What Does It Take To Combat Disinformation? : The NPR Politics Podcast Whitney Phillips, assistant professor at Syracuse University, talks to NPR's Miles Parks about conspiracy, disinformation, and what it would take to improve civic literacy and rebuild trust in institutions in the United States.

This episode: voting and disinformation reporter Miles Parks

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What Does It Take To Combat Disinformation?

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TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Tamara Keith, and it's that time of year again when we come to you and ask for a little bit of help. Every day we are here in your podcast feed, and there is so much that goes into gathering the facts and explaining what they mean and also making us sound good (laughter). And in order to keep this going, we need your support. By donating to your local NPR station, you are not only helping your station bring you local news that matters in your community - and that is really important - but you're also helping us cover the White House and Congress. Your donation is crucial from your hometown all the way to Washington and everywhere in between. To help us out, go to donate.npr.org/politics to get started. And thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting and misinformation. And 2021 was a year that was defined by misinformation. It started with election denial and then followed through the summer as tens of millions of Americans have continued to resist calls from health officials to get vaccinated against COVID-19. So what will the new year bring? I wanted to hear an answer from an expert in the field. So joining us now is Whitney Phillips. She's an assistant professor at Syracuse University and an author of a number of books about the information landscape in America. Hi, Whitney.

WHITNEY PHILLIPS: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

PARKS: The way I thought about misinformation this year, especially, has kind of been in two buckets. There's been the election bucket - the Jan. 6 bucket - and then there's the COVID bucket, whether it's vaccines or masks or all of these different things. And I want to focus a little bit on COVID to start. And I guess I just wonder, as you were watching the vaccine rollout take place, has it surprised you how pervasive misinformation around the vaccine and how many people - how many millions, tens of millions, of people - have remained hesitant to get the vaccine?

PHILLIPS: Not really, no. I mean, it - everything in our lives right now, I would say, is shocking and yet not surprising, especially for those of us who have been doing this research a long time. It isn't like any of it is out of the blue; I can't believe it's happening. Watching it unfold in real time and living this history as a human being is - I still find myself shocked by so many of the things that I see online and offline. But the vaccine rollout and hesitancy among certain populations - from my vantage point, many of the resistances to COVID policies, whether it's masks or, you know, social distancing or the vaccine itself - a lot of that is pulling from the same energies that are motivating, you know, conspiracy theories around the 2020 election. Those two things, I think, actually are not so easily separable because they both emerge out of the same media landscape where, for certain subsets of the population, you know, mistrust in institutions, mistrust in the news media, are really pervasive. And so if you have messages that are coming out of those institutions, there's going to be a knee-jerk resistance to them whether people are talking about the election or if they're talking about what actually happened on Jan. 6 or if they're talking about COVID - that those things - it's kind of pulling from the same taproot, to mix a metaphor. And that's why a lot of the energy that you see from Jan. 6 or from Stop the Steal or whatever - there is rollover. And that's what makes trying to deal with the problems so difficult because you can't easily isolate it. It's not like you have the COVID problem separate from all these other problems. All the problems are the same problem. And they're enormous. And they're decades old. And so where do you even start?

PARKS: Well, and that's what I'm wondering. When you look at the last year or two, there's the mistrust in news organizations, but then there's also the mistrust in the government more broadly. And so I wonder, are there things that the government could have done to affect the information landscape more positively and get people to trust the vaccine, specifically, more - that as you've been watching this roll out, you've thought, oh, this was a misstep, or this is something they could have done better? Or is there just a natural limit on how much the government can do to fight, you know, this sort of negative information environment?

PHILLIPS: If you are raised in a media environment where the villain of the story has always been the government or at least liberals within the government or any group of people that you've designated as being mistrustworthy (ph), if you go into a crisis with those beliefs about the world that really factor into your identity, it kind of doesn't matter what the government ends up saying or what scientists end up saying. If you already just mistrust the words that come out of certain mouths, when those mouths open up and start saying words, it's going to be really hard for there to be instant buy-in because the trust is already - it's not that the trust is lost, it's not there from the beginning. And so the Biden administration found themselves in an extraordinarily difficult situation where it - whatever they ended up doing or saying, there was going to be resistance to it. And it's tricky because it's not like people have one reason for feeling resistance to the government. There are lots of different communities with lots of different concerns that they might have. Some of them have more basis in reality than others. So the government, whatever message they put out, it wasn't going to have universal buy-in. And then, you know, you couple that, though, with the fact that COVID was, from the very beginning, a fluid situation. We were and continue to learn things as we go. And so some of the messaging has shifted over time. I mean, even thinking if delta had never come along, then, you know, encouraging people to go in the world maskless, pure vaccinated...

PARKS: Yeah.

PHILLIPS: ...Might have been okay and might have remained policy until now. But delta did come along, and omicron did come along. And so as these variants have emerged, the messaging around what's happened has needed to shift. And for people who already have suspicion or inclination towards suspicion of government messaging, when you see what looks like a vacillation in messages, then that would reinforce your belief that, well, I don't have to listen to anything they say because they don't - they're making it up as they go or these are political decisions. There always was going to be enormous challenge that no administration would have been able to overcome just given the nature of what was happening and what our political climate is like currently.

PARKS: All right. We are going to take a quick break, but we will have more with professor Whitney Phillips in just a second.

And we're back. So, professor Whitney Phillips, before the break you were talking about the state of our current political climate. And so I want to look ahead to next year. 2022 is a midterm election year. What do you expect when it comes to political disinformation and disinformation around our voting systems?

PHILLIPS: I mean, I imagine a mess, you know? And that isn't even - so '22 is just a jump then to '24. Part of what makes Jan. 6 a present-tense emergency - not just something terrible that happened a year ago, but a present-tense emergency - is that so many of the network dynamics, cultural dynamics, media dynamics that allowed it to happen persist. You still have the incentivization of certain kinds of false, misleading, harmful information on social platforms. You still have politicians who have built a brand around actively, unapologetically misleading citizens. You - so many of those structures that made Jan. 6 kind of an inevitability - we didn't know exactly how - what was going to happen, but it was very clear that something violent and something scary was coming. That was clear for many for a long, long time. It's not like we've solved those problems.

PARKS: One big difference, though, is former President Trump - you know, right? - like, not being on Facebook and Twitter this cycle. And I guess I wonder, at the time that he was - his account was shut down earlier this year, there was a lot of reports of, oh, we've seen this percentage decline in misinformation narrative mentions over the spring. And so I guess I wonder how much does that make a difference here? Will that make it less likely for a Jan. 6 scenario to happen, considering the kind of largest megaphone is no longer on mainstream social media?

PHILLIPS: I - in some ways I feel like the dangers have only increased. I mean, so, yeah. Having Trump off of social platforms means that the news cycle is not being driven by him as it had been previously. I would argue that that's good. However, what that also means is that the emergency and the threat - the present-tense threat of Jan. 6 - is not necessarily so abundantly clear to everyday citizens.

PARKS: All right. So assuming, you know, Whitney Phillips becomes media czar...

PHILLIPS: (Laughter).

PARKS: ...Of America at some point going forward, I guess what does a successful or a healthy media environment even look like. Does it involve - is there a healthy version of our social media landscape that involves Facebook and Twitter? I guess I'm having trouble, considering the current climate, imagining what a healthy information ecosystem would even look like.

PHILLIPS: Yeah. And I'm going to be super disappointing and say that if I were able to wave a magic wand and make the changes I think would be necessary to fixing, to addressing, this crisis, I wouldn't even start with the platforms. I mean, that's not where my concern would be. The problems that we have on the platforms have been - it's been a slow march towards this for a long time, literally for decades, based on the previous media landscapes. I mean, we often talk about our current media landscape as if this is the dysfunctional one. But that dysfunction has existed for a very, very long time. And so for me, rather than starting with the symptoms, my inclination would be we got to get to the causes. We have to get to the root of what's happening. And that's not a fun answer. Nobody likes this answer. Everybody wants me to say - and others of us who do this work to say - just do X, Y or Z. Just fix this on Facebook. Just fix the algorithm. I mean, it's not that those aren't - wouldn't be important conversations to have or goals to have, but if you're not dealing with the root cause, it doesn't matter. You would have a better algorithm, but with people who still have the same beliefs. And they would spread in other kinds of ways, maybe on a different platform, maybe just in a different way entirely. So I would want to start in K-12. I would want to work on civic education. I would want to emphasize to young people the importance of, for example, communitarian value systems, where we are working through a pluralistic democracy together to encourage different kinds of conversations about where students fit in relation to their media environments, how they are ultimately connected to everyone else who shares those environments. That is a boring answer. There's nothing sexy about it. It's slow. It would take - I mean, I wouldn't even want to put a number on how many years that would take, thinking about curricular changes and how we talk about media and our relationships to each other and our responsibilities to each other to children. But ultimately, that's the root - is these belief structures that we are surrounded by for an entire lifetime that then manifest as the kind of mess that we're seeing on social platforms now. So as unsatisfying as that kind of sort of redirection is, I just don't see any way around that.

PARKS: All right. Well, we can leave it there then.

PHILLIPS: (Laughter).

PARKS: And, hopefully, we take a small step in 2022 towards that reality. Whitney Phillips, thank you so much for joining us.

PHILLIPS: Thank you so much for having me.

PARKS: I'm sure we will talk again soon. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting and misinformation. And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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