Disinformation is social—it’s designed for sharing, to draw bright lines between “us” and some other “them.” To do that, disinformation campaigns mess with our emotions. These narratives can convert feelings of anxiety, fear, and powerlessness into bright, actionable anger, or sow doubt and uncertainty in the face of optimism.
Host Shannon McGregor digs deep into all the feels and how to channel good anger in the face of these manipulations.
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About our experts
Host: Shannon McGregor
Shannon McGregor is an Assistant Professor in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Her research addresses the role of social media and their data in political processes, with a focus on political communication, journalism, public opinion, and gender. McGregor’s published work examines how three groups – political actors, the press, and the public – use social media in regards to politics, how that social media use impacts their behavior, and how the policies and actions of social media companies in turn impacts political communication on their platforms. Her work takes up diverse methodologies like surveys, experiments, and large-scale computational and network analysis, as well as qualitative methods like in-depth interviews, to understand politics in socially networked digital spaces. McGregor’s work has been published in top journals like the Journal of Communication, New Media & Society, Political Communication, Journalism, and Information, Communication & Society, and she is the co-editor (with Dr. Talia Stroud) of Digital Discussions: How Big Data Informs Political Communication.
Guest: Dannagal Young
Dannagal G. Young is a Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Delaware, where she studies the content, audience, and effects of nontraditional political information. She has published over forty academic articles and book chapters on the content, psychology, appeal, and effects of political information, satire, and misinformation. Her book Irony and Outrage examines satire and outrage as the logical extensions of the respective psychological profiles of liberals and conservatives (Oxford University Press, 2020: here). Her current book project, Wrong: How Identity Fuels Misinformation and How to Fix, is under development with JHU Press.
Guest: Bridget Todd
Bridget Todd is a writer, organizer, and educator living in Washington DC. Unbossed Creative founder Bridget Todd got her start teaching courses on writing and social change at Howard University. Since then, she’s trained human rights activists in Australia, coordinated digital strategy for organizations like Planned Parenthood, the Women’s March, and MSNBC, and ran a training program for political operatives that the Washington Post called the Democratic Party’s “Hogwarts for digital wizardry.” You can hear Bridget on her critically acclaimed podcast There Are No Girls On The Internet.
CITAP panelist: Alice Marwick, Associate Professor – UNC Department of Communication, CITAP Principal Investigator
CITAP panelist: Daniel Kreiss, Associate Professor – UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism, CITAP Principal Investigator
CITAP panelist: Michele Meyer, PhD candidate at UNC – Chapel Hill, CITAP Graduate Research Affiliate
In this episode, we talked about or drew from:
- Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. University of Chicago Press. Lilliana Mason.
- >Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics. University of Chicago Press. J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood.
- >There Are No Girls On The Internet. Bridget Todd, especially the “Disinformed” series.
- >The Improvement Association. Reported by Zoe Chace. Produced by Nancy Updike and Amy Pedulla. Edited by Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig, Neil Drumming, and Ira Glass.
- >“Stop the Presses? Moving From Strategic Silence to Strategic Amplification in a Networked Media Ecosystem.” American Behavioral Scientist. Joan Donovan, danah boyd.
- >Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
- >Lynch Law in Georgia. Ida B. Wells.
Danna Young 00:03
A lot of the things that people are believing in are conspiracy theories that allow people to transfer that anxiety and fear into a dynamic, target-oriented anger, far more pleasant emotion than fear or anxiety. I know that sounds weird. People are like, “No, I don’t want to be angry.” Let’s be honest, you do. You love being angry.
Bridget Todd 00:28
They want people to walk away feeling like, “We’re never going to be able to solve this. We’re never going to be able to work together. We’re never going to be able to find common ground. It’s not even worth it to try.” Ultimately, I would argue that that is one of the ultimate goals of spreading this kind of disinformation.
Kathryn Peters 00:48
Welcome to Does Not Compute, a podcast about technology, people, and power brought to you by the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life. Our host this week is Dr. Shannon McGregor, an Assistant Professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media here at the University of North Carolina. She studies the role social media plays in the political process from how journalists use Twitter in stories, and how we understand public opinion based on what strangers post online.
With her guests, Dr. Dannagal Young of the University of Delaware and Bridget Todd of the podcast, There Are No Girls on the Internet, Shannon is digging into how disinformation plays on our identities and makes us feel good, especially when it’s making us feel angry. We’ll also hear from CITAP affiliates, Daniel Kreiss, Alice Marwick, and Michele Meyer.
Shannon McGregor 1:38
Why is thinking about identity important for thinking about not only disinformation but about politics in general? Thinking about identity helps us understand not only why certain individuals and groups of people are motivated to embrace falsehoods that give them a stronger sense of who they are as a person, while at the same time drawing clear lines from the others. It also helps us understand how those with political power in our society wield those falsehoods as tools of social differentiation and social division for their own power and their own benefit.
When our identity is at play and when our sense of self is at play, so are our emotions. People are angry fighting to keep the status quo, and lots of people are angry fighting against the status quo for equity and for justice. If anger is a tool, then we are down here getting high off our own supply at UNC and at CITAP. I would just say, folks, use your anger wisely and use it purposefully.
Hi. Today, I am here with my brilliant genius friend, Dr. Dannagal Young who is a Professor at the University of Delaware. Today, we are pulling it back and thinking about what is disinformation if it’s not about getting people to believe falsehoods. It is about priming our identities. First off, Danna, thank you so much for being here with us today.
Thank you so much, Shannon. I just would spend all day, every day talking with you about big ideas if I could.
Yes. That’s a shout-out if anybody wants to give Danna and I also, a podcast to just talk about things, we will also do that for the rest of our lives. The first real thing I want to talk about is now we have lots of research that helps us understand that the idea of fact-checking is problematic along several lines, but there’s in particular a few ways that I think it’s problematic.
First, it frames reality or truth as a corrective and one that will work for people or one that people are even interested in getting to. Second, I think the idea of fact-checking really individualizes a problem that sees disinformation as individual, instead of something that’s coordinated and something that’s systemic. Help us think about what causes people to believe false information.
As I’ve been thinking about these issues, I keep coming back to social identity theory and how it’s increasingly relevant in all of these areas of research. Political scientists for a while were saying, “There really isn’t room for social identity theory in political communication or political science, because the kinds of political parties that we have and the ideological structures, don’t really allow us to tap into more core primal identities”.
I’m like, “Wow. Shit’s changed because that’s not right anymore.” I cannot talk enough about Lily Mason’s work, Uncivil Agreement. Basically, she takes this historical approach where she looks overtime at how the two political parties in the United States have become increasingly internally homogenous on these core fundamental dimensions of identity, so racial identity, religious identity, the things that make you tick, where you live.
Once the parties become proxies for these giant meta-identities, then we’re in a heap ton of trouble. What happens is the kind of emotional and psychological attachments that we have to those identities are totally different from just, “I support lower taxes”, right?
Right. They’re not policy decisions, they’re who you are as a person.
I think that one of the things that we hadn’t done a great job grappling with is the many different affordances in logics of social media. One of them is the idea that our identities are constantly performed and expressed. That’s rewarded. When it comes to the question of like, “Yes, why do fact checks not work?” Or how come you can’t just go to a COVID denier and say, “No, but look, scientists say, ‘blah blah blah.'” Well, because it really has very little to do with that.
Then, my follow-up question to this individual point is, what do you get out of believing in something that you’ve heard is false and that doesn’t move you? What do you get out of it?
Think about the social dimension here. Probably the most egregious example is QAnon, right? They get in these social circles where not only are they not judged for holding these beliefs, but they feel good about it and they feel smart. They feel like they’re the ones in the know. They have been condescended to forever, marginalized, and told, “You’re cuckoo”, and now it’s like, “No, no, no. You’re really smart”.
There’s this real ego-enhancing aspect to believing in certain kinds of misinformation in a social sense, but especially under conditions of anxiety and threat. A lot of the things that people are believing in are conspiracy theories that allow people to transfer that anxiety and fear into a dynamic, target-oriented anger, a far more pleasant emotion than fear or anxiety. I know that sounds weird. People are like, “No, I don’t want to be angry.” Let’s be honest, you do. You love being angry.
Physiologically, you get a little tingly when you’re angry. It’s like it’s a different reaction than feeling scared or anxious.
Anger actually makes people feel optimistic. Think about that. Think about what that does. Now link that with the idea of the psychology of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy are about how there’s people in the shadows who are fooling you and they’re trying to make you think that this is the way things are, but it’s not true. “Well, now I’m mad.” Being mad feels a lot better than being scared.
As you already started to explain, one of the ways that these issues of disinformation and identity rise above the individual level is that based on Lilliana’s Mason’s work and others, that our individual senses of self, have largely mapped on to this mega political identity. As you mentioned, the two parties are basically sorted along racial and ethnic lines in particular.
That’s a lot of sorting but some work is also starting to suggest, yours included, that on top of all those other things, parties are also sorted along the lines of epistemic beliefs. Talk to us about what are some of the differences in how conservatives and liberals come to just know what they think they know?
There’s a wonderful book by Oliver and Wood, Enchanted America. They make the case that due to the things that you just talked about, mainly the increasing internal homogeneity of the Republican Party along these religious lines with these Evangelical Christians clustering on the right that there’s a certain way of knowing that is coupled with Evangelical Christianity.
I am inclined, because of my political psych stuff, to believe that it actually is people are born with certain biological, genetic, physiological predispositions that cause them to have certain psychological traits, that then lead them in these directions. This is coming to know the world more through your gut, through instinct, and emotion than through evidence and data.
If you look at what it is that distinguishes between the social and conservative left and right, at the heart of this research is the idea of threat. Monitoring for threat, being aware of threats in your environment. If you are high in threat monitors, you’re going to tend to be socially and culturally conservative for various issues related to concerns about outgroups, et cetera, but also you are going to be an individual who because you’re worried about threat, you’re going to have a high need for closure high need for closure, you’re going to want to make decisions quickly and efficiently.
You’re not going to like uncertainty and novelty, which also manifest themselves as issue positions as well. Then on the left, where you have higher and tolerance for ambiguity and you have a higher need for cognition, it’s kind of a luxury. You don’t need to make decisions that quickly, so you can weigh the pros and cons. You can look at evidence, you can update your positions, et cetera, all of which would really screw you if you were under threat.
Now let’s think about that in the context of the misinformation landscape for a second, because if you’re someone who’s driven by instinct, emotions, and intuition, and you rely not on accuracy goals, but you rely on efficiency goals, well, then you are going to constantly be moving in the same direction you were already inclined to go, regardless of the information that comes your way.
Right, because it’s more efficient.
Right, there’s the ego piece too, “I always feel smart because I’m never wrong when it’s my gut, my gut never tells me I’m wrong. My gut only tells me I’m right.” Then what’s super wild is when you look at how these inclinations are exploited by the rhetoric of populism. Populous anti-democratic leaders are always saying, “My gut tells me what’s right.” This is where I’m like, I get a little bit—I had to go on a little limb here.
If heuristic cues are what drive social-cultural conservatives. Well, do you know what would be a great heuristic cue that would actually bring them to truth, Shannon? Expertise. Expertise and expert consensus. Those are cues that could bring them truth. Notice what populous leaders then do, they erode credibility in those experts all the time.
It’s dangerous if you’re trying to hold onto power. Thinking about all of these things, all of these divisions, all of these different ways of knowing, including how we even come to understand the world. They make it increasingly difficult for us to see others on the other side as good faith, democratic citizens. This is all the concern around polarization and affective polarization.
Many people are not acting in good faith. In particular political and media elites in this country, along another’s, but we’re here talking about our US system, seek to exploit these differences. These individual differences, these party differences, which map onto racial differences in this country for their own economic power, for their own political power. Tell us a little bit about how politicians and partisan media organizations and individuals benefit from cultivating and sustaining these disinformation narratives.
The blame that I cast is not at regular people who have social and culturally conservative inclinations, because that is— When you look at where those inclinations come from, and you look at the adaptive and functional and healthy threat oriented cues that are there, there are reasons why there are people who have these predispositions, and there are certain situations that are more readily managed by individuals who have those inclinations.
The concern is the exploitation of those inclinations by people that have something to gain, and that’s where I get really angry because that, to me, is the most cynical view of all. That there are individuals who are there to be exploited for power or for profit. Because if you know that there’s an audience that is oriented to the world through instinct and through emotion, that is driven by concerns about threat, that not only merge and give them what they want. What do they want? They want to know who to be mad at.
They want to know who is the threat. They want to know who’s going to abandon their way of life. They want to know why things aren’t the way they’ve always been. They want to know how to get back to normal. All of those things are recipes for white supremacy, populism, authoritarian messaging. But here’s the thing, those traits on the part of individuals don’t have to be the gateway for those things.
When you think about the intersection of communication, communication theory, psychology, sociology, race, politics, and economics, we’re in a wild moment right now where all of those things are being brought to bear at this particular cultural moment. It’ll be a question whether or not our thinking about our platforms and our institutions are able to reckon with this in a way that disrupts it. Because right now nothing here is being disrupted. Right now the economics of our platforms are by definition, if not facilitating, if not allowing, perhaps even fueling these same dynamics, and I’m not sure how to get out of that loop. Can I share a fantasy with you?
Of course you can.
It’s like a totally appropriate fantasy. I always think about the movie Monsters, Inc. Remember Mike Wazowski and Sulley go to the Scare Factory because the screams from the kids create the source of energy that allows their world to have light or whatever, electricity. Do you remember what they realized at the end of the movie? The first one. They realized that if they make the kids laugh, the laughter generates not just electricity, but even more electricity, more energy than the scares did.
We need to find the laughter that will replace the anger and fear and racial-cultural threat dimension that we’re seeing in our media landscape. Is there another special sauce that can fuel the economics of our media system that’s not going to get us to all kill each other? That’s the question.
I think it overlaps with what are the appropriate solutions? I think you were asking, what else could platforms be optimized more for? What else could even the news media be optimized more for? Instead of thinking about objectivity, equal attention to both sides, and equal grievances, which we have all been obsessed with for far too long. If instead we’re solving and prioritizing democracy and we’re prioritizing equity and not equality, then these things can start to move the needle in what I think we might consider normatively in my own fantasy, the right direction.
This is awesome.
Thank you so much. I had so much fun talking about how fucked up our world is with you.
Oh my gosh, me too. Anyone who wants to pay us to do a podcast, we are available, and we’re awesome.
Thank you to my guest today, Bridget Todd, Host of the podcast, There Are No Girls on the Internet, and Director of Communications at UltraViolet. Thank you so much for joining us today. The whole thing is basically like disinformation is not really about information. It’s about all of these hard things. How disinformation isn’t really even about getting people to believe that things that are false, and it’s really just more of a tool for social differentiation and social division, and so with the idea of trying to, and a lot of my work has been trying to do this recently.
To try and get like policy people and media folks to like move beyond this fact check focus, and instead think about how information is used. I know that your last season, literally called Disinformed. I’d be curious to hear from you, are there certain stories that stuck with you the most about the intersection of people’s identity and disinformation, that you felt really helped crystallize some aspect of it for you?
I would say the one that sticks with me are disinformation where it is meant to prey on or inflame an existing cross-cultural tension. I would say times when we see come different communities of color being pit against each other, I think that that is definitely the most harmful because you have bad actors identifying and seizing on these existing tensions. For instance, the tensions between the Latinx community and the Black community is something we saw a lot of.
One of the reasons why these bad actors know that, “Oh, that’s a pressure point to exploit”, is because that tension does exist, and it’s attention that is not really talked about, and it’s not really explored very often. It’s interesting to me how these bad actors, they know the thing that’s going to be like, “Oh, well, I know this is a lingering tension just below the surface between these communities, and if we take this video and put an incorrect caption on it, that’s like, ‘Oh, this is a video of Black Lives Matter protesters attacking a Latino family, because of Black Lives Matter–‘” It could have nothing to do with Black Lives Matter, but they know that that tension exists and it’s not really polite to talk about, and it can really be poked at and exploited.
It made me think of a podcast called The Improvement Association. Similarly towards the end of it, it’s almost the Republicans in the area are exploiting this intergroup tension between these old school organizers in the community.
Exactly. Another example I might give that was like, this was my personal foray into this space in terms of disinformation and how conversations are easily misrepresented online. What’s the whole saga between End Father’s Day and feminism is for white women.
I don’t know if you know much about that, but the conversation that was started online about how women of color and Black women felt excluded from mainstream white feminism, that was a real thing, and that really amplified existing issues in our community, but then bad actors knowing that that tension exists and it’s complex and difficult to talk about, coming up with this phony hashtag of End Father’s Day to exploit tensions between Black feminists and white feminists, and make the whole thing look silly for lack of a better word. Just how good they are at being like, “Ooh, it sounds there’s a tension here”.
In my work, what I have really seen is that even people that you don’t necessarily think of as bad actors. The social media person at NBC News who in writing a story about a lie about Kamala Harris will frame the headline of the story as if it is true and not a verifiable lie. Then that becomes part of the conversation, maybe without even realizing it. People that you might not think of as traditionally bad actors, will make identity-based disinformation more easily exploitable. Basically, they do the jobs of these bad actors for them. I always find out like remind myself and remind folks that there are people with power who make choices that make this whole thing worse.
One of the things that sticks out to me about both of those examples, a weird paradox of our time is that on the one hand, it’s on the internet people are like, “I’ll say anything.” But on the other hand, there are these subjects or these areas that feel we can’t talk about them, and that those, in particular, are so exploitable. Right? And those, in particular, are of course usually around things that are already related to groups that are historically minoritized or inequities that exist in society, but then that leaves those things more open to being fodder for misinformation.
Exactly. You’re probably familiar with Dr. Joan Donovan. One of the things she pointed out about that particular idea is that, for people who might actually genuinely want to be involved in conversations online or genuinely want to ask questions, knowing that questions that they ask or their ways of getting into the conversation about topics that are heavy or need a little bit of nuance to really discuss thoughtfully, that really makes those people just check out of the conversation.
I might genuinely be interested in having a conversation about race or abortion, or this or that, but I see the way that these conversations become so heated online, I miss going to not join the conversation then, so it can really have this silencing effect as a byproduct.
Absolutely. Which not only usually silence is what we might call, I don’t mean moderate left to right, but moderate and not extreme views. Then, of course, all of this is exploited by media and political elites, bad actors. People how may be— I think are bad actors because it helps them gain power, political power, economic power.
We have gotten to a place where we’re no longer talking about issues of substance. We’re talking around that, and we’re really talking about this Phantom that identity-based this information has created.
The disinformation that sticks in some ways sticks because it plays on these tropes, right? Racist tropes, sexist tropes, whatever, all sorts of biases that people have either explicitly or implicitly that obviously vary across people’s identities themselves, like they’re are receivers of some of that, and so it makes it more powerful. Another thing you said made me think about, from the production standpoint, so from the media perspective, or a politician. Because these discourses play on people’s identities and the dominant identity is not even seen as an identity. By the lack of seeing whiteness as an identity, it always makes it something else.
Absolutely. Looking at even some of the conversations we’re having right now that are based in untrue. If we accepted whiteness as an identity and not the default, what were conversations around teaching critical race theory, or we should defund schools that teach the 1619 Project. If we accepted whiteness as an identity and not the default, would those conversations really exist as they do now? Would they be able to take up so much oxygen in our media landscape? No, of course not.
I think that’s what bad want. They want people to walk away feeling we’re never going to be able to solve this. We’re never going to be able to work together. We’re never going to be able to find common ground. It’s not even worth it to try. I think that ultimately I would argue that is one of the ultimate goals of spreading this misinformation.
Right? Because the people who do it for all sorts of different reasons, it’s because they thrive on the power that they can retain when others are segregated, arguing, separated. Making the conversation about disinformation makes it. Then it’s not about racism and democracy.
As someone who makes a podcast about this information, it’s a weird tight rope because for every time that we have a conversation about the disinformation, we’re not talking about the larger system, the ism, why this disinformation was able to take hold of our discourse in the first place. Generally speaking, nine times out of 10 in all the different times disinformation campaigns that I’ve talked about, it it’s always like, “Oh, the real issue feels big, and complex, and insurmountable.” It was easier to deflect in some way. The real issue is systemic.
Thanks, Bridget. That was awesome. I am here with my CITAP colleagues, Alice and Daniel, as well as Michele Meyer who is currently a Ph.D. student here at UNC and also a researcher with the Gina Davis Institute for Gender in the Media. Thank you all for coming and talking to me today. This information isn’t at all about really getting people to believe the falsehoods, it’s a tool for social differentiation and division, so we have to understand identity to be able to understand that. Let’s just have a conversation about why is political identity so important to understanding how these campaigns are effective and why is political identity key for understanding why and how people in power wield these disinformation campaigns to differentiate us.
Michele Meyer 28:04 I think that when we enter online spaces we don’t necessarily do so with the intent of I’m here to find like-minded people. I mean, sure that’s probably on some implicit level what we’re doing, but we’re not explicitly In my research looking at queer people, they’re not like, ” Oh, I need to get online to find the gays.” [chuckles] We’re in spaces that are particularly designed to connect us with people like us. A space where everybody speaks the same language and everybody understands.
Of course, it’s going to be really affirming, and when we’re all looking for different ways to understand ourselves, we’re all gonna understand ourselves in what is naturally a very in-group, out-group way. When we have all of these spaces that grant us little dings of dopamine every time we catch it. If you happen to come from a marginalized community, or perhaps if you happen to have a lot of negative experiences that you might attribute to your identity. That’s going to be really reaffirming because you’re possibly, or maybe even probably, living your life in a way in which you don’t get that validation in real-world spaces.
Alice Marwick 29:26
Online, there’s the opportunity for a lot of interest-based and identity-based community building, which is great, especially for people who are cut off from those communities in their day-to-day lives, so people who are from marginalized or minoritized communities. For almost virtually any identity-based group or interest-based group you find online, there’s going to be one that’s conflicting with it.
For example, you might have a group of people who are very fat-positive, who are questioning a lot of norms around our fatphobic society, and then you have groups of people who literally are fat hate groups, like fat hate blogs or fat hate subreddits. When you have the norms and values of both of those groups visible to each other, it can cause a lot of conflicts and it can lead to things like trolling, or harassment, or brigading, or dogpiling, or other ways in which communities that might be more separate IRL, are now extremely visible to each other on the internet.
I also think that that contributes to us doubling down on our own beliefs, because it helps us see the other side, not as people who are just agnostic about body positivity, but if you’re not fat positive, body-positive, then you are fatphobic.
A lot of defining yourself as a group is defining what’s not in that group as well. That’s where you get not just in-group solidarity, but out-group animus, like you have like not only are we the bass, but those other guys suck. Then you have this whole idea of just doing things to spite people, like owning the libs is like a thing that has its own power.
I was talking with Bridget about how these disinformation campaigns not only can exploit these tensions that maybe are made more apparent in online spaces, but exploit real tensions that exist between groups by making those real tensions more salient, especially around things that we as a society don’t want to talk about. The things that are impolite to talk about, or that make us feel really uncomfortable to talk about, like race, for example, that leaves those very subjects then open, maybe, perhaps to even more exploitation and to become fodder for even more disinformation because lots of people just don’t know how to talk about it and don’t feel comfortable talking about those things at all.
When we think about really extremist information, there is certainly a spectrum where much closer to the center is a bunch of more socially acceptable viewpoints that are things like, “I don’t like feminists”, or, “I think trans people are weird”, or, “I’m suspicious of Muslim immigrants.” Those are all identity claims. That’s all I’m saying like, “I am not like that person. Those people are the other” and it’s often through creating spaces, where those types of things are very common sense or those types of things get taken for granted that you create environments where extremist ideas, they can flourish because people aren’t saying, “Oh, I’m not comfortable with that”, or the people who aren’t comfortable with that stuff leave, and then the people who are left, it’s more hospitable to the more outright racist, or the more outright xenophobic ideas.
That’s the silencing aspect of it to have right of silencing those other voices that aren’t comfortable with that, but then those voices can’t have some potential moderating effect. When folks talk about is one solution to this, if we could just all be in the same space and share our viewpoints, then maybe there would be this moderating effect, but no, there’s not going to be because if you’re not comfortable with those baby steps into extremism, then you’re just leaving.
Daniel Kreiss 33:28
I think a lot of the rhetoric from the right is that everything that you’re talking about is extremist. I look at all the fallout over critical race theory in the 1619 Project. The claim is that the ideas that are advanced in critical race theory is the thing that’s extremist, that is the thing that’s driving the nation apart, it is the thing that’s polarizing us. It’s always perplexed me, everyone loves the idea of moderation until you ask them what they’re willing to compromise on.
I see moderate positions, often as a stand-in for, “I just don’t know a lot about this. I don’t have a lot of personal experience with this, I don’t have a dog in this fight” and so it’s not really about having a moderate position in terms of like a political spectrum, but more of a moderate position of just, “I don’t have strong feelings about this”.
That’s what’s really interesting about the concept of identity and the concept of political, because there’s two different things that you talk about when you say identity. One is, “I am a bisexual white woman”, that is identity, but it is who I am and then there is identity in terms of things that I identify as and things that just are just very salient to me, things that might even change over my lifetime. When we talk about– in Daniel’s example for people might be thinking, “Oh, I don’t have a dog in this fight.” That’s because it’s not your unchangeable identity and that’s why moderation is really difficult to find because you’re asking one person to change their views and another person to live their life differently.
A lot of this stuff doesn’t come down to traditional political spectrum at all. In my work on harassment, I found that a lot of harassment was over conflicts, but they weren’t conflict along the left-right ideological spectrum. They’d be conflicts between people in a fandom who had different affiliations for particular characters, or conflicts between two fandoms.
Daniel, you brought up a minute ago, for every viewpoint, there’s the viewpoint that the other thing is extreme. The views from each side is that the other side is extreme. Asking for equity is extreme if you don’t believe in it. critical race theory, at least how it’s being made up and constructed in all these legislation is really just like history, but history that focuses on the Black American experience and brings that to the fore of it. That is acting like it’s extreme because there’s not framed like an opposition for that. The opposition for that is whiteness, and the white history that we’ve always had, and by not talking about whiteness as identity and treating it as the default.
I think it’s also important to remember that when people are passing along disinformative information, or disinformative narratives, which they have to, disinformation dies on the vine if people don’t spread it, if they don’t like it, retweet it, post about it. It has to have uptake among like regular folks for it to get any footprint. Some of them believe it’s true, they would not recognize it as disinformation, they would argue that it’s not. Some of them don’t care if it’s true, because they want to use it to express part of their identity or part of their own worldview.
Part of them might know that it’s false and decided to share it anyway. One of the biggest problems with early disinformation research is there were this assumption that if you just told people that stuff was incorrect, they wouldn’t pass it along. I think we found over and over again that the boundaries of what are true and what are false are much murkier and blurrier than many people thought, and also the fact-checking is not a solution. It might solve some cases in some instances, but it certainly doesn’t shut down a lot of the stickiest identity-based disinfo.
All of that early work, I think, assumed that everyone just wanted to be truthful all the time. That’s not a primary consideration for many people, like not at all, because that’s not what we’re trying to do. That’s not what folks are trying to get out of some of these spaces.
To all of Alice’s points that like, yes, we can question individual motivations but at the same time, if we pull back a bit and say that regardless of any one individual person’s reasons for doing something like sharing something or their belief in this piece of disinformation, whether it’s true or not, we can say that claims of this sort work to shore up power in this way, and that benefit these groups like saying that Kamala Harris is not really Black fits into a much deeper structure of claims about questioning people’s authenticity as a way to delegitimate them, and to take away their political power, quite independently of who’s sharing it and why.
In our current situation, I think, in this country at least many of the dominant political groups wouldn’t be able to hold on to power if it weren’t for these tensions that are exacerbated by these identity-based disinformation campaigns. If we only talk about the disinformation campaigns, and not about who’s spreading them and why and who benefits, then we’re not really able to get at the root cause of all of this, which is about holding on to power that one may not be able to have if there was actually democratic representation. I wanted to ask you, Daniel, what should platforms be putting as the basis for any problem-solving solutions in these spaces?
I think, to start with, the big irony in some of the work that we’ve been exploring, but also how you started off this conversation today, the same tools that allow, let’s say, politicians to mobilize white supremacists for the stop the steel rally on January 6th, are also used by the NAACP to register Black voters. These platforms are really the battleground within which many different groups seek to organize and mobilize to pursue various forms of power, whether it’s institutional political power through the ballot box or extra institutional power through an attempted coup.
The question of what platforms should be solving for. I guess what I would say is they should always have a democracy frame on all of their policies. Once you step outside of that democracy frame though I think there’s a much wider range of speech that I think becomes more problematic. Every platform is going to draw their own lines in particular ways, but I guess what I would say is that platform policies have to be contextual. They have to be race-conscious, not colorblind, particularly in the US but around the world, because race is a fundamentally structuring aspect of society and linked to power and inequality in various ways. Again, it looks different in every country.
That makes sense to me. I guess where it might even in some cases, as complicated as that all sounds, around democracy, in political spaces, in some ways, there’s a clearer line. How should we be thinking about equity in these spaces that are– I would argue all spaces are political in some way, because they’re about power, but aren’t explicitly about political power at the ballot box, right?
The structure of the platform and the norms of the platform have an impact, I would speculate, on somebody’s ability to harass on that platform, and certainly it happens. I had an interaction on Twitter today where an academic who has a TikTok and is fairly successful was talking about how they hadn’t really encountered harassment on TikTok until one of their TikTok was put on Twitter. I think part of it is that on TikTok, one, their commenting system is terrible. Two, you can’t respond without putting yourself on there.
It’s a video-based platform, so it’s anonymous in one sense, because you don’t have to have your name on it, but in the other sense, if you’re going to post a video, you don’t have to put your face on it, but that’s going to be the most natural way. A good place to start at least is spending some time really understanding the technicalities of how harassment happens on a very practical level.
I often see a lot of solutionism get thrown around. That was like, “Oh, if only we can design to lower the temperature”, et cetera, but that to me takes away exactly a lot of the power in the fire of movements that we organize online, often through making very clear moral claims and creating lines of division. Yes, righteous anger does feel good, but it serves a very important political purpose.
Read Ida B. Wells’s work on her anti-lynching work. There was a lot of righteous anger that was seething below the surface. Someone’s going to tell me that’s bad? Look at the largest moral voice of our time, is Reverend Barber here in North Carolina, who’s inherited the mantle of the poor people’s campaign, and has done so in a way by mobilizing moral language and righteous anger, by appealing to moral frameworks. There are moral stakes to all these fights that we have, and the more that we engage people on that level, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I honestly think we need these fights to happen because we’re broadening. Some people are trying to broaden the range of voices in the public sphere and not contract them.
Not only is righteous anger a powerful tool, but I think that at least how it’s viewed and reacted to is not equitable across the board. Some people are allowed to be more angry than other sorts of people.
It’s the same thing with who can get away with risking the credibility of spreading disinformation and who can’t. I see that same thing with anger, who has the space to be angry when we need to make those moral stakes salient? When we need to engage people, because it’s the only way anything happens? Andonline it’s the only way you get attention. You can get attention through genuine, authentic, emotional connection if you happen to hit the lottery, but more often than not, you’re going to get attention by being angry or being funny. Most of us are not that funny.
The most effective fundraising appeals, the most effective ways to get people to sign a form, to give your names so that you can then organize them are through emotional, often moral appeals that draw lines of division and engage people in ways that aren’t strictly, purely rational, sober, et cetera. This is why you can’t be agnostic. If you’re righteous anger and your moral claims are directed in preservation of existing power, or to exclude people from the ballot box or the public sphere, then demonstrate I’m going to evaluate your use of moral appeals in that context.
If you evacuate any consideration of ends and evacuate any consideration of the mortality of the ends that you pursue, then you give up the game because the right knows this, and this is exactly why they wheeled the language of polarization back on critical race theory. They reeled the language of polarization back on the 6019 to de-legitimize it. They’ve taken a set of academic concerns and they’ve said, “Well, look, they’re bad because they’re polarizing”, but what they’re pushing for is equity. That’s exactly the rhetorical structure of those claims. If you’re in diagnostic, you can’t see it and there’s no rhetoric to it.
The anger can feel good and it can be a powerful tool. It can also run amok, but in either case it’s exhausting. That’s part of the point. If we’re all arguing and we’re all exhausted and we get to the point where we’re feeling hopeless, then the status quo remains. That is one of the ultimate goals I think of all of the disinformation campaigns, in particular from the right around voter suppression and attacking critical race theory, is just to keep us exhausted. Alice, Daniel, Michele, thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you for cursing with me and thank you for being exhausted with me.
This gives me a new appreciation for the tiredness I feel after spending too many hours of doing scrolling. The next time you’re feeling tired, or angry, remember that someone probably wants you to feel that way and probably shared information, whether true or false, to contribute to those feelings. Take a deep breath, remember what’s worth being angry about. If you do find that informational equivalent to laughter that Danna is dreaming about, please let us know.
Thanks so much Shannon, for telling the story about how disinformation draws on our identities to drive our emotions. Thank you also to our guests, Dr. Dannagal Young and to Bridget Todd for bringing their perspectives and humor. To our CITAP panelists, Alice Marwick, Daniel Kreiss, and Michele Meyer for helping tile these stories together. Thank you for listening and sharing these stories with us.
Next week on Does Not Compute, Dr. Daniel Kreiss will host. He’ll be looking at how social media platforms engage with disinformation and what they can do better. I hope you’ll join us. Does Not Compute is made by many hands, including our researcher hosts as well as executive producer, Jacob Kramer-Duffield, senior producer Amarachi Anakaraonye, CITAP project coordinator and production assistant, Joanna Burke. Music by Ketsa, and a logo design by Contia’ Prince.
Does Not Compute is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Made by: Amarachi Anakaraonye (Senior Producer), Joanna Burke (CITAP project coordinator), Jacob Kramer-Duffield (Executive Producer), and Kathryn Peters (etc)
Music: Ketsa, Parallel Worlds
Art: Logo by Contia’ Janetta Prince