TYLER: Hey, guys. This is Tyler (ph) in upstate New York. I'm sitting here next to our maple farm's evaporator, waiting for our last batch of sap to hit its boiling point for finishing into sweet maple syrup. This podcast was recorded at...
TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
1:03 p.m. on Friday, March 26.
TYLER: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I'll probably still be sitting here, staring at our thermometer, waiting for it to finally hit 219 degrees.
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CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Breakfast for dinner.
KEITH: Yeah, it is remarkable how long it takes for maple syrup to become maple syrup - like, the maple sugar to boil down. But it's worth it.
JOHNSON: Tastes so good.
KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
JOHNSON: I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.
KEITH: And Bente Birkeland of Colorado Public Radio is here. Hello.
BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Hi.
KEITH: And you are here because we are talking about the mass shooting in Boulder, Colo., earlier this week, in particular the legislative efforts around it. But first, some new information about how the perpetrator obtained his gun - he got it legally after passing a background check, a state background check. That is according to reporting from the AP, Carrie.
JOHNSON: That's right. And, you know, many or maybe even most firearms used in some of these big mass shootings that have really attracted national attention over many years turned out to have been legally purchased, which makes this problem a really, really hard one. You know, we have this big problem with gun violence. A big chunk of the gun deaths annually around the country are a result of suicide. And it's just really a hard, hard situation.
KEITH: Yeah. And certainly, background checks have over time prevented millions of weapons from being sold to people who shouldn't have them. But quite frequently - and this becomes part of the politics. Quite frequently in the case of these high-profile mass shootings, those guns were obtained legally, as in this case.
BIRKELAND: And I think, to that point, it's hard to make the case of, something's effective because an incident didn't happen. It's hard to track that.
KEITH: Indeed. It's very hard to track that. So, Bente, I feel like Colorado has taken more than its fair share of this problem of mass shootings. There have been these cases that are seared in our collective conscience - Columbine, Aurora - these names - and now Boulder.
BIRKELAND: That's right. There's some very high-profile mass shootings that happened here in Colorado. And I think, obviously, there's an incredible amount of grief. People are shocked and stunned but at the same time not that surprised. And there's already calls for action to pass even stricter gun laws.
And I recently attended a virtual town hall with lawmakers from Boulder, which is a very liberal part of the state. It's a college town. And they were on a call with constituents, and you could just see how much energy there is around this. Lawmakers are meeting at the Capitol right now for our legislative session. And here's Democratic Representative Judy Amabile. She represents that district in Boulder where the shooting occurred, and she has personal ties to this specific grocery store. Her son used to work at that store, and his girlfriend is a current employee, although she wasn't there when the shooting occurred.
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JUDY AMABILE: And I can see how desperately everybody wants us to act. We have to act. This has got to be a moment where we don't just do what we did at Sandy Hook. It was so shocking, and it just seemed like something's going to happen now. And nothing happened.
BIRKELAND: I would just quickly note that after Sandy Hook, even if nothing happened federally, Colorado did pass some significant gun measures after Sandy Hook. That was the same year that we had the Aurora theater shooting - so both of those incidents. And then lawmakers passed universal background checks and a high-capacity magazine ban.
KEITH: So, Bente, we're talking about state legislation. We're not talking about federal legislation, in part because it doesn't seem like anything is going to happen. As we say, it didn't happen after Sandy Hook. I mean, it seems like there really is, in the absence of federal action - and there has not been any substantial federal action on this issue since the 1990s, the early 1990s. It does seem like a sort of a patchwork of state law changes have been happening, like after Parkland in Florida, for instance, or now. Certainly, Colorado has been doing some things.
BIRKELAND: That's absolutely right. And the lawmakers I've talked to here say that that's why they feel like Colorado has to do something. They say it's not an ideal approach to have a patchwork of laws. Preliminary discussions are already underway for a ban on assault-style weapons across Colorado. And there's been a lot of talk about this, but the city of Boulder had actually passed its own assault weapons ban back in 2018. And that was a response to the Parkland shooting in Florida. And earlier this month, a state judge struck that down because in Colorado, like some states, cities can't pass stricter gun laws than the state has.
So that's why some lawmakers from Boulder are saying, look; we need a statewide ban. There's going to be a lot of opposition to that, though, as well. And even some Democrats - it's going to be a tough vote in a state where gun ownership is - a lot of proud gun owners, a lot of people who feel like this violates the Second Amendment. And so I think the political debate is going to be very, very tough if we see a bill.
KEITH: And, Carrie, inevitably, when there are Second Amendment questions, this could end up headed to the Supreme Court, you know, to settle differences between states, for instance.
JOHNSON: I think we're going to see a lot of this, Tam. Clarence Thomas, Justice Clarence Thomas, has been calling on the court to take up some Second Amendment cases. The court has been really reluctant ever since that Heller case some years ago. And now we have a new member of the court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Amy Coney Barrett is a strong proponent of Second Amendment rights. And, in fact, one of her most important opinions at the lower court level was on Second Amendment rights. And she was arguing that some people convicted of crimes should regain their right to own firearms.
And the court is considering whether to hear a bunch of gun-related arguments and cases. The most pressing might be whether there is a right to carry outside your home. And the court has not opined on that yet, but we may be getting some more arguments and some decisions out of a new Supreme Court.
KEITH: So that's what Carrie is watching for at the federal level. Bente, what are you watching for at the state level in Colorado right now?
BIRKELAND: I think the biggest thing I'll be looking at is this statewide assault weapons ban. I'm fairly confident we're going to see a bill, and it could very likely, you know, move through the legislative process. Democrats do hold the majority in both chambers of the legislature. Our governor is a Democrat. So I think, you know, this is such a sweeping policy that was never discussed publicly until the Boulder shooting happened. And so it will be unprecedented if that moves through the Colorado legislature this session.
JOHNSON: All right, Bente. Thank you so much for joining us.
BIRKELAND: Thank you for having me.
KEITH: That is Bente Birkeland of Colorado Public Radio. Carrie, I will talk to you in a few minutes for Can't Let It Go. We're going to take a quick break right now. And when we come back, we're going to talk about disinformation.
And we're back, and we are joined by Miles Parks. Hello.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey there.
KEITH: And, Shannon Bond, hello, hello.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Tam.
KEITH: And, Shannon, you cover tech issues for NPR. And, Miles, you are on the disinformation beat. And yesterday there was a hearing up on Capitol Hill that crossed both of your beats. It was a hearing where executives from the social media companies came before lawmakers. It was their first time there since the insurrection at the Capitol by pro-Trump supporters on January 6 and since the widespread rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine began. So who was up there, and how were they received by lawmakers?
BOND: So this was a hearing with the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google. And these guys - you know, they've kind of become old pros at these kind of hearings. They've been appearing a lot on Capitol Hill, or at least virtually. I would say the main sort of theme of the reception was frustration. You know, I think the tide has really turned in D.C., you know, when it comes to the attitude towards tech. There is broad agreement - these companies - you know, they've gained a lot of power and influence. But I think lawmakers are feeling they just have not taken responsibility for the consequences of these platforms. I mean, I think January 6 is probably the prime example of this.
KEITH: You mean they didn't show up at the hearing and say, yep, our platforms were used to organize that? Cool, cool.
BOND: Well, that was actually - that was something that came up again and again - right? - like, where they were basically being pushed to talk about, you know, what kind of role they played, what kind of role their platforms played. And we know - look at the charges that have been filed against many of the rioters. You know, they detail how, you know, these people - many of these people were planning and certainly documenting the events of the day on many of these platforms, you know, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. And so there was a lot of push for that.
And the members were also - in many cases, you know, they were not interested in sort of the typical tech CEO kind of evasive answer with a fair amount of nuance. And it's complicated, and I'll get back to you. Like, they wanted yes or no answers, and they were very frustrated they weren't getting them.
PARKS: Yeah. I mean, I think it's important to note that it was really clear yesterday that these lawmakers are closer than we've ever seen them before to regulating these companies. And to be able to justify that regulation, you know, lawmakers need to establish a problem. So they kept going back to this over and over again. You know, do you accept responsibility for what happened, for the violence that a lot of experts pin on misinformation over the last couple months about election results, for instance? Mark Zuckerberg was asked that specifically by Mike Doyle, who's a Democrat from Pennsylvania. Here's what he said.
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MARK ZUCKERBERG: I think that the responsibility here lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and take - and do the insurrection and, secondarily, also, the people who spread that content.
PARKS: So it's not a whole lot of, yeah, this is Facebook's fault. There was a lot of kind of personal responsibility talk.
BOND: I mean, the only one who had really actually came out and said yes when sort of asked directly about this was Jack Dorsey at Twitter. And even he said, yes, but you can't pin this on the tech platforms alone. You know, there were other factors involved.
KEITH: In terms of the partisan divide in this hearing, often it seems like these sorts of hearings divide along the lines of Democrats saying, you need to do more, and Republicans saying, you are silencing conservative speech. How did the politics work out yesterday?
BOND: I mean, yeah, that is exactly how it usually falls out. I mean, everyone agrees that they're angry about the way that platforms moderate, but they don't agree about, like, kind of which direction the problem is in. And, you know, certainly on the Democratic side, we heard about that. You know the complaints. They don't do enough to get rid of misinformation, whether it was about election fraud, whether it was about, you know, COVID vaccines, things like hate speech, extremist content.
You know, the Republicans - we did hear some of those complaints of anti-conservative bias. But Republicans also found sort of a new line of argument against the companies. They - many of the Republicans focused on the harms to kids, you know, mental health and wellbeing harms, you know, especially to teenagers and, you know, zeroed in on some plans, for example, that Facebook has to launch of a version of Instagram for kids under 13. And that was a bit of a change. And I think that's, you know, potentially something that could see bipartisan support. I mean, who's going to be against saying we're protecting children by cracking down on what these companies are allowed to do?
PARKS: That change might also be driven a little bit by politics, too, because right when they start talking about moderation, Mark Zuckerberg was really clear that he wanted to pin some of the blame for January 6 specifically on former President Trump. And so, you know, I think some of the Republican lawmakers were probably seeing this as a slippery road to go down, where they don't want to be talking about former President Trump's Twitter account and, you know, whether - the question of whether, you know, his account should have been locked earlier, potentially. And so kind of avoiding the entire concept of moderation seemed to be a strategy yesterday.
KEITH: So how much did the hearing get into disinformation and conspiracy theories finding a home on these platforms? And what - like, is there any answer as to what can be done about it? - because it seems, you know, challenging.
BOND: Yeah. I mean, that was - there were tons of questions about that, you know, as we've mentioned - January 6, you know, questions about election fraud, the Stop the Steal movement. You know, the companies come back and say, these are our policies. This is, you know - this is how many millions of pieces of content we've taken down.
But many of the lawmakers came back with saying, well, you know, but what about your business model? What about the fact that, you know, these are ad-driven businesses? These are ad-supported businesses. We know that, you know, ultimately, they want to get people spending time on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube. And one way to do that is to keep people engaged with the content.
We know that emotional and sometimes inflammatory content keeps people engaged. We've seen examples. There's, you know - it's been documented where Facebook has been recommending people, you know, to join, you know, militia groups, to join extremist groups. And so, you know, there's a lot of focus from the members about, you know, not just what are you doing about this problem that has been created, but what is your role in - what is the role of the architecture of your platform in creating these problems in the first place?
PARKS: Well, and the tech leaders themselves, too, kept going back to this idea that, no, no, no, you keep saying that engagement is good for our business model, but in reality, it's actually really bad for us long-term. People aren't going to want to use these platforms if they're hotbeds for misinformation or hate speech. But we're not seeing that actually play out in the real world. You know, when you actually look at polling data, these companies are less popular than they've ever been before. You know, only - in a recent Pew poll, only 10% of Americans said that social media companies are basically making the country better. And at the same time...
PARKS: ...We're using them more than ever. You know, the amount of time that Americans spent on social media and the Internet in general in 2020 was the most ever in the history of the country. And so it kind of rings a little untrue when they say, well, no, this - all of this misinformation is really bad for our platforms. It doesn't - there's not a clear correlation between people hating the platforms and people not using them.
KEITH: Miles, I want to talk about a story that you reported this week about disinformation. It obviously goes way beyond politics and elections. And you were reporting on how misleading information about vaccines is, you know, going viral online.
PARKS: Yeah. I mean, basically, this story came from me having access to this company called NewsWhip, which is a media intelligence firm. And they are tracking the most engaged-with stories on social media every day. And so I'm kind of clicking through there, just looking for trends, basically, on stories around vaccines. And what I find is almost every day that I search for vaccine stories, near the top or at the top of the most engaged story of the day is a story about somebody who died after getting a vaccine. Now, there's no scientific connection at all between the vaccine in these people's death, but basically these are stories with headlines that say, like, doctor receives vaccine and then dies two days later or four days later. And what you're seeing is...
KEITH: Correlation, not causation.
PARKS: But what you're seeing is these news outlets are publishing these factual articles, but then they're being picked up by all of these actors online who want to use them for their, you know, misinformation purposes. So the actual content is true. It's just being shared in this super-misleading way. And experts say it has the same kind of end result. This - there's no way that these kinds of stories going viral is helping vaccine hesitancy right now.
KEITH: But that would certainly be more challenging to deal with because it's not like it is a misleading story.
PARKS: Yeah. I don't - I mean, that's - there's no good answer really for how you solve that problem. It's not - one expert told me it was basically - we're not talking about disinformation anymore. We're talking about fallacies. And something that I thought was really interesting that Mark Zuckerberg went back to yesterday in yesterday's hearing was you don't want private companies to be the arbiters of truth. You don't want us to be the people who are, like, making that final call. People also don't want the government making that final call on, you know, what's true or what you say or can't say.
And so there's not really a great answer out there for this specific problem. If something is true like this, it just seems to be a problem that no one has come up with a solution for yet. But, again, it's a huge problem. The most engaged-with story in all of 2021 related to vaccines was not about the rollout. It was not about clinical trials. It was about a doctor dying after getting a vaccine, even though in the content of the article, it said there probably, almost certainly was no connection between these two things. But still, this is the vaccine content that is being read by the most people.
BOND: And I think - I mean, this is something, you know - not to give sort of too much sympathy to the point of view of the companies who are obviously going to be defensive about this stuff, but, you know, one of the things that especially Mark Zuckerberg has said again and again, you know, and he talked about at yesterday's hearing, you know, is this idea that, look; you know, Facebook is a massive platform. The problems you see on Facebook are really, you know, mirrors of the problems of larger society. And so it's really - it can't be just up to Facebook to fix those problems.
On the other hand, you know, what he's not engaging with there is this criticism that you may have a, you know, propensity for people using these platforms to, you know, use them to - you know, to spread rumors the way you do in real life. But there is a really different sort of thing that happens when things can get amplified the way they can get amplified on social media when they have the reach that these platforms have. And so that's the core question. Like, it's not just - it's not, you know, what they - can they do to change human nature. But, you know, what can they do to not make it worse and to not make this problem that we know already exists, you know, even a much bigger problem?
KEITH: Yeah. All right. Well, we are not going to solve that on this podcast today, but we'll keep trying. Shannon, thank you for joining us.
BOND: Thanks for having me.
KEITH: And, Miles, you stick around because it's about to be time for Can't Let It Go.
And we are back, and Carrie Johnson is back, too. Hey, Carrie.
JOHNSON: Here I am. Hey.
KEITH: Hey, hey - for Can't Let It Go, which is exciting. This is the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just cannot stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. Carrie, what is it, politics or otherwise?
JOHNSON: Well, it's a little otherwise, actually, this week, Tam. You know, I hit the pandemic wall kind of hard again this week. And for me, the whole thing is symbolized by this image of this big ship stuck in the Suez Canal, right?
JOHNSON: So this ship has been stuck in the Suez Canal. And they brought out these little tugboats to try to get it moving, and they brought out dredgers. And, you know, nothing has got this thing to move. And I feel like one of those tugboats. Like, I'm so ready to get out of my house, and yet we're still living with this pandemic. You know, I think I can. I think I can. I think I can, but not yet.
KEITH: If we were standing next to those tugboats and dredgers, they would look gigantic. But next to that ship, it's just insurmountable.
JOHNSON: It is massive.
KEITH: It's so big.
PARKS: I also feel like it's definitely, like, a story that I thought - like, I saw it kind of pop up earlier this week, and I was, like, oh, that's interesting - kind of, like, went back into my hole. And then, like, I keep looking, and it's still just stuck...
PARKS: ...In the canal.
PARKS: So, like, I just keep thinking it's, like, no, that'll be gone in a couple hours. And then it's like, people are still like, no, it's still there.
JOHNSON: Somebody has created a website that's called something like Is It Still Stuck or something.
JOHNSON: So you can just go check, and it has, like, all the little dots of the ships backed up and that one big ship in the middle.
KEITH: All right. I'm going to go next. Mine is, like, also about sort of the pandemic. It's also about being sort of stuck, I think. And it is also about a glorious reply-all apocalypse. The Wall Street Journal has this article in their section known as the A-hed. It's, like - it is the part of the Wall Street Journal that just consistently brings joy, and this one brought me a lot of joy. It is from Katherine Bindley. The headline is, "They Just Wanted Their Couches. An Accidental Reply-All Email Storm Followed." So what happened is this company was like, hey, 204 of our customers not BCC-ed (ph). Your couches aren't going to be ready until May. And then, like, a reply-all apocalypse began, and those are always glorious.
PARKS: Were people just, like, so angry?
KEITH: Well, it started out with, like, you know, can I get a refund on my shipping, or, you know, whatever it is. But then - you know, and then the inevitable, please remove me.
KEITH: But then, out of nowhere, someone named Zoe mentioned she was single and looking for a Jewish man.
JOHNSON: Oh, my gosh.
JOHNSON: Oh, my gosh.
KEITH: That's when things got really interesting.
PARKS: Stop it.
KEITH: (Laughter) And so this, like, goes all night with people. They - people just sort of, like, get into it. And they're, like, oh, I've got a friend, or, you know...
PARKS: No way.
KEITH: ...All of these things. By the end, they're joking that they're all going to get together at Zoe's wedding...
KEITH: ...To whoever she ends up finding. So what could have been really terrible turned into this wonderful thing. Oh, and at one point, they all start sending around pictures of the fabric swatches that they got for their couches that they still don't have that they're all now using as coasters.
JOHNSON: Everybody has so much time on their hands, and they want to sit on the couch.
PARKS: And I just want to say...
PARKS: Zoe, if you're out there, we would love a timestamp at some point from your couch that you will get at some point.
KEITH: Possibly in May, possibly later. I feel like with the pandemic, it is best to find joy where you can and never to have too much hope about getting something on time, like the restart of school or your couch - especially your couch. Miles, what can't you let go of?
PARKS: Well, mine's kind of similar-themed - pandemic-related - but with the more hopeful angle in mind. You know, you guys know I'm from Florida, and so winter is always a very difficult time for me in Washington. And I am definitely somebody who is, like, a circle things on the calendar months away from when they're actually happening. And for me, the date I always have circled every year that winter is actually officially over is opening day of baseball season...
PARKS: ...Which is next Thursday. And this year, you know, with the pandemic and everything, I am actually eligible to be vaccinated next week as well.
KEITH: Woo (ph).
PARKS: And so there's, like, this beautiful symbolism that I've just been thinking about a lot this week because I already get, like, way too emotional about opening day every year because I hate winter that much. And so I just feel like the vaccination mixed with baseball - I'm going to be, like, this teary, happy mess on Thursday. So please feel free to send, like, cookies or texts or anything else that's nice.
JOHNSON: All the things.
KEITH: I got an email today from my summer pick-up softball league that could not get together last year, and we have a permit. We are going to get to play this summer.
KEITH: And I'm so excited.
PARKS: That is awesome.
KEITH: And I have no idea where my glove is (laughter).
PARKS: I'm going to be so excited to, like, just be outside in the sun that I might just come to your softball games and just hang out...
KEITH: Oh, my gosh. Miles, you can...
PARKS: ...Just because it's, like, something to do.
KEITH: You could totally come. It's not for girls only. You could totally come.
PARKS: But I'll heckle. I'm, like, a bad heckler.
PARKS: So I will, like, talk a lot of trash. Is that OK?
KEITH: No, it's a - well, it is all trash talk. And it's a pick-up game. You really...
KEITH: ...Could come. You really could come.
PARKS: OK. All right. Cool. I just found myself a softball game.
KEITH: (Laughter) All right. That is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Maturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Claire Oby. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting and disinformation.
JOHNSON: And I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.
KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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