BROOKE GLADSTONE Election nightmare scenarios abound out of perhaps an over abundance of caution.
WALTER SHAPIRO I do think the idea that we may not know the results of the election until December are a bit apocalyptic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. If and when Election Day chaos breaks out on social media, expect a mess of our own making.
RENEE DIRESTA Foreign trolls are possibly going to be in there, but ultimately, there's going to be a lot of legitimate voices just asking questions are flooding the zone with kind of wild claims.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, an Electoral College fiasco well before all our lifetimes that almost led to a second civil war.
ED KILGORE Democrats viewed this as a clear effort by Republicans to steal an election that they had won. And again, the popular vote argument loomed large.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. We’ve noticed that media narratives that bubble up on election night keep bubbling - even after the sun rises on a new day. Here's Democratic strategist James Carville on midterm election night, 2018.
JAMES CARVILLE Tonight, there was some hope that a Democrats would have a wave election. It's not going to be a wave election. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Republican politicians and pundits ran with the "no blue wave" narrative. Even though late counted ballots delivered big wins for Democrats in the following days and weeks. They turned out huge numbers, even though they didn't win the Senate. Now, two months ahead of Election Day, we see a fixation on one particularly vivid democratic doomsday scenario, a kind of counterpoint to the blue wave that has been dubbed the "red mirage." Here's Josh Mendelsohn, CEO of Hawkfish, a political data firm.
JOSH MENDELSOHN We've seen the data that twice as many voters intend to cast a ballot by now than ever before. They are disproportionately Joe Biden supporters. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mendelsohn spoke with Axios on HBO last month.
JOSH MENDELSOHN It's going to take a while. It might be weeks. Because absentee ballots inevitably are harder and slower to count. When you have those prototypical cable news talking head moments of saying, well, you know, here's what we're seeing and this is what it looks like, it's going to show Donald Trump in the lead in a lot of key places on election night. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The president could then prematurely declare he'd won the election, if at that moment, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida appear red, and then claim fraud if and when he loses.
WALTER SHAPIRO This assumes that the networks will award states based on day of the election voting. That would be grotesquely irresponsible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Walter Shapiro is a fellow at the Brennan Center who is covering the 2020 campaign for the New Republic.
WALTER SHAPIRO They will hesitate to call any state if there's a significant proportion of votes, particularly different kinds of voters, out. Instead of having a red mirage, what one might have is a white whale of an election where half the states are in white because they haven't been called. Actually, some important states have procedures to start counting absentee ballots well before Election Day. Florida starts counting absentee ballots 21 days before the election. They have unbelievably close elections, but they're very good at counting the ballots. Another swing state that is used to mail ballots and will also start counting early is Arizona. If, for example, you find out at midnight that Joe Biden has won Florida and won Arizona, which is not an unlikely contingent, say Donald Trump's path to 270 electoral votes will be very narrow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you don't buy the "red mirage" scenario?
WALTER SHAPIRO If the networks choose to act irresponsibly and in opposition to all statistical good sense - it is possible - but I just don't think it's terribly likely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, Ben Smith, media columnist for The New York Times, wrote that he was struck by the blithe confidence of some top TV managers and hosts who said they'd handled complex elections before and could do so again. They know what the public wants - certainty. Even if it's not available, it can be manufactured.
WALTER SHAPIRO Let us merely remember a very pivotal election in my life, because I'm working for Jimmy Carter. Watching the Carter vs. Ford election, which was not called until four or five in the morning. So, I mean, it's not as if networks routinely say, OK, 10:30, ratings are beginning to slip. We have to call this election. Networks have been actually pretty responsible about calling states. There's also the principle that journalists should not hide things that they know. And what we're going to have all through the night are these very sophisticated data analysis sites like Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, another very good site done by The Economist, and other election modelers who will be putting this information into their own models based on what returns we do have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're suggesting then that we may have results that will allow the analysts and commentators to jawbone for the evening. You do sound a little like the overconfident TV types that Ben Smith wrote about, though. I mean, he quotes Brandon Finnigan, the founder of Decision Desk HQ, which delivers election results to media outlets, and he said the confused responses from state election officials were causing, quote, the nerds to freak out.
WALTER SHAPIRO Please, I'm not Pollyanna, but I do think the idea that we may not know the results of the election until December are a bit apocalyptic. I'm not saying in Donald Trump's America any of this can't happen here. In 2004, 2008, 2012, there was endless speculation about what would happen to the presidential election with the October surprise, which would be a 9/11 like terrorist attack. Thank God it never happened, but I cite this only because we are not unused to popular apocalyptic scenarios in advance of the 21st century election. And again, I have been impressed by the conservatism of the actual people who make the calls for the TV networks. On Fox News, of all places Megyn Kelly led a very skeptical Karl Rove down many corridors of the Fox News headquarters to their election calling room to convince him that Fox News was right in calling Ohio and the election for Obama, not Romney, in 2012.
MEGYN KELLY They're way down the hall, so we'll do a little interrogation and see if they stand by their call, notwithstanding the doubts that Karl Rove has attempted to place. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The analysts working below, were like moles peering into the sunlight when she invaded.
WALTER SHAPIRO But it was also a wonderful vindication of the data analysts, many of whom are pollsters and other things in civilian life, coming in and priding themselves. I'm doing the best job possible in calling states on election night. We don't know what election night is going to be, but we are going to know an awful lot more about who is likely to be the next president.
BROOKE GLADSTONE "We don't know" that would be the bit of advice that you've offered TV coverage on election night. Embrace a phrase spoken so rarely on TV: "I don't know."
WALTER SHAPIRO Back in the days when George Carlin was a leading comic, he had the seven words you can't say on TV. We have now whittled it down to three words - "I don't know." But election night should be a night for modesty about information. If I had a single wish, it is that the networks, in showing any state on the big map - not calling it, just showing the returns from, say, Wisconsin - do an estimate of what percentage of the vote we are seeing on the screen. One of the most misleading things that the networks and places like The New York Times have done traditionally is show what percentage of precincts are reporting. Those, of course, are only the people who voted in person. And if you have a dramatic change in the numbers after the networks show 99 percent of the precincts reporting - yes, of course, it feeds conspiracy theories. But the networks and the polling operations and states have a pretty good way of knowing by six, six p.m. on election night, what turnout was in a key state. And if the turnout was 2.3 million and you only have eight hundred thousand votes cast on the screen, you should have a big chyron that says only 34 percent of the estimated vote is being shown here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Several outlets, Reuters, CBS, others have already unofficially been using the term election week - or maybe they should go with it election month. Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post recently argued that the press needs to curb expectations for November 3rd, starting now.
WALTER SHAPIRO OK, I have the deepest respect for Margaret Sullivan. I hope I'm not violating this by saying that we will know things on election night, in all likelihood, but yes, might be a rather dramatic patriotic pageant. "Tune in Thursday for the latest installment of slow count."
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have another bit of advice, which I'm guessing will be taken up by absolutely no one. You urged the networks not to report everything that the president says that night.
WALTER SHAPIRO Oof, that seems even less likely than getting rid of panels on election night.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, so why don't you seem as frightened about election night as so many of our colleagues in the media?
WALTER SHAPIRO Brooke, I can give you four reasons. Number one, I may be the cockeyed optimist [chuckles]. Number two, thinking that things will go remotely normally does seem the interesting contrarian position right now.
WALTER SHAPIRO Number three, I do remember all the apocalyptic speculation around other topics that the press used to deal with. And number four, I think talking about this now will change behavior, which will lessen the problems.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how are you going to be watching election night?
WALTER SHAPIRO I'm going to be sitting in front of a TV set while on my computer. I have about 923 browser links open as I switch from Decision Desk HQ to The Washington Post to Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight to The Economist's model crazily. It is not a pretty thing to watch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet I wish I could see it. Thank you so much.
WALTER SHAPIRO Oh, it's been fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Walter Shapiro is a fellow at the Brennan Center who is covering the 2020 campaign for the New Republic. This is the 11th presidential campaign he's covered.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, two examples of elections that went off the rails.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. While we all fret over the prospect of a 2020 election night going off the rails, perhaps it helps to remember that we had a dry run for that very scenario during a very long night in February.
NEWS REPORT Long before Iowa voters gathered at nearly seventeen hundred caucuses, precinct captains and caucus organizers in the Iowa City area knew of problems with their new app that was supposed to tabulate results like a fancy calculator. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT That irregularity linked to this caucus app made by developer Shadow Inc. A for profit development company based in Washington, D.C. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Many of the people working at caucuses said they couldn't log into the app and that the app had problems responding to the server, sending data back and forth. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Early on, some liberals worried it was Russian hackers. Elsewhere on the left, there were suspicions that intraparty strife caused the caucus malfunction.
NEWS REPORT There is the appearance of a huge conflict of interest when it comes to the very individuals who designed this app. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT These are mostly folks from the Hillary Clinton campaign, people who were staffers for her in 2016, who left and formed these super PACs or dark money groups. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Meanwhile, media figures on the right sniffed Dems in disarray and joined in. Fox's Lou Dobbs repeated the caucus night theory of anti-Bernie Sanders collusion.
LOU DOBBS Iowa Democrats teamed up with the Defending Digital Democracy Group at Harvard to run a drill of what they call worst case scenarios. The assortment of radical Dem characters around that famous stress test includes Defending Digital Democracy founder Robby Mook. You remember him, former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton back in 2016. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Some of this speculation circulated on news media, a lot more originated on social media. As Stanford Internet Observatory research manager Rene DiResta noted in the aftermath, many of those posting and reposting had forgotten the maxim Hanlon's razor, which states that one should never attribute to malice, that which is adequately explained by incompetence. Now, as the general election rolls in on a tide of both malice and incompetence, DiResta worries that the social media citizenry is in for yet another election nightmare of our own making. Rene, welcome to On the Media.
RENEE DIRESTA Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD As an expert in Russia's 2016 social media sabotage, computational propaganda I think it's called these days, you know about the explosive mixture of social media algorithms, foreign actors and gullible or hyper-partisan domestic spreaders of lies. So what is your most frightful 2020 election chaos scenario?
RENEE DIRESTA The flood the zone threat. Right. The deluge. Too many misleading videos, wild claims, viral trends for anyone to know what's real. I think a lot of that is actually going to come out of legitimate domestic folks. You know, blue check influencers, large media accounts, foreign trolls are possibly going to be in there, but ultimately, there’s going to be a lot of legitimate voices just asking questions are flooding the zone with kind of wild claims, making it very hard for people to know what's real.
BOB GARFIELD Blue check influencers verified accounts where the speaker is presumed not to be passing along bad dope.
RENEE DIRESTA Yeah, exactly. I mean, there's a sense of trust when we see these blue check accounts. There's a sense that this is somebody who's been verified. And even though technically that verification only means that, you know, Twitter's confirmed that you are the person you say you are. That's kind of come to have an additional degree of clout. Right. People see it as someone who knows what they're talking about.
BOB GARFIELD This Hanlon's razor thing in your New York Times piece this week, you talked about that phenomenon popping up in 2016 over malfunctioning voting machines - which was inflated into what?
RENEE DIRESTA You know, at any election, some electronic voting machines somewhere there's going to be some miscalibration and the touch screen is going to go haywire. In 2016, people had taken a video of them trying to tap on the screen for President Trump and they kept highlighting Secretary Clinton instead. The Internet research agency -.
BOB GARFIELD - The Russian shop that did all the mischief.
RENEE DIRESTA Right. They had these troll accounts amplifying all of these videos, laying the groundwork to say that Secretary Clinton's team or people or, you know, the cabal had passed the machines so that they were going to defer votes away from President Trump.
BOB GARFIELD Even the blue checks themselves are not inoculation against bad information.
RENEE DIRESTA The checks are human, too. You know, a situation happens, people are trying to figure out what actually occurred. Even if there's videos, it still becomes kind of a Rorschach test, right, of what do you see in that video? Nobody's going to sit down, sit back, wait for the full story to reveal itself. That's not what we do in the age of the immediate. People are going to be trying to get their commentary out there as quickly as possible, particularly on platforms like Twitter. Then things are going to hop to Facebook and go viral there as well. That's how narratives spread today.
BOB GARFIELD Now, I want to go back to Iowa because the misinformation sprung mainly from the political left, magical thinking and bespoke reality and Rorschach tests and the psychology of glomming on to anything that validates your own worldview is not limited to alt-right provocateurs or, you know, MAGA Trump Thumper's. It reminds me of the now debunked stolen mailbox graveyard story that was spread by progressives looking for smoking guns of U.S. Postal Service vote suppression.
RENEE DIRESTA Right. And that's another example where, you know, there's a photograph. Maybe there's a caption that's somewhat misleading or even one of the things that we see as old stories, a kind of rise up of a graveyard and are kind of given new life. But it is very much a bipartisan problem. Because it's not a political issue, it's just a human psychology issue. It's a this is a story that confirms my biases, my inclination that those other people over there are the worst people ever. And here's a meme or a photograph or a snippet of video that confirms that.
BOB GARFIELD We have witnessed years of lip service amid inaction and sometimes an obstruction by Facebook, especially, and Twitter. You as a researcher have to work with these platforms to get access to your raw data. First of all, are you getting what you need from them? Are they genuinely trying to protect society's worldwide from menace? Or do you think that their corrective steps are just window dressing to keep their profit engines running full bore?
RENEE DIRESTA Yes, they are doing a lot more cooperation now than there was in 2016. 2016, there is really nothing. And 2017, it was a bit kind of hostile as we were all kind of pleading for the release of data. Now we're more at a point where there are teams of researchers that will work alongside the platforms. So, for example, last week Facebook announced a takedown of three different operations, one in Pakistan, one the Internet Research Agency targeting the U.S. And then the third was an interesting case. It was a U.S. public relations firm operating in Bolivia and Venezuela. Facebook's integrity teams identified those operations, and interestingly, the Internet research agency one came from a tip from the FBI. So that's an example of government working alongside platforms in that particular case. The takedown that Facebook does, the data sets are then made available to certain researchers in advance. My team at Stanford looked at the Bolivia one and at the Pakistan one, and we communicate back to them. You know, if we see something where we say, hey, I think that you may be missed these accounts or, hey, these accounts are included, but we don't understand why. Maybe you want to double check that we do this with Twitter as well. That collaborative process allows us to have a better understanding of what's happening. And also then we put out our independent assessment to the public and we'll communicate with the media as well on what we're seeing and contextualize it with other operations that we've seen in the past. Media, government, independent researchers, sometimes civil society and platforms are all communicating about the information that they have and they're seeing.
BOB GARFIELD Till now, I think I've asked two reasonable and fair questions. Permit me to ask you an unfair question.
BOB GARFIELD You've explained how misinformation thrives on our assumptions, that our foes are capable of the worst possible things. Now, what if, what if, on Election Day and thereafter, what if the foes of enfranchisement and liberal democracy ARE doing the worst possible things? What if your social media nightmares come true, in part because our in real life nightmares do too?
RENEE DIRESTA Yeah. Ultimately, what we are trying to do is not only debunk social media rumors, it's to ensure that what is actually happening is not covered up in that deluge of nonsense. Right. You do want to clear the deluge that people have an understanding of what actually happened in the world. I think that's ultimately the goal. It's not to just be fact checkers and debunkers. It's to identify if manipulation is occurring. It's to ensure that those whose job it is to investigate it are able to do that job as effectively as possible without being bogged down with misleading leads. One example that I'll point to historically of social media being used to cover up real atrocities. There's two cases. The first is MH 17, when the Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down. The social media manipulation angle was a cover up to distract from culpability and to try to derail both the public sentiment and also the appetite for investigations into what had actually happened there. And then the second would be the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, again, where you see an increasing number of accounts, just try to flood the zone with alternative explanations for what occurred to derail the actual process of investigating what had happened. You want that investigation to happen and you also want people to trust the results of the investigation. If people have been fed a whole pile of misleading stories, the truth is going to seem like just one more among them. That's the real downside to flooding the zone. It makes the truth just one more story.
BOB GARFIELD Renee, thank you so much.
RENEE DIRESTA Thank you. It's great to chat with you.
BOB GARFIELD Rene DiResta is a research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory.
A furious campaign in a highly polarized environment. Parties divided on questions of basic civil rights. Disparity between the popular vote and the Electoral College, and finally, a contested election amid charges of rigging the outcome leading to the threat of political violence, even a second civil war. What a year, 1876 was. If fears of a contested presidential result have you thinking about Bush v. Gore in November 2000, New York Magazine political columnist Ed Kilgore says: "Oh, no, that was nothing." For a real sense of electoral chaos and its damage to freedom. You need to go back a century and a quarter farther to the race between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Ed, welcome to OTM.
ED KILGORE Glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD Before we look at the drama of 1876, let's just speak for a moment about the year 2000. The drama there stemmed from the fact that Bush and Gore, in the decisive swing state of Florida were actually tied - right?
ED KILGORE In terms of actually tabulated votes. It was pretty much a tie, hence the obsession with recounts. It just happened to be that incredibly rare election where in the key state, the vote was tied.
BOB GARFIELD Very different in Hayes versus the Democrat Tilden. Just to contextualize, though, for most of the 19th century, the Republicans were the mainly northern antislavery party and the Democrats pro-slavery and mainly Southern. And this race hinged on racial justice in post civil war America. How so?
ED KILGORE Military reconstruction of the South had pretty much peaked under the incumbent president, Ulysses S. Grant, who was in his second term in 1876. And a big, overwhelming question between the two parties was whether further federal efforts to guarantee black political rights, including voting rights, should continue or end.
BOB GARFIELD And passions ran high. In 2000, Bush v. Gore attracted just a smidge over 50 percent of the eligible voters, and Hayes v Tilden?
ED KILGORE 82 percent turnout, which is the highest in American history.
BOB GARFIELD OK, so it's election night. It looks like Tilden had handily prevailed in the popular vote. He won by four percentage points, by comparison, Hillary Clinton out-polled Trump by two percentage points in the popular vote, but then all hell broke loose. What changed?
ED KILGORE Well, on election night, as you indicated, it looked like Tilden had won, but he was one electoral vote shy of a majority. And returns weren't complete from three southern states that were very closely contested - Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana and also from Oregon. And on election night, someone - it's kind of disputed who it was - at the Republican national headquarters noticed that if all four of those states held for Hayes, he'd win by one electoral vote. So telegraphs were sent out to the Republican parties in those four states, urging them to stand fast. And that became part of sort of a Democratic conspiracy theory as to why Tilden wasn't elected.
BOB GARFIELD You know, I'm puzzled that three of those states were southern states and they were so close. Was that because of the new black vote?
ED KILGORE Well, yes. I mean, four years after the Civil War, much of the ex-confederate south was under military occupation by the federal government, insisting on black voting rights. By 1876, all but three Southern states, though, had finally transitioned from reconstruction to what the locals called redemption, which meant a restoration of white supremacy. Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were the last states where there were federal troops present during the election. So they were kind of the last of the reconstruction states.
BOB GARFIELD And what was done to try to sort this all out?
ED KILGORE Part of the problem was the Constitution was, and is, maddeningly vague about Electoral College disputes. It stipulates that electoral votes should be open and read by the president of the U.S. Senate, which is typically the vice president and then certified by all of Congress. And then you have an inauguration. But in all four of those states, we're talking about the three in the south and in Oregon. You had competing slates of electors being sent in to Washington. So the big question was, which state do you choose as authentic? And obviously, there were powerful partisan differences on that question and fear that a new civil war could break out if one party or the other imposed its will in this uncertain situation.
BOB GARFIELD OK, talk of civil war breaking out, how serious was that threat?
ED KILGORE Pretty serious. You have to remember that this was barely over a decade after the actual civil war had ended. The two parties were very much aligned with the Republicans, with the union cause, and frankly, the Democratic Party was dominated by the ex-Confederate South. And Democrats had been out of power since the 1850s, and they viewed this as a clear effort by Republicans to steal an election that they had won. And again, the popular vote argument loomed large. So there was talk of hundreds of thousands of Democrats marching on Washington to vindicate Tilden's victory. At the same time, there was violence still going on in these southern states where there was a last ditch battle for control of state governments, particularly in South Carolina, which had a horrible racial massacre in that election year. Basically, white terrorists attacking black militia, killing hundreds of them. So it was pretty tense time.
BOB GARFIELD And this went on not for days or weeks, but for months until there was a at least nominally bipartisan commission formed to try to break the stalemate.
ED KILGORE The Republicans controlled the Senate and the Democrats controlled the House. So you had a prospect of the vice president who was a Republican, you know, announcing one slate of victors, and the House was threatening to block that. Neither side really wanted another civil war, so they created an electoral commission designed to be perfectly balanced by party with the tie breaking vote, being Supreme Court Justice David Davis, who is perceived as an independent. But that didn't work. Democrats in Illinois, appointed Davis to a U.S. Senate seat and he promptly resigned from the commission.
BOB GARFIELD They tried to essentially bribe him with the Senate seat.
ED KILGORE So it backfired horribly. And in fact, his replacement on the commission was a Republican appointed Supreme Court justice who proceeded to produce an eight to seven vote for Hayes in all four contested states, giving him the Electoral College about one vote.
BOB GARFIELD And why did that not settle the issue then and there?
ED KILGORE This commission was of questionable constitutional provenance to begin with and again, to Democrats, it appeared that a partisan process had robbed their candidate of his election. So threats of violence continued. And I think a lot of Democrats in particular side is an opportunity to get something more valuable than four years of the presidency by agreeing to Hayes' inauguration.
BOB GARFIELD All right. Hold that thought, because I just want to restate the stakes here. The Republican Party knew that if Tilden were to assume the presidency, the postwar reconstruction that had given freed slaves and other blacks voting rights and something approaching full citizenship would immediately be scuttled, and southern white supremacy be restored. They were determined not to let that happen. So they were of a mind to broker a compromise. What did that compromise look like?
ED KILGORE There are different accounts of what all was agreed to. But the guts of it was clearly that the Hayes administration would remove federal troops from the South entirely and restore home rule. And Democrats agreed to respect basic black voting rights and equal citizenship in the South. Once they had redeemed the entire region.
BOB GARFIELD So Hayes was declared the winner, but a pyrrhic victory, if ever there was one. If the goal of installing Hayes was preserving black civil rights, the promises the Democrats proved to be hollow and the compromise was catastrophic. Was it not?
ED KILGORE Yes. Now, there's quite a bit of evidence that Hayes himself was not firmly committed to reconstruction, but it certainly felt like a betrayal to the Southern Republicans that had battled for so many years to achieve full rights and legitimacy. It took a while for redemption to complete its action in the South and for black citizens to be completely disenfranchised. But it certainly began with the compromise of 1877.
BOB GARFIELD All right. So once all the hubbub was over and done with, the government did a postmortem of the fiasco and Congress responded by passing a statute to make future contentious elections easier to navigate. What did that law lay out?
ED KILGORE Yeah. The law, which was passed in 1977, stipulated that the chief executive of any given state had the exclusive right to certify and send Electoral College slates to Washington. So in theory, you wouldn't have these competing slates coming from a disputed state. It's important to understand that that statute has never been challenged in court and is arguably unconstitutional.
BOB GARFIELD Is there anything, anything at all from the 1876 situation and what flowed from it that gives you any hope that some sense of order can flow from the chaos?
ED KILGORE Well, in the end, regardless of what you think of the Compromise of 1877, and I don’t think much of it, the two parties did put aside the possibility of violent war and achieve a solution that was not in any way laid out for them. The whole commission was entirely the creation of the parties at that time. Hopefully, if we get into a similar situation this year, I hate to use this loaded word, but the more respectable elements of both parties will shrink back from the kind of popular crisis that quickly developed from a legal crisis over the outcome of this election. Course, the other thing that could happen would be a landslide victory for either candidate. That would make the outcome, the election too clear to be contradicted.
BOB GARFIELD Ed, thank you so much.
ED KILGORE Anytime.
BOB GARFIELD Ed Kilgore writes for New York magazine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, nothing these days is untouched by politics, even saving children.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Cancel Netflix is trending on Twitter. The trigger, the release of a French film called Cuties about a group of tweens who form a dance crew. There is some twerking and other adult dance moves leading to the charge that the film sexualizes his children. The tweets, citing the hashtag, also lists tags like "PedoHollywood" and "DemsSupportPedophiles", but mostly its "SavetheChildren." However, rather than referring to the century old charity that actually saves children, this refers to a surging obsession and delusion of QAnon. This summer, QAnon followers held Save the Children rallies all over the country.
NEWS REPORT Wherever there are people, there's the potential for human trafficking, according to the Department of Homeland Security [END CLIP].
NEWS REPORT Called Operation Wake, Humanity held signs and chanted "Save Our Children" to passing cars from the parking lot of the old Southside KMART. [END REPORT].
PROTESTOR I'm really impressed with all these people out here. They are for #SavetheChildren! [END CLIP].
BRANDY ZADROZNY You would see men, women, children, old, young carrying these signs. They're dotted with handprints that are stained blood red.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brandy Zadrozny, is an investigative reporter for NBC News who follows QAnon.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Often they have shirts that say, I'm not for sale on the kids and they're shouting: "Save the children", "Save the Children". It's a stirring scene.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You spoke to a Syracuse professor, Whitney Phillips, who wrote You Are Here, a field guide for navigating polarized speech, conspiracy theories and our polluted media landscape. She says it's really not about child protection, at least it isn't about child protection for the organizers of these events. She says this is about a conspiracy theory that's trying to couch itself in other terms to attract more people to the cause.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Yeah. So this is called information laundering. Extremist groups will try to take the meat of their message and wash it out in a way where it's attractive to people who aren't part of their ingroup. Right. So who in their right minds would say, oh, no, no, I'm I'm not against child trafficking. And so when she says it's about a conspiracy theory, you know, couching itself in other terms, the danger of this sort of thing can really be seen when you think about the satanic panic of the 80s.
NEWS REPORTER Satanic activity has become widespread throughout Louisiana. Father Joe Brennan has been assigned by the Catholic Church to deal with the problem.
FATHER JOE BRENANN When these children go through this horrendous experience of cold initiation where they have to drink animal blood, where they have to drink their own urine through defecation. This is such a traumatic... [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY This mass hysteria over the perceived ritual of abuse of children led to all these false accusations where parents and daycare workers were operating these sex abuse rings, and it didn't all happen at once. It started in evangelical circles and it very specifically used the term satanic abuse. And then slowly, the Satan part sort of got washed away. And then Child Protective Services, local media, law enforcement, they all sort of entered the conversation and entered this cause. It changed to multi offender child abuse. That language of Satanism had to go away. And that's what we're seeing here. We're seeing the language, the explicit language of QAnon go away. Instead, we're seeing it in tiny drips on signs. Stuff that like normal people, might not understand. It softens their message and it makes it palatable to a wider audience. And it gets them on TV.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what is really going on? Is it recruitment?
BRANDY ZADROZNY It's definitely recruitment. QAnon believers want to amass an army of people just like them who are all in the fight. QAnon at its core, is this belief in good versus evil, right versus wrong of biblical proportions. And so almost like evangelical Christianity, they are winning souls. They call it red pilling. If you're in these groups, which I am, it's one of the dominant conversations. How can I red pill my husband? How can I red pill my neighbor? Often the answer is, you know, a YouTube video or have them join this Facebook group. In the most recent groups that formed around Save the Children, which are not labeled QAnon groups, they're labeled Save the Children groups, but they're primarily QAnon focused. You'll see that the people who have organized these groups are major QAnon believers. They post videos, they say, here's what you need to know. And there are people that are just have never been in these groups in their lives saying, "oh my God, I never knew". You can see the recruitment, you can see the red pilling, and it's incredibly effective.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Obviously, QAnon thrives on the Internet and serves its own media to its own audience. But you are particularly concerned when local journalists in real life don't see them for who they are.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I feel protective of fellow journalists, especially ones who are local and have to, you know, write a news story or get a news story on the air every day and maybe don't have time to investigate each one of the organizers Facebook pages to see what they really may believe. I don't want them to be duped, and if they're duped, I don't want them to aid in the media strategy of a dangerous online call. You know, Jay Rosen from NYU had a thread on Twitter where he compiled local TV reports on the coverage and it was just not great.
NEWS REPORTER Two events with one common goal of ending this modern slavery. The first will be in Folie at Heritage Park beginning at 10:00 a.m., handing out fliers with information on how to help local organizations.
LOCAL So many people gather up and show this is a big, big concern of ours. It will make progress happen.
NEWS REPORTER The second is happening in Mobile at 3:00 p.m. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY QAnon has a hashtag that's really popular, and it's "WeAreTheMediaNow" and they're not wrong. They've been very good for years at hijacking hashtags, hijacking trending topics, getting things into the national conversation through the President's Twitter account. A QAnon proponent is headed for the halls of Congress. They've done a great job already. I don't think that local or national media needs to help them anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You reported on how the hashtag "SavetheChildren" was a rallying cry, but then Facebook briefly disabled it with a warning that it went against community standards. What standards?
BRANDY ZADROZNY I think it was inciting violence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE SavetheChildren?
BRANDY ZADROZNY Well, so Facebook quickly and rightly saw that something was happening with this hashtag. It was going off. They said, whoa, hold up, let's look at this for a second. And I don't want to send people to bad places, but you can look at the "SavetheChildren" hashtag right now on Facebook. What you see is basically a collection curated by Facebook of the most heinous, terrifying child trafficking lies. Conspiracy is posted by QAnon adherents. So they've hijacked that and they continue to do so. It's unclear why they took a quick stand. I think it was less than a whole day they removed the hashtag. But when they did that, what it did was sort of pour gasoline on the QAnon crowd. You know, social media is one of the QAnon conspiracy's enemies. So then they changed the hashtag to "SaveOurChildren" and then "SaveThe Kids" they were gonna get it going again. And then Facebook seemingly rewarded them by reinstating the hashtag. And now it's worse than ever. So I don't understand their thinking. I never do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE My understanding is that, QAnon, after realizing that "Save The Children", which is the name of a humanitarian organization that was founded in 1919 that Save These Children is funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. That's when QAnon changed to "SaveOurChildren". Gates has been a constant target of QAnon since the coronavirus pandemic began, and I thought it was kind of funny. QAnon types who believe the Democratic Party has child sex rings and that Donald Trump is the savior, and whose fantasies are peopled with Satanists and cannibals. That QAnon didn't want their movement to be sullied by associations with Bill Gates?
BRANDY ZADROZNY It's so silly, but yes. The thinking of some of them was that since the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had contributed somewhat to the humanitarian effort, Save the Children, that they shouldn't use that hashtag for their organization anymore because that would somehow muddy their rich and righteous cause. So they moved to "SaveOurChildren". Some thought that was still too close, so they moved to "SaveTheKids". There's now a dozen different hashtags. Which is hard. There's no love lost between me and Facebook, but it is hard for them to stay on top of this movement that is so fast moving, so nonsensical, that follows so many sort of arbitrary ingroup rules that only they or, you know, researchers crazy enough to follow this stuff, really understand. So I don't totally fault them for not being able to get a handle on this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've immersed yourself, Brandy, in QAnon. You interact with its adherents, I'm guessing on a daily basis. What have those interactions been like?
BRANDY ZADROZNY If I'm being really honest, I feel scared a lot. They claim in the open to be there to save the children or they're patriots or they're just evangelicals who love Donald Trump. There's a whole spectrum of QAnon people. But when you get into their private groups, it's just post after post wishing mass murder on, you know, their political enemies or members of the media, to which I belong. I talked with this guy, Scotty, the kid and activist, conspiracy theorist. And he has a kid and I have three children. And at the end of our conversation, you know, I said tomorrow after I report this, you're gonna call me a pedophile and all the people on your page are gonna call me a pedophile. And I can't have a public Instagram page because you guys send me pictures of my own kids. It's very upsetting. So could you not do that tomorrow? And he said I want to do that. And he said, and I don't think you're a pedophile, but your bosses. It's like, what do you do? There's no - you want to think that you can make a human connection, And I think it's beyond that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You also spoke with advocates for trafficking survivors. I'm just wondering what the uninvited alliance of QAnon with their cause has meant for them.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Donations have gone through the roof. But they're inundated with phone calls and messages, private and to the pages of their organizations, pointing to all these conspiracy theories and YouTube videos about these Satan cabals. It's not helpful, right. And because every second you have to look at those or deal with those messages, then that's taking away your resources from actually helping victims of child sexual abuse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhmm.
BRANDY ZADROZNY One of the groups talk to us about how she had to spend so much time dealing with tips about the Wayfair conspiracy, which was this conspiracy that the furniture seller Wayfair was hiding its child sex trafficking rings behind really high priced cabinets. These were industrial cabinets that had the wrong picture on it that one person found in Wayfair and attributed and had girls' names on it, like, you know, like you go to IKEA and you have the BILLI bookshelf. And they found a missing persons ad with a girl with that same name and. Oh, click. They found it. They had unlocked the conspiracy. And that's back to the messaging - that's why they're so good. That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard of in my life. Like, who would believe that? It makes no sense. But these are thousands of tips that she had to, you know, look at. They had to put out a statement about. Wayfair, had to put out a statement. It was crazy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when a consumer of the local news or somebody walking down Main Street gets a view of these marches, what should they look for? What should they understand?
BRANDY ZADROZNY I think what's important for someone on the street who sees a protest like this is to know that not everything is as it seems. To be sort of discerning when you look at the signs that are being held. And if you want to join, I think my advice is the same advice that I'd give to the local news organizations, which is look at their online profiles and see for yourself whether you really agree with what's behind this message, not just a catchy catch phrase like Save the Children that everybody would be behind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brandy, thank you very much.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brandy Zadrozny, is an investigative reporter for NBC News. You can find her reporting on NBCNews(dot)com.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Xandra Ellin, and Eloise Blondiau. And we had more help from Ava Sasani. And our show was edited by...Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.