Today's episode is Siva Vaidhyanathan's keynote speech from the Fake Symposium. It was recorded on September 22, 2022.
Welcome to Engelberg Center Live!, a collection of audio from events held by the engelberg center on innovation Law and Policy at NYU Law. Today's episode is the keynote speech from the fake symposium. It was recorded on September 22 2022. We want to kick things off with a keynote to help us really set up the nature of what we are doing. So I'd love to introduce Siva Vaidhyanathan as our keynote speaker, Siva is the Roberson professor of Media Studies and the director of the Center for Media and citizenship at the University of Virginia. I'm reading this closely because SIVA was complaining just yesterday on Twitter, that there were fake and incorrect bios floating around. So I want to make sure that I get this right, we actually followed up say, you know, tell us which one you want to use. He is the author of anti social media, how Facebook disconnects us and undermines democracy, intellectual property, a very short introduction, and when can appreciate a short introduction to intellectual property. The Google is ation of everything and why we should worry, copyrights and copy wrongs, the rise of intellectual property and how it threatens creativity, and the anarchist in the library, how the clash between freedom and control is hacking the real world and crashing the system. He also co edited with Carolyn Thomas the collection, rewiring the nation, the place of technology in American Studies. So please join me in welcoming Siva to kick off this 2022 Fake symposium.
Siva Vaidhyanathan 1:39
Hi, it's it's a real pleasure to be here. Yeah, been waiting, what, two years to come and do this. And I apologize, I actually have to rush out of here. I have another event in Austin. And I have to get to JFK. And what I hope is 45 minutes, right? We'll see. I mean, that's what Uber sets I can do. So we'll see if we can do it. But actually, I have like an hour and a half. I have some margin. But it's great to be here. And to kick off this set of conversations, which look really amazing, like the group of people brought together for these conversations is really outstanding. So I congratulate everybody who's involved in the planning of this. And again, it breaks my heart it can be part of more of it. So I can't see my slides. We have a slide up there. Now, okay, we'll get going. Um cool. Oh, wait, it's right here like under me. That makes sense. screenshare?
Yeah, everybody can see that. It's good again. Okay. Yeah, so look up for the past, what, seven years, we have been obsessed with this question of fake news or fakeness? Or what is real or what is true? Or how come people believe crazy things? How can people believe false things? How come Texas wants to secede? It actually doesn't. But there were some Russians who started a Facebook group saying Texas should secede. You know, are we in a post truth environment? I've been at two conferences in the past month, in which that phrase was invoked. And as someone trained as a historian, my immediate reaction is when were we truth? Exactly. When we've always been in a situation, we, like the humans of this earth have always been in a situation where, you know, many of us most of us believe things that, upon reflections seem absurd, perhaps even dangerous, certainly untrue. We've developed systems through which we test truth. They're elaborate. They're imperfect. They're largely based on expertise gained through training that is mysterious to most of us. And then we trust communities of discourse, right communities like scientists to deploy those methods. We hope faithfully, we hope without any sense of corruption. We hope, diligently and then come up with statements that can guide us through right. I often ask my students to raise their hands how many people believe that the polar ice caps are melting and and they all raise their hands. But unfortunately, I've yet to find a climate denier in my classes, or at least one who's willing to admit it. But then I asked, How do you know? Right? What is the basis for that belief, and their silence. And they hadn't really thought through that before. And then I sort of walked them through why I believe it, it's because I outsource my trust to a community of experts. And I trust that they've been trained in a particularly regular, rigorous way. And I trust that their systems of peer review are, for the most part reliable. And I say all this understanding that the conclusions they reach are largely contingent upon the situation staying the same, and their methods remaining reliable and the best they can. And so we make our best guess. But ultimately, I am acculturated into a group of humans, who has been used to and comfortable with outsourcing judgment to communities of experts who know far more than I do. And that's because they kind of look like me talk like me walk like me, go to the same institutions as I do. And that's a really important thing to recognize. Right? That doesn't that fact doesn't undermine the truth of the polar ice caps melting and the fact that humans are behind it. But it does give us some sense that if you're not part of this community, you might be susceptible. likely to believe very different things. Some of the things you might believe could be destructive, some of them could be harmless. So let me talk about something that seems harmless, but might not really be harmless when we get to its roots. But look, fundamentally, what I'd like to examine in this talk is what's new? What's new in the first two plus decades of the 21st century? That was not the case in let's say, the last two decades of the 20th century, or even the two decades before that? What has changed, but just as importantly, what has not? Right. What about our ability to grasp what is true, and to focus on the real and the fake in a particularly interesting way? is actually not that new. Swing in Oman, I guess I've used this as the right button. Not advancing as I had hoped. Maybe I have to use the cursor. There we go. So look, in 2019, I was surprised, watching ESPN one day to find out that some of the most successful basketball players in the country believe that human beings not walked on the moon.
These players included Vince Carter, a graduate of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Steph Curry, recently a graduate of Davidson College. It was pretty shocking to me at the time. Now, I heard that Kyrie Irving, most recently at the Brooklyn Nets, former student at Duke University, which I'm always wanting to make fun of believe the Earth was flat. He had said that a number of times he had held on to that apparently he's changed his mind on that. Maybe he went to Australia or something who knows. But I thought that Irving was perhaps a like, an outlier in this situation. And of course, his anti vaccine stand, perhaps means he's invested in a whole lot of conspiracy theories. But this idea that human beings have never walked on the moon is actually pretty pervasive. There have been consistent polling numbers since the 1970s. That land between six and 20% of Americans believing that human beings did not walk on the moon, that the United States of America never planted a flag on the moon, six and 20% of Americans, the polls rage at various times, and it does fluctuate but still that's a huge number of Americans to believe such a thing. What is their investment in this? Right? What do they get out of believing that? Or what do they reject by rejecting the fact that human beings walked down? Interestingly, the United Kingdom that number is 25% 25% of people in the United Kingdom, deny that human beings have walked on the moon 28% of Russians deny that human beings have walked on the moon. They all believe that the Earth autographs we've seen the images we've seen the sounds we've heard, were faked. what they believe is that something was faked. And of course, there is conspiracy lies beneath that. It seems that these numbers peaked after 2001. They didn't peak in the 1970s. They grew in the 1970s. But they did not peak in the 1970s. They peaked in 2001 2001. Fox ran what it called a documentary, just asking questions about whether human beings walked on the moon. And it was an incredibly popular show. And it seeded doubt in a way that subscribed a lot of people to this belief. And it's important to remember that 2001, three years before Facebook was invented 2001. Actually, I don't know what month it was. But 2001 was a pretty traumatic year, right, scrambled our sense of reality in a lot of different ways. And I think it's important to know now, of course, that the belief that human beings did not walk on the moon that the moon landings were faked. correlates very strongly with people who believe the Earth was flat. I guess that makes sense. Because if you believe the Earth was flat, I don't know what you think the moon is. But you probably can't imagine someone going there and walking on it, or there being a dark side of it. So, um, advance a little bit more. That photographic evidence, it turns out, if you look back at the record of people who don't believe the moon landing happened, and do believe that the entire thing was fake, the photographic evidence is the evidence of the fraud. The photographic evidence serves as the evidence that it never happened. And this is a really hard time to get our minds around, right? We expect documentary evidence to serve a documentary purpose, we expect to be able to show people, right, that ESPN clip which is a talk show
that like the host, who could not believe that these players didn't believe that people walked on the moon kept saying, but there's film, but there are images, right. And that's just not convincing. And it actually raises the question, if there weren't images, would it actually be more widely held? Right? Just does the presence of visual imagery actually undermine the case? That's a pretty fascinating question. I think it relates to a whole lot of things that you might be exploring in the next two days. Right, the role of visual evidence, the instability of visual evidence, you know, Photoshop is not that old, Photoshop swerved. 25 years old, right. But ever since Photoshop arrived in our lives, we've just rejected the notion that an image is a document, we should have rejected that much earlier, and many people did. Right. We've always known the manipulative effects of editing and, and shading and all sorts of things one can do to images. But at the same time, think about this over the last 25 years, when we have when our our cynicism about the documentary, power of images has grown. Our deployment of it for the sake of evidence has also grown, which is why there are cameras on every post out there. Right? It's bizarre how much we now rely on images and video much more than we used to. For safety, for evidence for prosecution, right? And yet, our trust in it has never been lower. So we're in a really weird situation in terms of that particular medium. Now, the, the point at which the doubting of the moon landings really took off, was not in fact, 1971 When James Bond walked through, or ran through a set that seemed to be simulating the moon landing in the diamonds are forever that was, that was kind of a laugh point in diamonds are forever. But it didn't really spark a widespread interest. Like people weren't imprinted with this notion that, you know, a human being and a suit ran through the set, therefore, the moon landing never happened. That didn't happen so instantly, it really started to gel in 1976 When a man named Bill casing self published a book that ended up being something of a cult hit. And the book which I actually read Over the past two days, don't recommend it is pretty fascinating. It's pretty fascinating. So the book, it's, well, it's typewritten, right? You can actually see the typeface, this is typer, and then and then basically mimeographed the book, walks through the imagery very closely sort of takes it apart, looks at shadows, questions, the idea that a flag could wave on the moon wonders where the dust would be right? Why hasn't the dust settled on the screens of the astronauts? And the big one? Why are there no stars? That was that's a question that constantly came up. And it started with this book that Bill casing wrote, showcasing and worked up as a public relations officer for jet propulsion company between 1960 and 1963. And that company had some contracts with the early NASA. And so he put he put put himself up as some sort of expert on this. There's very little scientific or engineering. discussion within it very little. It's technical. It's very much forensic. It's like a forensic examination. But it goes deeper than that it goes deeper into what we would now call the deep state, right. In fact, you can see the entire outline of the paranoid notion of a deep state, in Bill casing, Bill casings book. That's what I think is really fascinating. It's it's as if Steve Bannon had written the thing. It was really amazing. In fact, he puts the chief responsibility for faking the whole thing on what was then a new agency in the 1960s, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, which is based in Charlottesville, Virginia now, so like, I was like, Whoa, what the heck's going on up the road? Actually, my wife now works for the Defense Intelligence. And she can't tell me what she does at work. So yeah, I have all kinds of questions now, telling us No, it's not actually a persuasive book I'm getting
that one of the other things is really fascinate about casings book is its intellectual roots, like what he footnotes, he is directly inspired. And he says, Oh, quite overtly, by Charles Wright's book, the greening of America, published in 1970, Charles Reich, a Yale Law School professor, child of the establishment in every way, wrote this book that walk through what he saw as the three big phases of American culture. He talked about phase one, the agricultural mindset, right, this grand sociological, intellectual and cultural field of being agrarian, right being Jeffersonian, and how that was displaced after World War Two, by the organization man, right by the, by the power elite by this notion that everything should be corporatized in a large organization. And he said that through the late 1960s, all of that was breaking down and what we're now in his phase three, and it's going to be glorious, he argued. In phase three, he described as something of a counterculture, what we would recognize as a counterculture. He celebrated mind expanding hallucinogens, he celebrated, radical individualism, he celebrated sexual freedom, all the all the stuff that we might attach to that notion, but it's fundamentally a libertarian tax. Now, I don't know that Reich himself would approve of that term, but the celebration of the individual against the organization, the rising up of individual judgment, scrutiny, thinking for oneself, tends to work against the notion that we outsource our trust to communities of experts, right? We do outsource our trust to communities of experts. We do every time we drive. I'm about to get on an airplane for the second time in two days, you bet I'm outsourcing my trust to communities of experts, right? We do it every day. And yet this notion of phase three of our development as a culture calls us to challenge all of that. And this clearly had a big effect on Bill casing, who is inspired by this, to immediately assume that all the scientists and all the engineers and all the military officers working for and around NASA and the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA and the Nixon administration and the Johnson administration, were all in on a grand conspiracy to try to pump up the deep state to try to promote what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex, although that phrase that fallen out of the book does certainly doesn't exist in the book. And so basically, he's describing a conspiracy that would include more than 400,000 people operating over 10 years. And yet the evidence for that conspiracy is that If that's what it would take, right of course they're holding it all together because no one's squealed. That's that's, that's the circularity of this. Remember the at the core of the conspiracy is the notion that somebody else faked something. Somebody else faked something. Now, a few years later, in 1978, a movie called Capricorn One came out and it was something of a hit. Roger Ebert loved this movie, by the way, he thought it was a great adventure movie. It was, I have to say the cinematic high point of OJ Simpson's career. Movie also had Elliott Gould Sam Waterston, Hal Holbrook, Karen Black write some serious actors in this in this
film, it was based on the idea that NASA running out of steam in the 70s and turned its eye toward Mars, and promised big promises that it would reach Mars. But of course, couldn't come through with it. Once they ran the numbers and figured everything out. They figured out the astronauts are going to die. We can't do a human included mission to Mars without killing people they decided, but they'd already committed. Right, the public relations machine had already gone into effect. What are they going to do? Well, they told these three astronauts, guess what, guys, we're taking you to the desert in Nevada. And we're gonna just put you on essentially a soundstage. And we're going to take the whole thing, and everything will be cool. And you'll be stars heroes, you know, just go with it. And so the astronauts kind of shrugged because like they figured out well, you know, they were gonna die. So this is better, right? This is better than death, until they realized that the conspiracy was not going to hold unless they died. And so they actually came to the conclusion that NASA was going to kill them. And so they escape. And this is when the film becomes a bit of a car, Chase, film and adventure. They escaped into the desert, they split up, the movie falls, follows them in their various tracks, ultimately, one survives, and tries to get the word out. So this movie, once again, kicked up the idea that it could have been faked. Right? And you can't help but think that there is some sort of repeat impression, right? The notion that this could have been faked, stays on people's minds, and they've seen something on a screen or a lot of people seeing something on a screen that kind of looks like a soundstage. Now historian Lewis Rossen, on whom I depended for a lot of this research, has is working on an article about the this entire campaign to disbelieve the moon landings and I met her at Cal Tech just a few days ago, as I was trying to figure out what the heck, I'm gonna say, to a symposium on fakeness. And we were talking and she was saying that, you know, there's this really fascinating history of doubt of the moon landings. So I said, Tell me, tell me, tell me more. And as I said, she's working on the article. I haven't published it yet. So I'm, like, promoting it before it even exists. So one of the things that she dug up is that in 1969, right before August 69, when, when Apollo 11 actually landed on the moon, CBS staged a moon landing, and showed all the viewers what the astronauts were going to go through. So a lot of Americans had already seen a staged moon landing a believable stage moon landing, right, they had already essentially opened their minds to the possibility. Now, this is, of course, happening at a time when Stanley Kubrick had done some pretty, you know, realistic looking work just a few years earlier in 2001, A Space Odyssey, and 2001 didn't seem that close back then. Right. In fact, now we're farther from 2001 than they were then. So Rawson argues, or will argue in this article, by the way, that the seeds were planted visually, in a city through a series of these things, and the casings book had some sort of influence. But what really kicked it up was Watergate, and all the investigations around Watergate, right, all of the revelations of the mid 1970s and late 1970s, about government surveillance, about corruption, about real conspiracies in the government really unleashing a sense that authorities are not to be trusted. And so while there might have been a foundation of Reichian counterculture, and there might have been The seeds of images, allowing people to believe the whole thing was faked or at least imagined that the whole thing was faked. What really fostered it was a serious political change in the mid to late 1970s. And so that's what her work is doing is tracing the rise and fall of this disbelief, this belief in the faking with political changes in America, and I think it's going to be really important. But here we are in 2022. And we live in a very different political environment and media environment.
It might be the case that our level of cynicism about authorities is higher than it was in the late 1970s. I don't know, I think it might be too easy to land on that conclusion. Cynicism was pretty high in the late 1970s. We also had reasons to re establish some sort of faith and trust in authorities in our government and American systems. You know, perhaps we felt by the late 1970s, or a large number of people felt by the late 1970s, that there had been some sort of restoration of trust. Right, we had a successful noncontroversial and yet close election in 1976, we had a landslide election in 1980, right, where the will of the people was expressed pretty clearly in both of those elections. And it seemed in all of those things at that moment, that we were moving beyond, in a lot of ways, the maladies of the early 1970s or late 1960s. There were a lot of apologies, a lot of revisions. A lot of self examination of lies told about Vietnam was told about Watergate, etc. So perhaps there was a sense in the 1970s that we pulled out of a dark time. Perhaps I was pretty young. So I don't know. I was optimistic, but I was 12. So now we're in a very confusing time. And a definite definitely, we're in a different media ecosystem, where we're not in the media ecosystem where anybody cares what happens on CBS Evening News, or very few people care what happens on CBS evening news. And if they do care, it's only because of what they saw on Twitter the next day, right. And we live in a world in which for the first time, there are institutions that collect the interests and opinions and truth claims, have billions of people and funnel them back to us, funnel them back to us based on our interests, based on our activities. And two of those companies, meta and Google have the most dominant role in the world, but they're not exclusive at the top right. It's almost a different intellectual cultural world. In China, for instance, where neither of those companies operate in any way it's, and yet, we tend to bracket off China, when we discuss this. Nonetheless, to take one example of metta slash Facebook, there are 3 billion human beings who to some degree or not, to some degree, rely on Facebook and its products, to guide them through their lives. To tell them what people are up to, to tell them what is interesting to tell them what they should think about for a moment, if not for a day, 3 billion, we've never had anything like that in human history. There are 7.4 billion humans on Earth, 3 billion of them regularly use at least one Facebook product, meaning WhatsApp, Instagram, or Facebook. And that number is growing. It's not growing in North America, which is one of the reasons why that companies seem shaky in terms of growth right now. But that number is growing around the world pretty strongly. And it is growing among young people largely because that's where the growth in the world is. And so again, North America is an outlier in that. So it's something we really have to pay a lot of attention to. Now, Mark Zuckerberg established his company, in large part to address fakes. And this is sort of lost in the history. In the popular history of Facebook, his motivations, were, of course, to facilitate social connections, explore social connections, mind social connections, and essentially do social engineering in what one might think of as a soft form. But to do this, he wanted to correct for one of the big errors he saw in the previous iteration of social media. And that was Friendster and one of the things about Friendster that was annoying and ultimately contributed to its downfall was the fact that You could never tell if you are interacting with on Friendster was that person, there was no authenticity, no certification.
So he put bagels identity and authenticity at the center of his growth, which is one reason why people have had to show some sort of identification, you get a Facebook account for many years. It's also one reason why he started with universities, sort of a controlled experiment, you could only let people register if they had a.edu email address. And that kept the sense of identity fairly stable on the fact that the early users are really wanted to meet and deal with other people they knew helped with that too. But this was a core ethic of Facebook from the beginning, it's become harder to manage. As you know, once Facebook reached its first 100 million people, notion of policing for authenticity became a lot harder. But it's still one of the things that Facebook focuses on, he wants us to be our authentic selves. I spent a lot of years working through reading everything Mark Zuckerberg has ever said or written. Again, I don't recommend it, I did it. So you don't have to. And I have to say he stood up and said about this, he truly believes that if we are ourselves, if we're true to ourselves, if we are we are our authentic selves, not our fake selves, not the selves that we portray, right, not the selves where we wear ties, but the selves in which we wear hoodies, perhaps we will be better to each other, we will know each other, trust each other, maybe even love each other more. He truly believes that the more we connect in our authentic way, the more we will get along and the better human beings will be to each other. This is a childish belief. It's a belief, a naive belief, right? If I don't want to be so insulting to say childish, I would say naive, right? It's one completely blown apart by Oh, history, or, you know, Eastern West Jerusalem, take a pick a place anywhere, people are living close and get to know each other doesn't really help. Right, it doesn't really help us all get along. But he still maintains, which is why he thinks that the more time we spend on Facebook, the more we conform to the ethics of Facebook, the better off we will be. The more we use Facebook, the better off human beings will be. He believes that, right? So at the same time, he has made a shift in his company in recent years in the experience of Facebook in recent years, to encourage people to what in his words build community. Now building community to him is done through Facebook groups, capital G. Facebook groups are things that are either open, anyone can subscribe to them and receive messages directly from anyone in the group. Or often they're closed, where you have to ask to be part of a group. There are groups for all sorts of things, all sorts of hobbies, right? And his idea here is that we're mean to each other because we don't have a sense of community. You could tell that he read Robert Putnams work at some point or misread Robert Putnams work or had somebody lecture to him for 10 minutes about Robert Putnams work at some point. And he's just figured out that this is the key, again to human flourishing, we just have to communicate better as our authentic selves. Problem is our authentic selves, if that's what we're doing. our authentic selves are not that great, right? A lot of us are terrible, right? We're terrible animals, and we're mean to each other. And all of that coming out through Facebook, largely through Facebook groups. And Facebook groups are the number one place right now to find out anything you want to find out about how the moon landing was faked, or how the Earth was flat. There are actually hundreds of distinct Facebook groups devoted to arguing that the earth is flat. I don't know why they don't need one group. But there are hundreds of them. And they all take sort of different tax and different arguments. And they're really, really fascinating. Again, I delved into them, so you don't have to. Yeah, they are. Wow. That's all I can say. All right. Um, so one of the things that happened in this age, when it became so easy to distribute messages of all sorts sense and nonsense. When algorithms amplified messages in reaction to previously expressed interest is we found ourselves in a radically different media and information ecosystem by Oh, let's see, let's pick a year 2016. Just pick a year out of the hat, right. So by 2016, all of a sudden, things like Facebook seem to be having an outsize effect on our understanding of the world. Now, one of the conclusions I made in my study of Facebook is that
through Facebook, not only Facebook, but Facebook being a leading part of this, we have never found it II easier to identify like minded people and motivate them toward action. We've never had lower barriers to entry to that action, we've never had less friction, less marginal cost toward what we would generally call organization, right? Motivated motivation. If you want to fill this park with protesters, it's so easy to do, compared to 20 years ago, right? Because identify the people who share your concern only takes a few minutes, maybe a few hours to launch a campaign for anything using Facebook. It's easier than Twitter, but you can use Twitter to, again, doesn't take long, and we saw it with Black Lives Matter. Right. We saw it with the Women's March. We saw it in August of 2017. When Nazis invaded my town, we saw it on January 6, of 2021. It's never been easier to find people who are motivated, and to motivate them toward a specific action. But it's never been harder to deliberate right? The same change in our media ecosystem that has energized motivation has undermined any possibility for deliberation, right, because the systems are not designed for deliberation. They are designed to segregate us into these communities of of motivation and action, and not to foster any sort of mutual understanding, or mutual agreement or compromise, or even have a system of rules that allow for disagreement. And then having the game run again the next day, you know, that thing we call democracy. And democracies need both instruments and motivation and deliberation. And I don't want to put all the blame on Facebook, although sometimes it seems like I did. I actually don't. This has been a long term problem, where we have led our institutions that foster deliberation that allow for deliberation that reward deliberation, atrophy, we've removed funding, and we've removed any sense of cultural importance from institutions like universities and libraries should talk was museums. And those are just old institutions. We've also not bothered inventing new ones, right? new platforms, new forums, new institutions that might help us deliberate and might help us gather and talk about the problems that we face. Instead, we perform our politics through these little boxes, and these little screens, and that ultimately can't be healthy. And we don't just have to look to the results. To understand that it's not healthy factor, we might want to put the results to the side. But let's get back to the results. And let's get back to 2016 and 2016, December of 2016. To be exact, just after the election. That was the first time that Donald Trump appropriated the term fake news. Fake News had been in circulation for about six or eight months at that point. The the best I can find it, I've been trying to actually nail this down better. But the best I can ascertain the term fake news really gained currency through Buzzfeed News. Buzzfeed News had been doing some of the best investigative work on what we now call disinformation during the 2016 election. And that wasn't the only place actually Bloomberg did a lot of really interesting work on it as well. But Buzzfeed News was was the, I think, at the lead in the summer of 2016. In the fall of 2016. Writing about this phenomenon, this phenomenon of now BuzzFeed identified it as fake news, because it literally was fake news as in faked news organizations as in claim, simulated news outlets bearing the name and design of what would you would think of all the markings of a news organization and churning out junk. Something like that had been happening for about six or seven years before but it really got power during the 2016 election, and that power seemed to all be working for Donald Trump. It actually wasn't working. There were there were similar institutions, organizations, sites, etc, working in other corners of American politics, but the pro Trump stuff was the most pronounced and as we were find out soon after, much of it was funded in rubles.
But Donald Trump caught on to this for the same reason that the conspiracy theory to undermine Find belief in the moon landing depended on the savvy claim that it was faked. This worked for Donald Trump, he appropriated fake news away from BuzzFeed and others. Right? BuzzFeed was talking about an actual phenomenon of someone simulating a news organization for the sake of distributing propaganda. misinformation, disinformation, what have you. And Trump took it and said, you know, who's doing the faking it CNN, you know, who's doing the faking it, CBS. They are fake news. Or as you would say, in a news conference a few weeks later, you are fake news, you would say to Robert Acosta of CNN, in a news conference, you are fake news. Right. And that was a brilliant move on his part. In this again, the same way that the moon landing, cried fake, crying fake is a really powerful way to undermine trust. Because faking is so easy. And if what you're trying to do is undermine trust, that should be your first weapon, that should be your first card to play. And it worked. I mean, it didn't need much. But it worked. It worked tremendously. And it it really powered his I don't know if you want to call it communication strategy for the next four years, and perhaps remains remains at the key of it. In fact, at one point, he claimed that he invented the term fake news, among many other things he invented now what happens soon thereafter, his journalists abandon the term, right had to surrender the term. Once Trump took it over and made it his own, he did a claim much like the claim that the moon landing was fake, right? The CNN basically makes up everything that CBS in The Washington Post make up everything. The journalist of America, the press, critics of America said, Whoa, we're not touching that term anymore. They basically had a collective resignation. And so disinformation and misinformation emerged as the dominant ways of discussing the phenomenon, right, and this is a much more a much broader set of categories. But it also comes from Claire Wartell, who's one of our most incisive scholars and critics of, of this phenomenon. This taxonomy allows us to assign motive to the phenomenon. And one of the things she's done is, it's been very helpful is that it allows us to then interrogate what the motives were right what the reasons were. And she's offered us a deeper taxonomy, as well, by breaking up myths and disinformation into all these different categories. And there's been a lot of great work on this in the past five years. There's a lot of foundation money devoted to trying to address this problem. It's a constant concern, the White House press secretary uses the term disinformation, a lot. But maybe it's not the whole story. Because one of the things that we have to remember when we rely on this term as maybe the central problem in our politics in our society, is that it operates on a true false axis, a true false axis. And I'm not convinced that's the best way to approach this. You know, Hannah Arendt warned us many decades ago, that one of the keys to fascism is, is its ability to flood us with messages that might or might not be true, might be half true. Might be kinda true, but doesn't really matter to the fascist. Because the idea is not to get people to believe that something is true, or that a false thing is true, or to get people to stop believing in true things. The idea is to get us to stop caring, to stop even processing to be so exhausted and distracted by the whole thing mess, by the burden put on us to try to distinguish between the true and the false, that we just give up and let the fascist do what the fascist want to do.
And so I think it's really important that we step back from the truth false axis. And we under understand, I think a bit better the ecological changes the dynamic relationship that has developed Among media changes, right changes in our media ecosystem in the past 25 years, the rise of extremist political movements that are completely willing to leverage these media systems and quite adept at it, and real anxieties, right, real social and economic anxieties that might be based on bigotry, and might be based on mythology, but they're real. And they certainly contribute to what we're doing. And if you step back, and you look at that dynamic relationship, that notion of ecological change, then this idea that you're going to whack moles or put out fires, whatever the metaphor you want to choose is on truth and falsity. It seems like a big waste of time, it seems like it's not going to address the problem. Francesca Tripodi is a sociologist who works at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also one of my graduate students. So I'm super proud of her and want to promote her work everywhere. She has a new book out called the propagandists playbook, I highly recommend it. A few years ago, she put together a report for data and society called searching for alternative facts. And her research, I think, is really powerful and instructive here. To do great violence to it and her conclusions. I will, I will try to summarize some of her main points. She did some deep ethnography with extreme right groups, often religious groups in the American South. She immersed herself in these communities. She talked to them about their politics, about their faith, about the ways they built community around politics and their faiths, about how they processed information about what they believed was true and false and how they delegated trust to our various institutions. And what you found was pretty fascinating. Number one, these groups practice close reading, critical reading, what we often call in K through 12, critical thinking, there's no lack of critical thinking, there may actually be excess of critical thinking. Among the people who are driving these groups. They doubt everything, they tear apart everything. They push at the foundations of everything, exactly what we were all taught, when we were taught, critical thinking, right? Go for the foundations, question motives, question assumptions, ask for evidence. But the other thing that she found is the very act of doing that collectively, sitting in a circle, doing the sort of textual analysis that is not unfamiliar to major Protestant sects, right, this is a very Protestant set of activities. that very act forges community in a really intimate way, in a deeply satisfying way. And by forging community, it certifies identity. And so to say to a group, that has gelled upon the idea that the polar ice caps are not melting, and that if they are human beings are not responsible for it, a widely held belief in these communities, largely because the Bible instructs us that the earth is the dominion of mankind. And so whatever, right, whatever goes to challenge that, with evidence with reports from the International Panel on Climate Change, is absurd. That's to challenge their very identity. For them to give up on this belief is for them to give up on their identity, their community, the practice that gives them meaning, what the hell are we going to do with that? What is our response to that? I don't know. But that's a real thing. And again, it gets way beyond the question of what is true and what is false. We know what is true, and we know what is false. And we know we have an urgency to address the fact right and correct for the fact are, we're going to be in bigger trouble than we are today. bigger trouble than Puerto Rico is today, or Pakistan is today. And yet, this is our challenge. If we're going to live in a democracy, with a whole lot of people who think this way, we have to figure out a way to understand and address. And I don't know if it's possible, but I also think it's impossible to live any other way.
We have so much more we could talk about but I have a plan to get to. And so I'm gonna sum up a couple of big thoughts. You know, ultimately, that sort of research that Francesca Tripodi does, is relevant to all sorts of crucial issues that we have, I like to say, you know, our three big looming challenges the fact that the climate is changing, that the earth is warming right That's number one. Number two is a global infectious diseases kind of a big thing, often and soon to be more related to the first and human migration. Again, driven by the other two, in many cases, not exclusively, but in many cases, in the next few decades, we are going to be facing more of all of those things. Those are things that can only be addressed, collectively, super nationally, right, globally, only be addressed with real science and social science. The urgency for creating a culture of trust in experts has been never been higher. Our threats have never been stronger. And yet we seem so ill prepared for it. And again, I hope I'm wrong about that. Meanwhile, where is our money and brainpower going? The pen Metaverse What the heck? Right, what is more fake than a metaverse? And the idea of Metaverse, by the way, is often attached to what we might otherwise or a few years ago thought of as much better virtual reality than what we have now. I actually see it as having dug into the ideology Metaverse quite a bit as something a bit more than that. It's the combination and no one's ever been clear how there's going to happen. The combination of living through and with virtual reality and augmented reality. So as I walk through Washington Square Park, the my glasses will flash messages to me with information about people and things. It seems all very distracting. But it also seems really fake. Right? Is the federal policy statue still there? I know they moved a lot of stuff. Right Silla? Okay, right. So I suppose if I'm walking by the Garibaldi statue is going to tell me something about garibaldi. Right? It but is that a real experience? Or is that a fake experience? Or does it matter? Right. So as we see this tremendous investment, tremendous investment, intellectual investment, engineering, investment, time investment, money investment, and creating these technologies to take us farther and farther away from actual contact with actual human beings. I think we should be concerned that seems to be going in the wrong direction. So let me return to the original question, what has changed, what has remained the same? I want to posit that three things have changed. And I've listed them already. And so I sort of want to wrap it up and tie it all up with that. So one of the things that's clearly changed is we're all walking around with Time Square in our pockets, right in these little boxes that we entertain the world or engage the world with. It's always beeping, it's always flashing. It's always grabbing our eyes and grabbing our attention. It's always moving us on to the next thing, it's always pulling our sense of focus away toward that little bit of satisfaction, right, that little rush of endorphins that we get from seeing that somebody liked my joke on Twitter, or somebody really thought my dog was cute, and my dog is really cute. So that has had, again, I think, a profound environmental effect, an effect on our sense of our consciousness, not individually so much, although that's certainly how we sense it, right? We sense the immediate sense the individual, I'm actually much more concerned about its collective effect on us. That when you combine it with the fact that one thing that has not changed is the number of seconds in a day. And, and that every second that we focus on something has now been monetized in a pretty important way. That means that the competition for our attention is rapidly growing. And our attention is being again, fractured. We have individual ways of fighting it. But we don't have collective ways of fighting it. Because we've let the institutions degrade. We've defunded them, we've stopped honoring them. We spend a lot of money going to Buddhist retreats if we can afford it, but most people can't afford it.
So we're in a situation where even something like a library is turning into a multimedia experience, one full of distractions rather than immersions. And I think that's really dangerous. What we're living now in now is an age of cacophony. This happens to be the subject of the book that I wish I could say we're working on I'm not really working on it. I'm more outlining and talking about it. And one of these days, I'll sit down and write about it. But it's been like six years, I've been actually like sort of backing away at this notion of cacophony as a way of summarizing our current media system, our current lifestyle, I really don't want it to be the next greening of America. But sometimes it sort of sounds like it. I'm not a big fan of the greening of America, as you can tell. But again, the ecological change the political movements around the world that have leveraged and exploited these ecological changes, so astutely, those are things we have to direct, directly confront, right? We can't just wish our way around it and vent our way out of that problem, we have to directly confront those political movements. And again, we have to address the real social and economic anxieties that exist in the world, that are only going to be exacerbated by climate change by infectious diseases, and by human migration. We have to take those things seriously. We have to refocus ourselves on those global challenges. Through all of this, the question of what is fake? And what is real clearly ends up as a symptom of the sickness, but not the sickness itself. Thank you very much.
Hey, I have five minutes before my car is here. So if anyone wants to talk, yes, sir. Yeah. Yeah, I'm gonna grab my tea too, while you might ever everything here. Yeah.
Unknown Speaker 56:52
short questions. First. Are you saying? I think you have to be that the the old notion they homes Brandeis notion of a marketplace of ideas, if ever there really was one is dead. It's now it's now a tower of Babel in a marketplace of ideas, so that you can sit down let me ask the server to the second question is, and we're gonna talk about this tomorrow, by live that long. We're gonna talk about it tomorrow. And that is, you talk about truth versus falsity that that may be the wrong axis. What on earth do you do with defamation law? If that happens? We get New York Times. Right, you go back, as far as I know, the defamation law when it was on the other side of the pond. It's all about truth and falsity. Why on earth are you going to do about?
Siva Vaidhyanathan 57:48
Oh, yeah. So you're in luck. I have all the solutions to defamation law? No, actually, I wish I did. It's a fascinating question. And it's, I mean, defamation law has so many axes that go beyond truth and falsity. Right, and as lots of what is someone's reputation in our current environment, and how does one mold a reputation? And how does one measure harm to one's reputation? I mean, those are fascinating questions. The notion that I had an argument on Twitter with somebody just a few weeks ago, where I said, you know, where was it? Someone said, someone was a murderer. And I said, Oh, they asked why a newspaper couldn't just call someone a murderer. And I said, Well, what newspaper reporters are trained to say, you know, so and so was charged with homicide or was charged with murder, right? And to actually make a factual statement, in that sense, and, and or convicted of right, largely, because there's so much we don't know, and so much that can be overturned. And that turned out to be very unsatisfying answer. And I relied on defamation law to say why they do this. And that turned out to be very unsatisfying answer this person. So there's such a big gap between what defamation law purports to do in society and what it actually does society and of course, so much is up for grabs. I wish I could answer that question. But I do think that in terms of the Brandeis versus babol, idea babbles older than Brandeis, first of all, yeah, I never thought that marketplace of ideas described anything real. It first of all, it assumes that there's a price right? Every marketplace has a price as a clearing price, right? And that never really made sense in the world of ideas or expression or creativity or art, or any of the ways that we have approached the question of what expression should be allowed and what expressions to be celebrated or rewarded. You know, it just never seemed that it looked anything like a marketplace. And so it made me wonder whether Brenda's had ever been to a marketplace which is actually cacophony cacophony right. he got to this souks in Morocco, and it is cacophony. And there's a lot of flexibility and, and, and motion and action and indeterminacy. And things change minute to minute and things change day to day. And it's, it's it's not how we want our ideas to work. It just doesn't represent how we want our ideas to work in any way. So I've never thought that metaphor really worked. In addition, I mean, it ignores power, right? It assumes the idea of a marketplace idea of ideas assumes that every expression has a particular value in the marketplace, and that value will prevail. It also presumes some sort of rationality, or at least prevail over time, but it totally ignores power. And and I think that's one of the things we really have to focus on. In all of our examinations of expression, whether we're talking about law, or policy or technology, is how much power operates in in these questions. Which is why I get so irked when people whine about my powerless students making a protest is if that's the greatest threat to free expression in America, when they are standing up against some very powerful forces, and some often armed forces. So anyway, that's I know, that doesn't directly address your your question. But I do think that we, I mean, this is just such a fascinating time to to address all of those questions. Hi, I think I have time for just this last one. All right,
Unknown Speaker 1:01:39
excellent. So those of us who are litigators, you know, we present alternative versions of reality to juries, and we expect juries to decide what were the facts, what really happened. It just the the Moon Landing stuff was absolutely fascinating. But I wonder if this idea of fake news goes back so much further, because our whole litigation system is premised on the idea that you're going to have two sides presenting two different versions of reality. And we expect a jury somehow to figure out what was true.
Siva Vaidhyanathan 1:02:11
Yeah, and look, having been on a couple juries, that's the hardest work, right? That is really hard work for 12 people who don't share a collective vision of the world, which is very often true in a, you know, in a I mean, it's not true in a Grand Jury where everybody basically is culturally acclimated in the same way. But in, you know, in an actual trial jury, it's really hard. And I've been in jury rooms where, you know, the fantasy of the 12, Angry Men, all coming together over the question of whether someone's glasses were on or off, just never applies, right? Because it, it's, it really comes down to, in many cases, who do you trust, and you trust the people with whom you are most acculturated, the people with whom you most identify. And it can be a really brutal process. And I wish I could say that my service on a jury gave me faith and hope and our ability to deliberate. But I think one of the problems with juries and juries are often very structured in their mode, mode of deliberation, depending on the judge's instructions. But that is one of the few places in this country where we have structured deliberation. It's imperfect, it's frustrating, it's hard, and it probably will always be. But think of all the ways in which we have to deliberate about important questions that we don't even have a judge's instructions. Right, like when we vote, which is pretty crucial to and which can cost lives and fortunes as well. So, you know, I, when I look at the process of serving on a jury, I think there's a lot that we could learn from in terms of caution, like the limits of deliberation in a democratic republic. But it also I think, gives us a sense that most juries come to some conclusion. I mean, some don't and even when they don't, maybe it's best that they don't. There's something happening there. That isn't happening in other parts of our society, where we usually just give up and stop playing the game. So yeah, I wish I knew again, more than that, but that's certainly something worth pursuing. Well, again, thank you so much for this. I wish I could hang around
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