot about what happened behind the scenes that we can't verify, but by addressing the militias publicly, asking these groups to not show up, the sheriff seemed to at least annoy them enough to the point that they decided not to go.
HOME GUARD Yeah, our LT gave us an official stand down on the Livingston thing. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Sheriff Michael Murphy denied that he was in contact with the militia. The Michigan Home Guard did not respond to our request for comment. We couldn't get a complete picture of what happened in any of these examples. But the tapes demonstrate that local law enforcement wield a ton of influence over local militia activity. The police may either ignore, condone, invite it or effectively tamp it down. Social media companies face a similar choice. This summer, Facebook deleted thousands of militia pages. Twitter also booted a bunch of militia accounts, as did Discord. A smaller app that has long incubated far right groups.
MEGAN SQUIRE We were very concerned about discord during the rise of the alt-right, because discord was a minor app and it really wasn't able to understand enough about what was happening on its platform. Because they would see, oh, you know, it's just 13 people, and that ends up being like Atomwaffen. A group of people that are coordinating violence.
MICAH LOEWINGER In the name of white supremacy.
MEGAN SQUIRE Exactly, and so Zello has to have a procedure and a policy and enforcement mechanisms where they do not tolerate this kind of behavior. Unless it's the business model.
MICAH LOEWINGER You'd think it would be hard for Zello corporate to miss what's happening on their own platform. If Hampton and I alone could locate 200 far right groups ranging from Oath Keepers to straight up Nazis. According to Zella's own terms of service, the app can remove anything that, quote, represents promotion of celebration with violent extremist ideologies, groups and tactics. We reached out to the company asking how it was enforcing its terms of service. In a written statement, Zello told us that the company, quote, allows speech protected by the U.S. Constitution and law.
Late in our reporting process, we spoke with an employee from Zello who asked to remain anonymous. The employee sent us a company-wide e-mail from June that detailed some of the militia and white nationalist activity on the app. The employee said that in a subsequent company-wide meeting, Zello CEO Bill Moore said essentially that because the platform was not legally responsible for any harm caused by those far right groups, it would not kick them off the site. Nor would Zello implement new moderation practices to deter this type of organizing in the future. Zello responded to us saying that, quote, The employees characterization is inaccurate and misleading, end quote. The company confirmed that the most concrete actions to come out of its internal review were two. One, de-index, all pages of user generated content, which includes the far right stuff from search engines. So now when you Google Zello Three Percent or Zello Nazi, those channels don't show up, but you can still find them by searching on Zello. And two, Zello removed a trending channels feature that may have amplified hate groups. For Zello's full response. Go to onthemedia.org.
From now until November 3rd, at least, we'll be concerned about the potential for violence around the election. Researcher Megan Squire says her phone has been off the hook.
MEGAN SQUIRE Probably five times today, different reporters, five times yesterday every single day. That's the question that I'm getting.
MEGAN SQUIRE No one knows the answer, but too much blood has been shed already for any police department or online platform to pretend there was nothing they could have done to help stop it. For On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, and Eloise Blondiau with help from Ava Sasani. And our show was edited...By Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Adrian Lilly and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
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