WATKINS Everybody is marching on the Capitol, all million of us, and we're about two blocks away from it now, and police are doing nothing. They're not even trying to stop us at this point. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE New tape shows insurrectionists using the app Zello to coordinate the riot on the Capitol. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. After years of incitement, Donald Trump has finally been deplatformed, from social media to the world of commerce.
CASEY NEWTON He has lost the ability to sell merchandise through Shopify. He's no longer able to process payments through Stripe. He's even lost access to email tools that he used for fundraising.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus how to build healthier digital spaces by taking lessons from how we design our physical public ones.
ELI PARISER We reserve very little of that space for walking up to strangers and arguing with them about politics. And that's, that's probably good.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. More than a week since the deadly siege on the capital, a series of revelations has shed more light on what happened. As of this writing, we know the identities of roughly 100 of the insurrectionists, including a man whose presence has become emblematic of the intent beyond the siege. His name is Eric Munchel, known mostly as "Zip Tie Guy,".
NEWS REPORT The man in the press gallery with what appears to be zip tie handcuffs, leading to a reasonable conclusion that he was planning on taking hostages or making a citizen's arrests. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Zip ties or more accurately, flex cuffs, hinted at the intention to take hostages, as many in the media noted. Recalling the foiled plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer this fall. Back then, it was seen as a warning of what was to come. Shortly after that story broke, we also issued a warning of sorts; our piece about Zello, a walkie talkie app that's home to militia organizing and recruitment.
MILITIA So what do you got? What kind of experience you got? Military, law enforcement, medical?
RECRUIT 3-1 Bravo, military police.I know a lot about weapons, munitions and a fair amount of gear. [END CLIP]
MILITIA It's like a second job. It's us or tyranny, it's us or failure. It's us or a post-American world. Don't give two sh*ts or a flying f*ck about anybody that's less than 100 percent all the f*ck in. Are you all the f*ck in? Over.
RECRUIT I ain't got nothing holding me back. If it kills me, it kills me. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE These recruitment interviews took place in just one of hundreds of far right channels on Zello, where people often discussed civil war and used coded allusions to toppling the government. The signals were loud and clear, and we hoped that bringing some of these dark conversations to light would induce Zello to do something to stem the flow. To thwart the very kind of rhetoric and organizing that would take place on Zello in the days leading up to the insurrection.
MILITIA January 6, revolution or bust. [END CLIP]
MILITIA That's what the f*ck I got a problem with. How about if all of us stand the f*ck up and take this sh*t back? I got a problem with Patreus not growing a f*ckin set of goddamn nuts. [END CLIP]
MILITIA Once we go operational, this channel will just be for intel gathering and organizing on the back side. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This could have been avoided three months ago as our reporter producer Mica Loewinger was putting the story together, he heard from an employee at Zello who told him that the company already was well aware of what was taking place on its platform.
MICAH LOEWINGER The employee sent us a company wide email from June that detailed some of the militia and white nationalist activity on the app. The employee said that in a subsequent company wide meeting, Zello CEO Bill Moore said, essentially, that because the platform was not legally responsible for any harm caused by those far right groups, it would not kick them off the site. Nor would Zello implement new moderation practices to deter this type of organizing in the future. Zello responded to us, saying that, quote, The employees characterization is inaccurate and misleading. End quote.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In a written statement in October, Moore told us that Zello had implemented several changes to make these militia channels harder, at least for outsiders to find but he said he wouldn't shut them down because he believed it's not the job of a private company to censor private speech, and also because Zello couldn't possibly monitor all the content on its platform anyway. Well, Micah was monitoring the app, and this is what he heard on January 6th.
MILITIA What kind of numbers do we have going into the capital? Any estimates? What percentage of the crowd is going to the capital?
WATKINS One hundred percent. Everybody's marching on the capital. All million of us. It's insane. We're about two blocks away from it now and police are doing nothing. They're not even trying to stop us at this point. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This is a Zello channel that I had running in the background while I was watching the capital riot unfold on TV. But it wasn't until days later that I realized I had captured something quite interesting.
WATKINS Trump's been trying to drain the swamp with a straw. We just brought a shop vac. [END CLIP].
MICAH LOEWINGER That channel was called Stop the Steal, J6. That woman narrating her march towards the capital is a user calling herself "Ohio Regulars, Actual Oath keeper." I've spent the last week trying to figure out who she was and who she was with.
WATKINS We have a good group. We got about 30 or 40 of us. We're sticking together and sticking to the plan.
MILITIA We'll see you soon, Jess. Airborne.
WATKINS Do that, brother. Godspeed and fair winds to us.
MILITIA Amen, sister. stay safe. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Hampton Stall, founder of Militia Watch and I have been in the Zello trenches together for months now, he says this woman's username, I'll say it again, "Ohio Regulars, Actual Oath Keeper", offers some important clues.
HAMPTON STALL It's interesting because Ohio Regulars is an identified militia group. Actual is a term that usually refers to a company leader. So she's referencing that she is in some level of leadership of the Ohio Regulars, and then the Oath Keepers are a pretty radical right wing national militia movement who were founded in 2009 in direct response to Barack Obama winning the 2008 election. They draw very heavily from former soldiers and former police officers and in some cases, active police officers.
MICAH LOEWINGER Oh, so she – interesting. Dude, this might be her!
HAMPTON STALL Send. Send it. Let me see it! Send it in the chat.
MICAH LOEWINGER While we were on a call, I found a profile on Parler, the right wing social media site that seems awfully similar to this woman from Zello. She describes herself as the commanding officer of the Ohio State regulars. She uploaded a picture of herself at the DC event wearing battle rattle and an Oath Keeper patch. She's white and she wears glasses beneath a big combat helmet, and according to her profile, she's a bartender and she blames Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s lock down for hurting her business, but still no name. By the time I found this profile, Parler had already been shut down. Amazon Web Services had stopped hosting the platform because so many of its users had called for the insurrection. But a group of hackers effectively scraped the entire website and uploaded tens of thousands of posts from January 6th to archive(dot)org so that researchers and journalists could sift through all the data.
WATKINS Yeah, we're one block away from the Capitol now. I'm probably going to go silent when I get there because Imma be a little busy.
INFORMANT Hey, my girlfriend is at the Capitol right now and she said that cops are coming in from the right of the building. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The wild thing about listening to an active insurrection on Zello is the group dynamic. While she's working her way through the mob outside the building, she has people in her ear sharing intel from home, cheering her on in real time.
INFORMANT US military news is reporting that the national capital has been breached. That's right, Motherf*cker. This is a can of whoop*ss made in America. Yeah!
MILITIA Witness in history watchdog. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And encouraging her to kidnap politicians.
MILITIA You are executing citizen's arrest. Arrest this assembly. We have probable cause, acts of treason, election fraud. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The woman can be seen in livestream footage taken around this time, showing a line of militia members very deliberately putting the crowd as they approached the doors. Hampton describes the video.
HAMPTON STALL In footage shared by Ford Fischer of News2Share. There is a column of Oath Keepers who are very clearly part of a unit. They march up to the east entrance of the Capitol building just a few minutes before the doors are breached. Ford zooms in on one of the people involved and a patch that he has on his back that says, I don't believe in anything. I'm just here for the violence. And it's next to like an Oath Keeper patch. Like three people back, appears to be the person that we're talking about.
JAKE ZUCKERMAN There's this moment where she makes eye contact with the camera and it was just unmistakably her.
JAKE ZUCKERMAN That's Jake Zuckerman, a reporter with the Ohio Capital Journal. He recognized her face when he came across this exact same footage after receiving a tip on Twitter.
JAKE ZUCKERMAN Some random people of Twitter just started piecing together and Google image searching. And they found my pictures that I had taken from earlier in November and pieced them together.
MICAH LOEWINGER He'd taken the photographs after interviewing the woman and her militia outside the Ohio State House the day Biden's win was announced. But he never caught her name. Internet sleuths, on the other hand, had some theories.
JAKE ZUCKERMAN It just kind of became this game of finding any piece of identifying information and tracking them down. They make me nervous the way they throw these conclusions out there publicly. But, my goodness, are those people pretty good at what they do.
MICAH LOEWINGER Zuckerman eventually called the woman who candidly admitted to storming the Capitol with the Oath Keepers and members of her Ohio militia. But just before we get into that, let's listen to the last time we hear her on Zello.
WATKINS And we are in the mezzanine. We are in the main dome right now. We are rocking it, they're throwing grenades. They're fricking shooting people with paintballs, but we're in here.
MILITIA 1 Be safe. God bless and Godspeed and keep going.
MILITIA 2 Get it Jess, do your sh*t. This is what we've f*ckin lived up for. Everything we f*ckin trained for. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Shortly after that exchange, she deleted her Zello profile, but according to a post on her Parler page, she made it into the Senate as well. So who was this woman?
JAKE ZUCKERMAN Jessica Watkins, she's thirty eight, she was a veteran, she served in Afghanistan and she's a bartender who in late twenty nineteen or early twenty twenty, just formed this Ohio State Regular militia group. They attend protests. They've been all over the place in Columbus, Cleveland, Louisville. And as we learned recently, she made it down to Washington, DC and made it inside the Capitol.
MICAH LOEWINGER Did she say why she broke into the Capitol?
JAKE ZUCKERMAN The way she described it, she wanted to protect people, was the phrase she used. And if there are injuries, tend to those injuries with her medic training. To stop the destruction of property or to stop people from fighting with police, I think it's important to take that with a grain of salt, because this is a person who drove across state lines and joined this mob break in of the Capitol or whatever language you want to use, but in her telling of events, she's almost like a police force in a way or some kind of first responder unit.
MICAH LOEWINGER So I sent you some of the Zello clips. Did the recordings that I sent you sound like the same woman that you interviewed?
JAKE ZUCKERMAN To me after speaking to her at length on the phone and meeting her once, it really did sound like a match.
MICAH LOEWINGER Jessica Watkins could not be reached for comment. And I want to clarify a couple of things really quick. Since Zuckerman hadn't heard these tapes before he interviewed her, he couldn't ask her about some of the things she'd said, like, quote, sticking to the plan or the fact that she was in a group of 30 to 40 people or that she had allegedly trained for this moment. There's a lot we still don't know about Watkins and how Zello factored into the siege. But Hampton and I found another instance of someone on Zello telling their capital break-in story.
Q Hi, so I was there. Inside, for a bit there. Someone broke into the door and opened it, and we had a lot of people going inside. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This is a guy going by the username Q, which is probably a reference to QAnon.
Q So, yeah, we were there for a bit, people were going into the two rooms, left and right that were right by the door, some sort of Congress rooms or whatever. We were going in there, looking at stuff. I made sure people didn't take anything, steal anything - I was like don’t steal stuff - we're not Antifa. People were doing that. And then eventually got pushed back by the Capitol Police with tear gas. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The user sent this message over a private Zello channel called the MAGA Cavalry, which appears to have been used to help coordinate travel from several different states. The channel's profile picture was a map depicting rendezvous points in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and South Carolina for drivers to meet and then caravan together into the city. In effect, Zello appears to have been used to help bring this guy from one of those states into the Capitol. On Tuesday, we sent Zello a huge email outlining the evidence that its app had been used by insurrectionists, along with a list of over 800 far right channels. On Wednesday evening, Hampton and I published these findings in The Guardian, and then two hours later..
HAMPTON STALL Zello released a statement on their site saying that they were appalled by the organizing that was happening on their app and that they were banning two thousand channels.
MICAH LOEWINGER Maybe a third or so came from the list of 800 plus channels we sent them.
HAMPTON STALL Oh, yeah, for sure. Of the 800 plus, the majority of them are now offline, either deleted by the users or removed by Zello itself, but they still have left up some 3 Percent and other militia associated channels. There's also some indication that they have started banning accounts. Major accounts that are associated with some of these channels. But some of the more violent individuals and organizers are still up on Zello at time of recording.
MICAH LOEWINGER As part of the evidence that we sent to Zello, we told them that some far right channels were encouraging Trump supporters to show up armed to state capitals on the 17th. I think the question is whether this purge of accounts and users will be strong enough to stop pro trump groups from using Zello to organize for that.
HAMPTON STALL There will probably be some disruption from Zello use to organize for that. But those events are there already locked in. This is too late. It's already done. It's already in people's minds.
MICAH LOEWINGER Three months after we first confronted them with this evidence, Zello says it's taking potential militia events around the inauguration very seriously and that far right groups are no longer allowed on its platform. But if or when they manage to squeeze through the cracks, we'll be listening in. For On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, following the money, I mean – the no money.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
PARANOIA AGENT Look, I mean, our values are under assault every single day. Under a secular, atheist, leftist Marxist movement. Within our government, within our culture, within higher education. [END CLIP]
ALEX JONES The new world order, I guess, just read that God is going to destroy the earth next time by fire. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Such is the rhetorical currency in the online free marketplace of paranoia. It flourished digitally on Zello and of course, on Facebook, YouTube, Parler, 8Chan and Gab long before last Wednesday when it materialized in flesh and blood. The Proud Boys, QAnon, MAGA, Oath Keepers, 3 Percenters, they all were there representing their particular tribes of reactionary grievance, smashing and beating and terrorizing like some perverse United Way of right wing extremism. But if incitement falls in the forest and almost nobody can hear it, can it trigger insurrection? The whole world of big tech this week began seriously, systematically and almost universally answering that question, Casey Newton writes about the intersection of tech and democracy for Platformer. Before this week's deplatforming of the president, he says, there was Alex Jones, who, until a year and a half ago, was a major purveyor of lies and disinformation and now is all but gone. I asked Casey what happened.
CASEY NEWTON Major providers of services, including Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, kicked Alex Jones off the platform and he lost a big megaphone. And it's not just that he lost access to the followers that he had. He lost the ability to easily recruit new ones. And he is among the best evidence that we have that deplatforming can work in removing bad actors from the public sphere.
BOB GARFIELD OK, till now, because he's president of the United States and by definition newsworthy, Donald Trump has faced only incremental sanctions by the platforms and even those were fairly late in coming, but tell me what they were.
CASEY NEWTON In the run up to him actually being removed from the platforms, Facebook and Twitter began putting labels on his posts saying, for example, no, the election had not been stolen and Joe Biden really did win it. Before that, they placed labels on tweets that they believed might incite violence, such as during last summer's protests for racial justice. They had a big conflict over what to do when the president tweeted, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Ultimately, Twitter prevented that post from being shared. And I think the hope was that by taking some of these lesser measures, they might try to encourage the president to improve his behavior. But as we saw, that did not work.
BOB GARFIELD No. But then came the siege on the Capitol and the platforms sprang into action. How broad has been his platforming over the last ten days?
CASEY NEWTON It's quite remarkable. Not only have we seen Facebook and Twitter remove the president, but he has lost, for example, the ability to sell merchandise through the store that he ran through a company called Shopify. He is no longer able to process payments through a company called Stripe. He's even lost access to some of the email tools that he used to reach people for fundraising.
BOB GARFIELD Now, once he was kicked off of Twitter permanently just to choose one platform, the obvious next step would have been for him to move to the reactionary friendly Twitter clone called Parler. Then what happened?
CASEY NEWTON Parler wound up losing its spot in the Google App Store in the Apple App Store, and then in a very unusual move, Amazon Web Services, which hosted all of the content on Parler, stopped providing service, which means that stuff essentially can no longer be uploaded to Parler. And so as we're recording this now, Parler's fate is very much uncertain.
BOB GARFIELD And here we learned that the idea of deplatforming isn't just something that comes from one supreme tech giant in one fell swoop, but it's kind of hierarchical. There is something called the content moderation stack. What is it?
CASEY NEWTON Well, you can just sort of visualize all of the services that are required to put something on the Internet or into an app as a stack. Each layer of it enables the layer below it. So at the very top of it, you would have telecom, which enables the 5G cell signal that transmits the Internet through the air and closer to the bottom, you have something like Facebook or Twitter, which is a user facing platform that has more specific rules around what people can and can't do.
BOB GARFIELD And in the middle, things like ISPs, domain registrars, cloud services and so forth.
CASEY NEWTON That's right. We might not even be aware that these services exist, but as we have seen over the past few days, they can be chokepoints in some of these extreme cases.
BOB GARFIELD Which raises questions of, you know, whether we as customers voted to give them that power.
CASEY NEWTON Right. And for the most part, they do not want to exercise this power. Businesses want to have the maximum number of customers, and so removing customers is typically something that they do as a last resort. But when questions of politics are involved, that does get much trickier and it places executives into an extremely uncomfortable position. You know, we should say that there are examples at every level of the stack where some ESP or some telecoms somewhere has intervened to remove something bad from the platform. So this is not entirely novel. What is pretty novel, though, is to see everyone acting around the same time to take the same action. A lot of the debate that we've been having over the past week is: is this an extremely unusual one off event based on this extraordinary event of an attempted coup in our country? Or is this going to be a new normal where platforms begin doing this sort of thing all the time out of political pressure? I believe it's probably going to look more like the former unless we start seeing a lot more political violence in this country.
BOB GARFIELD For years, Republicans have been accusing big tech of being partisan enemies. I'd say that argument is like criticizing a cancer surgeon for only cutting out the tumor and leaving the surrounding healthy tissue alone. But it does put a lot of control of the public sphere in the hands of tech giants who already unequivocally have too much power. So what is to be done about this?
CASEY NEWTON In many ways, it is the question of our age. How do we hold to account these corporations? We have a system of government in this country that could pass regulations at any time. It's been investigating these companies in various ways. It's hauled the CEOs before the cameras to yell at them in public. But so far they haven't taken any action. In the absence of action by those institutions, tech companies just embrace their own roles as institutions. And that's put a lot of attention on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, appropriately I think, but we know how to get out of this mess, and its the Congress that is going to have to act.
BOB GARFIELD Thank you very much.
CASEY NEWTON Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Casey Newton writes Platformer, a publication about big tech and democracy.
One way of combating lies, conspiracies and anti-democratic conduct, as we shall presently hear, is to create safe social media spaces to encourage civic and media literacy. It's a tough slog.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN Yes, so the first way is the classic liberal model, right? The idea that good information, good arguments will triumph over bad information and bad arguments over time. You know, in a certain context with certain rules and norms and agreements - that can work.
BOB GARFIELD Siva Vaidhyanathan, is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of Anti-social Media: How Facebook Disconnects US and Undermines Democracy. He says such solutions, important as they are, tend to be strangled at birth.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN People are subscribing to models of the world, claims about the world based on their identities, based on their relationships with others, based on what makes them feel better about themselves. It's a reflection of what social scientists call homophily, the clustering of the Like-Minded for the sake of comfort. And the fact is, information is a social phenomenon.
BOB GARFIELD And these particular like minded, the ones in red caps and body armor and horned helmets, don't respond to empirical truth except to mock it. And therefore, Vaidhyanathan says the most effective social sanction is one of the oldest.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN For many centuries, we have shunned, we have marginalized people who are behaving in a way or promoting information that undermines the smooth workings of society. To make sure that there is a pail beyond which it is difficult to traverse.
BOB GARFIELD Others call it cancelation or deplatforming, but by any name. In the past 10 days, the shunning has been stunning.
NEWS REPORT There's an effort to strip President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, of his law license. Southern California Democrat Ted Lieu has sent a letter to the New York State Bar requesting Giuliani be disbarred. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Look at what Simon and Schuster did overnight. Taking away Josh Hawley's book deal. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick announced that he will not accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was set to receive the nation's highest civilian honor from President Trump on Thursday. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The Professional Golfers Association of America is the latest organization to distance itself from President Trump after it announced that it will no longer host its championship at his New Jersey golf course next year. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Most unkindest cut of all. A prestigious major golf championship ripped away.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN That's some shunning and it's also the free market and the First Amendment working as designed. These are private actors and private entities making private decisions, taking responsibility for their own reputations, making informed decisions based on the information they have in front of them. It's what every conservative should applaud.
BOB GARFIELD Meantime, apart from pure shaming, there has been a fusillade of other sanctions for the Stop the Steal contingent. Most strikingly, political donation boycotts. There's a principle in drug investigations and political reporting to follow the money. At the moment, it's imperative to follow the no money. Dozens of corporations, among them AT&T, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Goldman Sachs, Marriott, Morgan Stanley, MasterCard, Airbnb, Citibank and Dow-freaking-Chemical have said that they will not contribute to the campaigns of the hundred and forty seven congressional Republicans who voted to prevent Joe Biden from being awarded his electors.
JUDD LEGUM And that's been interesting. These aren't corporations that have typically favored Democrats. In fact, a lot of them have favored Republicans, 3-1, 5-1, 6-1, 8-1, and now they're saying we're not going to contribute to most of the Republicans in Congress, at least for the time being.
BOB GARFIELD Judd Legum is the author of the Popular Information Newsletter.
JUDD LEGUM One that particularly stuck out to me was Hallmark, who not only said that they would no longer be contributing to this group, but demanded their money back from Senator Josh Hawley. That struck me as particularly significant because they are headquartered in Kansas City, and one of the largest employers in Kansas City, which is in Josh Hawley's home state. So it's really one of the pillars of the community that Josh Hawley represents, saying you've crossed the line and you've crossed it so far we don't want to have anything to do with you.
BOB GARFIELD This did not go unnoticed in the Trump-o-sphere.
JUDD LEGUM Money is a language that people understand, and I can't say exactly why this happened, but I can say that Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader of the House a few days ago, was objecting to the certification of the Electoral College and backing up Trump 100 percent on his bogus fraud claims of this election, and today he says that Biden won the election and it's time to move on. And I don't know what he learned about the integrity of the election in the last week, but he did learn that continuing to spread lies about what happened in the election was going to cost him and a lot of his caucus, money. So, I think that money can have an impact on people's relationship to the truth.
BOB GARFIELD But this doesn't mean that the week in opprobrium is sustainable. Yet another kind of shunning is the boycott, and the history of boycotts is one of failure. Concerted shunning of Mitsubishi Motors, Nike, Nestlé, the DeBeers diamond cartel, British Petroleum and the fur industry did yield changes in corporate behavior. And the South Africa disinvestment movement famously changed history, but thousands of other campaigns ultimately petered out.
AMERICUS REED II Because it's just incredibly difficult for consumers to sustain the type of energy and motivational impetus to continue to inconvenience themselves over time.
BOB GARFIELD Americus Reed is a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business. He says a boycott is only as strong as it is easy. They are destined to die if the price of righteous indignation is too high or the expression of it too inconvenient. Especially in the social media era, when your disapproval can be expressed in an angry tweet.
AMERICUS REED II It creates the perception that doing little tiny things on an Instagram post or in a Twitter feed somehow feels like you're making a big impact. So people express a kind of faux morality, if you will, in social media. That's very, very different from what's required to actually inconvenience yourself.
BOB GARFIELD So some consumer boycotts never get traction, and some, like the assault on Goya Foods after its CEO praised Donald Trump, backfired spectacularly as when MAGA World bought so much Goya Goods, that sales went up. Meanwhile, corporate boycotts such as we are seeing now are even riskier because every one of the Fortune 500 companies that pulled the GOP political contributions are setting themselves up to being boycotted by the MAGA Faithful.
AMERICUS REED II What the company is deciding to do is to say, I believe that if I take a very strong position on something that are the core values of this organization's leadership, then I'm going to attract consumers that align with those values. I'm going to lose in people who disagree with me. But the people I gain net--net are going to be more loyal to me and hopefully I will gain more of them than I lose. And so that's the economic calculus that goes on. There's also perhaps layered on top of that, a kind of moral calculus where you as a company don't want to necessarily be associated with what might be perceived as an insurrection or a treasonous activity that happened with respect to attempting to topple the United States government.
BOB GARFIELD All of these considerations, he says, were in play when Simon and Schuster canceled its book deal with GOP Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. A book that had been deemed a surefire hit with the rabid "own-the-Libs" book buying public.
AMERICUS REED II Once Josh Hawley's brand became associated with white supremacists breaking into the Capitol and killing people, that blockbuster amount of sales was no longer worth the risk of associating your brand with that insurgency over time. But if your brand becomes soiled by a significant perception of consumers, that's no longer a viable, profitable business relationship that I want to be in. And so Simon and Schuster says we're not going to be in that situation.
BOB GARFIELD Of course, anyone who has paid attention to the endless Fox News scandals over the past 10 years and the subsequent advertiser defections...
NEWS REPORT Faced with a growing advertiser exodus, Fox News and national radio host Laura Ingram is now apologizing after the...[END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT ...Advertiser revolt at Fox News, a long and growing list of companies pulling their commercials from The O'Reilly Factor. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT More than a dozen companies pulling or suspending advertising from Tucker Carlson's Fox News program. Comments about immigration. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Knows that sometimes there are business decisions, sometimes moral judgments, and sometimes simple posturing. An advertiser pulls out of Tucker Carlson show, lets say, his money gets moved to some other Fox programing. And when the controversy dies down back in the advertiser skulks. I asked Reed if there is a sniff test for understanding whether AT&T and the Chamber of Commerce and Dow Chemical are genuinely done with seditious Republicans or just virtue signaling for a cheap P.R. boost at a time when political contributions are at a seasonal low anyway, or worse yet, sneaking dark money into the system through an unbranded 501C4.
AMERICUS REED II The sniff test is the consistency over time that one is willing to authentically portray, even when it's hard to do it, even when that decision is unpopular, to be able to detect the difference between a consistent belief system that's being implemented and executed upon versus a kind of momentary going with what's best for the company based on the changing views of those in power.
BOB GARFIELD Popular Information's Judd Legum.
JUDD LEGUM I think American Express is a good example of that. Who said these hundred and forty seven Republicans have crossed the line. We're not giving money to them, and this is a permanent decision. And I think that's significant and shows something really meaningful because, you know, in two years, Kevin McCarthy, who was one of the objectors, could be speaker of the House and they could be in a position where they're not able to make any contributions to him or anyone in his caucus. So that might not be in their interest. So I give them credit for that.
BOB GARFIELD If you're a connoisseur of irony, credit this, too. In its notorious Citizens United decision, the Republican dominated Supreme Court lifted most spending limits on campaign contributions on the grounds that money is speech. For the GOP this week, the silence was deafening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, building safe spaces on the Internet.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Obviously, the events of January 6th, were only further proof that what happens in vulcanized communication channels will inevitably converge on the so-called "real world". Especially online echo chambers, because the Internet encompasses entire worlds within worlds. Ever wonder how social media might look if it were treated more like the physical world? Take Facebook. Imagine it as a crowded bar. Most everyone you know is there, but you can't seem to shake your conspiracy minded aunt. The sound of arguments is continuous. But patrons are only kicked out after they've incited deadly brawls. If Facebook were a physical place, would you want to go there? While in the physical world you might be able to go to a bar down the street or meet a friend in the park instead? Our social media landscape presents us with far fewer options.
Eli Pariser is a co-director of Civic Signals, an initiative that uses insights from urban planning to think about how to build digital spaces that don't exploit us or spy on us for profit. I should admit that I did wonder if the platforms he sought to build were not only a bit pie in the sky, but maybe not that interesting.
ELI PARISER Well, I mean, it depends on if you think libraries are interesting and parks are interesting. I get these days they seem pretty banal, but when people were first inventing these public institutions, it was in these moments of acute public need. When cities were starting, they didn't have parks and there were real health consequences that were coming from that. When libraries became a part of many communities, it was when large groups of people were first becoming literate but couldn't afford books. And so now here we are with the Internet, finding that, no, you can't rely on a few big venture backed corporations to provide all of the services and serve all of the needs of public infrastructure. And, you know, in some ways that's so obvious. Companies aren't built to serve public needs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This wasn't altogether obvious, though, was it, Eli? You were also one of the co-founders of Upworthy, which was intended to provide users with uplifting content, hooking them with irresistible headlines. That didn't work out as you hoped. In fact, it sort of gave birth to the BuzzFeed model of you won't believe what this movie star looked like when he was seven or this new discovery will blow your mind. What went wrong and how does that inform your current endeavor?
ELI PARISER One of the lessons that I learned from Upworthy was the limits of what you can do in a for profit, venture backed startup. I've been in those meetings where you look at the important socially valuable project and go, you know, can we take this on this quarter? I don't know if it's going to work on the balance sheet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because Upworthy was a venture capital startup.
ELI PARISER Yeah, and there are limits to what we can expect from for profit entities. That's not to say that in a community, bookstores and cafes don't serve a vital purpose. But you don't want your library managed like a VC backed startup because it stops being a library.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How does it stop being a library?
ELI PARISER If you talk to librarians about what they do, a lot of it is taking half an hour to walk someone through their unemployment registration form. You have someone who's experiencing homelessness over here and you have a young family over there and you have, you know, the small business meet up in the meeting room. A lot of the most important work that public institutions do is the most laborious, it's the most time consuming. It's the first thing that you would optimize away if you were trying to increase the profitability of your VC library, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhmm.
ELI PARISER And I think that's basically what we've done on the Internet. You know, that's what Facebook is. That's what Twitter is. We've taken this concept of community and we've allowed ourselves to imagine that it can happen without the people whose jobs and whose focus it is to hold the community together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Scholar Joan Donovan has called for 10000 librarians for the Internet, which sounds like a great name for a band.
ELI PARISER It's like a folk ensemble. But what Joan is calling for is this notion that the more you get close to how human beings are relating and how human beings are understanding, the harder it is to replace all of that with a fancy algorithm. And one thing about librarians is they know their local context and they understand the different constituencies that are involved. All of that knowledge is really important in figuring out how to make a space welcoming and thought provoking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your research, you tease out this idea by imagining what Twitter specifically might look like if it were a physical place, it would be something like a crowded parking lot on a busy shopping day.
ELI PARISER Yeah, Twitter is sort of uniquely normless. It's very hard to figure out: who's here, what are we doing here? What are the rules of engagement? The loudest and often most entitled voices get heard the most because there are no rules. Communities have to have norms in order to function. One of our advisors is Nathan Matteus, who has this fascinating research about Reddit, where he looks at Reddit Channel, where some folks saw a list of rules about how to engage and some folks didn't. And you might think this is going to put people off to show them all of the rules. Actually, the opposite was true, that especially for women and folks of color, they were more likely to engage when they saw the rules because there was some sense of organization and safety and therefore I feel comfortable participating. And so how we design these spaces has a lot to do with how people participate in them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's an example that you cite from the Memphis River Parks Partnership, which made an effort to bring black and white citizens of Memphis living near the same riverfront park together, people who were essentially living very segregated lives. It was amazing.
ELI PARISER The Memphis River Parks Partnership was looking at how do we create spaces where there might be some cross connection across these two very segregated communities. You know, it was easy if you had two playgrounds, even for the playgrounds themselves, to become kind of owned by one community or another. And so the final feature that they landed on was these fire pits with benches around them. People would come with their families and hang out. And there was something else to look at what urban planner William White calls triangulation. You don't have to directly engage with other people who are here. You can both be looking at the fire. You're having a nice time. You're warm, you're feeling good. And over the course of sitting for a while, there's opportunity to strike up a conversation or the kids start playing together. That's how community connections get made. It was just a striking example to me because it seems so different from how we're put into proximity in digital life, where the first thing that I see about you is probably like one of your most engaging and therefore likely incendiary beliefs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What I love about that Memphis example is that it's so elemental. There is nothing better than sitting by a fire. And I don't have a clue how you could approach replicating a space that welcoming online.
ELI PARISER You know, I think it's easy, especially when we're talking about technology, to imagine that the solutions are all technical. Most of running your own social network is social. So to the firepit question, to me, it points to play, points to art, it points to other things that bring people together. Because the reality is in our physical civic space, we reserve very little of that space for walking up to strangers and arguing with them about politics. And that's that's probably good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have established basically four principles that have to go into designing a digital public space. Welcome, Connect, understand and to act. If you break that down, you're talking about programing social activities, like you mentioned, offering visual cues as to what kind of behavior is invited in the space. That's like the norms you were talking about that make the space less threatening. You want to make it easy to get there and attractive and to engage leaders and maintainers and to design in partnership with the communities that use them. Do you have any real life examples of this kind of platform?
ELI PARISER I mean, I don't think we have examples of any one platform that's doing all the things perfectly. But I'm inspired by examples like Front Porch Forum in Vermont, which is kind of like a slow social network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like slow food?
ELI PARISER Like slow food. Yeah, of course. It's in Vermont. Right. So Front Porch Forum is basically very heavily moderated local email list that you can post to once a day. And if you post something and it's against the rules and norms. It gets sent back to you with a nice little note saying like, hey, can you try saying this a different way? And the once a day-ness is really important because, you know, you have to have a lot of stamina and energy to sustain an argument across, you know, 14 days of back and forth. What's interesting about Front Porch Forum is it's used by a huge portion of households in Vermont. Local representatives in Vermont are on the Front Porch Forum because they know that's where the issues of the day are being discussed and addressed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've warned against defensive design, which since it's so bent on guarding against bad actors, doesn't offer users enough that's positive. So instead of asking you how do you beat the lies of Trump ism and QAnon, I'll ask how do we promote truth in online spaces?
ELI PARISER Ultimately, what we believe is true has to do with who we trust. If you want a better truth architecture, you need a better trust architecture. I mean, when when you think about it, I mean, we know first hand so little of what we think we know. And most of it comes from, you know, I listen to On the Media, and I trust you, and so that helps me figure out what I think is true. It's why fixing the relational problems to me is as or more important as fixing the content problems, because ultimately, if we don't change who people are in relationship with, who people trust, then you can have the best content in the world and it's not going to have the effect that you want.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So do you see these fundamentally then, as as local enterprises, community meaning small because you can't scale up Vermont to the US?
ELI PARISER The framers in the United States were onto something when they were thinking about federalism. You know, you have to have workable local communities before you can start to talk about bigger ones. And so I do think starting at the human scale is going to be an important piece of the puzzle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've been fighting this fight for a long time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think as as some suggest that maybe we're at an inflection point?
ELI PARISER I do think we're at an inflection point. You know, for a long time, what everybody's been trying to do is figure out like, how do we fix these existing structures, the Facebooks and the Twitters? We're finally starting to zoom out and say it can't just be these few companies that are determining our digital future and we need to be thinking finally beyond that frame.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Eli, thank you so much.
ELI PARISER Thank you, always a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Eli Pariser is co-director of Civic Signals, an initiative that uses insights from urban planning to think about how to create public friendly digital spaces.
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, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited by... Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Adriene Lilly.
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.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.