The PEN Pod: The Propagation of Disinformation and Protocols of Protest 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 discuss the dysfunctional, polluted ecosystem of social media and how it leads to the spread of disinformation; a New York Times report that shows an alarming trend that police were poorly trained to deal with protests last summer; and the death threat against UN investigator Agnès Callamard from a top Saudi official, in response to Callamard’s investigation into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Suzanne is up until the 10:35 mark).
I want to start with the tech companies. Yesterday, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google were grilled by members of Congress about the scourge of disinformation—in particular, how it did or did not lead to the Capitol Hill insurgency that we saw just before the inauguration. At one point, Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, pushed back and said, “Our algorithms aren’t designed to juice attention spans, and we’re not the only people who are putting up platforms that disinformation gets traded on. People are also on messaging apps and they’re watching cable news.” Does he have a point? Are we spending too much time focusing on Twitter, Facebook, and Google—and not all the other places where disinformation flourishes?
I don’t think there is any single silver bullet, but I also think it’s not terribly credible for Zuckerberg or other social media CEOs to try to deflect attention from the role they play.
I thought one of the things that was striking about today’s hearing was the degree to which members really zeroed in on the algorithms and how the platforms are set up and designed to propagate. It’s not just hatred, but it’s content that deeply engages people, that entices people, that draws people up, that people feel compelled by. Some of that is completely harmless celebrity content—it can even be in memoriams for people who have died young. There’s all types of content that can really move around, obviously memes and funny things, but among that subset of what goes viral—we have learned time and again—are the incendiary forms of disinformation, vitriol, and other types of content, which can cause real-world harms when they propagate. So I thought surfacing that was very important.
“It’s an ecosystem—a dysfunctional, polluted ecosystem. Within that ecosystem, among the most powerful actors—no question about it—are the social media companies. I think getting into the guts of how they operate, what they elevate, and what they amplify is critical to ultimately getting a handle on the scourge of disinformation.”
So much of the conversation is about whether certain content should be taken down or left up, and that really only scratches the surface of the problem. The real question is what moves around the network and how. That said, that’s not the totality of the issue when it comes to disinformation. There was a very important study published last year out of Harvard about how the mainstream media played a critical role in propagating disinformation during the preelection period with Donald Trump. He would make news saying something outrageous and false, and it would be covered because he was the president, and once they covered it, it would become a huge subject for discussion on social media and it would find its way into private messaging services and closed Facebook groups.
It’s an ecosystem—a dysfunctional, polluted ecosystem. Within that ecosystem, among the most powerful actors—no question about it—are the social media companies. I think getting into the guts of how they operate, what they elevate, and what they amplify is critical to ultimately getting a handle on the scourge of disinformation.
Let’s pivot a bit to a pretty troubling piece of reporting this week in The New York Times. This past summer with the surge in demonstrations protesting anti-Black racism, there’ve been more than a dozen after-action evaluations of police responses to those demonstrations. They show a pretty alarming trend that police were poorly trained, heavily militarized, and really unprepared for the thousands of people who turned out on the streets in at least nine major American cities. What does that tell you about the state of protest and First Amendment rights in America, when the police don’t know how to respond to it?
One of the issues is sort of a practical one, which is that these mass movements only arise and erupt from time to time. The daily work that’s going on in most of these departments really doesn’t have much resemblance to what’s called “public order policing.” These are sort of emergency situations, and I think the question is—like in any profession—what are the preparations? What kicks into gear when you get into a kind of crisis? It may only happen once every five years or 10 years, but you need a protocol. People need to be doing drills. People need a certain level of familiarity, and then there have to be core teams that really are schooled in this stuff and up-to-date and can step up into positions of responsibility and leadership when these mass public events happen—something like on the order of the Black Lives Matter protests or the Ferguson protests several years ago.
“One of the issues is sort of a practical one, which is that these mass movements only arise and erupt from time to time. The daily work that’s going on in most of these departments really doesn’t have much resemblance to what’s called ‘public order policing.’ These are sort of emergency situations, and I think the question is—like in any profession—what are the preparations?”
There were some dynamics here that exacerbated matters. There are studies showing that when protest is about the topic of police brutality or excesses, as was the case over the summer, the cops react differently than if the protest is about the environment or women’s rights or another subject. They’re more defensive, probably more trigger-happy. They take it more personally, perhaps at some level understandably. I think that’s something that we also need to be preparing our police for.
One of the observations in the write-up that was interesting was about the need for greater communication and collaboration between organizers and police because it brought me back to early days of my career when I was working in South Africa during the transition from apartheid. I was involved in the townships dealing with political violence in the run-up to the election, and the violence almost invariably would erupt at these mass protests. What we developed was a very intensive protocol of collaboration between the organizers of the protest, the political parties, the civic groups, the unions, and the police. There would be planning ahead of time about what was going to be the root of the march, where people were going to go, and there’d be people in contact with each other during these marches to try to troubleshoot combustible situations as they arose.
It ended up being pretty effective, and so, it’s striking that this type of cooperation does not seem to exist. I suppose there, it grew out of a pattern that was truly deadly, and that’s what motivated both sides to want to come to the table and work out a way for protest rights to be exercised without people losing their lives. Perhaps the disruptions of last summer are enough to get us to that point, but it probably depends a little bit on who’s doing the organizing next time and whether any relationships have been built ahead of time or can be built in real time.
“When so many governments were looking the other way and sitting on their hands in the wake of the murder, [Agnès Callamard] stepped up and used her mandate as a UN special rapporteur to take up the mantle and mount an investigation at a moment when no one else was willing to do so. It was very brave of her, it was a service to humanity, and the idea that the Saudi official—who is seeking to plot against her—has the title of a human rights chief in Saudi Arabia, it just makes an absolute mockery. It’s shambolic.”
Finally, Suzanne, it was reported this week that a top Saudi official issued an effective death threat against the UN investigator who examined the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Agnès Callamard had concluded, as you know from her report, that Khashoggi had been killed at the behest of the Saudi crown prince. It seems to be impunity run amok. You’re a former diplomat. You worked at the United Nations. How beyond the pale is this?
It’s hard to know what to say about such a horrific revelation. This is somebody who has devoted her life to human rights, as she ran Article 19 and she’s gonna be running Amnesty International. When so many governments were looking the other way and sitting on their hands in the wake of the murder, she stepped up and used her mandate as a UN special rapporteur to take up the mantle and mount an investigation at a moment when no one else was willing to do so. It was very brave of her, it was a service to humanity, and the idea that the Saudi official—who is seeking to plot against her—has the title of a human rights chief in Saudi Arabia, it just makes an absolute mockery. It’s shambolic.
If the administration thinks it’s enough to stop short of MBS, I think a revelation like this underscores the depths to which that regime is prepared to go to silence, not just critics, but here’s someone who is investigating the murder of a critic. I think it’s profoundly disturbing and really underscores the imperative of the Biden administration using its leverage to try to force change. That’s not going to be easy. We had that discussion in the hearing last week on human rights in Saudi Arabia, but there were several points of leverage brought up, and I think this just really underlines the imperative there.