From the Existential Issue: Post-truth and the press

The concept of a “post truth” society has been with us since at least 1992, when Steve Tesich, a screenwriter, defined it in a seminal piece for The Nation. America’s shame after Watergate, Tesich wrote, compounded by the speed with which Richard Nixon had been pardoned, made Americans disinclined to face unpleasant truths about our country. The media-savvy Ronald Reagan was able to exploit that shame, betting correctly that neither the press nor the public would have the stomach to look too closely at the sordid role he is believed to have played in the Iran-Contra affair. (“Too soon,” as we would say now.) Tesich observed that the cost of a post-truth society—ready to believe comforting lies in the place of painful realities—was a diminished and vulnerable citizenry. “All the dictators up to now have had to work hard at suppressing the truth,” he wrote. “We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance.”

Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss “post truth,” press manipulation, and right-wing media lies with Joan Donovan, the research director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, and Claire Wardle, the cofounder and director of First Draft, a nonprofit focused on addressing mis- and disinformation. Both scholars spend a lot of time in the muck with Fox News and its feeder conspiracies. “There’s a lot to be angry about,” Wardle said. Donovan: “This job is hell.” —Maria Bustillos

Listen here and find the transcript of the conversation below.


Maria Bustillos: So we’re talking about post-truth, and both of you have done a lot of work on misinformation and disinformation. And in the wake of January 6, I thought that would be kind of the best place to begin. What do you make of the current climate with respect to the lies that are being told to the public? And tell me about why and how those lies are being told, and how your work plays into and is going to proceed after January 6.

Joan Donovan: So how we proceed after January 6, I think, is really going to have a lot to do with the way in which technologists respond. But I’ve also written about this problem with Claire that misinformation is everybody’s problem now. So technology companies have, of course, removed numbers of accounts. The week after January 6 is going to, you know, really be a momentous one in terms of internet histories, where we’re going to have to tell the story of that moment, time and time again. And we’re not going to have a full understanding of what its impact was, because I don’t think these companies are actually going to be transparent about what they have done.

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But how that impacts truth is actually pretty interesting in the sense that I think you don’t get a massive platforming like that without people who do care about access to accurate information. And what misinformation has been able to do over the last several years is sort of chip by chip erode the foundations by which we make truth happen as a society. And so while I do think that technology companies are going to play a role in how the world, of course, carries on and moves on from this moment, I think there is a much bigger role to be played by other truth-telling institutions, like our journalists, our civil society organizers, our librarians, our educators, anybody whose work has been incredibly disrupted by tech companies insisting that scale at any cost was an appropriate price to pay for our democracy.

Bustillos: We’ve already been thrown into a state of turmoil about what constitutes the truth and what doesn’t. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is Marshall McLuhan’s view of rhetoric taking the place of logic in the modern age. I think we’re kind of facing that—where the proceedings of persuasion, you know, the art of persuasion is completely at the throat of reason and logic. And it’s almost like there’s a partisan divide there. Claire, I know that that is a big focus of your work what does truth mean now? And do you see a difference between this moment, you know, in February, compared to December or October of last year?

Claire Wardle: Yeah, I mean, with Joan—as people who studied this for a long time—I think we would be at conferences and say, well, if we don’t get, you know, things in order, we’re going to be in trouble in five years. And as I watched the events at the Capitol, I was like, Yep, that got squashed to two months. But I think this phrase “post truth” I struggle with a little bit because on one hand, you know, the fact that we had so many videos from the Capitol—we have more evidence now than we ever did. We have more voices than we ever did on some issues. We know more than we ever have done.

But what we’re seeing now is—I talk about these kind of two information ecosystems. The one that we live in is the traditional one, and there’s gatekeepers that we trust. It’s hierarchical; it’s linear. And in some ways, I could argue that it’s somewhat traditional, in that there’s this kind of passive idea that people at the bottom are going to receive these messages and be persuaded. When actually the other ecosystem, which is the one that people were spending the last three months in, completely believing “The Big Lie,” and that is a participatory ecosystem where people are told that they can play a role in finding out the truth, that they can find clues to the puzzle they were looking for, you know, from November 3 onwards, for evidence of a fraudulent vote. And that is a participatory ecosystem. It is not hierarchical. Its information ricochets around, and you see something on Gateway Pundit, then you hear the president say it, then you see your elected representatives, then you have your golf buddies talking about it in your Facebook group—it looks very different.

And so I think for me, it’s understanding that and saying, “Well, how can those of us who live in the kind of traditional ecosystem learn lessons?” Because, ultimately, to your point, unfortunately, researchers, journalists, fact checkers—we all like to think that people have a rational relationship to information. But we don’t. As humans, we have an emotional one. It doesn’t matter where you sit on the political spectrum; it doesn’t really matter how educated you are. All of us are humans. I mean, gorillas and apes—they connect with each other by picking bugs off each other’s fur. We don’t have that as humans, so we gossip. We have always been drawn to information that makes us feel a certain way. And in an age where there were very strong gatekeepers and, you know, Walter Cronkite, etc., we didn’t have the choice to seek out information that made us feel a certain way. Now the internet allows us to seek out and feel certain things. And so, as humans, we’re seeking out that information that makes us feel good. And that’s what’s going on here. It’s having huge implications. But the idea that we can just add more facts back into the ecosystem—that behavior has changed now, so we need to work within the constructs that we have. And that’s why this moment is so important, but also so terrifying.

Bustillos: This is fascinating to me because of, you know, the whole idea of “sousveillance,” right? Where regular people are able to record everything that was happening in the Capitol during the siege. So this is this sort of avalanche of information that people are able to look at. I found it actually quite interesting that nobody has accused—you know, nobody in the sort of conspiracy theory land or the QAnons or whatever—none of those people has accused these videos of being false or confected or fake news. This is a phrase I haven’t heard with respect to these recordings. What do you make of that?

Wardle: Well, I mean, many times in news events, there’s only certain people that are holding a camera. But in those events you had the people who were livestreaming, but you also had the AP photographers. So in many ways they couldn’t say that it was faked—there was just so much information. But it is interesting that, I mean, we did see different narratives around the idea that it was antifa. But you’re right, nobody was able to connect what they were seeing on that video to those claims. But those claims did exist, and they did take hold in those communities. I’m sure Joan’s got more to add.

Donovan: So years ago I was writing about social movements and livestreaming. And one of the things that I was really drawn into was this idea of social surveillance, where the same technologies that we were using in the streets for the Occupy movement were then also being, you know, turned into news stories. And it was obvious the cops had been watching some of them, because they would come out into the park and call people by their first names, you know, as a way to jar you. As a way to get you to notice them noticing you. And through it all, I was thinking about, well, what are we doing in 2011, putting our faces and our politics on the line? Is it a way to draw more people in? Which it certainly was: Occupy events swelled to tens of thousands in some cities on the weekends, and people were excited and using social media and posting selfies and livestreams. But the more sinister sort of dark side of sousveillance, or social surveillance, is this momentary capture can then be used as evidence of other things. And so activists had started to adopt recording practices and ways of documenting movements and publicity—all at the same time also knowing that you had to be pretty cautious about what could get clipped and repaired and turned against you as you were doing civil disobedience.

I don’t mean to confuse that, though, with what happened with the Capitol insurrection, because in that moment, people were filming themselves committing crimes but also were behaving as if they were in a movie about people committing crimes, right? There was this weird sort of simulacrum going on, a simulation of a protest in and of itself where they were just completely unaware of the stakes. And so I think that this moment, though, cinematically—like, in terms of the way we tell media histories—there is some truth in the footage and in the posts. But there’s also a lot of missing context. And as a result of that, I don’t want to delude us into thinking, Oh, we have pictures of this, and therefore it must be true. Because as Claire was saying, the manipulators are very good at inserting false information into those moments when you are searching for things that are accurate. And when I talk about the truth, I’d like to just turn down the heat on it a bit and just say, you know, what I’m referring to is timely, local, relevant, and accurate information, which we all need as a society to survive.

Bustillos: I think that the more layered narratives that people are imposing on these recordings afterwards are infinitely fascinating. The chaotic element seemed to be there to give cover to a more sinister and planned-out effort. What do you think about that, Claire?

Wardle: Well, I mean, I think that was what I found so shocking. I mean, I definitely went to bed the night before and actually texted a friend and said, “I’m going to bed early. I’ve got a really bad feeling about tomorrow.” You know, I thought there might be some trouble, but I think what I didn’t expect was the different groups of people that we saw on the Mall. So, yes, we saw the extremists, the white supremacists, then we saw the QAnon people. But then we kind of saw the dads in golf shirts and the grandmas. And I mean, that was, to me, the thing that shocked me so deeply—how many people believe The Big Lie. And so I think as we’re figuring out what happened on that day, as Joan said, that was—there were people that crossed the barrier and broke down the windows. But I think there were other people like, Oh, this wasn’t what I had planned.

You know, we’re still at the—I think the very early stages of really understanding everything that’s being gathered now about the event. We feel like we know a lot, but I feel that we don’t. And I think that one thing we do know is that there were many, many, many people who were in DC on that day brought together by The Big Lie, but how much they were prepared to cross certain lines and boundaries—I think that’s why we can’t talk about that being one reason or one explanation.

But I do think when we think about the wider context of what this means for society, that was what was deeply shocking. I expected the militia guys and the white supremacists to get up to terrible things. I didn’t expect so many people who I was like, Oh, okay. You know, the anger on people’s faces, the real belief that the election had been stolen. That’s the thing that was, you know—whatever, it’s not a competition for what was most chilling, but I think the implications of that are going to be with us for a very, very long time.

Bustillos: Well, I would like to pivot from this insight to—and both of you have articulated it really brilliantly—to reality television. Because I kind of think that the media aspect of the entire Trump presidency—which has been discussed, you know, ad infinitum—really found its apotheosis in that moment: there were all these people who loved the idea of the drama. They were listening to Rush Limbaugh. They’re listening to Glenn Beck. They’re listening to Hannity and Tucker Carlson, all these people who are boosting their ratings with what was essentially like a play, like a TV show, about a complete myth and fantasy. Ordinary people we think of as needing proof to believe a thing: Why do you think the election was stolen? Who are these people who voted? Who are these dead people who turn out to be alive? And so on, and yet they still go all the way to Washington. And I really think that the whole thing germinated, sort of, with The Apprentice and the idea that you would believe that a failed casino operator is somehow this genius businessman. And the idea that you’re watching TV, right, as a symbol of—like you said earlier—a simulacrum. You know, it’s very Baudrillardian.

Donovan: So when I think about how people arrived in DC, I think about actually my own media practices as a researcher. If you think back to November 3, there was a lot of open speculation about who had won the election. The races were close. There was a lot of commentary online, but there were a few people driving a very specific narrative. These people are political pundits, insiders that were already ginning up the works for this “stop the steal.” They had laid the foundation for it, seeded it around the internet, so that there was already free content. But then, like, if you just narrow your focus down to someone like Giuliani, he had a steady drumbeat of content across every platform, every day, that were updates on sixty-some-odd court cases, all of which he managed to frame as “they”—whoever they are, the deep state, whoever they are, the Dems—are working against Trump. Look, we have sixty court cases out there, and nothing is happening. Why are they refusing to look at the evidence? And then if you actually read all of the errata of the court cases, it’s because there is no evidence. However, the look and feel of legislation, which is off-putting to most of us, actually feels like evidence, but many of us are never going to bother to read it. On YouTube, once you had looked into videos about voter fraud or watched Giuliani, the reinforcement algorithms just kind of wrapped you in a surround sound of suspicion, of suspense.

So by the time you get to January 6, if you are watching this right-wing media ecosystem, that’s happening on your television, where they’re telling you to switch to Newsmax and OAN. It’s happening in print, if you’re reading the New York Post. It’s happening everywhere that you look. So that redundancy is built in as well. But what’s important, I think, about that moment is by the time you get to January 1, January 2, January 3, it feels as if every legal avenue to “stopping the steal” and avenging Trump and “getting democracy back” has expired. And the only thing left is for you to step in.

This is not unlike the feeling that most of us have when there is an immense public wrong, where we feel like the only thing we can do is show up in public and rattle the cages of the bureaucrats and the police and say: No more. However, it was entirely engineered by political elites, which is why it’s so important that we have a vibrant media ecosystem that includes a kind of check and balance so that fascists and authoritarians don’t step in and be able to control both the media narrative and, you know, the way in which their followers or their constituents are told to behave. And so I think it’s years of social media pretending as if scale wasn’t going to have this massive vulnerability built into it—that is, when someone with huge networks wanted to cause a riot, that they could.

The last thing I’ll say is what Marjorie Taylor Greene said: “I was allowed to believe.” Right? People expect media gatekeepers to exist. And so if you’re not doing the work of helping people understand the media—the posts that they’re ingesting and the content that they’re watching—then you are failing them as an audience. And so I think it’s important for us to understand those dynamics.

Bustillos: This is what made my wiglet blow clean into orbit, you know? “I was allowed to believe”! I mean, these are the same people who have been calling people like me fake news, right? Like, for four years or six years or, you know, since the Reagan era. And yet: they are constantly empowering us. It’s like constantly looking to the media, constantly invoking the New York Times. Constantly talking about the narratives that news professionals are putting out, like, in preference to their own propaganda. It’s just ridiculous.

Wardle: Exactly. You asked the question about reality TV. I mean, this was many people’s reality—as I said—everywhere they turned, from their elected officials to the news that they were consuming to their Facebook group communities that they were spending time in. They weren’t getting both sides and making a decision to believe that the election was rigged. Everywhere they looked, people were saying, point blank, no doubt, it was stolen—day after day after day. And, as I said, they were asked themselves to find evidence. So they were scouring the internet looking for examples of this, too. They felt like they had agency. And so for all of those reasons, I don’t know how we get back.

I mean, obviously, the platforms have played a catastrophic role in this, and there’s lots that they can do. But if they changed everything tomorrow, what do you do when you have a very large number of people in Congress still spouting the idea that the election was stolen, as well as not just Fox, but now Newsmax and OAN and talk radio? I mean, this is significant.

And obviously I’m British. And it’s not that the BBC is perfect, but in this country, to see such a fragmented information environment, where just there is no shared space—that for me is what’s so distressing, is that it doesn’t make it easier when you have societies that are becoming more polarized. And certainly in the UK, Brexit has done all sorts of damage, and the BBC wasn’t able to stop that. But seeing where we need to go over the next few years­—as Joan said, this is something that’s going to have to be tackled by the platforms and by elected officials and by educators and by libraries and by civil society. I mean, there is no quick fix for this at all.

Donovan: There’s some funny irony about it, though. Like, you know, some of them in some of the videos actually believe that Trump, once they did this for Trump, he would pardon them. And of course, once you start to actually realize what happened here—the only person that was doing it for a pardon was Bannon, who was also part of the networks that were pumping out this disinformation about the, you know, the “communist algorithms” that had flipped the voting machines. And so it’s really important to understand that, like, just from the point of view of the actors, is that there were some that were doing it out of self-interest and other ones that were doing it—or are really being compelled to do it—because they thought that democracy was imperiled. And that’s something that’s an effect of a kind of nationalism that different countries have become very susceptible to through social media. And we’re starting to see more and more leaders become elected on nationalist platforms—political platforms, I should say. And to me, that’s very concerning as we start to think about, Well, where else can and will this happen?

Bustillos: I don’t think we should discount the fact that Fox is suddenly the third-place network. I think there is some evidence, right? And I’d love to hear your thoughts on this—that people are starting to see the man behind the curtain at this point. Because, I mean, you know, during the impeachment proceedings, the Trump camp is arguing both that he is the president, because the election was fraudulent, and that he can’t be impeached, because he’s no longer president. So the rubber has hit the road here.

If Fox is losing ground and if Republicans are leaving the party in greater numbers, then there’s a certain amount of party-switch that takes place after each election. There’s ample evidence at this point that the Republicans are hemorrhaging registrations in the wake of this election and in the wake of January 6. And, you know, Rachel Maddow is the number one TV show, like cable news show. So there’s some evidence that there are cracks in this foundation.

Wardle: Certainly, I mean, I think, taking seriously the people who have now gone to Newsmax and OAN is what we need to do. But I think you’re right. I mean, it will be very surprising to me if there’s not some kind of fracturing of the Republican Party. Maybe not—maybe there will be a healing. But to me, to have the extremists at one end and then the centrist base be, like, This can’t be my party going forward. You know, whether Trump will come out of this—he’s in Mar-a-Lago, as reporters keep telling us; he’s in a foul mood. But the question is, where is he going to go next? Is he going to start his own social network? Is he going to start his own media empire? I just think there’s so much we’re going to look back on and be like, Wow, you know, in February, we thought we knew so much.

Donovan: Well, you know, I watch a lot of Fox News. I watch pretty much the sort of eight-to-eleven block. And they are expanding the 11pm hour now to Gutfeld. So they’re going to have more opinion content in the evening hours. But, you know, it was interesting to watch them during the election, because I don’t think they really knew how to manage what had happened. Which was essentially that the news desk that makes the decisions about election calls—their call on Arizona was much earlier than MSNBC and CNN. In that moment, Newsmax, OAN, a bunch of other online shows on YouTube really called them out for that and said, “See, even Fox News is part of the problem, even CNN hasn’t called Arizona”; and there was this moment when Trump had tried to switch the levers and get Fox to walk it back—and I think that one of the big lessons here is about opinion versus news. The opinion part is so massaged to look like news that you think you’re watching news when you’re really watching opinion shows. And when it came to the news desk and the call about Arizona, for Fox that was a hard line that the opinion part of the operation couldn’t walk back. And we saw other fissures within the Republican Party, plus the Republican partisan press that weren’t able to reconcile with one another without insisting that, Well, we’ll just move over here, where party over truth is the order of the day.

Bustillos: The My Pillow debacle was really fantastic in that regard.

Donovan: Well, that Newsmax clip in particular, of the Mike Lindell story, where he wanted to do what he does, which is get on news and say This horrible thing happened. When they wouldn’t let him do that—not many people know this, but—he made like a three-hour-long documentary that he tried to upload to YouTube, where it’s him in a PowerPoint and a lot of, like, hand movements where he’s trying to explain everything. And it’s delusional.

But I will say: we downloaded it; we put it on our Google Drive so that we could watch it later as a team. And Google flagged it and actually removed it from our research drive. Luckily, we had it on a hard drive. But, yeah, the mitigation efforts are bizarre, and they’re too far-reaching, and they’re not tailored to the actual product. I mean, we pay for Google Drive, so for them to flag and remove the content is—I mean, maybe I should sue. What do you think, Claire? You know a good lawyer?

Wardle: I mean, so, in terms of what content moderation looks like now? The idea that they’re moderating people’s Google Drive—I mean, there’s a lot to be angry about.

Bustillos: That’s really aggressive.

Donovan: I back up everything. You can’t catch me. You can’t take my evidence away, that’s for sure.

Bustillos: Wowsers, though, that is so aggressive.

Donovan: Yeah, yeah, my team was like, “What are we going to do? We were going to watch that later.”

Bustillos: Some fun.

Donovan: “So you can take the night off.” Yeah, no, this job is hell.

Wardle: But I would love to say something about the role of the mainstream media, because we’re actually about to publish some research about the ways that Fox, CNN, and MSNBC took Trump’s tweets about the election being rigged before November 3 and afterwards and basically blew them up onscreen. And it was like thirty-two hours of footage of the time that the tweets were up onscreen. I mean, this isn’t just the times people talked about what Trump said. It’s those networks pushing it.

And I just—I think as we go back and do a postmortem about this, Trump was, as we know, the master media manipulator. But thinking about the ways that his lies were amplified by the mainstream media throughout 2020—and knowing that Twitter didn’t start adding labels—like, all the way through the summer this stuff was being pumped out almost on a daily basis by Trump. And so I think there’s so much to learn about, you know, what Trump did. How all outlets—yes, we’ve been talking about Fox, etc., but you know what? What was the role of the TV networks in particular in forwarding and amplifying and giving oxygen to this lie? So there’s just so many elements of the last few months that we need to really look at critically, and understand everybody’s role in it.

Bustillos: When we talk about lies, when we talk about truth, we are creating a reality—like right now, for people who are listening. Any narrative can create some kind of a reality that people can inhabit—a rhetorical structure, an ethical structure, and a syntactic structure, all this. How should the media think, moving forward, about the question of oxygen?

Donovan: Yeah, I’ve written a lot about this, and it’s something that Claire and I came together on very early—thinking about, well, if we’re not going to be able to stave off the problems presented by platforms in terms of circumvention, how else do we help other truth-telling institutions handle this problem? And so Claire and I both have been to news outlets, media organizations, training journalists—with Whitney Phillips as well, who wrote a spectacular report at Data & Society when I was there and was the media-manipulation lead. She did a deep dive on how the alt-right probably never would have become as big of a thing as it did without the media attention to it and treating it as if it was not a white supremacist or a white power movement. And so I think Claire and I, one of the things that we want to do in the future is to help other sectors understand misinformation at scale and what role they can play in protecting their communities, rather than simply trying to keep shining a light on these platforms, which are completely unable to understand what they have built nor value the help that we have offered.

And so thinking through this problem of Where do we go from here? and How do we not allow manipulators to take up so much space and live rent-free inside our heads?—in many ways, I think it’s going to take journalists especially to have a very cunning hand and a careful eye for how they’re shaping stories. But the way they need to do it, though, is they actually need to shape the impact stories and the narratives and help all of those other folks that are trying to do the good work of spreading timely, local, relevant, and accurate information. They’re going to have to turn their lens and their pens to those people and help them get the word out. Because ultimately, you know, when it comes to this notion of “it bleeds, it leads,” we’ve seen it time and time again: our platforms have been tilted to give an advantage to disinformers. It’s only been in the past few months that they’ve started to realize how bad it’s getting. And I think they’re starting to feel the heat, that maybe they might be held responsible with this change in the political administration.

Wardle: Yeah, I mean, the other day, a BBC news outlet actually put a tweet out that said You might have heard the rumors about vaccines causing infertility. Will you be getting vaccinated? And underneath that were all these conspiracy theorists saying why they wouldn’t get vaccinated. And I spoke to somebody at the BBC, and I said, “You know, I can see why you did this, but look at how you’ve been manipulated.” And she said something that’s really stuck with me: “You’re right—I keep thinking, We’re using the same storytelling methods that worked thirty years ago, but it doesn’t work now, because we’re being used.” And I mean, it’s a very simple response. But this is hard. It’s very difficult for editors to make these kinds of real-time decisions and to think about what to cover. And the idea of not covering something makes lots of journalists very, very uncomfortable—and for good reason. But the more that we do training around Look at the ways that you are being used and manipulated, then there’s this idea of, Oh, you’re right. Just shining a light isn’t necessarily going to get us the results that we want. Asking the tough questions isn’t necessarily going to get the results that we want.

So it’s a learning process. And I think the US media in particular has really learned a lot of lessons over the last three years. But just recently in Australia, there was a really problematic documentary where they were interviewing a white supremacist, and I was like, Ugh. But you kind of have to learn and recognize what that kind of coverage can do, as witness research showed. But yeah, it’s tough being a journalist in 2021.

ICMYI: Check out the rest of the Existential Issue, which asks the question “What is Journalism?”

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Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.