NEWS REPORT This is a full-blown crisis, it is a humanitarian crisis, it is a national security crisis. It is a health-and-safety-for-you-and-your-family-crisis [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Increases of migrants at the U.S. border are seasonal and so is the inevitable fear mongering. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Also, on this week's show, young Reporters ease on the influencer beat, that their elders simply do not grasp.
KAT TENBARGE These are our household names. But to even just a barely older generation, these people are total strangers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, even for those building the beat, particularly for the women, snags and threats abound.
TAYLOR LORENZ You know, in like Tom Cruise, like Mission Impossible, where he's trying to creep through that room of lasers or whatever. That's kind of how it feels being on the Internet every day.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week marked the first days of spring and for the weekend news shows that meant returning to one particular perennial refrain.
NEWS REPORT And now on to a story, a crisis that not only is not going away, but that is gaining steam, and that is the crisis on the southern border. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE A crisis, a crescendo that only seemed to get louder as the week wore on.
NEWS REPORT The border right now is wide open because the Biden administration dismantled the very effective policies of the Trump administration and the agreements we had with Mexico and other Latin American countries. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT This is a full-blown crisis. It is a national security crisis. It is a health and safety for you and your family crisis. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE For weeks, the White House steered clear of the rhetoric. Opting for words like "challenge" and "circumstance" and "situation," but eventually, even they got caught in the narrative trap.
NEWS REPORT Jen Psaki slips up, calling the border surge a crisis. This as reporters claim President Biden taking a page out of the Trump playbook and turning to Mexico to stem the flow. [END CLIP].
BROOKE GLADSTONE So who's right? Is there a crisis? A surge, a flow of people at historic levels? If it feels like we've asked these questions before, it's because we have. President after president, administration after administration, has faced the southern border as a particularly complex problem. A problem that no one seems to know how to fix.
NEWS REPORT The challenges are permanent and complex. There will never be a president in your lifetime who doesn't face the challenge of how to combine enforcement with compassion and humanity, especially when it comes to children at our southern borders. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's a tightrope few presidents seem to be able to walk or evade, but Tom K Wong, associate professor and the founding director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California at San Diego, says that what we're seeing at the border is predictable, and the solution to our problem lies in understanding the data.
TOM K WONG What we see thus far in 2021, when we look at Customs and Border Protection's own data are trends that fit previous years in terms of the seasonality of the migratory crossings at the southern border. We typically see an increase from January that runs until about May. This is attributable to the weather as winter ends, and people being more likely to take the dangerous migratory trek north. And so what we're seeing is not unpredictable if we pay attention to the seasonality of southern border statistics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The word crisis was applied to Trump's administration with regard to the border, also to the Obama administration. It seems like there wasn't as much attention during the George W. Bush administration. Were they all crises, or not crises in the same way because it was just seasonality?
TOM K WONG Let's use an analogy. When we think about retailers, we typically see an increase in sales from November to December because of the holiday shopping season. Retailers may jump for joy if sales skyrocket relative to the same period in previous years. But right now we're not really seeing much difference in terms of the trends in the data. Right now, we have January to February of fiscal year 2021, the freshest data from Customs and Border Protection, publicly available. The increase this year is 28 percent. In 2019 it was 31 percent for the same period. We looked at data going back to 2012, all of the publicly available data from Customs and Border Protection. Do the data themselves speak to crisis? I would say no. But are there real challenges at the border? Yes, absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That percentage may be lower than 2019, but the number of migrants, at least according to the latest data you have, is higher.
TOM K WONG There are multiple things that are simultaneously true. The trend is very similar to previous years, explained by the seasonality of the data. But in fiscal year 2021, what we're seeing are overall higher levels.
BROOKE GLADSTONE By level you mean real number.
TOM K WONG The total number, yes
BROOKE GLADSTONE And it's higher, why?
TOM K WONG What we see for fiscal year 2021 is neatly predicted by a resumption of fiscal year 2019 levels, plus the pent-up demand from 2020.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There was a decrease in 2020 because of the pandemic?
TOM K WONG Yes, there was a noticeable decrease. The fiscal year, 2021 numbers are the resumption of fiscal year 2019 and the difference, the drop off that we saw between fiscal year 2019 and fiscal year 2020.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You don't see a role for Biden's rhetoric, his expressions of empathy or anything like that for this increase in numbers?
TOM K WONG What we do see is an increase in unaccompanied minors, something that is not easily predicted by the seasonality. Some have used the crisis narrative to pin the increase in unaccompanied minors to Biden administration immigration policies. I don't think we have enough data to make that determination yet, but we are actually guided by decades of research that tracks how human smugglers exploit changes in administrations. Human smuggling is a multibillion-dollar industry and the change in administration itself, it could have been Trump to Biden, it could have been Trump to anybody but Trump. That gave smugglers an opportunity to further incentivize the use of their services by promising parents that now is the time for your children to make it into the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So there are seasonal trends and then there are hard numbers, annual levels. But what are we missing in the narratives?
TOM K WONG Looking at month to month changes paints only part of the portrait. But if there is seasonality in the data, that means the federal government can, every season there is an increase, better prepare. And if we can better prepare, then hopefully the images of kids in cages will be a remnant of our immigration policy past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But we have data now, you said going back to 2012, why do we have kids still in cages?
TOM K WONG I think that is a question for past administrations as well as the current Biden administration to answer. Academics like myself have contributed to the messiness in how we interpret southern border statistics, in part because we talk in terms of things like trend changes versus level changes, but I think we are actually having a much more nuanced conversation about the data now than at any point in my career thus far.
BIDEN It happens every single solitary year. There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. It happens every year. [END CLIP]
TOM K WONG And I think that is a step in the right direction. Whether or not policymakers respond by better preparing, that is to be determined.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Actually, though, has there ever been a time that you can recall when the border worked relatively well?
TOM K WONG This is going to be, I know for some a counterintuitive answer and for others it will make them downright angry. There was a period where the southern border did not look like it currently looks. In 1996, under the Clinton administration, there was Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego sector of the Border Patrol. Operation Gatekeeper erected the modern physical infrastructure that separates Mexico from the United States. Prior to Operation Gatekeeper, migration was mostly circular. People would come to the US work and then return to their home countries like Mexico to be with their families. And that pattern of circular migration is what kept the number of undocumented immigrants who lived in the US permanently relatively low, but with the erection of physical barriers that started with Operation Gatekeeper and has run through to the Trump administration and its southern border wall. That made a crossing that much more difficult, which meant that those who may otherwise have returned home stayed in the US permanently for fear of not being able to go home and then get back into the US.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So fewer physical barriers and impediments actually keeps the numbers down.
TOM K WONG Yes, physical impediments to movement do not change the underlying reasons why people want to migrate. Whether it be to provide for their families or like what we're seeing with Central American migrants today to find protection from persecution. Walls do not change those underlying motives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You get displacement instead of deterrence.
TOM K WONG Deterrence policies at the southern border do not deter, but either displace to more treacherous migratory routes, delay migratory decisions, or incentivize the use of human smugglers. Those deterrence policies, when they incentivize the use of human smugglers, actually increases the probability that an undocumented immigrant successfully enters the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, here's a long question, and I'll start with Biden on Thursday.
BIDEN Does anybody suggest that there was a 31 percent increase under Trump because he was a nice guy and he was doing good things at the border? That's not the reason they're coming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kids in cages. Was the outcry in the Trump era, now we confront Biden's challenges and there seems to be less outrage on the part of the mainstream media, and I'm sure this is in part because of the expressed intention of this White House. This president is oriented rhetorically and his policies around alleviating distress, whereas Trump wanted to use it as a migrant repellent. So Biden is covered with that expressed empathy in mind, at least at first, but then that coverage in the mainstream media is swiftly followed by a reflex to do more, quote, "evenhanded coverage," even though the policies nor the politicians were in any way equivalent. You say that Biden's rhetoric didn't significantly change the numbers, though it may have changed the number of unaccompanied minors to a degree that we don't have data for. Do you think intentions matter or has the administration, which has kids in the equivalents of cages, already failed?
TOM K WONG I think intentions do matter, but I'll start by saying that we as a country should be able to do better when it comes to providing protection from persecution. But when it comes to the difference in coverage, I would only ask listeners to think about how the Trump administration used crisis to justify harsher policies. Here under the Biden administration, no doubt there are challenges in terms of processing unaccompanied minors, but to the extent that it amounts to a crisis that therefore justifies harsher policies, I don't see that in the data. I also don't see that in the Biden administration's attempts to improve processing of unaccompanied minors so that less time is spent in detention-like facilities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But what about a crisis not defined in numbers, but in conditions?
TOM K WONG Oh, great question. Images of unaccompanied minors have made recent headlines. We should hold the Biden administration to account for conditions just like we were outraged when we saw the images and then heard the stories of how unaccompanied minors were being treated by the Trump administration. I don't think any administration gets a pass for mistreating people who are seeking asylum.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tom, thank you very much.
TOM K WONG Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tom K Wang is an associate professor and the founding director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California at San Diego.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, bad influence on the Internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield, and now belatedly hashtag MeToo reaches the world of online mega influencers.
DOBRIK I was completely disconnected from the fact that when people were invited to film videos with us, especially videos that relied on shock for viewers or whatever it was that I was creating an unfair power dynamic, I did not know this before. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD David Dobrik is a 24-year-old YouTube sensation whose 27 million social media subscribers have viewed his skits more than 9 billion times. That's billion with a billion. His oeuvre is heavy on stunts and practical jokes involving his bro-crew called the vlog squad, who are something like a repertory company, something like a posse, something like frat boy clowns who transgress at other people's expense because it's just so hilarious. Like this 2017 bit where Dobrik tricked a friend into thinking he was going to jail.
DOBRIK What do we do? Do we call your parents? Who do we call?
KING No, let us call you.
DOBRIK Do you have a lawyer?
KING No, I want you to get a lawyer because I don't want to be part of this situation.
DOBRIK Matt, do not raise your voice with me right now. You are embarrassing me in front of these fake police officers, [CHUCKLES]. It's a fake cop car. [LAUGHS MANIACALLY] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Dobrik happens to be a very skilled creator and editor who also happens to be a young man who is willing to push the stunts into full on exploitation. Caution, the excerpt that follows is the precursor to what may have been a sexual assault.
DOBRIK We invited these girls over to have a fivesome, so hopefully we have a fivesome tonight. [someone in the background yells TA-DA!] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The episode was about persuading young college women to engage in a menage-a-trois with one of the vlog squad: Dirty Dom. Unearthed by journalists, the story behind the video threatens to topple an empire. Kat Tenbarge is a digital culture reporter for Insider.com, who broke the story about the vlog squad sexual predations.
KAT TENBARGE David is the boy next door. He's behind the camera, but he's extremely empathetic and good natured and somebody who always seems to have the right take on whatever is going on. Jason Nash is like the creepy older uncle who hangs around, but nobody's really sure why, except that he is David's right hand man. David is in his mid 20s. Jason is in his late 40s.
JASON Get away from the f*ckin car, or I will single handedly punch each and every one of you in the face. [EVERYONE LAUGHS] You understand?
DOBRIK Jason, Jason, come on, they're just children. Oh, my God. David's the best. [END CLIP]
KAT TENBARGE Then you have Corinna Kopf who is the classic objectified woman who's just there to be the butt of a lot of jokes about her appearance and her sex life.
CORINNA I made a hundred thousand dollars this month.
FRIEND You made a -- WHAT?
JASON Oh my God.
FRIEND Are you f*ckin serious?
DOBRIK Who do you have to thank?
CORINNA My boobs.
DOBRIK Your boobs?
CORINNA Hey! I want on the record that it also has a little bit to do with my personality.
DOBRIK But very little. [MANIAC BRO LAUGHTER]
KAT TENBARGE You have people like Jeff. Jeff is a former convicted felon. He is – the joke is that I'll always go back to jail.
JEFF [addressing a large crowd] Be quiet, I want to say one thing...I got Botox one time! [crowd erupts in "Whoa!"]
BOB GARFIELD And finally, Dirty Dom, who, according to your piece, allegedly raped a 20-year-old college student in 2018. But in most of his videos, his sleaziness is intended to be, you know, funny.
DOBRIK We just met Dom's date, she's around the corner, she doesn't want to be on camera. Why I'm confused, though, is why she's here at 1 a.m.
DOM To see my Pokémon collection.
DOBRIK Is that true?
DOBRIK What's one of the Pokémon’s in your Pokémon collection?
DOM Gonorrhea? [MANIAC BRO LAUGHTER] [END CLIP]
KAT TENBARGE Dom's character is built off of the idea that he is playing a character, that it's just a joke. The sex addict who loves to do drugs and it's always played for laughs that Dom hooks up with girls who maybe weren't actually that interested in him in the first place, or that he creeps on the younger fans. But then that became something more of a reality.
BOB GARFIELD I want to go back to the November 2018 video that's at the heart of your exposé, Dirty Dom with these young women he's invited to the apartment.
DOM I invited these girls over to have a fivesome. So hopefully we'll have a fivesome tonight. [END CLIP]
KAT TENBARGE So when Hannah got to the apartment, she was aware that they were meeting up with YouTubers. She thought that she would be meeting people who her friends thought were really cool and funny, and her immediate reaction was that they were actually kind of gross and objectifying.
HANNAH I have to let you guys go. I don't really know any of you just –.
DOM Get the f*ck out of here! Get her out! [END CLIP]
KAT TENBARGE As the night progressed, Hannah felt like she was, you know, having a drink with these guys, getting to know them on a slightly deeper level. Ultimately, she ended up getting drunk to the point where she couldn't remember those interactions.
BOB GARFIELD Then David cuts in with narration.
DOBRIK After a couple of minutes of talking, it was clear, there was no fivesome happening tonight.
FRIEND He called it.
DOBRIK But by some stroke of luck and master negotiating, Dom made progress. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD We then see two of the women walk off camera down the hall with Dirty Dom, and then it cuts to some of David's friends, you know, trying to get a sneak peek in the room.
DOBRIK We just need to get in there and do a head count for the vlog.
JEFF OK, yeah. OK, all right. Alright, we got we got 3 in there [MANIAC BRO LAUGHTER] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What happens next is left to the imagination, except that the video ends with one last shot of David in the front seat of his Tesla. And a couple of his boys in the back.
DOM I just had a threesome, and I think we're all–
JEFF ...going to jail. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Although not necessarily. The woman, who in your piece you call Hannah, has not pressed criminal charges. Do you know why?
KAT TENBARGE Yes. When she first started to process and define what happened to her that night as rape, Hannah told me that she did some of her own research looking into what the legal process in California would look like. And because she was so incapacitated that night and because she herself could not remember a lot of the key details of what actually happened in the bedroom, she felt like going through the legal process wouldn't necessarily result in the kind of justice that she was looking for. In the days that followed, she just tried to forget. And then when the vlog actually came out, Hannah struggled to process not only what her friends had told her about what had happened, but with what she was seeing on screen and more importantly, with what everyone else was seeing on screen. That first day that the video came out, it got over eight hundred thousand views and people came up to Hannah at the coffee shop and at the library to tell her that they had seen her in David Dobrik's vlog. And for Hannah, what was portrayed on screen was not something that actually happened. It looked like she had had a really fun night hanging out with these guys that ended up with a consensual sexual act. In reality, she was just beginning to grasp the fact that, in her eyes, she had been raped.
BOB GARFIELD The scenario you're describing sounds like the classic case of date rape.
KAT TENBARGE I believe that if Hannah brought the details of this story to the court, it would be in her favor. The California law explicitly states that somebody who is not married to the person that they're having sex with cannot consent if they're at a state of incapacitation where they can't recall what actually happened to them.
BOB GARFIELD There was this other wrinkle. The only member of the vlog squad who would speak to you on the record was Jeff Wittek, who is the guy we see peeking into the door and reporting the 3 people in the bed. So, you were talking to him, unbeknownst to you, he was recording the call?
KAT TENBARGE Yes. After the story was published, late at night, it was about 9 p.m, Jeff texted me and asked if we could talk. And I agreed. I picked up the phone and we had about a 30-minute conversation during which he asked me if I felt sorry that he was receiving a lot of backlash for his inclusion in the article. He told me that people online were referring to him as a rapist and a pedophile and calling him all sorts of names, and I apologized that I had to hear that he was experiencing something undeserved because I never said anything in the article that would imply he was.
JEFF Are you sorry that like you wrote, you worded it that way, though. Like it sounds like...
KAT TENBARGE I mean, I'm sorry to hear it, because ultimately, like, I had to do that for my job. Like, that's just what I had to do with the information. [END CLIP]
KAT TENBARGE He uploaded it in a YouTube video with the framing that I was apologizing for, making statements about him that were based on non-credible sources.
BOB GARFIELD How about Hannah herself? How did you locate her? As much as this video was distributed hither and yon in social media, she remained an unknown. How did you put a voice to her?
KAT TENBARGE In the year following the video's release in 2019, she reached out to somebody that I know in my professional network first, and at that time the person saw that she had a story but that she wanted to be anonymous. And so that person felt like it wasn't the right time for an anonymous account against the vlog squad to come forward because it was such a popular group of YouTubers.
BOB GARFIELD Was it because your colleague’s publication just didn't want any part of an anonymous source and Insider.com was willing to hear her out?
KAT TENBARGE Yes, essentially, the other reporter worked at a legacy publication where you had to have a really high degree of newsworthiness to grant somebody anonymity, and typically at that type of legacy publication, they would only grant anonymity to somebody involved in, say, a major political scandal. But at insider, because we are sort of in a position where we're able to view digital culture as something that's equally as important to us as a major political scandal, we were willing to do the corroboration to allow her to have an anonymous voice.
BOB GARFIELD And this gets to the question of the media's, the especially the mainstream media's understanding of the influencer economy and culture. It is vast. The media don't seem, to even now, take this world seriously.
KAT TENBARGE A lot of people in media, fully are unaware of the reach and the types of content and the types of fan base that these creators have. For example, everyone my age, I'm 23. Pretty much everybody that I know could tell you a lot about the different sources that I had in my article. The members of the vlog squad, the people who discussed my story on their YouTube channels. These are our household names. But to even just a barely older generation, these people are total strangers. And even if someone knows who David Dobrik is, they probably haven't watched his content. So I think there's a gap there in terms of who journalists see at the forefront of power, of money, of fame and who younger people in a younger generation see.
BOB GARFIELD Kat, thank you so much.
KAT TENBARGE This was a great conversation.
BOB GARFIELD Kat Tenbarge is a digital culture reporter for Insider.com.
TAYLOR LORENZ David Dobrik is in no ways unique.
BOB GARFIELD New York Times Internet and culture reporter Taylor Lorenz.
TAYLOR LORENZ The stuff that succeeds best on YouTube is often sensationalist, there's a lot of disinformation, and then, you know, this type of fratty bro-stuff, and this is what YouTube rewards. YouTube has a very tight partnership with its top creators. They know that the top creators generate an enormous amount of attention and engagement on their platforms. So these are people that they feature in their YouTube rewind videos every year that they do, they invite these people to the company. They help broker ad deals. The algorithms reward this stuff the most.
BOB GARFIELD Suddenly, David Dobrik is the MeToo boogey-man of social media and may be facing potential career destruction. What was his reputation, say, two weeks ago?
TAYLOR LORENZ David had a really, really good reputation. He was seen as an incredibly family friendly creator, had partnerships with Chipotle, Nickelodeon, and was seen as kind of like a brand safe creator. The irony is, of course, his content has never been that way.
BOB GARFIELD How can it be that a potential sexual assault had not reached the this level of scandal before this?
TAYLOR LORENZ There's so many other videos like this from other creators. The only different thing is that the girl spoke out about it, but are there similar videos where women, young women, are drunk and being joked about in really gross, sexist ways and potentially taken advantage of? Yes, there's examples of that on a million different other popular male creators’ YouTube channels, especially in this prank world. But nobody covers the online creator world and the people that cover it, rarely, if ever, through the lens of treating these people like the juggernauts in the entertainment and tech and media world that they are. Instead, you have fluff coverage: "wow, can you believe this person got 18 million followers on YouTube?" It's not looking at this industry critically and reporting on all of the many ills of it. If you think that the sexual assault stuff is bad, this is a completely unregulated industry. I cannot express how unregulated it is. If you took like the worst of tech culture, media culture and entertainment culture and combined it into one and dumped money on it and had no oversight and almost no reporting on it. That's the creator world.
BOB GARFIELD Taylor Lorenz is a culture and technology reporter for The New York Times. She's hard to avoid on this subject because as Insider.com's Tenbarge observes, Lorenz is a bit of a living legend.
KAT TENBARGE Her work really set the example for what Insider modeled the digital culture team after. If she hadn't been reporting on this beat for several years and doing so in such a way that attracted so much attention and praise from her colleagues, then Insider probably wouldn't have seen as much value in doing this type of work at all.
BOB GARFIELD Lorenz is among the most battle-scarred veterans on the front lines of disruption, which digital content was borne of, and which continues to claim victims. Just this month, BuzzFeed laid off 47 workers at HuffPost, which it acquired less than a month earlier. On Tuesday, the self-publishing site Medium offered buyouts to some 75 of its small cadre of paid staffers. The next day, a yet unknown number of writers at the online MEL magazine lost their jobs. This is perhaps what Lorenz foresaw back in 2018 when she cautioned journalists to build up their personal brands just as influencers do, to stay in the game when their outlets collapse. That advice is now more salient than ever.
TAYLOR LORENZ Being a really good writer is not the same skill as being a really good marketer or audience development manager or businessperson, which is what you have to be when you're an independent contractor basically, and its sole proprietor, where you kind of run your own business.
BOB GARFIELD Sure enough, the personal journalism brand has very much become a thing. With a newsletter platform called Substack that allows those formerly under heel of their struggling employers to go it on their own. The writers offered their work by subscription and Substack distributes it for a 10 percent commission.
TAYLOR LORENZ Substack is overall a fantastic safety net for so many of these writers that have been laid off. For instance, I used to write for Mic.com. You know, Mic basically shut down, laid off the entire staff. Some people went to Substack and I think are able to make a great living on there that they could never make and have a sense of job security that they could never have at media organization.
BOB GARFIELD Yes, for a handful of stars, it has been a very lucrative deal, for the long tail of contributors, however, not so much. And now on the subject of objectionable content, controversy has broken out. Some Substack writers are abandoning the platform for hosting certain high-profile writers whose worldviews they cannot abide. Among the most prominent critiques and or departures have come from Vox critic at large Emily VanderWerff, writer Emily Gould, journalist and science fiction writer Annalee Newitz, and writer Jude Ellison Doyle.
PETER KAFKA A trans writer named Jude Doyle wrote in a post that they were upset at a whole series of men that Jude Doyle, considered anti trans, were on the platform. Their argument was that revenue from their subscribers was being used to subsidize the likes of Glenn Greenwald et al.
BOB GARFIELD Peter Kafka is a senior correspondent at Recode.
PETER KAFKA So I'm quoting from Jude Doyle's blog post here. They are upset that authors, they say, are, quote, "people who actively hate trans people and women, counter argue ceaselessly against our civil rights and in many cases have a public history of directly, viciously abusing trans people and or cis women in their industry. And then goes on to list several people, including Glenn Greenwald, Matthew Yglesias, Graham Linehan, British TV writer who's been kicked off Twitter last year for, quote, repeated violations of Twitter's rules against hateful conduct and platform manipulation. To be clear, I'm quoting Jude Doyle here, and as we say on Twitter, not all retweets are endorsements. A lot of folks would take issue with some of the names on that list of people Jude Doyle doesn't like and say there's a difference between not liking what someone writes and saying that so-and-so is deliberately attacking trans people.
BOB GARFIELD Now, there's another issue which is distinct, but nonetheless entwined with anger over, you know, who some writers are sharing a platform with, and it's a thing called the Substack Pro program. Which is, as I understand it, a come on for big name writers meant to lure them away from their W2 jobs at media companies by offering them a big fat paycheck in the first year. The number that's been bandied about is 30 writers who are Substack Pros.
PETER KAFKA Yeah, I mean, Substack has been playing around with versions of this. In some cases, it gave them a relatively small fee just to get them up and running. In some cases, it's offered other writers other incentives. This Substack Pro program was formally christened in the last week or so, and I think that's what generated a lot of attention.
BOB GARFIELD When you sign a book deal, the chances are pretty high that your publisher will also be platforming a lot of authors whom you don't like. I myself have shared a publisher with Michele Bachmann. And loathsome as I find her, I had no impulse to walk away from my deal. Is that a legitimate analogy?
PETER KAFKA The difference is that you're well aware that when you signed with your publisher, the publisher also was working with Michele Bachmann. On Substack, at least up until now, there's no way of knowing what kind of writers have Substack Pro deals, and what kind of writers are just people who showed up on Substack and started publishing. Substack has said that they're not in a position to disclose that because they didn't make that a condition of the deal, and they don't want to go back on that. The writers who have those deals are free to tell people about them, and that in the future they might figure out some form of disclosure for people who get these deals. Generally, when you do business with a traditional book publisher, you get a pretty good idea of who else they're working with.
BOB GARFIELD But not necessarily what their advances are.
PETER KAFKA You don't have any idea what their advances are.
BOB GARFIELD Returning to the Graham Linehan anti-trans question. Substack's content guidelines do pretty clearly ban content that, quote, calls for exclusion based on protected classes. And just as an aside, they on their list leave out gender identity, though the Supreme Court affirmed last year that it is in fact protected under the Civil Rights Act. Chris Best, the CEO, has been quoted as saying, no, Substack has a great content moderation system, and it's called the unsubscribe button. Doesn't that really mean that someone seeking to report, let's just say a doxxing in progress would have to what? Email a Substack co-founder?
PETER KAFKA Probably. I don't think this is something that the substack guys, and they are guys, had thought through when they started this. But again, it's kind of a problem they would be lucky to have because it means there's enough people using the platform for someone to get upset. It's also kind of a model we have seen many times before in Silicon Valley. There's a reason that you have venture capitalists subsidizing substack when they're loathe to do it with traditional media companies. They don't want to be directly employing people who make media, they want to fund the platform that allows media creators to sort of make the stuff and then find an audience and then they take a cut in the middle. But you've seen this over the years with everything from MySpace to Facebook to YouTube to Airbnb to Uber, which considers itself a platform. And they say, look, we're just connecting someone who has something to sell with someone who wants to buy it. And then inevitably, you have bad actors and inevitably they have to scale up systems that are meant to sort of police this stuff belatedly, but it's always sort of chasing after the latest problem they've had. And by the way, this is ongoing right now. You have the CEOs of Twitter and Google and Facebook all testifying again in Congress this week about disinformation on their platforms, and it's kind of an endless whack-a-mole game. Substack is much, much, much, much smaller than all these platforms. So you could imagine that sort of spinning up a platform policing business is way down on their list.
BOB GARFIELD I want to get back to Taylor Lorenz, because in an online content world, how can you not get back to Taylor Lorenz. And in a Substack world, she's clearly right about the necessity for journalists to build their following. But, once again, that click bait problem. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Clio Chang reported that Substack ranks potential recruits by numbers of fire emojis based on how much Twitter engagement they got. Is that not a prescription for generating heat instead of illumination?
PETER KAFKA It certainly is. It's also a reasonable proxy when you're starting up and you're trying to find people that have audiences and have engaged audiences. All of that said, remember that the patron saint of Substack is a guy named Ben Thompson, who writes a tech and business newsletter out of Taiwan. Who is provocative but is not a bomb thrower, he's got a very long essay out today about the CEO of Intel and his new plan of attack. It's quite stultifying, I think.
PETER KAFKA There's other folks doing environmental coverage. The most successful Substack writer, at least as of late last year, was Heather Cox Richardson, who is sort of adamantly not political. She's a history professor at Boston College and does sort of a daily explainer putting today's news in historical context. It's just something people like and want to pay for, so it doesn't have to be takes. I think it's an interesting business. I think it's also a business that could easily go away. Substack essentially is charging writers 10 percent for something that other people can and will charge less for. Jude Doyle, who we talked about earlier, has gone to Ghost, it's a nonprofit platform and they're paying a very small fee, certainly less than a few percent to do that. Twitter has bought a competitive product called Review. They're going to be charging five percent to create your own newsletter enabled through Twitter. Facebook now has its own paid product that'll be launching at some point. And Facebook won't say what it's going to charge, but it's been sort of nudging and winking and suggesting it may not charge anything at all. It's Facebook. It doesn't need to charge you anything, it'll find other ways to profit from you. There's a world where a lot of these writers who are at substack now eventually say, it's been great working with you. I'm heading off to a different platform, I'm taking my mailing list because you allow me to do that and I'm going to get a better deal somewhere else.
BOB GARFIELD In other words, to do to Substack what substitute did to their previous employers.
PETER KAFKA That's one way of putting it.
BOB GARFIELD Peter, thank you as always.
PETER KAFKA Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Peter Kafka is a senior correspondent at Recode.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, 5 degrees of Taylor Lorenz.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. OK, you've been hearing a lot from The New York Times's Taylor Lorenz. No wonder her Internet culture beat has yielded some of the most zeitgeist-y stories in recent memory. Not just the ones we've talked about today. From the unionization of online creators, to the Redditors behind Gamestop’s run on Wall Street, to the exploitation of young TikTokers in their California content house sweatshops. Like I said, she's hard to avoid. If you look at your news feed, there is Taylor Lorenz. I think if you open your fridge, there will be Taylor Lorenz. Even if you tune in to a cable TV hatemonger...ich.
TUCKER CARLSON Lots of people are suffering right now, but no one suffering quite as much as Taylor Lorenzs is suffering. People have criticized her opinions on the internet and it destroyed her life. Let's pause on this International Women's Day and recognize that. You thought female wingers had it bad, you haven't talked to Taylor Lorenz. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What Fox is Tucker Carlson harassed her about for two consecutive nights, in effect inciting his right-wing viewers to do the same. Was Lorenz's recent plaintive International Women's Day tweet about exactly such harassment. The violent threats and vile smears against her posted on the very social media she covers. Most for the unforgivable sin of being a prominent woman covering social media and tech. If you remember Gamergate of the 2010s, that is part of Lorenz's everyday reality. Along with her front row seat to damn near everything.
TAYLOR LORENZ I've been on this beat for over a decade. I've been covering this stuff and I've been a public Internet personality since 2009. I covered tech from the user side, so I cover fandoms and people with huge platforms and powerful tech companies as well. And then, of course, I have to maintain my personal brand online. So, what's so complicated is just the rate that things change. And, you know, it's like Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible, where he's trying to, like, creep through that room of lasers or whatever, that's kind of how it feels being on the Internet every day.
BOB GARFIELD Earlier in our discussion of the influencer scandal and David Dobrik, we spoke to Kat Tenbarge of Insider, who described being scooped on her own reporting by the so-called content creators that she had approached to interview about her developing story. There's a kind of opposing mirrors aspect of that.
TAYLOR LORENZ Here's the thing. You have to assume that any content creator that you interview is recording you and is going to use that for content in their vlog. So when you reach out to people or you tell them something, they're going to post about that, and they're usually going to do that immediately after you hang up the phone with them, no matter what you tell them. That's such a challenge with covering this industry.
BOB GARFIELD Kat Tenbarge also told us that there would be no influencer beat, no social media, business and culture beat without you. Are you like the Ida B Wells of social media?
TAYLOR LORENZ Oh, my God. I can't believe she said that, I'm going to cry. That's so nice of her. I worked so hard to make this a beat and to make people understand how important this stuff is. We all take inspiration from people above us. I was hugely inspired by Jenna Wortham's work covering technology in a more cultural and human way and Katie Notopoulos who I think covers online communities in such an incredible way. And then there was people like Rae Votta, who I think she works at Netflix now, but she was doing incredible reporting on YouTubers, back 10 years ago, too. So there's a lot of women that have paved the way for this beat.
BOB GARFIELD Before you got to the Times, you worked for The Hill, The Atlantic, Daily Beast, Insider, a trillion other publications, as far as I could tell.
TAYLOR LORENZ Hey, I've had a million jobs.
BOB GARFIELD But holy hell, you came to all of these gigs, not from journalism school, but from social media itself. You're a native.
TAYLOR LORENZ Yeah. I mean, I discovered media and journalism from Tumblr back in 2009, Tumblr was my gateway to everything on the Internet, and people sometimes are like, oh, you're successful now, because I was the youngest woman in executive level management at the Daily Mail. Like, I was managing a team of a dozen people around the world assigning stories and editings and running social. We were the first media organization to sign terms with Snapchat Discover. Before I worked in media, I ran social for Verizon and worked on a bunch of other clients and did huge campaigns that I think people just don't know, and aside from that, I built my own brands like I really found like an audience on Tumblr. That's how I developed, I used to flip Instagram accounts and sell them on Kik. I just have been in this world for a really long time now, and so that's why I think a lot of these younger reporters think of me like a mom, because I've just been here for a really long time since 2009 at least, which is not even that long. But it is when a lot of this stuff started to really emerge.
BOB GARFIELD Let's assume that the influencer economy and the culture continue to grow like kudzu. This will most likely result in many more reporters being assigned to the beat, and Insider where you once worked, where Kat works now, it's looking to me like TMZ and a trade publication of influencing wrapped into one. Is that what's next? Not just a beat, but an economy built around covering the economy of influence.
TAYLOR LORENZ Insider has absolutely changed the game because they've transformed this beat from something that people had to oh, we have our Internet culture reporter over here. This one person that we hired to do all of these stories and what Insider has done is really hired people on this beat and they have been able to break these huge stories because they have resources, and so in my ideal world, it would be like covering politics or anything else where you have a huge amount of people paying attention to this industry and the way that influence is shaping our world. That's just very undercovered.
BOB GARFIELD As a pioneer, you've experienced the agony and the ecstasy of this beat. I wonder what advice you would have for those who follow in your path. Not to suggest that you're, you know, on the cusp of retirement or anything, you're still in your 30s, but nonetheless, as the mother figure, what would you advise the kids?
TAYLOR LORENZ One, reporting on the beat, you're sort of going to be subject to a lot of these GamerGate type attack campaigns. And I think that any organization with Internet culture writers needs to be very adept at protecting their staff from harassment. There were a lot of people that were really great mentors to me over the years and like I mentioned, people like Katie Notopoulos, so I really want to be kind to people that are maybe looking at me like that. So don't be afraid to ask for help and also just don't get discouraged. Like my big fear, and part of the reason I'm so protective of a lot of younger reporters on my beat is I just know how hard it can be. And it's just not something that a lot of newsrooms understand or even peers in the newsroom will understand because it's this very unique emergent beat. Also, this is a beat that because it's so undercovered, there's so much opportunity to make a name for yourself because there's so many angles to this beat that are not being covered.
BOB GARFIELD This conversation began with a reference to GamerGate when in 2014 and 2015 gamer nros resenting women, writing games and reviewing games, lashed out with coordinated harassment campaigns and created the primordial swamp of the alt right. Do you have any idea why in 2021, the beat you're on seems to be covered predominantly by women?
TAYLOR LORENZ Well, women are the people that took this industry seriously and that is not something that male journalists have done. And that's not something that male editors care about. This is not the case at The New York Times, because I work at a paper that values this type of journalism, but a lot of other publications have no idea of how to cover this beat. And when somebody comes to them with the story, a lot of times that's met with this is not a story for us or, oh, this is too messy for us. Basically, not understanding the power and influence and importance that these people have in the world. That's why you see some of these stories not break through, and I'm so glad that Kat's story has broken through, because I think it's making the case for this beat. But I mean, look at all of the other YouTubers that have been very credibly accused of really similar things to David. So, I think it's up to the people who run these organizations to understand how to cover this stuff seriously. Looking at the inequalities and systemic racism and sexism in this industry and reporting on that. Not just reporting on the fluffy: wow, this guy got famous on the Internet. Can you believe it?
BOB GARFIELD Taylor, thank you very much.
TAYLOR LORENZ Thank you so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Taylor Lorenz is a technology reporter in Los Angeles covering Internet culture for The New York Times.
That's it for this week's show, On the Media was produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender with help from Alex Hanesworth. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our show was edited... By Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Adrienne Lily.
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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