Reporter: We begin our report with the rebellion that wasn't in Russia, or was it a rebellion?
Brandy Zadrozny: Whiplash as a brief armed uprising in Russia disbands replaced by a battle of narratives.
Naunihal Singh: It creates an understanding that Putin's position is weak, that he doesn't have enough support within the military, and that perhaps if someone else engages in a coup, the coup might succeed.
Brandy Zadrozny: From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brandy Zadrozny. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is on the campaign trail, and the media are learning to cope with the phenomenon known as the Gish gallop.
Claire Wardle: The idea of the Gish gallop is that you are making claim upon claim, upon claim, bad argument after bad argument very, very, very quickly, that it is hard for the person that you are speaking to to respond to all of those claims effectively and in real-time.
Brandy Zadrozny: Plus, the ultimate victims of an anti-vaccine candidate.
Paul Offit: It's invariably the children who suffer our ignorance, the most vulnerable among us.
Brandy Zadrozny: It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brandy Zadrozny. I'll be sitting in for Brooke Gladstone this week.
Reporter: The last day or so has seen an extraordinary turn events in Russia.
Brandy Zadrozny: A week ago, the world watched as Russian president Vladimir Putin's favorite fixer made a power play.
Reporter: In the Russian city of Rostov, armed men and armor on the streets.
Reporter: Wagner's founder Yevgeny Prigozhin is calling for an armed rebellion.
Reporter: Prigozhin announced his army, tens of thousands strong, would reverse course backing out of Ukraine, marching directly on Moscow.
Brandy Zadrozny: Russian state TV threw to a lot of commercial breaks as the rest of the world tried to figure out what was going on.
Reporter: What's the latest that we have confirmed?
Reporter: There is very little confirmed.
Reporter: An utterly baffling turn of events here.
Reporter: The rebellion that wasn't in Russia, or was it a rebellion?
Brandy Zadrozny: Then as quickly as the rebellion flared, it fizzled.
Reporter: The leader of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin, has ordered his mercenaries to turn around and return to their bases to avoid bloodshed, he said.
Reporter: Vladimir Putin began the day angrily denouncing an armed insurrection as terrorist methods and now appears to have struck a deal with Prigozhin.
Reporter: The Kremlin says it dropped charges and Prigozhin will go to Belarus while promising his fighters contracts with the Russian military.
Naunihal Singh: It was not a coup because Prigozhin may made his intention clear repeatedly. He was not trying to overthrow the government. He was not trying to seize power from Putin.
Brandy Zadrozny: Naunihal Singh is the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. Back in 2016, he helped on the media create a breaking news consumer's handbook, military coup edition, after a failed attempt by the military to seize power in Turkey. He says, what happened in Russia last week was less a coup than a mutiny.
Naunihal Singh: There were some distinctions. Most mutinies are from the bottom, which is to say if your average Russian conscript was to rise up against the war or against their conditions of service, that would be a lot more typical. However, this is not something which is unique what Prigozhin did. In fact, there are other examples like in Ecuador or in Argentina where you have generals or people who are in command of significant military forces who will mount an armed rebellion, who will use that force to attain a political objective. It's just that in this case, that political objective stops just shy of the removal of the president.
Brandy Zadrozny: When you spoke to OTM in 2016, it was about a coup attempt in Turkey. You said then that coups are about making the outcome seem inevitable and putting out the message that they've already succeeded in overthrowing the people in power. Did Prigozhin do that?
Naunihal Singh: No, Prigozhin did not. It's one of the ways in which he avoids being accused of mounting a coup. He never says, my intention is to take over. He never says, I've already succeeded in taking over. In fact, his first target is Rostov rather than Moscow. He says he intends to go in and remove the top people at the Ministry of Defense. He doesn't say I've already succeeded in doing so. However, he does do half of it. If you're going to create a narrative that your seizure of power is a fait accompli, that your success is inevitable, the first half of doing that is that you have to demonstrate that the state is no longer in control. That's the part that Prigozhin does do.
Brandy Zadrozny: You warn that in the case of a coup or a mutiny, each side is battling to seize the narrative. What are the competing narratives here?
Naunihal Singh: You are seeing a lot more narrative creation now that things are over. Prigozhin wants to make it seem as if he could have succeeded. Putin is trying to make it seem that Prigozhin's activities were highly threatening to the state, but he was in control all along and that he still in control. Both sides want to create an impression to create an understanding of what occurred because of the consequences for their existing position. If Prigozhin can make it seem like he came very close to succeeding, it'll make it a little bit harder for people to assassinate him because if they assassinate him, maybe his troops will rise up and maybe they'll overthrow the government.
Brandy Zadrozny: You've also said it's important to pay attention to who controls the broadcast stations, but what about the rise of social media? Was Prigozhin getting his message out via Telegram? Was that equally effective?
Naunihal Singh: I think that Prigozhin's use of Telegram was very important here. He, in a series of voice messages, has been increasingly critical of the state of the Ministry of Defense and this is how he put his case forward. However, I don't think that social media operates as a substitute for the regular media here. It was necessary for Prigozhin's message to be picked up by broadcast media sources.
Alone on Telegram, it would not have had the same impact. The reason is this: when there is a mass broadcast, when somebody is on TV and they say, "We've taken over the state," you know that pretty much everyone else has seen that. It serves as a coordination mechanism. When something is on Telegram, if you're a general, you don't know if everybody else has heard that. What's more you don't know that everybody else knows that everyone else has heard that. You need this publicness and that allows for common action.
Brandy Zadrozny: You wrote on Twitter that coups tend to be bloodless in part because coup dynamics are driven by a desire to avoid civil war. Most successful coups are also fast. I think that's what was so shocking to some about this weekend. It's just that things felt like they were going so quickly and then suddenly just stopped.
Naunihal Singh: This is one of the places where you do see coup-like dynamics. For one thing, there was very little to no fighting. There may or may not have been some helicopters that were shot down, but near, as I can tell, the bloodshed from this very serious threat was almost zero and maybe entirely zero. Secondly, the whole thing happened and was over so quickly. The reason here for all of that is that the pressure to both disturb normality and then return to normality is very, very strong. You want to disturb normality because that's what allows you to create a new order to change what's going on. Then the minute there's any sort of resolution, it's in the interest of the state, it's in the interest of the president to move back to regular order as quickly as possible. The result of this is that as an observer, my head was spinning.
Brandy Zadrozny: Same. I think we also saw at least on social media, a lot of early celebrating. There are many who'd be very happy to see Vladimir Putin go, but why should listeners reserve judgment before acting as Prigozhin's cheerleader?
Naunihal Singh: Prigozhin is a war criminal. You look at the actions of Wagner within Ukraine and they are horrific. If Prigozhin had, for example, been appointed Minister of Defense and been put in charge of the war effort in Ukraine, it is very possible that the war would've become even more bloody and aggressive and involved even more human rights violations than what we've seen thus far. Just because we have very good reasons to be critical of Putin and want to see him removed, doesn't mean we should ignore the question of who or what comes after Putin.
Brandy Zadrozny: Stephen Kotkin wrote for Foreign Affairs that, "There is one thing that all dictators properly fear, an alternative." In his videos and voice memos, Prigozhin has been putting forth populist messages and claims that he knows the truth about Russia's elite and how they've lied. Has Prigozhin presented himself as a viable alternative to Putin?
Naunihal Singh: It's hard to tell. Prigozhin is one of the few people who has been able to engage in a sustained political critique of the current situation. It creates space for there to be future challenges to Vladimir Putin. It'll be very interesting to see what occurs in the next few weeks to months in terms of Putin's ability to retain his hold on power. He's going to want to consolidate it, and at the same time, he knows he has very few people he can trust. The more oppressive he becomes to members of his own state security apparatus, the more incentive he gives them to either shirk or act against him. Russia is still a nuclear-armed power. They've one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. This is a very dangerous period for the world.
Brandy Zadrozny: Naunihal, thank you very much.
Naunihal Singh: Thank you so much.
Brandy Zadrozny: Naunihal Singh is the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. You'll find a breaking news consumer handbook military coup edition and all of our handbooks at our website onthemedia.org. Coming up, How to Cover Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. This is On The Media. This is On The Media. I'm Brandy Zadrozny sitting in this week for Brooke Gladstone. In my role as a senior reporter for NBC News, I cover misinformation, extremism, and the internet which explains why a few weeks ago I was on a Los Angeles hiking trail with this guy.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: Hello, ladies.
Speaker: Oh, hi, there.
Speaker: Lucky dog.
Brandy Zadrozny: Good morning.
Speaker: You guys are [unintelligible 00:11:02].
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: Yes, it comes up. It's Hollyhock.
Speaker: Hollyhock, yes.
Brandy Zadrozny: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., former environmental activist and lawyer and scion of the most well-known brand in American politics had become a media pariah after his anti-vaccine activism reached a fever pitch during the pandemic. Since announcing his bid for the presidency in April, he's everywhere. He hit up the usual conspiracist-friendly podcasts like the one hosted by English comedian turned provocateur Russell Brand.
Russell Brand: We're going to have a pretty intensive reckoning over events of the last couple of years. I'm, of course, being joined by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Thanks for joining us, sir.
Brandy Zadrozny: And Jordan Peterson.
Jordan Peterson: Hello, everyone. Today I'm speaking with writer, attorney, environmentalist, and 2024 presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Brandy Zadrozny: And, of course, the motherload, The Joe Rogan Experience.
Joe Rogan: What do you think happens when you get into office? You're talking about your uncle who was assassinated, and you believe the intelligence agencies were part of that. What happens to you?
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: Well, I've got to be careful.
Brandy Zadrozny: He's showing up in the respectable joints too. Interviews with the candidate appeared on both ABC News and CNN, and, of course, I discussed my article about him with my colleagues on NBC and MSNBC.
NBC Host: We're taking a look at what an RFK Jr. administration could look like. Straight from the candidate himself, in a new interview with NBC's own Brandy Zadrozny.
MSNCB Host: NBC News senior reporter Brandy Zadrozny recently spoke with RFK Jr. I'm joined now by Brandy Zadrozny.
Brandy Zadrozny: He told me on our hike that he's particularly happy to be back on the platforms that had banned him like Instagram which kicked him off in 2021 for spreading misinformation. He said this is partly why he's running.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: There's rules that make it difficult, but then the public airwaves to censor you if you're running for president. There's actually a rule that says that and then the FCC is supposed to govern that and make sure that there's no bias, and so I thought, "Maybe I should run." I just thought I could speak to the American people for the first time in 18 years. [whistles] Come here.
Brandy Zadrozny: Kennedy is mis-citing a federal law that requires broadcast stations provide candidates for public office with equal opportunity to airtime. But anyway, he says he isn't going to lead with vaccine talk on the campaign trail which is odd given that he's the founder of Children's Health Defence, one of the largest anti-vaccine organizations in America, and given that this is the issue that's animated him and it's made him a lot of money for the last 18 years. On Bill Maher's podcast this week, Kennedy said the quiet part out loud.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: Well, I'm not talking about this stuff on my campaign. I'm just talking between you and me.
Bill Maher: That's a ridiculous assumption. Of course, you're going to have to talk about it. You-
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: Well, if somebody asks me, I'm going to.
Bill Maher: They're all going to ask you. Are you serious?
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: No, they don't want to hear it.
Bill Maher: This is all they're going to ask you about.
Brandy Zadrozny: This glaring omission in his campaign speeches and videos, it's a calculated move. His views on vaccines put him at odds with most Americans, especially Democrats. Right now, among Democratic voters, he's polling about 15% against Joe Biden.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: Only 22% of Americans now trust the government and we need to--
Brandy Zadrozny: Kennedy told me that were he to become president, his plans would include redesigning the way childhood vaccines are tested. He says he would gut agencies like the FDA, the NIH, the CDC, and he would ask the Justice Department to investigate the editors of medical journals. If you're going to dismantle and repair, who leads the CDC? Do you have somebody in mind? Do you have-
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: I have people for all public health agencies. I have people in mind who could actually turn them back into healing and public health agencies.
Brandy Zadrozny: Kennedy's probably not going to win in November 2024. Most likely, he won't win the Democratic primary either. Even if he gets nowhere, just sticks it out through part of this election cycle, he'll garner plenty of media coverage and his dangerous ideas will reach more people. My article was published on nbcnews.com a few weeks after our encounter after I'd had plenty of time to fact-check and contextualize his response, but not everyone's going to have that luxury.
For help and advice on covering conspiracy-peddling candidates on the trail, we called up Anna Merlan. She's the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power. In a recent article, Merlan described Kennedy's supporters as a "Coalition of anti-vac activists, crypto enthusiasts, Silicon Valley moguls, and supporters from across the horseshoe of extremism."
Anna Merlan: On the left, Mr. Kennedy is obviously talking a lot about his bona fides as an environmental lawyer which is the job he did prior to becoming an anti-vaccine activist, and he is weighing heavily on the family name. On the right and the far right, he is promoting frankly Trumpian talking points. For instance, talking about sealing the border permanently, blaming mass shootings on pharmaceutical drugs like Prozac.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: Anecdotally, it appears that almost every one of these shooters were on SRIs or some other psychiatric drug.
Anna Merlan: Promoting a view that the war in Ukraine is fundamentally a proxy war.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: President Biden has said that we're there to de-platform, to depose Vladimir Putin, and if that's why we're there, we're killing a lot of Ukrainians as pawns.
Anna Merlan: He has said that he opposes trans-women competing in women's sports. He also has an incredibly combative and often litigious relationship with both mainstream media and mainstream systems of government. He wants to persuade people who think they're Democrats that they're not Democrats, and people who think they're Republicans that they're not Republicans is how he put it to Dr. Drew. He's presenting himself as a non-partisan everyman who is equally dissatisfied with both sides.
Brandy Zadrozny: Let's talk about how journalists and media outlets are handling this candidacy. You wrote that ABC and CNN demonstrated how not to cover RFK Jr.
Anna Merlan: Yes.
Brandy Zadrozny: What did they do wrong?
Anna Merlan: This was a very early example of media platforms just not really being ready to cover Kennedy's candidacy. What ABC did was they sat down for a fairly conventional Kennedy interview with Kennedy, but during it, he did what he does which is he started spouting COVID and vaccine misinformation. ABC made the decision to just cut that portion from the interview, and then tell their audience that that's what they were doing.
ABC Host: We should note that during our conversation Kennedy made false claims about the COVID-19 vaccines. Data shows that the COVID-19 vaccines prevented millions of hospitalizations and deaths from the disease. He also made misleading claims about the relationship between vaccination and autism.
Anna Merlan: I think that it was a well-intentioned decision, but what it did was it gave Kennedy an incredibly powerful talking point to say, "You see, my views on COVID and vaccines are so powerful and so threatening to the establishment that they cannot see the light of day."
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: This is what happens when you censor somebody for 18 years. They cannot shut me up that long because now I'm going to really let loose on them. For the next 18 months, they're going to hear a lot from me.
Anna Merlan: One thing that misinformation peddlers do is they bank on the fact that if they put certain claims on mainstream platforms, they will get removed either under pandemic-era misinformation policies or even before that, just under general medical misinformation policies. There's a gap of time between when you put something on a mainstream platform and when it is taken down that allows a claim to start getting speed, and then when it is taken down, you can use it to feed back into a claim and a talking point that again, your information is so powerful and so dangerous to the establishment that it is being censored.
CNN was a little bit more unusual. Essentially, what happened is that a CNN political journalist named Michael Smerconish put Kennedy on and managed to use the word vaccines exactly once in his introduction, and then proceeded to have a very friendly jocular interview with Mr. Kennedy about his campaign that managed to not ask about his anti-vaccine activism at all. They spent more time talking about Mr. Smerconish's fandom of Cheryl Hines, Mr. Kennedy's wife.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.: If I had not convinced her that I can win this race, I would not be in it because she's the ultimate boss.
Michael Smerconish: Okay, listen, I do love your wife. I'm Team Cheryl. Having said that--
Anna Merlan: It was really, really striking.
Brandy Zadrozny: Okay, that's what journalists do wrong. How can we do things right?
Anna Merlan: The first, of course, is you absolutely cannot go into arguably any interview unprepared but especially with someone who has spent the better portion of the later part of their adult life promoting and advancing false claims about one thing specifically, and is very, very, very trained in how to do that. The second is to be prepared to push back in real-time. Then the third I think is a broader existential question, which is, ask yourself what the purpose of interviewing him is. At its base, what you are hoping to convey to readers and listeners, the unanswered questions that an interview might go towards answering.
Brandy Zadrozny: Well, let's talk about that. Fact-checking in real-time. It's very hard.
Anna Merlan: Yes, it is. Mr. Kennedy does something that is a kind of known rhetorical style that other folks do, too, which is called this Gish gallop is the term for it.
Brandy Zadrozny: Named after Duane Gish, a creationist.
Anna Merlan: Right, the idea of the Gish gallop is that you are making claim upon claim upon claim, bad argument after bad argument very, very, very quickly, so quickly, that it is hard for the person that you were speaking to, to respond to all of those claims effectively and in real-time. One thing that is recommended for responding specifically to Gish gallop is picking out one claim and focusing in on it. Whether it's the most ridiculous, the most dangerous, the one that has been debunked the longest, you can pick a single claim and go from there. Debunking a single claim goes a long way to illuminating the larger false premises on which some of these claims lie.
Brandy Zadrozny: A lot of these pointers deal with TV interviews. I work for a television company, but I prefer print because then you do have more control over the outcome. I'm actually reminded of the Brandolini's law, which is this internet adage that says, "The amount of energy needed to refute [beep], is an order of magnitude bigger than is needed to produce it." In print, I can contextualize quotes more easily. I can take the time to consult experts and fact-check. Do you think print journalists have a little easier here, and have they been doing a better job with him? I'm also thinking that with presidential candidates, TV coverage is such a big part of it.
Anna Merlan: Yes, I agree with all of that. There is a reason why I do not work in TV, and it's not just because I'm not photogenic enough. It's because I really believe that this is the appropriate mechanism for covering claims like this that often require not just a lot of explanation, but a lot of links to other sources. I really believe in providing links to scientific studies, position papers, good, strong contexts that can lead people to understand better the claims that he's making. It is so hard to do that in a two-minute TV hit. Even in a longer sit-down interview, it can be just incredibly, incredibly difficult.
Brandy Zadrozny: What have you learned from your experience reporting on conspiracy theorists? Is there anything that you've done that you wouldn't repeat?
Anna Merlan: In terms of things that I have done that I would no longer do, I would be less flippant about their ability to affect politics. I went on this cruise for conspiracy theorists in 2016, and I went into it with a light-hearted attitude, thinking that this was going to be a fun kooky story, and almost immediately was really checked, really sobered by what I saw on what was going on. Andrew Wakefield, who's the father of the modern anti-vaccine movement was on that boat, people promoting conspiracy theories about the financial system that put themselves and others quite literally in prison. I think the one thing I would never do is discount the ways that conspiracy theories can shape our politics, shape our national conversation, and decimate people's lives.
Brandy Zadrozny: I think that's the biggest complaint that I get is, why are you reporting on this? Just ignore them and they will go away.
Anna Merlan: Sure. I think that is a very attractive viewpoint that I certainly hear a lot of. I don't think that it is our job as journalists to ignore reality. I also think that when we ignore candidates making false, misleading, or polarizing claims, we fail to accurately reflect or take the temperature on what is happening in this country, which is an increasing amount of political extremism and polarization. I really do not believe that ignoring things makes them go away. At the same time, and I think this was a conversation that we had ad nauseam in the Trump era, we do know that coverage, even negative coverage can have the effect of increasing a candidate's name recognition.
There are some people, I don't think it's a huge plurality of voters, but there are some people who, the more someone is debunked in the "mainstream media", the more attractive that candidate becomes to them. As journalists, the way that we talk about a system impacts that system. We cannot just be observers, whether we like it or not. This is an incredibly tangled tricky area for us to get into but I will simply never believe that the answer is ignoring something that we don't like or that is polarizing or that is false. I just don't believe it.
Brandy Zadrozny: Regarding language specifically, how should we refer to Kennedy? Would you use the word friend?
Anna Merlan: When I first wrote about his campaign, I referred to him as a longshot candidate, and I'm going to stop doing that because I don't think it's true anymore. The base of support that he's coalesced this quickly, suggests that he is not a longshot candidate. I think you can say that his beliefs are fringe or his beliefs are extreme, or his beliefs are often false and misleading. What I try to avoid doing, in general, is leaning on terms without explaining them. If I'm going to call Mr. Kennedy fringe, if I'm going to call him a conspiracy theorist, I'm going to explain what that means, hopefully, in the context of an article, both because I think it can make desensitizing to readers and because I think that when I use terms like that, I need to make a case for it.
Brandy Zadrozny: You've been covering conspiracy theories for over a decade.
Anna Merlan: Yes, at this point, and God help me.
Brandy Zadrozny: The anti-vax movement for longer than that, I think.
Anna Merlan: Yes.
Brandy Zadrozny: You said when RFK Jr. announced his candidacy, that you understood what it meant. What did it mean?
Anna Merlan: I think it's doing a couple of things. First, he obviously has an eye toward his legacy. I can say that without being a mind reader. He is clearly trying to decouple his legacy solely from the anti-vaccine activism by stressing his relationship with the family name, but it was also a very clear signal that Mr. Kennedy and his supporters were going to try to push their most extreme talking points about science and health further into the mainstream, and we already see that happening. The anti-vaccine movement feels, first of all, like they have the wind at their backs. They think that it is time for political and legal revenge, whether that is running for office, whether that is filing this volley of lawsuits against mainstream health organizations, and pharmaceutical companies. They feel like now is their moment.
Brandy Zadrozny: I see Kennedy's candidacy as a really, really significant moment in this movement overall.
Anna Merlan: Oh, absolutely. This is a huge test for how far they can get their claims into the political and social mainstream. It's, of course, worth pointing out not just Mr. Kennedy's claims about vaccines, his claims about 5G technology and Wi-Fi, his claims about essentially making the case that perhaps HIV does not cause AIDS, which is an incredibly alarming and false claim that he made in one of his books. Claims about medical information and science and health that are not supported by any available evidence from any trusted body. It is a real test of how far those can go.
Brandy Zadrozny: Anna Merlan is a senior staff writer for Vice. Anna, thank you so much.
Anna Merlan: Thank you so much for having me.
Brandy Zadrozny: My appearance last week on Chris Hayes's show, led to an unexpected appearance on another podcast.
Brandy Zadrozny: They want the disruptions. Steve Bannon has been for months and months pumping him up, had him on his show during COVID, and just saying all the best things about him, he's just wonderful. He should be Trump's running mate, et cetera, et cetera. Obviously, Steve Bannon likes causing trouble, and so that seems clearly like what's going on there.
Steve Bannon: Hold it right there. Don't hit rewind. Let's get beneath the surface here. This is not about a spoiler candidate--
Brandy Zadrozny: That's Steve Bannon on his show War Room. Bannon, Russell Brand, Joe Rogan, and Jordan Peterson, among others, occupy the so-called alternative media space. Although, alternative is a misnomer when you're reaching around 11 million people per episode like Rogan, or have nearly 6.5 million subscribers on YouTube like Brand. In that universe of hours-long, falsehood-filled podcasts, and YouTube videos, which throw to unsavory Rumble accounts, the spread of myths and disinformation, goes all but unchecked.
It's a landscape that's very different from the early days of the pandemic in 2020 when there were real faith efforts being made by officials and platforms alike to hold back the tide of fake news. Claire Wardle is the founder and co-director of the Information Futures Lab at the Brown School of Public Health. She says that what we're seeing is a backlash in response to those efforts that were made on the fly, and without community input.
Claire Wardle: You have to really go back and remember how quickly it was that we were saying, "Oh, my goodness, we need COVID misinformation policies." That was March, April. Then just as people were figuring that out, we had the fight for racial justice and George Floyd and there was misinformation around the protests and people saying it was Antifa, and there was, "Oh, my goodness, what do we do about this kind of speech?" Then it got to the end of the summer into September, and then Twitter was talking about, "Well, actually, we're going to start labelling some of the President's tweets that were false."
Then we had YouTube saying, "We need to have a policy for what happens if President Trump doesn't accept the results of the election." Then, of course, we had January 6th, and then on January 7th we had all of this on-the-fly policy being made by people in Silicon Valley, deep platforming different players. It's extraordinary in that one year how many policies were created by platforms. Researchers didn't have time to figure out whether, well, if you've made that change, YouTube, this is how it impacts the ecosystem. People were just making it up as they went. I think we're now paying the price for some of that.
Brandy Zadrozny: There were unintended consequences that happened as a result. I think especially the narrative of censorship, and that we're seeing. It's so wild right now. Can you talk a little bit about the backlash?
Claire Wardle: Yes. Going back to the speed at which these decisions were made, and the lack of transparency around these decisions, they were mostly made by people in Silicon Valley. Overnight, they'd put a press release out. There was no wider consideration with the public. There weren't multi-stakeholder meetings when people were invited in to talk about, "What as a society would we like to see when it comes to speech?" We weren't talking about what norms are we creating around this. It was just people responding, in many ways with a gut instinct. Right now we're having people really equate content moderation with censorship.
Brandy Zadrozny: Also, what happened was that whether because they were banned, or because they said, "I'm out of here," what you had was people fleeing to alternative platforms. I'm thinking of Gabb and Rumble and Parler and BitChute. We can just go on and on and on. For a while, it seemed like these alternative platforms were never going to take off. It was just like, "Okay, go to your tiny place." That's no longer really the case. I guess I'm wondering, what influence have those alternative social media sites had on the misinformation ecosystem?
Claire Wardle: It means that in terms of understanding the influence, well, we already had that problem. We had that problem trying to understand the impact of what was circulating on YouTube and Facebook and Instagram, but we had a better sense of what the metrics were. We could make some assertions of who'd seen it, who'd shared it, and what their behavior change might have been, but in these other spaces, it's very, very difficult.
Brandy Zadrozny: Yes. I guess for a long time, it felt like the goal was to keep the worst misinformation and disinformation off of the big platforms with the idea that it wouldn't reach a mainstream audience. Do you think that's still true? Do you think that if something doesn't appear on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter then we've succeeded?
Claire Wardle: There are people who are always going to seek out this stuff. There will always going to be people who are conspiratorially minded, and they're going to seek out other people who think the same way and they're going to find closed spaces to have those conversations. I don't want to stop them. I can't stop them. That's going to happen. What I don't want is the person who's like, "I don't know, Barbara. I'm just a bit confused. I saw this thing on YouTube that got recommended to me. It's saying some stuff."
That, to me, is the bit that I felt like we should really be thinking about is the majority of Americans who are stumbling across information that's being pushed to them via algorithms. To me, the major platforms, that's what we need to as a society figure out those norms, rather than, "Oh my, God, how can we possibly solve everything that people are sharing on Telegram, and BitChute, and Gabb? That's going to exist.
Brandy Zadrozny: I'm fascinated by this thing that Kennedy has been saying, which is that he would really like more mainstream attention, but he doesn't need it. He thinks that podcasts and alternative news outlets are enough.
Claire Wardle: He wants to spend time with podcasters who are not going to ask him the challenging questions, who are not going to push back. The example the other weekend with Joe Rogan, when he was talking about the impacts of Wi-Fi, and Joe Rogan pushed him for more information. He said, "Oh, it's beyond my expertise," and moved on. He wants to be in spaces where he's not challenged. He also knows that by being in those alternative spaces, those alternatives-- Joe Rogan gets millions and millions of listeners. That's not an alternative space anymore. By being on those kinds of platforms, he also guarantees a huge amount of mainstream coverage. He gets the best of those things. He doesn't get the pushback, but he also gets the clicks and the views and the talking heads and the commentators and other people taking him seriously as a candidate.
Brandy Zadrozny: Let's talk about the backlash for people who've been studying and documenting disinformation around COVID, and the election. Republican House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, he started this task force in March. It was charged with investigating government censorship, and he claims it's taken place under this guise of fighting myths and disinformation online. Several prominent researchers in the field have been subpoenaed. There is a conservative advocacy group that's filed a class action lawsuit targeting those same researchers and universities. Does this mean that we don't have the same watchers going into 2024? If so, what does that mean?
Claire Wardle: I think irrespective of what's happening in terms of the targeting of disinformation researchers, we also have to just recognize that the platform's themselves and their trust and safety teams look very different now than they did a year ago. We obviously have a new CEO and owner of Twitter and we know that their trust and safety teams have been decimated. We know in a number of other large platforms, they also have much smaller trust and safety teams now. We're seeing the rollback of policies. Now election denialism is allowed on YouTube again. Even without the researcher part, we've got a different type of context in terms of the speech that we have policies around. Then add to that this idea that many researchers are tied up responding to FOIAs and subpoenas.
I think we will just have less real-time understanding of the rumors that are circulating. I think the other thing that should be stressed is that researchers weren't just counting examples of misinformation for the sake of it. A lot of it was to try and inform, for example, secretaries of state so that they could do more debunking activities or pre-bunking activities, which is ahead of time saying, "Hey, you might see something like posters on your street that are suggesting you need an ID. You actually don't need an ID in this precinct." The reason that we need that real-time analysis is in order to empower those who are trusted in their communities to provide good information that allows voters and citizens to make decisions that keeps them and their families safe and healthy.
Brandy Zadrozny: The rollback of those policies, why were they rolled back?
Claire Wardle: Well, I think with Elon Musk, he obviously came in and said, "I want to ensure that anybody can say anything on my platform." I think his strong and very public opinions have had somewhat of an impact on other platforms. We've seen a little bit of that with Reddit. I think there's just been a slight shift here, which is, people were very concerned that there was an overreach during COVID. The uncertainty about whether or not there was overreach has now moved into other types of misinformation policies, and election denialism is one of them. I would argue that's not one that we mess around with.
Brandy Zadrozny: How do you see misinformation playing a role in the next presidential election in 2024? What recommendations would you make to platforms and journalists for how to deal with someone like RFK Jr.?
Claire Wardle: We've already seen worrying declines in childhood routine vaccinations. The idea that he by even running, let alone winning, might give additional oxygen to those ideas is deeply concerning. I think, for journalists covering him, it's about zooming out, understanding the ways in which he's using powerful narratives to shape people's understanding of the world, and to really talk about the harms that might happen through somebody who their beliefs are not rooted in science. What does that mean, and why is that just so dangerous? I think it's, again, less of the work and much more of the zooming out and trying to provide a much clearer sense of who he is and what he might do.
Brandy Zadrozny: Claire, thank you so much.
Claire Wardle: It's my pleasure.
Brandy Zadrozny: Claire Wardle is the co-founder and co-director of the Information Futures Lab at Brown University. Coming up, the real dangers of Kennedy's anti-vax rhetoric. This is On the Media.
Brandy Zadrozny: This is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Brandy Zadrozny. We're still over six months away from the start of the presidential primaries. If Kennedy stays in the race till then, he'll have plenty of opportunity to peddle his anti-vaccine BS on the media mainstage. To assess the potential future danger of Kennedy's rhetoric and the damage already done, I spoke to Paul Offit, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases, vaccines, immunology, and virology, and the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine. First, I asked him about his personal history with Kennedy.
Paul Offit: Almost 20 years ago, he called me on the phone. He said that there were a number of women who had come into his office and were concerned about vaccines and vaccine safety. He was trying to find a way to reassure them, could I help him? We had a conversation for about maybe an hour that I thought went really well. I thought I answered his questions and felt good about the whole thing.
Brandy Zadrozny: The way Kennedy tells it, those concerned mothers told him their kids had been harmed by the mercury in vaccines, specifically a mercury-based preservative thimerosal. The short answer as to why that has no basis in fact is that methyl mercury found in contaminated fish is different from the ethyl mercury in thimerosal, which is easily cleared from the human body so less likely to cause harm according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was removed from most vaccines out of an abundance of caution in 2001. Nevertheless, Kennedy blamed the phony scientists, federal bureaucrats, and the pharmaceutical industry laying out his claims in a 4,700-word article published in Rolling Stone and Salon.com. The piece was debunked by researchers and journalists and ultimately retracted.
Paul Offit: It was just a complete hit piece on vaccines, it was a hit piece on me.
Brandy Zadrozny: I asked Offit just how influential he thinks Kennedy's anti-vax rhetoric has been.
Paul Offit: I think it's quite influential. He has the Kennedy name, arguably the greatest Democratic family in the history of this country, and people see that name and they trust it. When people have a famous name many of them use that platform to do good. He has used that platform to do the opposite. He's done a lot of harm. He's travelled to Samoa to say that deaths were caused by the MMR vaccine when that wasn't true at all. There were two children who received an MMR, measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine that then died. The question was why.
An investigation showed that instead of diluting the vaccines with the right diluent, what those nurses inadvertently did was they diluted it with a muscle relaxant, so the children stop breathing and died. He seized upon that as a way of saying, look here, MMR vaccine causes fatalities. As a consequence, there was a dramatic reduction in the immunization rates for measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine in Samoa.
Reporter: Massive deadly measles outbreak. The virus has infected more than 4,800 people. At least 70 of them have died including many young children.
Paul Offit: Died because they thought that the MMR vaccine had killed those two children when that wasn't true. There's now been 18 studies done in 7 different countries on 3 different continents looking at hundreds of thousands of children who either did or didn't get the MMR vaccine, making sure you controlled for other variables like health care seeking behavior or medical background or social economic background. You found that you were at no greater risk of getting autism if you got that vaccine or if you didn't. There's two ways you can interpret those 18 studies. One, you could say MMR vaccine doesn't cause autism which is the reasonable interpretation, or you could take his interpretation which is there is a vast international conspiracy among hundreds of researchers across this world to hide the truth.
Brandy Zadrozny: I've spoken with Kennedy now and I think what's really interesting is that anything you hand back to him anything that you can possibly say can still be covered or can still be explained with, "Well, those researchers are in the pockets of big pharma. You can't trust those researchers." I don't know who you're supposed to trust besides Kennedy and a few of his cohorts which don't seem very trustworthy at all.
Paul Offit: It really severely undermines the integrity and passion and devotion of many people in the scientific and medical community to do what they do. I can speak for myself. Why did I choose to go into pediatrics? I have a love for children, and I guess at some level passions are very dotted and very rooted in the scars of our childhood. As a five-year-old I was in a polio ward for about six weeks. I didn't have polio. I had a failed operation on my right foot, but I remember polio. I remember those iron lungs. I remember the so-called Sister Kenny treatments, those hot pack treatments that they would put on with their arms and legs to try and restore muscles and children screaming.
That's my image of that event. It was literally hell on earth. I think when I see those children and it's in the same way that I saw myself as vulnerable and helpless and alone, I mean, that's what drives me. For all his money, for all his education, what has he done to advance the health of people or the well-being of people in this country? He has done the opposite and nonetheless he attacks me or attacks well-meaning researchers and clinicians. It's shameful.
Brandy Zadrozny: The mainstream media has learned our lesson, I think, from the early acts where we were platforming RFK Jr. all the time and Jenny McCarthy and all of these other prominent anti-vaxxers. We learned our lesson and said we should not do that, but yet the proliferation of all of these alternative media outlets seems to have provided a way for the anti-vaccine movement to grow and to experience continued growth.
Paul Offit: The anti-vaccine movement I would argue was born with the first vaccine which was Edward Jenner's smallpox vaccine which was basically cowpox which prevented a genetically similar human smallpox. If you look just a few years after that vaccine came out which was the late 1700s, there was a picture done by James Gillray in 1804 where you see a disinterested Edward Jenner vaccinating someone who's clearly fearful. She's fearful because as she looks around her you see that people are developing snouts and tails and little cows are growing out of their butts. That was the fear. The fear was that somehow this cowpox would turn you into a cow.
With that came the anti-vaccine league and other anti-vaccine movement so the notion of injecting somebody with a biological that induces fear is not new. You're right. I think that this sort of limped along. For the most part I think the media was responsible, I think generally the public was responsible. There was an event in the early 1980s. There was a film that was made by NBC called DPT: Vaccine Roulette. It was about an hour-long program and it showed a series of parents all of whom said the same thing, "Look, my child got this whooping cough, this pertussis vaccine and now look."
Parent: We had a child up to four months of age that was developing beautifully well. After, a group of doctors conferred and indicated that it was indeed the DPT shots that injured Scott. I went home and cried. Jim cried. We couldn't believe that we could possibly have such a black future.
Paul Offit: You would see children with withered arms and legs drooling, with bicycle helmets on staring up in the sky so clearly developmentally delayed with seizures or attention deficit disorder and other developmental problems. It was a riveting show. It was wrong but nonetheless it was a riveting show. Later there was a researcher named Sam Berkovic in Australia that did study showing that if you actually looked at those children they had something called Dravet Syndrome which is a sodium channel transport defect that you're born with so the vaccine didn't cause it. Nonetheless, it gave birth to the notion that the whole pertussis or whooping cough vaccine could cause harm and with that there was enormous litigation.
Parent: This is for sure. The whooping cough or pertussis vaccine is the most unstable, least reliable vaccine we give our children.
Paul Offit: You went from basically 27 vaccine makers in 1955 to 18 vaccine makers in 1980 before this piece came out in 1982 to basically 4 vaccine makers today. Vaccine makers abandoned the industry because of a flood of litigation. That was the birth ultimately of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act to some extent to try and protect vaccine makers through the vaccine injury compensation program. That was really the main push of then. Then in the late 1990s, 1998 when Andrew Wakefield published his paper claiming that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine cause autism which was really just a case series of eight children who got a vaccine then developed autism which is in no sense a proof. He was very charismatic, very well spoken.
Andrew Wakefield: There is sufficient anxiety in my own mind that it would be sensible to divide them into separate doses. That is give them individually as measles vaccine, mumps vaccine and rubella vaccine until this issue has been resolved.
Paul Offit: Immunization rates in England plummeted and there were hundreds of hospitalizations and thousands of cases and four deaths arguably caused by that paper.
Brandy Zadrozny: In this BBC documentary journalist Brian Deer explains how he debunked Andrew Wakefield's claims.
Brian Deer: It turned out that he'd been hired two years before that paper was published by a firm of lawyers expressly to make these allegations. In fact, more recently I've discovered where he admits that the lawyers actually asked him to write it. The paper itself was funded and his research was funded by a British government fund set up to cover litigation for parents who didn't have enough money to sue themselves.
Brandy Zadrozny: Let's go back to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. He's not a real contender right now, but thought experiment, what are the dangers of a candidate like him being elected?
Paul Offit: Right, you could actually go back to Trump's election. When Trump was elected he, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., met with Trump because Kennedy, Jr. was interested in heading a group something like the Center for Scientific Integrity and Vaccine Safety. He wanted to head that group. That was dangerous. If were that true, I think that vaccines and the perception of vaccines would have taken a major hit. Fortunately, that never happened. Were he to become president I am sure he would do everything he could to basically dismantle the expertise in the Food and Drug Administration, dismantle the expertise in the CDC and as well as state or local health agencies because those groups are telling him things he doesn't want to hear.
Brandy Zadrozny: What does that look like when he dismantles these organizations?
Paul Offit: Then we could go back to where we were where diphtheria was the most common killer of teenagers caused by essentially strangulation as that thick membrane formed at the back of your throat or polio which caused upwards of 50,000 cases of paralysis a year and 1,500 deaths or whooping cough would kill 8,000 children a year or measles would caused hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and up to 500 or more deaths per year. Then we would go back to start to approach those numbers and once again then we would realize the importance of vaccines. That may be what it takes. I think vaccines largely have been a victim of their own success.
I think people don't realize what vaccines have done and maybe the only way to get people to realize it is to see these diseases come back. I hope that's not true. I was fortunate enough to know a man named Maurice Hilleman who I think in many ways was the father of modern vaccines. He did the primary research or development on 9 of the 14 vaccines that we give to infants. He passed away in 2005 but in his dying days I was able to interview him, and I asked him that question because that's when you were starting to see pushback with the MMR causes autism story, you were starting to see measles cases again.
I said to him, "Is there any way we can educate people away from this so that children don't have to suffer in order for us to realize how important vaccines are?" He spent a long time answering that question. He looked out of the windows behind him over this wintry landscape in suburban Philadelphia and then he looked back to me and he said, "No. I think that's what it's going to take." Here this man who devoted his life to trying to prevent children from suffering and be hospitalized and being permanently harmed and dying realize that in many ways his enormous amount of work was essentially really hurt by just the inability of people to understand what vaccines can and can't do. I think it's invariably the children who suffer our ignorance, the most vulnerable among us.
Brandy Zadrozny: Paul Offit is the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine. Thanks so much, Paul.
Paul Offit: Thank you, Brandy.
Brandy Zadrozny: That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang, and Suzanne Gaber with help from Shaan Merchant. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Josh Hahn. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Brandy Zadrozny. Till next time.
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