Montana Public Radio

Truth, Lies And Social Media

Jan 14, 2021

The debate over social media's influence and responsibilities has intensified in the wake of the assault on the U.S. Capitol. How can journalism compete with the misinformation disseminated on social media?

Journalists Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio, along with special guest New York Times columnist Charlie Warzel discuss this and more in this episode of Parsing the Press.

Sally Mauk We have a special guest today. And I want to welcome Charlie Warzel, a columnist for The New York Times who lives here in Missoula. And Charlie, you've described yourself as a "reluctant chronicler of our poisoned information ecosystem." And social media is a huge part of that poisoned ecosystem and has led us to where we are now. And social media is now trying to stem the tide it fostered. Is it too little, too late?

Charlie Warzel It's tough to be definitive and say it's too little, too late. I do think that the toothpaste is out of the tube, so to speak. I think that so much of the radicalization that can happen here, where you know, you start off with some pretty anodyne political opinions and beliefs and, you know, slowly get thrown into more and more extreme views, kind of coaxed out via different groups and communities and algorithms that reward you with engagement. I think that that has happened for so long and for so many people. And it has elevated such extreme ideas that it's sort of impossible to, you know, just get rid of a social network or get rid of, you know, a specific influencer on that social network and expect it to just go away. So I do think that a lot of damage has been done. Can we reverse it? It's possible, but I don't think we can expect that with, you know, a couple of tweaks to the system, or even hard changes, that we're going to see, you know, any immediate results.

Sally Mauk Well, again, some Montana political leaders — and I'm thinking of Congressman Matt Rosendale and Missoula Representative Brad Tschida — they continue to post lies on Facebook and Twitter that the election was fraudulent, offering no proof, of course. But they don't seem at all chastened by what's happened in D.C. And on top of that, Senator Daines is urging Twitter to lift its ban on President Trump.

Gwen Florio Yeah, they're all sort of doubling down on these contentions. And I think all of them are smart enough to know that what they're saying has no factual basis. Tschida said that the people storming the Capitol are not Trump supporters. The FBI has said, yes, they were. But I think it plays well to the base, and I think that's why it keeps happening.

Sally Mauk Charlie, the recent social media bans on Trump and others have nothing to do with the First Amendment, but they do raise issues of who gets to be the censorship judge. And do we really want tech billionaires monitoring and curating our speech?

Charlie Warzel I think this is one of the most uncomfortable places that many of us are coming down right now. Right? I am very uncomfortable with the way that a lot of these platforms have, you know, moderated their content and sort of allowed, you know, these extremist communities to fester and grow and and be rewarded, essentially. At the same time, I think you can make a case that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the most powerful unelected human being in the world. He presides over close to 3 billion people. He has the ultimate say. He cannot be removed by his board. I mean, this is an enormous amount of power over our communications system that is bigger than anything that we've ever seen in the world before. So, I'm deeply uncomfortable. But I think this is sort of what you get when you have a politics that is so shameless and so intent on sowing division and culture war, you know, in order to score political points. I mean, this is a dysfunctional government and our governance is dysfunctional, and it puts all of us in difficult positions where there is no good answer. So I don't think that, you know, these people should be necessarily playing this role. But at the same time, there is a sort of a gunshot wound in American democracy and you have to try to stop the bleeding.

Gwen Florio You know, one of the things that's most upsetting about this to me is to hear these politicians trumpeting First Amendment rights when they talk about their tweets, the things that they're putting out that are not true. And I'm sure they all know full well that the First Amendment does not apply to private companies. They can do this. They can shut people down.

Sally Mauk That's an excellent point to make. And Gwen, social media is, I think, fair to say, the primary source of information for many people who used to get their information from traditional journalism sources. And journalism has safeguards and filters that social media does not have. But sometimes journalism screws up too. And I'm thinking of a recent story that aired on the Montana Television Network about a Montana man who attended the D.C. rally.

Gwen Florio That was an interview with Sam Redfern, who is a Missoula veteran. And he was saying he was at the rally, he said just a small group of 200 to 300 antifa members were responsible for the rioting and destruction at the Capitol. Again, totally untrue. First of all, anyone who looked at their television could see there were way more than 200 - 300 members. And as we've already noted, it's been shown that those were not antifa members. Many of them were Trump supporters, members of extremist groups. Responsible journalism, when someone says something like that, I think it's really useful, especially when someone is a powerful person like a politician makes a false statement, you want to know what your elected representatives are saying. But what a responsible journalist does is come back immediately and point out the untruth in that statement. And an excellent example of that was Ashley Nerbovig's story Saturday in The Missoulian, where she had referenced an email she got from Brad Tschida, again, saying these were not Trump supporters who caused this. And she immediately followed up with an interview from a Harvard expert on disinformation, again, pointing out the falsehoods there.

Sally Mauk The important thing to note, I think, is that there was an almost immediate correction to the MTN story. And I think that's another thing that we should point out, is that when journalism screws up, they immediately make a correction about that.

Gwen Florio The thing about that correction, yes, it ran and MTN handled that exactly as they should have. But that story flew around social media. There were other interviews with Sam Redfern on other stations where he repeated these same contentions, and there was no follow up.

Sally Mauk The historian Timothy Snyder wrote an article recently about the consequences for a society that can no longer agree on basic facts and truth. And he laments the substitution of social media for legitimate news. And he says it fosters "losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true." And Charlie and Gwen, I agree with that.

Charlie Warzel I do as well, as someone who's followed this for a really long time and wrestled with these questions. I think one of the problems, too, is the way that social media platforms flatten all content and make it look, you know, very much the same. A New York Times story, for instance, or a Missoulian story will look exactly the same in your news feed as a story from a website that somebody created 25 minutes ago in order to spout lies or conspiracy theories or make something up. So that's one issue. But I think when we are trying to discuss this reality crisis that we're in right now, I don't think, again, you can go back to the very beginning, put the stuff back in the box. I think that the problems with social media sort of blurring and muddying the news and traditional journalism means that these companies need to take responsibility in the same kind of way that journalistic outlets take responsibility. You mentioned corrections. You mentioned standards. I think it's incumbent upon these platforms now that they have built such large audiences and scaled up and reached the ambitions they set out for themselves a decade ago, that now they need to own up to that. They need to think about the health of these platforms in these communities. And they need to work towards that. They need to work with journalism to create authoritative content, instead of, you know, just letting anyone run roughshod over our social commentary.

Gwen Florio I'm almost of two minds about this, because especially for breaking news, I'm on Twitter. But I'm also looking at legitimate news sites. And I think it is incumbent upon people to become informed consumers of news and know who is supplying it. Most people don't have the time to do that. You know, they're just seeing, exactly as Charlie described, the firehose without distinguishing the source. And that's the part that really saddens me.

Sally Mauk Charlie Warzel is a columnist for The New York Times. Charlie, thanks again for being our special guest today. And Gwen we'll meet again next week. Thank you both.

Gwen Florio Thanks, Sally.

Charlie Warzel Thanks for having me.

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.