Brandy Zadrozny: My appearance last week on Chris Hayes's show, led to an unexpected appearance on another podcast.
Brandy Zadrozny: They want the disruptions. Steve Bannon has been for months and months pumping him up, had him on his show during COVID, and just saying all the best things about him, he's just wonderful. He should be Trump's running mate, et cetera, et cetera. Obviously, Steve Bannon likes causing trouble, and so that seems clearly like what's going on there.
Steve Bannon: Hold it right there. Don't hit rewind. Let's get beneath the surface here. This is not about a spoiler candidate--
Brandy Zadrozny: That's Steve Bannon on his show War Room. Bannon, Russell Brand, Joe Rogan, and Jordan Peterson, among others, occupy the so-called alternative media space. Although, alternative is a misnomer when you're reaching around 11 million people per episode like Rogan, or have nearly 6.5 million subscribers on YouTube like Brand. In that universe of hours-long, falsehood-filled podcasts, and YouTube videos, which throw to unsavory Rumble accounts, the spread of myths and disinformation, goes all but unchecked.
It's a landscape that's very different from the early days of the pandemic in 2020 when there were real faith efforts being made by officials and platforms alike to hold back the tide of fake news. Claire Wardle is the founder and co-director of the Information Futures Lab at the Brown School of Public Health. She says that what we're seeing is a backlash in response to those efforts that were made on the fly, and without community input.
Claire Wardle: You have to really go back and remember how quickly it was that we were saying, "Oh, my goodness, we need COVID misinformation policies." That was March, April. Then just as people were figuring that out, we had the fight for racial justice and George Floyd and there was misinformation around the protests and people saying it was Antifa, and there was, "Oh, my goodness, what do we do about this kind of speech?" Then it got to the end of the summer into September, and then Twitter was talking about, "Well, actually, we're going to start labelling some of the President's tweets that were false."
Then we had YouTube saying, "We need to have a policy for what happens if President Trump doesn't accept the results of the election." Then, of course, we had January 6th, and then on January 7th we had all of this on-the-fly policy being made by people in Silicon Valley, deep platforming different players. It's extraordinary in that one year how many policies were created by platforms. Researchers didn't have time to figure out whether, well, if you've made that change, YouTube, this is how it impacts the ecosystem. People were just making it up as they went. I think we're now paying the price for some of that.
Brandy Zadrozny: There were unintended consequences that happened as a result. I think especially the narrative of censorship, and that we're seeing. It's so wild right now. Can you talk a little bit about the backlash?
Claire Wardle: Yes. Going back to the speed at which these decisions were made, and the lack of transparency around these decisions, they were mostly made by people in Silicon Valley. Overnight, they'd put a press release out. There was no wider consideration with the public. There weren't multi-stakeholder meetings when people were invited in to talk about, "What as a society would we like to see when it comes to speech?" We weren't talking about what norms are we creating around this. It was just people responding, in many ways with a gut instinct. Right now we're having people really equate content moderation with censorship.
Brandy Zadrozny: Also, what happened was that whether because they were banned, or because they said, "I'm out of here," what you had was people fleeing to alternative platforms. I'm thinking of Gabb and Rumble and Parler and BitChute. We can just go on and on and on. For a while, it seemed like these alternative platforms were never going to take off. It was just like, "Okay, go to your tiny place." That's no longer really the case. I guess I'm wondering, what influence have those alternative social media sites had on the misinformation ecosystem?
Claire Wardle: It means that in terms of understanding the influence, well, we already had that problem. We had that problem trying to understand the impact of what was circulating on YouTube and Facebook and Instagram, but we had a better sense of what the metrics were. We could make some assertions of who'd seen it, who'd shared it, and what their behavior change might have been, but in these other spaces, it's very, very difficult.
Brandy Zadrozny: Yes. I guess for a long time, it felt like the goal was to keep the worst misinformation and disinformation off of the big platforms with the idea that it wouldn't reach a mainstream audience. Do you think that's still true? Do you think that if something doesn't appear on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter then we've succeeded?
Claire Wardle: There are people who are always going to seek out this stuff. There will always going to be people who are conspiratorially minded, and they're going to seek out other people who think the same way and they're going to find closed spaces to have those conversations. I don't want to stop them. I can't stop them. That's going to happen. What I don't want is the person who's like, "I don't know, Barbara. I'm just a bit confused. I saw this thing on YouTube that got recommended to me. It's saying some stuff."
That, to me, is the bit that I felt like we should really be thinking about is the majority of Americans who are stumbling across information that's being pushed to them via algorithms. To me, the major platforms, that's what we need to as a society figure out those norms, rather than, "Oh my, God, how can we possibly solve everything that people are sharing on Telegram, and BitChute, and Gabb? That's going to exist.
Brandy Zadrozny: I'm fascinated by this thing that Kennedy has been saying, which is that he would really like more mainstream attention, but he doesn't need it. He thinks that podcasts and alternative news outlets are enough.
Claire Wardle: He wants to spend time with podcasters who are not going to ask him the challenging questions, who are not going to push back. The example the other weekend with Joe Rogan, when he was talking about the impacts of Wi-Fi, and Joe Rogan pushed him for more information. He said, "Oh, it's beyond my expertise," and moved on. He wants to be in spaces where he's not challenged. He also knows that by being in those alternative spaces, those alternatives-- Joe Rogan gets millions and millions of listeners. That's not an alternative space anymore. By being on those kinds of platforms, he also guarantees a huge amount of mainstream coverage. He gets the best of those things. He doesn't get the pushback, but he also gets the clicks and the views and the talking heads and the commentators and other people taking him seriously as a candidate.
Brandy Zadrozny: Let's talk about the backlash for people who've been studying and documenting disinformation around COVID, and the election. Republican House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, he started this task force in March. It was charged with investigating government censorship, and he claims it's taken place under this guise of fighting myths and disinformation online. Several prominent researchers in the field have been subpoenaed. There is a conservative advocacy group that's filed a class action lawsuit targeting those same researchers and universities. Does this mean that we don't have the same watchers going into 2024? If so, what does that mean?
Claire Wardle: I think irrespective of what's happening in terms of the targeting of disinformation researchers, we also have to just recognize that the platform's themselves and their trust and safety teams look very different now than they did a year ago. We obviously have a new CEO and owner of Twitter and we know that their trust and safety teams have been decimated. We know in a number of other large platforms, they also have much smaller trust and safety teams now. We're seeing the rollback of policies. Now election denialism is allowed on YouTube again. Even without the researcher part, we've got a different type of context in terms of the speech that we have policies around. Then add to that this idea that many researchers are tied up responding to FOIAs and subpoenas.
I think we will just have less real-time understanding of the rumors that are circulating. I think the other thing that should be stressed is that researchers weren't just counting examples of misinformation for the sake of it. A lot of it was to try and inform, for example, secretaries of state so that they could do more debunking activities or pre-bunking activities, which is ahead of time saying, "Hey, you might see something like posters on your street that are suggesting you need an ID. You actually don't need an ID in this precinct." The reason that we need that real-time analysis is in order to empower those who are trusted in their communities to provide good information that allows voters and citizens to make decisions that keeps them and their families safe and healthy.
Brandy Zadrozny: The rollback of those policies, why were they rolled back?
Claire Wardle: Well, I think with Elon Musk, he obviously came in and said, "I want to ensure that anybody can say anything on my platform." I think his strong and very public opinions have had somewhat of an impact on other platforms. We've seen a little bit of that with Reddit. I think there's just been a slight shift here, which is, people were very concerned that there was an overreach during COVID. The uncertainty about whether or not there was overreach has now moved into other types of misinformation policies, and election denialism is one of them. I would argue that's not one that we mess around with.
Brandy Zadrozny: How do you see misinformation playing a role in the next presidential election in 2024? What recommendations would you make to platforms and journalists for how to deal with someone like RFK Jr.?
Claire Wardle: We've already seen worrying declines in childhood routine vaccinations. The idea that he by even running, let alone winning, might give additional oxygen to those ideas is deeply concerning. I think, for journalists covering him, it's about zooming out, understanding the ways in which he's using powerful narratives to shape people's understanding of the world, and to really talk about the harms that might happen through somebody who their beliefs are not rooted in science. What does that mean, and why is that just so dangerous? I think it's, again, less of the work and much more of the zooming out and trying to provide a much clearer sense of who he is and what he might do.
Brandy Zadrozny: Claire, thank you so much.
Claire Wardle: It's my pleasure.
Brandy Zadrozny: Claire Wardle is the co-founder and co-director of the Information Futures Lab at Brown University. Coming up, the real dangers of Kennedy's anti-vax rhetoric. This is On the Media.