The PEN Pod: On Disinformation Consumers, Trump Texts, and Free Speech Battles Ahead
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.” This week, we spoke with Suzanne about her new piece in Slate, which proposes three main types of consumers of disinformation; the revelation that Fox News hosts texted Donald Trump on January 6, urging him to take action against the insurrection at the Capitol; and predictions for what the biggest free speech battles will be in 2022. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne starts at the 22:46 mark).
On the Different Types of Consumers of Disinformation
“People sort of talk generally about how others respond to disinformation, how it’s so obvious to them that something out of the CDC is reliable, or that something from a website like Truthdig or Truthout cannot be trusted, and it just occurred to me that, yes, folks like me who read The New York Times and The Washington Post kind of see things one way, but we’re not the only information consumers out there. So I kind of came up with this framework of the anchored, which are people who are grounded in reliable information sources, credible journalism, government agencies. . . . They know where to turn.
“The second group are the adrift. These are people who have lost, or perhaps never had, that sense of anchoring. They are—many of us can feel like, on a day-to-day basis, deluged with different information sources online, on social media. They don’t have the tools to necessarily discern what is factual, what may be either propaganda or disinformation, or sometimes distinguishing between opinion and actual reporting; they may have become alienated from credible news sources, because they’ve been betrayed or abandoned, or their perspective has been left out of stories.
“And then finally, there are the marooned, which are people who feel anchored. They know where to turn, they have news sources they rely on, but the problem is those news sources themselves are fake. So they’re grounded in conspiracy theory websites, they may be aficionados of news networks that do not engage in credible reporting. . . . The marooned are very hard to reach; the anchored, the key thing is keeping them that way, and most of our efforts ought to focus on this middle category of the adrift.”
On the January 6 Texts to Trump from Fox News Hosts
“What’s clear is they [the hosts] become part of an enterprise that has, as its goal, not reporting or journalism, but rather a political agenda. And so, it doesn’t surprise me to see some evidence that their private views depart from that. I think there are some people in this marooned world who are really lost, and don’t recognize that what they’re engaged with informationally is not truthful. But I think those who are behind it and making it work are more sophisticated than that. . . . Their goal is to lure people under thrall, to lure people away from credible information sources, to get people invested in conspiracy theories or really distorted interpretations of reality, in order to achieve another purpose.”
On Free Speech Battles Ahead
“I’m concerned about the midterm elections that we will face in November and this incredibly pitched partisan environment, where words and books and curricula have come into the crosshairs. It’s really striking to see the degree to which writing is at the heart of what we are debating about—whether it’s disinformation, or the limits of free speech on social media, we are seeing just how elemental free speech rights are to the functioning of our democracy. So there’s a lot at stake.”