The PEN Pod: On Increased Media Literacy, Targeted Disinformation, and Global Protests with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we talk about the importance of combating disinformation after the election, the ongoing threat of anti-Black Lives Matter disinformation targeting Latinx voters, and what we can learn from protests in countries like Belarus and Nigeria. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Suzanne is up until the 10:09 mark).
Last week, we talked about the New York Post story and the social platforms’ reactions to it. Then, this week, there was a story about how Mark Zuckerberg says that after the election, there will be fewer content bans on Facebook. Do you worry that—no matter what happens in the presidential election—once it’s all over, folks will decide that disinformation just isn’t a threat anymore?
I do worry about that. There has been a great intensification of interest in how we safeguard our democracy from disinformation, voter suppression efforts, a polarized media ecosystem.
I really think these are systemic failures, and we’re foolish if we believe that—even if the election turns out how certain people are hoping—we can then put this issue to rest. I think that rebuilding our information ecosystem as an underpinning of our democracy has to be a first-order priority for this country going forward. I believe that, since the report that we did in 2017, Faking News, documenting that disinformation, even though it’s overwhelmingly protected by the First Amendment, it nonetheless constitutes a threat to free expression—in some ways a more insidious threat to free expression than other kinds of noxious speech, because you really can’t regulate it out of existence. Our government could not do it, because of the protections of the First Amendment.
I think we owe it to ourselves to implement a much more sweeping effort to inoculate the American public. We’ve been talking about this for years with disinformation defense—it used to be called media literacy, but that term became kind of tired. There was a media literacy movement about a decade ago that had some momentum. I think it just lacked the burning platform—people couldn’t see how urgent it was. People were migrating online for their news consumption, so those habits were changing, but the real risks and perils of that were not yet apparent. Now they are, and there have been some states that have mandated a media literacy or disinformation defense curricula. I think that needs to be nationalized. Just as we’re teaching kids to analyze a short story and learn algebra in elementary school, I think we ought to be teaching them the tools to navigate the information landscape that they operate in.
“There have been some states that have mandated a media literacy or disinformation defense curricula. I think that needs to be nationalized. Just as we’re teaching kids to analyze a short story and learn algebra in elementary school, I think we ought to be teaching them the tools to navigate the information landscape that they operate in.”
That’s interesting, we’re talking about the dissemination side. At the same time, this week, we looked at how disinformation can spread—particularly, disinformation about voting and how it’s targeting specific ethnic groups in places like Florida. In that case, it was Latinx voters basically being pitted against Black Lives Matter. It was getting a lot of traction online, but then it was moving to radio and broadcast—the things that sometimes we don’t think about, but that’s another way that some of the disinformation is spreading. Do you think that people have learned anything from 2016? Are we better prepared for these types of targeted disinformation campaigns?
I think there’s a greater awareness of the problem, and there have been some really interesting studies of how disinformation moves through the ecosystem. Your point about how it migrates from online to the mainstream media—there’s a study done by Harvard demonstrating that, really, it is the mainstream media that is amplifying these claims and giving them the greatest oxygen. Yes, they travel on social media, but it’s very often people sharing mainstream media stories. So, there’s an interplay there—this is not a problem, by any means, that is confined to social media. The example that you bring up, in terms of pitting Latinx and Black Lives Matter—the supporters against one another—speaks to just the incredible difficulty of cutting this off at the source.
Obviously, the platforms are trying to do that—these sweeping measures that we’ve seen on Facebook and now TikTok in relation to QAnon, shutting down many accounts, but we also know they’ll never shut down everything. One person has termed it “Pastel QAnon,” which is a kind of softened messaging about that conspiracy theory that can evade the triggers in the social media platforms that prompt that content to be taken down. So, it’s always going to be a cat-and-mouse game on the supply side, which is why we think there needs to be a great emphasis on the demand side, in terms of helping people become more discerning, broader in their information diets.
Ultimately, I don’t think this is going to be solved with bans. In terms of what has changed, we talked about the New York Post and the Hunter Biden story, but the aggressiveness with which both Twitter and Facebook moved on that we just didn’t see in 2016. I think that would have been reported and amplified straight up for a long time, and then people would have complained after the fact about how it was inimical and disruptive, and perhaps a foreign information operation. But I don’t think it would have been acted on in real time, in terms of impairing the algorithmic amplification on the platforms.
“Trump sees these tactics—he notoriously feels this affinity toward autocratic leaders around the world—he sees what they do, and I think there’s something about that forcefulness that’s very attractive to him. I think he’s somebody who wants to crack down, if he can have the opportunity to do so.”
I think you’re right. I want to, lastly, do our best to look outside of the United States for just a brief moment. This week, we saw a really violent crackdown against protesters in Nigeria. There’s a looming ultimatum in Belarus that could lead to more demonstrations in that country. What lessons do you think we can draw from what’s happening right now globally, in terms of greater demonstrations, but also greater crackdowns? How might that inform what could happen here in the next few weeks?
Look, I think there’s definitely an interplay. What we saw out on the streets during June and July, in relation to the protests over racial injustice and the overbearing tactics of police in some cities, the attacks on press freedom that we and other organizations documented at that time were images that people hadn’t seen out of the United States. I think they compound this trend line over the last few years of the U.S. frittering away its moral authority as a force for press freedom and so many other human rights issues. And I think that has a kind of emboldening effect on security forces around the world where governments feel that, even if condemnation might come their way in the wake of heavy-handed tactics, it’s going to be less forceful or less credible.
As we know, this administration has not been much of a voice—except very selectively in places like Venezuela—in terms of calling out governments that embrace authoritarian tactics. I think it’s a concern, and it also has a reverberating effect here. Trump sees these tactics—he notoriously feels this affinity toward autocratic leaders around the world—he sees what they do, and I think there’s something about that forcefulness that’s very attractive to him. I think he’s somebody who wants to crack down, if he can have the opportunity to do so.
There’s this interplay in these situations, like in Nigeria, where it seems the protests were peaceful, but then the security forces are always on the lookout for anything that smacks of disobedience or law breaking to then justify, in that case, just a blood-chilling firing, of live fire, into a group of protesters, willfully and seemingly unprovoked, at least insofar as the video shows. I think—while we need to remain calm, and have some faith and expectation that this country is capable of pulling off an election and post-election process that are going to run smoothly, and that cooler heads will prevail and people will behave responsibly—we also have to be very much on our guard, because it’s a precarious moment, both here and around the world.