The Saboteurs Within

With Barbara McQuade - Former Co-Chair of the Terrorism and National Security Subcommittee


Episode description:

For decades, America’s foreign adversaries have used disinformation to undermine American democracy, to sow division and create confusion about what is even true. But who needs foreign adversaries when so many Americans, for whatever reason, have embraced the same tactics and same apparent goal? Today’s guest, Barbara McQuade, is a professor at University of Michigan Law School who previously served as vice chair of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee and co-chaired its Terrorism and National Security Subcommittee.

In her new book, Attack from Within: How Disinformation is Sabotaging America, she makes it clear that then same kind of disinformation campaigns she saw originating in Russia or Iran are now homegrown. Barb and Eric talk about why Americans are particularly susceptible to disinformation; about the authoritarian playbook that leaders like Hungary’s Victor Orban or Donald Trump employ to seize power by ostensibly democratic means; about the right wing’s embrace of violent rhetoric and the dangers of stochastic terrorism; and the importance of media literacy in a chaotic information environment.

This is not perhaps the most optimistic episode to air on In Reality, but stay with us. This needs to be heard.

Topics

  • The Murthy v. Missouri Case
  • Implications of a Decision in Murthy v. Missouri
  • Government Communication with Social Media Platforms
  • Chilling Effect on Government Intervention
  • Trump’s Allies and the War on Disinformation
  • The Decline in Trust in Media
  • The Authoritarian Playbook
  • Muzzling the Press
  • Media Literacy and Critical Thinking
  • Changes in Media Practices
  • The Importance of Media Literacy Training
  • Bringing Media Literacy Training to Adults
  • Why Americans are Susceptible to Disinformation
  • Stochastic Terrorism
  • The Risk of Authoritarianism
  • The Risks of Artificial Intelligence
  • Amending Section 230
  • Demand Side Solutions: Media Literacy and Civics Education
  • Optimism for the Future

 

Transcript

Eric Schurenberg (00:01.622)
Barbara McQuade, welcome to In Reality.

Barb (00:05.79)
Well thanks very much Eric, I’m glad to be here with you.

Eric Schurenberg (00:08.53)
Your book is encyclopedic in its scope, and as well as its passionate linkage between the decline of democracy or the threats of democracy and disinformation. Why did you write it? Why now?

Barb (00:23.87)
Well, I have been studying this field of disinformation for some time now. I was a national security prosecutor and I teach a course in national security at Michigan Law School. Since maybe around 2018, I’ve been including in my national security course disinformation, but mostly from the external threat, Russian disinformation. But in recent years, what I have seen is that the greatest threat to national security is the use of disinformation…

…from people within our society. That’s where the title comes from, Attack From Within. So I wanted to help people see what I see, to identify it, to help people name it, so that we can see it rather than be manipulated by it. And my hope is if we understand it, we can defeat it.

Eric Schurenberg (01:10.038)
Let me ask a kind of fundamental question here. Is the threat to democracy from disinformation overwrought? Now, let me explain what I mean by that. All discussion in this area has to strike a balance between free speech and protecting against harmful content. At the moment, it would seem that a significant portion of American jurisprudence suggests that the harms of…

…outweighs the harms of false content. And this is the position of some Supreme Court justices, for example, certainly the public position of the entrepreneur who owns the X platform right now. What is your argument that suggests that we really need to take steps and that this is not something that we will sort out as we’ve sorted out threats in the past?

Barb (02:06.554)
Well, one of the reasons I think this threat is so dire is that we are seeing false claims of a stolen election being used to inform laws. We’ve got laws being passed making it harder to vote on the basis that there’s fraud in elections, which is of course based on no evidence whatsoever. I think we are seeing escalations in threats and political violence because people are very angry when they feel like law enforcement and the courts aren’t addressing needs that they are told…

…are existing, which are in fact non-existent. And so I think that is what is driving and motivating the idea that we need reforms. But I caution in the book, Eric, and I know you’ve read it, about what I refer to as the either or fallacy. This is a debater’s trick. And the idea is that I am going to frame every issue as if there are only two sides of the issue, and then I’m going to portray my opponent’s argument as so completely untenable that I will be the only choice.

And it’s a good trick, it works. But I think where it falls apart is here in this debate about speech versus regulation, the idea that there are only two choices on the table and they frame it as speech or censorship. Any sort of limitation on lies is censorship. And of course, that’s just not the case because there can be things like labeling. So it is not the case that your content gets removed.

It could be that your content gets labeled. It could be that the regulations go not to the content, but to the algorithms that are designed to generate outrage online to keep us on the platforms longer. And then even if we do agree that there is some content that ought to be removed, you know, ISIS recruiting videos or threats, harassment, pornography, that’s, there is such a thing as…

…constitutional limitations on free speech. I think there are some who know only a little bit enough about the Constitution to be dangerous and see all of our rights as absolute when of course that is not the case. The Supreme Court has over our entire history honored time, place, and manner restrictions even on speech. Threats are illegal, conspiracies are illegal, fraud is illegal. And so limitations designed to prevent those kinds of things would not run afoul of the First Amendment.

Eric Schurenberg (04:33.27)
Today the government, as we record this, today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Murthy versus Missouri about the government’s ability to encourage social media platforms to take down potentially dangerous content. So would you walk us through the circumstances of that case and what the implications of a decision would mean?

Barb (04:53.262)
Yeah, so the case is brought by some people who posted content regarding harms of COVID vaccines. And the Biden administration was, you know, public health officials was talking, you know, the phrase is jawboning, contacting social media platforms and saying, please remove this content. It’s wrong. It’s false. And it’s dangerous to public safety. And so some of those things were removed. And the allegation is that this is censorship…

…having a disparate impact on conservative voices. And that’s the issue that’s before the court, whether the government may put pressure on, request, demand that social media platforms remove content in the name of public safety. I think that if the government were threatening to punish social media platforms if they did not remove certain content, that would be a different case.

Here, it is this practice sometimes referred to as job owning, where the government acts with industry all the time. When I was U.S. attorney, we used to go out in the community and talk with industry about a number of things, about computer intrusions. If you’re hacked, please come report it to the FBI because we want to help you not just resolve this case, but we want to catch the perpetrator so we can prevent other intrusions in other companies. Was I telling them what to do?

Was I engaging in some sort of prior restraint. I don’t think so. I mean, I think we were offering help, advice, and requests, but that’s the issue before the court. I think that we will see some justices who are hostile to this position. I think we’ll see others who think it is permissible, and it’ll be very interesting to see where this case comes out because it does risk this idea that the government may not talk to industry groups whatsoever. I have a hard time imagining the court goes that far, but they could play some limits on… the government’s ability to communicate with social media platforms.

Eric Schurenberg (06:55.718)
Already the prospect of this case and some of the decisions in lower courts have put a chilling effect on the government’s willingness anyway to do the kind of jaw boning that you’re describing. And in the case of, that’s right before the Supreme Court right now, that the intention of the government intervention was to twofold as I understand it. One was to, persuade the platforms to enforce their own policies, and secondly, to uphold public safety in the face of a pandemic. What will the implications be of a decision that leans, say, in favor of the plaintiffs in this case?

Barb (07:39.622)
Well, my background is in national security. So I imagine there are a lot of public health implications, like with the COVID context in which it arises here. But I know, for example, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has testified that they have had to curtail a lot of their communication with social media platforms in light of the decision by the Fifth Circuit. That’s the Intermediate Appellate Court, whose decision is being reviewed today by the Supreme Court. The FBI, law enforcement…

…reaches out to social media platforms all the time to say, hey, that user on there is a representative of ISIS. And when they are saying, join, that is code for recruiting to join a terrorist organization, which can lead to criminal behavior. And so I think that it’s going to make it more difficult for law enforcement to nip in the bud, the kind of recruiting that can go on online.

The FBI got wise to this. ISIS was one of the very first to use social media to crowdsource their attacks, you know, attack where you are, putting the sermons of Ayman al-Awlaki online. If the government is not able to flag those things for the social media companies, then that stuff will remain online because there’s no one there to tell them how harmful it can be. So I think it will be to the detriment of our public safety.

if they’re not allowed to do this. What I hope from this case is that there will be a permission to continue this communication, but perhaps with some parameters to ensure that it does not become coercive.

Eric Schurenberg (09:20.974)
The government, of course, is not the only institution that can interfere with disinformation online. The platforms themselves have content moderators. But in an article in the New York Times yesterday by Stephen Lee Myers and Jim Ruttenberg, there, those writers reached the conclusion that…

…Trump’s allies are winning the war on disinformation, in large part by defining any attempt, government or within the social media companies, as censorship, even if the content is.

if the claims being made are made without evidence or in the face of overwhelming counter evidence. One result of this pressure has been that content moderation has been gutted and researchers in universities and in private companies have been chilled quite a bit. And I guess, you know, their argument was, possibly persuasive. Certainly the belief in the illegitimacy of the 2020 election has not been abated despite all the work done to counteract that narrative What’s your what’s your opinion? Have we lost the war on disinformation?

Barb (10:45.018)
Well, I like to think that the war is not yet over and that it’s too early to declare defeat, but there certainly is a battle raging. And as you point out in this article, it talks about how, you know, for example, the Biden administration set up a department of disinformation that was disbanded within a week or so because people were thinking of it and calling it a censorship operation. The director of that organization, a very good researcher in this area named Nina Jankiewicz…

…had to step down because she was the subject of so many threats to her life that she left that work. Same with researchers at Stanford and other places who are looking into this. The goal is to intimidate, to chill, to drive people out. Even since I published my book three weeks ago, I have been getting a lot of vitriolic comments online, accusations that I favor the repeal of the First Amendment, which I most certainly do not.

I have received FOIA requests, you know, it’s fine, I’ll respond to them, but I think the idea behind bombarding you with Freedom of Information Act requests for all of the things you’ve written and all of these things is to just harass you and intimidate you and shill you and exhaust you. And to the point you say, you know what, it’s just not worth it, I’m gonna step out of this field. It is a concerted effort to own the information space. And I think we have to push back against it.

Eric Schurenberg (12:12.67)
I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been the object of that kind of attack. Nina Jankiewicz was a guest on In Reality a while ago, and the harms that she suffered are inexcusable. It is a real shame, and yes, it is a war. You describe in your book, as many people have, that the playbook that authoritarians have traditionally used to win people over, and you point out that…

…All of them seem to be part of Trump’s playbook right now. So, you know, just to tick off a few, create a myth of a glorious past that is now in decline. Get people into uniforms, MAGA hats, if not other signs of uniformity. Create scapegoats, and in this case, migrants, muzzle the press. Since in reality focuses a lot on the media…

…Could you elaborate on the playbook elements of muzzling the press? How is that taking place now in this particular exercise of the authoritarian playbook?

Barb (13:24.078)
I think in a couple of ways, Eric, one is this idea to refer to the media as the enemy of the people, to suggest that the media is controlled by some global elite, that they have an agenda and that they are trying to harm the American people or traditional American values. You know, of course the media is a watchdog. They’re not perfect. Sometimes they err toward the sensational or the controversial to sell news and to make money.

They’re a business, but a free press is essential to a democracy. And so because authoritarians know that one of their boldest critics will be the press, their goal is to silence them. Hitler referred to the press as the Lügen press, which means lying press, in the same way to undermine their credibility so that when the inevitable criticism came, they could say, see, there they go again. I told you they’re the enemy of the people. We can’t trust them. So I think that’s one way.

I think the other thing that’s going on is there are people who are taking advantage of the fact that the media has traditionally understood that presenting a story objectively means telling both sides of a story and doing it fairly. And so if one side says one thing, you try to get the other side so that people can assess the situation for themselves. I think that though presumes that people come to the table in good faith, that people are speaking facts…

…that they may have policy disagreements and getting both sides of that story in a balanced way can help the reader assess the arguments and make up their own mind. When you have one side that is lying and making fabulous claims, it’s very difficult to tell both sides of that story. Just merely telling a side of a story that is false and inflammatory gives it oxygen and puts it before the people.

For example, after that horrible attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband at their home with a hammer wielding intruder, there were some who fabricated claims about the nature of the relationship between Paul Pelosi and the intruder. Complete fabrication, completely made up. And yet we saw mainstream media outlets report the fact that it had been said, not that it was true, but that in very poor taste.

Barb (15:48.986)
Donald Trump Jr. and Elon Musk and others had repeated this claim, and that was the news. What’s unfortunate about that is, in our very busy lives with information overload, many people will hear the substance of the claim without the context that this was a made-up lie. And so I think that there are those who know that if I just throw some skunk into the punch bowl, that that’s enough to spoil the information…

…and I can disrupt things as much as I want to. And I think the media needs to, and I don’t know exactly how to do this, but figure out how to cover these kinds of things with fact checking in real time without allowing someone to manipulate the media so that their message is getting out there.

Eric Schurenberg (16:37.682)
In your book, you talk about the difference between.

Eric Schurenberg (16:41.114)
the way the press acted when you were at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Eastern Michigan, and the way it acts now, a product of the demands of a digital media era, demands for speed and breaking news, and the loss of the ability to be deliberative about how the news is reported. Can you describe that? And also, you mentioned the press’s…

…bias towards sensationalizing news and so forth. To what extent would you say the news media’s own practices are to blame in part for the decline in trust?

Barb (17:23.582)
I think it’s a contributing factor. They are both a public service and a profit-driven business. I think sometimes the latter gets the better of the former. But yeah, I talked about how I remember a time not that long ago when we would get a request for a comment about a news story. We’d say, what’s your deadline? They’d tell us five o’clock or nine o’clock or whatever. We had several hours…

…to figure out how we were gonna respond to this. And sometimes it’s the policy of the Department of Justice to neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation to protect the reputation of people. So many times that was the answer. But there were other times when I thought, is there anything we can say that might be more helpful than that? Because that is sometimes just sort of the stiff arm that doesn’t advance the ball at all. And then there were other times where a newspaper was perhaps going to reveal something about a story that might really…

…harm an investigation. And so we would, you know, gather and look at the DOJ policy, look at the facts of the case, talk to the stakeholders who were involved, you know, the investigating agents and the lawyers, maybe consult with the Department of Justice, and then figure out, you know, how to proceed. So maybe it was a no comment. Maybe it was a request to, or an explanation of, you know, let me tell you what’s really going on. You’re hearing from a public official who’s trying to

in an upcoming election. You might be wise to reconsider whether you are doing a public service and writing the story altogether. That’s all we can say. And they might kill the story altogether. Or I can’t comment now, and I can’t tell you anything for the record, but if you wait until Tuesday, I will tell you everything I know about this because there’s some law enforcement operation coming. But whatever it was, we had the luxury of time to figure out what was the best way to proceed. Now, or toward the end of my…

Barb (19:19.802)
my term in 2017, we’d get a call and they’d say, we need a response now. Or there’d be an email and you’d find it a half hour later and says, can you comment on the thing, whatever it is, and you respond and they say, sorry, we’ve already run the story. What do you mean you ran the story? And the paper will say, efforts to reach the US Attorney’s Office were unsuccessful. Or it may be that in a subsequent edition of the story, they’ll revise it and include your quote.

But the one that’s in the link that goes out to all the people is the one without your quote in it. And so it’s just different. And we’ve tried to adjust to keep up, but it’s just different. And I think one concern I have is that fast now trumps accurate, or complete, or reflective. Time to think through whether this story is one that ought to be printed altogether.

Eric Schurenberg (20:11.854)
Mm-hmm. And you’re talking now about professional media, which is different from the sort of all-comers media, I suppose, citizen journalism that occurs on social media. I wonder if the large section of the voting public actually makes that distinction. Imperfect as it is, professional media does have standards. At least they asked. Even if they didn’t give you time to respond, they asked for a response. I don’t think that’s necessarily true in what is for many Americans their sole source of news information.

Barb (20:51.226)
Yes, I think that’s a really important point. There are large media outlets that do have journalistic ethics, journalistic standards, professional journalists who will protect their sources, who will insist on getting a second source to confirm a story. And I think that’s very important. But there are also bloggers or just goofballs on

social media who are just gonna fire away with whatever they think regardless of whether it’s true. One other really troubling emergence is individuals or operatives who make themselves appear to be a legitimate newspaper when in fact they’re not. I know that I just read an article about things with fake names that sound really good like the District of Columbia Chronicle or other newspapers that…

…that sound pretty good, but are just fakes, are just made up. And so people read that and it brings with it that mark of credibility that we see from mainstream newspapers, but it is fabricated and it’s just an individual who’s saying what they wanna say. So that to me is the most dangerous because people will assume it has all the credibility of their morning newspaper when in fact it doesn’t at all. And so I think that one of the things we really need to do in this country, one of the things I suggest in the book is…

…to really improve media literacy so that we can discern between the New York Times or national public radio and a Russian operative who is disguising himself as a mainstream newspaper that is non-existent. Media literacy is…

Eric Schurenberg (22:36.402)
Media literacy is a major concern of the Alliance for Trusted Media, the organization that I have founded. You point out in the book that while there is a movement in some states to make media literacy training part of the curriculum in K through 12 for students, adults need this kind of training too. We were not raised in this media environment, those people who are grown up and in the workforce and they are perhaps as susceptible as anyone else, as children, to false information. What are the options available for bringing media literacy training to adults?

Barb (23:19.706)
Yeah, that’s such a great point, and I really appreciate the chance to discuss it with you because I think it’s critically important. In fact, it might be more important for adults than it is for young people who are not digital natives, who did not grow up on this stuff. I think there are a lot of ways we can reach people. And one great thing that we have is the way to do distance learning virtually online. There are a number of wonderful organizations that I have become familiar with.

as a lecturer on all kinds of things. There’s the Osher Lifelong Learning, there’s a group called OLLI. So many universities have alumni programming that is available online. The University of Michigan here has consistently done teach-outs and these large courses that are available for people online. So there’s a lot of ways to do that. I think we can offer training in faith communities. I think we can offer training through civic organizations like

Rotary Clubs and Kiwanis Clubs and other civic organizations. And I also know that some secretaries of state and League of Women Voters groups are getting out there to do training. Now, it tends to be election specific, but it still is about being a critical thinker and finding accurate information about voting so that people are not manipulated by some of the falsehoods that we’re seeing online. So I think there are a lot of places where we can deliver adult education and some programs are springing up to be able to deliver it.

Eric Schurenberg (24:48.291)
That’s great to hear. Now, let’s talk a little bit about why this is such a confronting thing, because you could say that we Americans, a wealthy society with a wealth of… information sources and tradition of a free press. Arguably we should not be as susceptible to disinformation as say people in Weimar Germany were, or communist China. We just have more options. Why are we not better resistant to disinformation?

Barb (25:21.306)
Yeah, it’s fascinating, isn’t it? In some ways, I agree with you that it’s really confounding. We have more information than ever before at our fingertips, and yet people are still fooled. There’s a very significant percentage of this country that still believes the 2020 election was stolen when there’s zero evidence of it. All the court cases were lost, all the audits were lost, and yet people believe it because it’s out there. I think one interesting…

Eric Schurenberg (25:24.988)
Thank you.

Barb (25:49.162)
Irony is that because there is so much information, we suffer from information overload. And because there’s so much out there, including false claims and true claims, it’s very difficult for us to sift through it. And so we rely on proxies to help us analyze what’s out there. And we believe people who tell us what they think. And unfortunately, we don’t always choose our proxies well. I think we choose people that we deem credible based on whether they share our perceived, our worldviews.

And I think there are some people who are willing to exploit that trust by telling them things that is not so. And so I think that there are two dynamics going on in society right now that has caused this epidemic of disinformation. One is technology, which makes it so easy to reach so many people so quickly with a false message. That’s one thing, and that’s different from any time in history. I think the other is we are at a moment when both political parties in our country are playing to their bases. Instead of trying to reach the middle and the swing voter, I think both parties have determined that the best strategy is to double down on the extreme outsides of their parties and fire up their bases and get them excited about voting. And so that means that there’s not a lot of middle ground for people to find compromise. That means that there are some members of both political parties demanding political purity.

And sometimes that means they see no room for nuance or compromise. And I think those two dynamics make it really difficult for us, you know, most of us who find ourselves kind of in the moderate middle here to find a political home.

Eric Schurenberg (27:31.662)
Hmm. It is probably essential, not probably, it is certainly essential that you find sources of information that are worthy of trust. None of us is qualified to judge, say, whether mRNA vaccines are healthy or not. We rely on expertise, the erosion of faith and expertise and across the board, media, government, science.

That is an alarming, alarming development. There are many alarming developments that you cover in your book. And I encourage people to read Attack From Within. One of the most alarming, I’ve just picked my favorite from the parade of things to worry about, is stochastic terrorism. And I would say that. the kinds of harassment that you’ve experienced since you wrote the book, the kind of harassment that Nina Jankowicz, for example, and some journalists or researchers who take on disinformation have experienced as an example of stochastic terrorism in a way. Could you explain it? Yes.

Barb (28:48.686)
Yes, so stochastic is a word that means random. And the idea is if I speak out and generate outrage among people who support me, I don’t know who or when or how or where, but somebody will take the bait and will engage in an act of political violence. This is something I saw, Eric, when I was a federal prosecutor in the national security space.

Barb (29:18.578)
sermons online and he would say to ISIS followers, you don’t need to travel to Yemen to meet me and to train. You can conduct a terrorist act wherever you are. If you’re in the United States, use whatever you have. Use your car, use a knife or a machete, whatever you have and kill as many people as you can to create terror. That was stochastic terrorism. He didn’t know who would take the bait, but somebody would. Sometimes the classic,

Example of this is, you know, the statement of, will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest knowing that somebody would take up the call to kill Sir Thomas More when he was, you know, causing trouble and conflict between the church and the crown. And so when I hear Donald Trump talk about a bloodbath, it’s very concerning to me that someone’s going to hear that as a call for action or when he accused the FBI of planting evidence in his Mar-a-Lago home. We know that the very next day, a Trump supporter who posted online about how outraged he was over this incident, attempted to breach the FBI office in Cincinnati with an assault rifle, ended up being chased off and was killed in a standoff with police. The man who attacked Nancy Pelosi’s home.

portrayed with devil’s horns on TV ads and saying, fire Nancy Pelosi and showing her in flames. Somebody’s gonna take the bait. It is incredibly reckless to engage in that rhetoric. And I think those who make those statements know that somebody out there is going to take them up on the offer. And same with Donald Trump on January 6th, you know, we’ll be wild, come to Washington. He never specifically said, I want you to break into the doors of the Capitol, but you have to know that there’s somebody out there who’s gonna hear your words as a call to action.

Eric Schurenberg (31:14.154)
That was the one that frightened me the most, I have to say. But what alarms you the most of the many harms and risks to democracy that arise from disinformation? What alarms you the most?

Barb (31:26.566)
I really worry about our country sliding into an authoritarian regime where people believe that the ends justify the means. We are seeing so many people now talking about our country is not a democracy, it’s a republic. Well, it’s a democratic republic, or it’s a republican democracy, whatever you want to call it, but it means the people get to vote and select our leaders. And just normalizing that language really suggests a slide toward authoritarianism.

We are a Christian nation and Christian nationalism is to me no different from wanting to have a caliphate of Islamic law. That’s not how America is supposed to work. We’re a country of religious freedom, which means any religion or no religion if you choose. And so I think people who think that we are a Christian nation just don’t get it. They need to go back to civics class and history class. And yet it’s a powerful motivator if you believe God is on your side then you bet the ends justify the means. And I think there are people who are willing to exploit that. I don’t think Donald Trump is, for an instance, a man of Christian faith, but he is all too willing to exploit those who are by waving a Bible around outside St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square to symbolize his power over demonstrators there. So I really worry that good people are being exploited in the name of their Christian faithand trying to push back against evolving social norms that they don’t like, but that there will be this idea of the ends justify the means. And I think that is really dangerous, and that’s what concerns me the most.

Eric Schurenberg (33:07.638)
Well, that is something certainly to be aware of. On top of everything else that we face in a totally chaotic and transformed information environment, we now have the arrival of artificial intelligence and generative AI. What are you watching most closely and where do you see the risks of AI?

Barb (33:38.078)
Yeah, it’s, you know, I don’t want to be one of those like doomsayers that AI is the end of, you know, all humanity, because I think all technology is both a tool and a blessing, but also can be, you know, can come with some very negative collateral consequences unless we get our arms around them and try to figure it out, you know, like, I know people probably decried the horseless carriage at one time. I’m from Detroit where, you know, the auto industry is what has made us go. But, you know, I heard this from someone else.

To invent the car is to invent the car accident. And so no doubt, there are bad things that happen as a result of every piece of technology and artificial intelligence is one of them. And I think we cannot yet imagine all of the ways it can be used for good and for evil. What concerns me the most right now is the ways in which it can be used to interfere with elections. So for example, in New Hampshire in the primaries, we had these robo calls where AI was used to generate a voice that sounded like Joe Biden and he told people to stay home from the polls, complete with references to malarkey and all of his other pet phrases. I’ve heard that recording and it sounds pretty good. It was relatively harmless because he was running unopposed in the New Hampshire primary, but man, that could be really devastating in a general election, especially in a swing state where the margin of victory is likely to be razor thin. So I’m worried about that. I’m worried about other things that could cause people to stay home, just confusion…

…about what’s happening at the polls, false claims that the polls have been closed or that there’s a power outage and so the election has been moved to tomorrow or next week. All of those things could be devastating. I also worry about images that make it look like a political candidate said or did something that they did not say or do that will influence people to lose trust in that person. We hear that a president’s words can move markets and crash markets and start wars, what about a president’s false statements that look authentic? So those are the only things I can imagine. Imagine. There must be all kinds of other things I cannot yet imagine. And so I do worry about that because democracy depends on an informed electorate, and people who are trying to confuse us, fool us, lie to us, exhaust us are…

pushing against those good factors in democracy, and we have to build resilience to overcome them.

Eric Schurenberg (36:11.554)
I agree with you that about the risk of AI, everything you just described, the fake voices, the fake images and so forth, they exist now. They have been used before. You could create fake images on existing platforms, but AI does make it so much easier to do it and to spread itvirally and to make it that much more convincing. You break down the potential solutions to the problem into a demand side and supply side, which I think is very helpful way to get your arms around a sprawling problem like this. Among the supply side solutions, you recommend
amending Section 230, which is the rule that absolves social media platforms from liability for information that’s posted. Tell me about your ideas regarding Section 230.

Barb (37:18.218)
So, Section 230, of course, is the part of the Communications Decency Act that was enacted in 1996 that some say are the 26 words that invented the internet, because they give immunity to social media platforms for legal liability for anything that appears on their platforms. And so, in some ways, this really freed them to innovate and to build these platforms and not worry that they had to monitor everything because there might be something that’s on there that could get them sued.

At the same time, however, it has allowed this monster to grow unchecked. It’s like growing a baby alligator in your bathtub, right? It’s adorable when it starts, and then 30 years later you find that you’ve got a man-eating predator. And that’s where we are today because of our failure to really see how this story was going to turn out. But it’s not too late. We don’t need to end Section 230. We don’t need to completely obliterate it so that social media shuts down altogether. I do think, again, like all things.

There’s a good and a bad side to it, and I think it’s amazing the way social media allows us to connect with others in the world. But there are certain things we could do. We could, for example, regulate and make companies liable for their algorithms, which are simply the computer programs that tell what content to appear in highest priority on our feeds. And we know from the Facebook whistleblower named Francis Haugen that Facebook has been programming its algorithms to push content that will generate outrage. Because the more outraged we are, the longer we stay on the platform. The longer we stay on the platform, the happier the advertisers are. And the happier the advertisers are, the more money they make at Facebook. So they’re constantly looking for ways to keep people on the platform. And this was a sea change from the way Facebook used to work, where all you saw were the people you were following, your friends, and you saw their news feeds in the order of their posting. Now they’ve got…

…these algorithms that push content to us based on popularity, mostly based on that which generates outrage. And so that’s something that could be done to forbid these algorithms that are based on outrage or that is sorting the content for us, or at least require the disclosure of the algorithms. I think the other thing that we could do is to prohibit them from scraping our data the way they do. We know that they allow researchers to take our data. This company called Cambridge Analytica scraped Facebook data and used it to build voter portfolios on all of us so that they could micro target groups based on our interests and try to manipulate us in that way into finding a favorable message for voting. I think we could ban that practice and hold them legally accountable if they engaged in it. So, and one last one I’ll mention is requiring paid ad content to disclose who has paid for it.

That’s required on radio, it’s required on television. You might hear, I’m Joe Biden and I approved of this ad. That does not exist on social media. And so it could look like an ad that’s some mainstream political group with a name like the Red, White, and Blue Grandmothers of America. And in fact, it’s being paid by some special interest. I think that kind of disclosure and the way to enforce that is by permitting lawsuits for a failure to do it.

Eric Schurenberg (40:19.504)
Hmm.

Eric Schurenberg (40:35.862)
Good. Let’s move on to the demand side. We’ve already mentioned media literacy training as a way to lower demand for false information or at least mitigate its uptake. What else on the demand side are things that we should be considering?

Barb (40:54.906)
Yeah, I think as users, you know, this is what we as users can do to be more discerning. I think one is one we’ve talked about before, which is this idea of media literacy and helping people become more adept at recognizing the truth from the lies, or at least demanding a second source. This is something that has been used in Finland now for decades because of their proximity to Russia. They have experienced disinformation for a long time, and so they have built into their school curriculum…

Media, literacy, and critical thinking so that students, when they read stories, can ask themselves the right questions so that they know whether they should believe it or not. You know, just really simple things like don’t just read the headline, read the story, because sometimes the headline is designed to generate clicks and might be misleading and not accurately reflect what is actually in the story. Looking for a second source. If you see a story and it’s important news, chances are it’s going to be reported elsewhere as well.

Before you believe something that’s really outrageous, maybe ask yourself whether you’ve seen the story elsewhere or go looking to see if you can find it elsewhere. When you’re reading something that’s based on a data set, statistics or studies, how large was that data set? Was it three million subjects or was it three? Because that can make a big difference. Understanding the difference between causation and correlation, I think that’s a big part of it. So that’s one. I think in addition to media literacy, we need to…

Increase our investment in civics education. This is something that has really gone by the wayside in our public schools as we’ve moved toward an emphasis on STEM education. And although STEM education is certainly important in our current world, we spend something like five cents on civics education for every $50 we spend on STEM education in our public schools. And how about six cents, seven cents, a dime? Because I think if you understand our checks and balances work, how our three branches of government work. It’s harder for you to be manipulated by some of these claims. How our constitution works, how our amendments and our rights are not absolute. I think all of that is really important. And then one more I’ll mention, which is we ourselves need to get out of our information bubbles. I think that for those of us who live in a world of Fox News and that’s all we see, we don’t really know what we’re missing.

Barb (43:19.726)
or for people who watch only MSNBC and don’t know what’s happening elsewhere in the world. We may not know what we’re missing. I think that Fox News, I think, is one that, I’ll just say this, had to pay $700 and some million in a defamation lawsuit to Dominion Voting Systems for defamation claims. So I’ll use that as evidence about how credible I think they are. I think other news outlets are credible, but may have a perspective that doesn’t give-

reflect all of the things, all of the news that you might think is important. And so if you only look at one news channel or only read one newspaper, you might be missing out on other things. And so, you know, if you read the New York Times, maybe you also ought to read the Wall Street Journal. If you watch MSNBC, maybe you also ought to, you know, watch CNN or the BBC from time to time to see what else is going on in the world. So I think making sure that we’re not relying solely on one source for our news.

And then also talking across difference. We’ve got to get out of our homes. We all like working from home because it’s comfortable. We’re in our easy chair and our sweatpants and it’s easy, but we got to get out there. We’ve got to get talking to real people in the workplace, in our faith communities and civic organizations, because that’s where we can remember that we have more in common than we have differences and talk past some of these issues.

Eric Schurenberg (44:37.455)
Mm-hmm. That’s great. Overall, are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future?

Barb (44:47.282)
Short term, I am pessimistic. Long term, I’m optimistic. And that’s because I think, well, in the short term, based on this election year and some of the things we’re seeing already and the rhetoric from Donald Trump about, you know, not just bloodbath, but referring to the January 6th defendants as hostages and other members of Congress repeating and amplifying those claims is really horrifying to me. It’s shocking to me that someone like Liz Cheney, who had the political courage, to just say the truth.

Eric Schurenberg (44:50.603)
Why?

Barb (45:14.454)
is being so castigated. Donald Trump has said she belongs in jail, I mean, for simply speaking the truth. And so I am worried about where we’re headed. I’m worried about this election. I’m worried that if Trump seizes power, we could find ourselves in a very dark place. He has this 2025 project to fire 50,000 workers in the federal workforce. So I’m very concerned about that. But I do think that if people rely on truth and fact and work hard to maintain our democracy.

that long-term we still retain the power to make this country what we want it to be. We have the power to shape our future, but it’s not gonna happen by itself. We need to get out, we need to work, we need to educate ourselves. Being a citizen of this country is not just a privilege, it’s also a responsibility. And if we’re gonna govern ourselves, we need to get accurate information and rely on it. But I think that through good shows like this one and informing the public and encouraging our friends and neighbors to get out there and inform themselves.

We have the power to retain our democracy and use it to advance society.

Eric Schurenberg (46:20.394)
Well, thank you, Barbara. That is a stirring call to action. And it really is our responsibility now to figure out what is true out there and to win this battle against this information. Thank you for being on In Reality.

Barb (46:33.97)
Thank you, Eric. My pleasure.


Created & produced by: Podcast Partners / Published: Mar 26 2024


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