Oumou Ly: Welcome to The Breakdown. My name is Oumou. I am a staff fel­low on the Berkman Klein Center’s Assembly Disinformation Program. On our pro­gram today we’re talk­ing with Claire Wardle, who by way of her Berkman bio is a lead­ing expert on social media, user-generated con­tent, and ver­i­fi­ca­tion. She is the cofounder and leader of First Draft, which is the world’s fore­most non­prof­it on research and prac­tice to address mis- and dis­in­for­ma­tion. Thank you for being with us today Claire, I real­ly appre­ci­ate you join­ing us. 

Claire Wardle: It is my plea­sure. Thanks for hav­ing me.

Ly: Awesome. So our con­ver­sa­tion today real­ly cen­ters on the inter­play between dis­in­for­ma­tion and what we call the lega­cy or pro­fes­sion­al media ecosys­tem. Certainly over the past cou­ple of months since the pan­dem­ic has real­ly ramped up and in some in some ways par­al­leled and turned into an infodem­ic or sorts, we’ve seen var­i­ous points at which it appears that there is a rela­tion­ship, or even more specif­i­cal­ly a pipeline between the online infor­ma­tion ecosys­tem which seeds dis­in­for­ma­tion into the main­stream media. 

So I have a cou­ple of ques­tions for you about that. And my first one is real­ly about the path­way that false con­tent may fol­low when it starts maybe in real­ly obscure cor­ners of the Internet, maybe through fringe news sites, and then it even­tu­al­ly makes its way more main­stream. So can you talk about that process? 

Wardle: Yeah, so I think those of us who study and think about mis- and dis­in­for­ma­tion, it’s very tempt­ing to study what’s in front of us. And so there’s a dis­pro­por­tion­ate focus on Twitter, because it’s the eas­i­est to study because there’s an open API—although, caveats—and Facebook and— That’s a lot of the places that we study. And sim­i­lar­ly, that’s a lot of the places that jour­nal­ists look for con­tent and sources and stories. 

And so we end up kind of real­ly just think­ing about that as the prob­lem,” when actu­al­ly we need to think about the full ecosys­tem. And it’s not always the case, but there is cer­tain­ly exam­ples of some of these con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, or kind of trend­ing cam­paigns, or inau­then­tic activ­i­ty being coor­di­nat­ed in spaces for exam­ple like a Discord, a guild, or it might be 4chan. It might be some of these pret­ty small spaces. And it would be nor­mal­ly easy to dis­miss them and those con­ver­sa­tions because you can see peo­ple try­ing to coor­di­nate, but you don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think that’s going to go any­where. And in a lot of cas­es it does­n’t. But some­times you see this basi­cal­ly trad­ing up the chain which is, this term has been around a for long time, we talk about this as like the Trumpet of Amplification because you can see it then move into oth­er spaces that might be WhatsApp groups or Twitter DM groups, where the coor­di­na­tion gets a lit­tle bit more strategic. 

You then maybe say that move into com­mu­ni­ties maybe on YouTube, or even Reddit, or Gab, or places that are tech­ni­cal­ly pub­lic, but these com­mu­ni­ties often you’re not spend­ing a lot of time in, they’ve kind of grown up as par­tic­u­lar fringe-type com­mu­ni­ties that jour­nal­ists are not spend­ing time in. And from there, you see it jump into Instagram, YouTube—the YouTube that you and I spend time in, Instagram or Facebook. And it’s at that point that jour­nal­ists tend to find it. 

And the prob­lem is they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly under­stand that this has come…that there’s a his­to­ry to this. That there’s poten­tial­ly been any kind of coor­di­na­tion. And at that lev­el, unfor­tu­nate­ly we some­times see politi­cians repeat­ing the con­spir­a­cies, or influ­encers repeat­ing the false­hoods. And then at that point, you see the media make a deci­sion that says, Ugh, we’ve now got to cov­er it, because it’s being pushed by a par­tic­u­lar influ­encer or politi­cian.” But that was part of the plan. That was the aim, which was to get the media to cov­er it. 

And you know, the oth­er com­pli­ca­tion here is some­times the media—even if a politi­cian does­n’t talk about it, there’s a sense of hang on, these rumors, con­spir­a­cies, false­hoods, fab­ri­cat­ed media…it’s got to a point where actu­al­ly we have to debunk” it. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, if news­rooms debunk in an irre­spon­si­ble way, then that itself is the end goal of these kind of bad actors,” even though that’s a ter­ri­ble phrase. The fact that news­rooms are report­ing on it, they have a mega­phone that many of these fringe com­mu­ni­ties just don’t have. So the role of the pro­fes­sion­al media in this whole ecosys­tem is crit­i­cal, as is the way we under­stand politi­cians and influ­encers. Because you can’t think about mis- and dis­in­for­ma­tion in 2020 with­out under­stand­ing their roles.

Ly: One dif­fi­cul­ty that I hear reporters and jour­nal­ists talk a lot about is this deci­sion they have to decide whether or not report it, giv­en that dif­fi­cul­ty, right. You want to pre­bunk, debunk, or just maybe even do sim­ple fact-checking, but you can’t do that with­out the risk of ream­pli­fi­ca­tion. Given the fact that most major print, broad­cast audi­ences are net­worked, how do reporters go about doing that real­ly crit­i­cal fact-checking, debunk­ing, or pre­bunk­ing work with­out risk­ing inad­ver­tent­ly rein­forc­ing those very harms they’re try­ing to mitigate?

Wardle: So, it’s a great ques­tion, because the chal­lenge that news­rooms now face is that they have dif­fer­ent plat­forms that they need to con­sid­er. So when we do train­ing with jour­nal­ists, we talk to them a lot about the work of danah boyd around data voids, which is actu­al­ly on cer­tain, for exam­ple con­spir­a­cies… If main­stream media don’t do any­thing to debunk those con­spir­a­cies, if some­body hears about that on their fam­i­ly WhatsApp group and they go to Google and they type in you know, 5G coro­n­avirus,” if there’s no debunk­ing there, then all they get on Google is the con­spir­a­cies. So when it comes to infor­ma­tion designed for Google and YouTube, news­rooms actu­al­ly need to like, be cre­at­ing this con­tent and cre­at­ing a head­line that will get picked up by search. 

However, if you’re think­ing about a tweet or Facebook post that peo­ple are stum­bling across, you have to be care­ful not to give oxy­gen to a rumor that they might not have heard about, because unfor­tu­nate­ly our brains are real­ly bad at mak­ing sense of truth and fal­si­ty. And even if some­body tells us it’s false, a week lat­er when peo­ple go back to [study it?] they’re like Oh, some­body said some­thing about…Obama being a Muslim, I can’t remem­ber now is he or not,” you know. We’re real­ly real­ly bad at mak­ing these dis­tinc­tions. And so we need to be more care­ful about ensur­ing that we don’t tell peo­ple rumors that they haven’t heard before. 

So it’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to make sense of all of these things, and there’s no hard and fast rules? But all of this is hap­pen­ing with­in an econ­o­my, where news­rooms are increas­ing­ly strug­gling. We would be naïve to not rec­og­nize that some of these head­lines, some of these these debunks, actu­al­ly get a lot of traf­fic. So, as story…I think of 2012, there’s a now very famous YouTube video of an eagle steal­ing a baby in a park. And it’s pret­ty like, Oh my good­ness!” And then it tran­spired that it was actu­al­ly a uni­ver­si­ty in Canada—they’d been giv­en an assign­ment to cre­ate a video that would fool journalists. 

And I was work­ing with a news­room at the time that ran the video, and I was like, Oh my good­ness, are you mor­ti­fied that you ran this?” 

And with­out miss­ing a beat the dig­i­tal edi­tor was like, Well no, the debunk will get twice the traf­fic.” So like, there was a recog­ni­tion that you know, we have to be wary, be aware of that when we have these discussions. 

Ly: Right, is there an under­stand­ing with­in the indus­try that this is a prob­lem and there’s a whole­sale shift of think­ing that needs to happen?

Wardle: I would argue in the last two years there have been many more dis­cus­sions in news­rooms about the role that they are play­ing in the infor­ma­tion ecosys­tem now that we have real chal­lenges with infor­ma­tion pol­lu­tion. And some of the work by Whitney Phillips or Joan Donovan has real­ly I think forced some inter­nal con­ver­sa­tions about this. And so what you see is news­rooms now say­ing, Well, is it right that we used that par­tic­u­lar key­word, because now we’ve learned that if we use the key­word, that actu­al­ly will then send peo­ple to con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries online. Maybe that’s not sensible.” 

So it is far from where we need it to be, but we’re ask­ing for a pret­ty big par­a­digm shift. You know, with­in the news indus­try there has always been this idea that more sun­light is a dis­in­fec­tant. That by hold­ing peo­ple to account,” by report­ing on prob­lems, that actually—then that will help. And the chal­lenge here is, these bad actors that we start­ed talk­ing about at the begin­ning of the inter­view that poten­tial­ly are sit­ting on 4chan or Discord or in WhatsApp groups coor­di­nat­ing, they really…that’s their whole end goal, that they will get that coverage. 

But it’s very dif­fi­cult— And in train­ings, when you show jour­nal­ists like, Listen, this is a dis­cus­sion that they are hav­ing about you as jour­nal­ists and how they can manip­u­late you into cov­er­ing them.” And it’s only then you kind of have this light­bulb moment from the jour­nal­ists who say, Well that’s not why I went into jour­nal­ism. I did not go into jour­nal­ism to help these peo­ple get more cov­er­age.” And I think when you have a dis­cus­sion about every news­room thinks very strate­gi­cal­ly about how to cov­er a press release, how to cov­er sui­cide, how to cov­er troop move­ments dur­ing a war, I think then there’s a sense of, Oh okay, this isn’t any­thing new. We just have to be aware of the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences of our cov­er­age, which pre­vi­ous­ly we did­n’t have to think about what we were cov­er­ing disinformation.”

Ly: Yeah. That real­ly seems to relate to what was going to be my next ques­tion any­way, about the struc­tur­al issues that give way to this dynam­ic. In what ways do you think that real­ly intrin­sic link between the large and lega­cy pro­fes­sion­al media orga­ni­za­tions and cor­po­rate adver­tis­ing play into the way this plays out? 

Wardle: Well, I mean we’ve seen some great jour­nal­ism over the last four years in par­tic­u­lar, kind of real­ly tak­ing to task the plat­forms and think­ing about the way that the busi­ness mod­el of the plat­forms dri­ves dis­in­for­ma­tion. But I don’t think we’ve had the same con­ver­sa­tion about how that also plays out in the news indus­try. I think again, we’re being naïve if we don’t rec­og­nize that the selec­tion of cer­tain sto­ries, the fram­ing of cer­tain sto­ries with­in the news busi­ness is designed for clicks and traf­fic and ad rev­enue. And because of that you know, I think there have been sto­ries writ­ten that have unfor­tu­nate­ly done more harm. And again, it’s very dif­fi­cult in the moment to have these con­ver­sa­tions, and I would say that over the last cou­ple of years I see much more reflec­tion from news­rooms about these unin­tend­ed con­se­quences. But again, some­times the peo­ple who are think­ing about this aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the peo­ple who write the head­lines, or ulti­mate­ly decide what to cov­er, so that’s the challenge.

Ly: Yeah. Okay, I want to shift gears for a sec­ond and talk about pol­i­tics. Because polit­i­cal report­ing is real­ly ripe for dis­in­for­ma­tion in a way that’s unique to it. I mean it’s one of those kind of inter­est­ing sec­tors where the mate­r­i­al harm of dis­in­for­ma­tion is pret­ty imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able because of the way so much of pol­i­tics plays out in the pub­lic sphere. And I know that cer­tain­ly over the last ten years there’s been a grow­ing con­ver­sa­tion about the relationship…maybe not the rela­tion­ship but bet­ter yet the ten­sion between bal­ance and objec­tiv­i­ty in polit­i­cal report­ing. And the goal…when you lis­ten, real­ly is to real­ly indem­ni­fy news orga­ni­za­tions of any claims of bias by either polit­i­cal par­ty. So can you talk a lit­tle bit about that debate and how you see that play­ing out maybe in the con­text of the COVID infodemic? 

Wardle: I mean the COVID sit­u­a­tion’s so inter­est­ing because we’ve all sat around and been like wow, this is health mis­in­for­ma­tion. This just goes to show that the plat­forms could be doing much more than they’ve already been doing. But already we’re see­ing how COVID is now becom­ing inter­locked with polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion. So for exam­ple mon­i­tor­ing the exces­sive quar­an­tine protests recent­ly, and see­ing the online con­ver­sa­tions and under­stand­ing that there are a lot of anti-vax groups push­ing that, there are lots of Second Amendment gun rights peo­ple push­ing that. It’s get very…complex when you start adding…

Ly: Very inter­est­ing. Yeah. 

Wardle: And so this idea that there’s health mis­in­for­ma­tion or there’s polit­i­cal mis­in­for­ma­tion or dis­in­for­ma­tion, these bound­aries are actu­al­ly very dif­fi­cult. But the chal­lenge of report­ing all of this is you know, as the net­worked pro­pa­gan­da book showed us last year, this is asym­met­ri­cal. And so because of that it’s very dif­fi­cult to some­times tell these sto­ries, make sense of this land­scape, for jour­nal­ists who have been absolute­ly try­ing to with­in inch of of their life to always take both sides? And in the same way, there is the truth that most news­rooms do tend to have peo­ple who sit more on the left wing. And so they’re already try­ing to counter what they per­ceive as poten­tial bi—” well, they would­n’t see it as bias, but every­body’s aware of how that might play out. So it’s a real­ly prob­lem­at­ic space for every­body, because peo­ple are try­ing to use their train­ing to do jour­nal­ism, but as I just said the chal­lenges that jour­nal­ists now face, they weren’t taught about this in jour­nal­ism school. They weren’t taught about how do you cov­er dis­in­for­ma­tion? Because jour­nal­ism is about cov­er­ing the truth, it’s not about cov­er­ing the falsehoods.

So now, there’s this sit­u­a­tion that jour­nal­ists find them­selves in that’s real­ly hard. And of course the trust ques­tion of how do you report on these spaces, know­ing that it’s impor­tant that cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties receive qual­i­ty infor­ma­tion, yet know­ing that those com­mu­ni­ties are much less like­ly to trust the pro­fes­sion­al media? I think the fear I see is I see an increas­ing­ly polar­ized coun­try polit­i­cal­ly, but also when we look at con­sump­tion of pro­fes­sion­al media, I see half the coun­try going nowhere near the pro­fes­sion­al media. And those peo­ple are actu­al­ly more like­ly to be recip­i­ents of mis­in­for­ma­tion. It’s a real prob­lem. And I don’t see an easy way out of this.

Ly: Thank you so much for join­ing us today Claire. I real­ly appre­ci­ate it. We had a great conversation.

Wardle: Thank you very much.

Further Reference

Medium post for this episode, with intro­duc­tion and edit­ed text