S1E13: Post-Election: Fox Under Fire and the Migration to Parler

Podcast published date: 

Nov 24, 2020


Misinfo Weekly: Episode 13 transcript

Fri, 11/20 4:21PM • 42:26


misinformation, election, people, fact, disinformation, narratives, biden, checking, november, ballot, folks, trump, twitter, beliefs, fox news, terms, arizona, social media platforms, sharpies, republican party


Shawn Walker, Michael Simeone


Michael Simeone  00:00

This is Misinfo Weekly, a somewhat weekly program about misinformation in our time. Misinfo Weekly is made by the Unit for Data Science and Analytics at Arizona State University Library. 

Hello and welcome. It is Friday, November 13. We are past the 2020 election. Shawn, how are you doing now that we are past the 2020 election?


Shawn Walker  00:22

I'm a bit tired that there is a deluge of dis and misinformation during the election to sort out. It was just brimming with a lot of misinformation. Despite our efforts to track, trace, fact-check, label, do you really think any of that made any difference?


Michael Simeone  00:37

I know that my thumb hurts from refreshing my Twitter feed over and over again, trying to on the one hand understand what the current state of the results was. But on the other hand, and this is morbid, but constantly looking for new lies and other kinds of distinforming stories that were circulating online. I agree with you there was so much attention paid by really great experts on disinformation, at different labs, different kinds of journalists, so many people paying attention to all the mis and disinformation. I'm not sure what good it did. And when I say that, I don't mean I don't think it did any good. But I'm wondering what the good impact was?


Shawn Walker  01:22

I think that's an important question. Because we were in some ways "prepared." I used sort of air quotes to say prepared for this.


Michael Simeone  01:28

I think we were. Yeah, that's fair. That's fair. We're more prepared than last time.


Shawn Walker  01:32

Definitely more prepared than last time. And some of the best scholars in our fields were paying attention. We're doing press conferences, we’re tweeting out fact checks. We're summarizing the information. And as we said before, there are lots of problems with fact checking. And it doesn't really work as a sort of shield against disinformation. And I think this election just showed how digitally ineffective fact checking can be at stopping the spread of mis and disinformation.


Michael Simeone  01:59

Yeah, academics, New York Times, NBC, 


Shawn Walker  02:03

Fox News, 


Michael Simeone  02:04

CNN, Fox News, right, just trying to fight misinformation on as many fronts as possible. Whether or not that's providing really crunchy and geeky updates to the network propagation of different rumors, all the way to just Twitter threads in numerating, all the different lies that were being circulated online. What I come away with is on November 10, The Guardian comes out with a story that cites that 70% of Republicans don't have confidence that the election went off without a hitch. That 70% have doubts about the integrity of the election. And to me, if we have that much effort going in, we have that much attention paid to misinformation. And we've been hearing about misinformation for years now. And we still have 70% of Republicans, not really trusting the result of the election. It seems like there's a gap here between the fact checking we want to do and then moving that very important needle, which is a kind of collective public trust in the outcome of the election.


Shawn Walker  03:08

We even had an announcement yesterday from the US cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency, saying this was actually one of the most secure and successful elections we've ever had in history. But despite that announcement, where there's this distrust in the election’s process, but there's a bit of a mismatch here is an understatement.


Michael Simeone  03:29

Yeah, I was thinking about this about what fact checking does for us. What's difficult to have a counterfactual here, and what I mean is, could it have been 90% of Republicans? And if but for the work of these committed and excellent journalists and scholars, would it have been much worse? What I'm getting at is what could it have been 90, but it was now 70? Or could it have been much worse? We'll never know that. At the same time, I think this does indicate roughly that fact checking has some limitations. I feel like certainly fact checking helps for certain groups of people who are just trying to wonder, "Is this true?" And then they just want to make sure that someone has a grip on reality. So you hear something wild, it sounds outrageous, you want to be able to go to a trusted authority to make sure, "okay, I know this isn't true. And I can move on." I feel like asking that question at the outset, though, is this true? It's an important distinguisher between some social media audiences and other social media audiences with some news audiences and other audiences.


Shawn Walker  04:32

There's also the inherent assumption that we're actually having a discussion about what is truth and what is fact. We have to also consider that we came into this election with sort of fertile ground for everyone's belief that there was going to be fraud, there were going to be problems. And in some cases, folks actually were just looking for those they were searching for cases, no matter how extreme. So, like, one example in Arizona and especially in Maricopa County where Phoenix is and where ASU is, we had Sharpie Gate. And it was basically this issue where poll workers were giving people Sharpies to complete their Scantron ballots. And someone announced that you couldn't use Sharpies, and that would cause a problem. But then the New York Times, the Secretary of State for Arizona, the county executives and the board of elections in Maricopa County, all said that the manufacturer says Sharpies work fine as an instrument to complete your ballot. And if an issue popped up, then they would hand count that ballot. But despite basically fact checking, press releases, tweets, Facebook posts at every level of government and beyond. Sharpie gate continues to circulate even today.


Michael Simeone  05:50

We had people show up to downtown Phoenix with weapons and firearms to protest Sharpie gate, even though it didn't happen. Also, giving away Sharpies. That sounds really expensive. How do you budget for that? I know, fiscally Arizona tends to be conservative, but just seems like a lot of money to the side.


Shawn Walker  06:10

They were the off brand Sharpies.


Michael Simeone  06:12

Either way. Look, I think, you know, what we're getting at here is that there's facts right? There can be contests of fact, did this happen? Or did this not happen? But it seems like those are no match for narratives, right? If there's a strong narrative leading up to something like say, for instance, we know the democrats are going to try to steal the election. Then that was like a membrane and through that membrane, all the other facts pass through. And so we can expect that fact checking is going to be 100% effective in you know, dispelling misinformation, because narratives outdo facts all the time. Or they can be a helpful filter for folks as they're consuming their own news and trying to make up their own mind.


Shawn Walker  06:54

And we can also think of this as a problem of expertise. We don't agree who the experts are, in general. So some folks might believe election officials, but then other folks believe that those election officials are trying to steal the election because, for example, our Secretary of State in Arizona, Kate Hobbs is a Democrat. So therefore, some Republicans, a minority I would argue, but some Republicans believe anything she says will be false, because she's a democrat, versus the history in the United States and Secretary of State says that they often almost always conduct elections with high levels of integrity, no matter what party they're associated with. But some people have this belief that we can't trust x expert, or the only expert I can trust is myself. So if I think something is B.S., then my B.S. indicator is better than the expert's B.S. indicator.


Michael Simeone  07:45

Yeah, and this takes me back thinking through some of the things that we are trying to project about the election this year, one of the things we said is that there would be a burst of misinformation after the night of November 3. And I think that definitely played out. Not sure if we call this exactly, but I think what you're getting at now, I think is still worth paying attention to, that the demonization of particularly Antifa or liberals that they would be these monstrous anarchistic figures that would just do anything to lie, cheat and steal. This is one thing that we did point out before the election that this demonization of the left was in the air. And that a whole summer's worth of rhetoric of trying to make the political left in the United States out to be this completely lawless, depraved, monstrous figures in black clothing, who had light fires, and set fire to federal lands just to spite people who would just obliterate our cities, more derivative stuff of Trump's American Carnage speech. So it's not new, but the amplitude was up so high, all this misinformation is going around the left. Now you can just tap into that and say, the left of course is going to try to steal the election. They're corrupt through and through. They're a machine, that word kept coming up. They're a corrupt political machine that's just going to wrest power away by any means necessary. I think that I wanted to call attention to how a lot of what we're experiencing after November 3, was waged before November 3, in terms of setting up those narratives. We talked about narratives being more powerful in facts, those narratives took a long time to establish, and there was a dividend for those narratives. In the terms of the how powerful and persuasive the misinformation was after.


Shawn Walker  09:31

And that machine also expanded starting on November 3 and beyond to not just the left, but anyone who disagreed with the narrative that the election was a fraud or that systematic fraud was taking place so that after the election night that expanded to even include Republican Secretaries of States. It included any member of Congress who congratulated President Elect Biden. So that narrative just grew like the Blob to basically anyone who's against the stolen election narrative then became part of the "unruly left" that was stealing the election from Trump.


Michael Simeone  10:07

Yeah, there was this really interesting drama that went down when the Fox News election coverage called Arizona long before anybody else, the Associated Press followed shortly after. But that set Twitter off in two ways, right? The kind of people who were looking after the polls and wondering who was going to project what we're thinking, "Wow, who are these? Who is this team that feels like they can call Arizona right now and just walk away?" But then certainly, other corners of Twitter started to suspect that Fox was in the tank for the conspiracy to steal the election. And that was the kind of beginning. But Fox News throughout the last week, has received an enormous amount of pressure, at least on Twitter. So I've been monitoring a few hashtags on Twitter. And I've been just looking through and scraping through 10s of thousands of tweets. And the amount of pressure that Fox News has been receiving about both their early calls on Arizona, their choices to cut away from the President of the United States as he's speaking when he starts to speak misinformation or disinformation. And then also Fox News calling the election for Trump. All those things have caused a huge amount of resistance and agitation on Twitter, on the kind of political right or far -


Shawn Walker  11:30

Did you mean calling the election for Biden and not Trump?


Michael Simeone  11:33

Did I say that?


Shawn Walker  11:33

Yes, you did.


Michael Simeone  11:34

I think I've internalized some of this disinformation. What I mean is when they called it for Biden, that caused kind of a firestorm when they called Arizona for Biden that caused a firestorm. And even when I think Neil Cavuto cut away from Kayleigh McEnany, a couple days ago, that caused a firestorm. So Fox News went from an ally to the heel, and I think only a couple figures are really surviving as trustworthy at Fox News: Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, but in general- 


Shawn Walker  11:48



Michael Simeone  11:50

Wewould say that that Fox is being added, yeah.


Shawn Walker  12:07

This leads to with the response of the media and the social media platforms to some of the disinformation was much more active. They use active measures than rather than the passive measures that they've used, or lack of any measures that they've used throughout the year. 


Michael Simeone  12:22

Say more about that. What do you mean by active measures?


Shawn Walker  12:24

So for example, one case would be the President's press conference after the election, saying that he won, some news media cut out of that conference, press conference, others fact check it in real time. Which is different in the past, they've covered those press conferences, often in their entirety, and then made some commentary later. But instead, they're actively are like, this is not true. This is just the President's lying is what some of them actually said.


Michael Simeone  12:53

Preemptive approach. Yeah, yeah. 


Shawn Walker  12:55

So this preemptive active measure, rather than the sort of passive response of, "we'll just air anything that said, and then we'll handle this in the post." It's almost like at the same strategy of fact-checking the information circulates, and then we fact check it as a defense, rather than just saying, "No, we're done. We're not going to circulate this." And then Twitter, Facebook, you know, Twitter, especially to the same thing. Many of the "this election is a fraud. These things have been stolen," those sorts of tweets from high political figures, including President Trump were labeled. And you also could not reply, interact or retweet any of that content once Twitter labeled that content. So that stopped the spread. The only way for you to see that wasn't as a retweet it was for you to directly go to President Trump's feed, and then actively click on the sort of cover that said, "This may contain misinformation, show it anyway." Yes.


Michael Simeone  13:47

Yeah, Trump's feed for a while there looked like it was all edited out. I asked a question about active measures, because I just wanted to disambiguate it with the "active measures" as a term of ours for specifically Russian disinformation efforts or civil warfare strategy for Russia. I like what you're saying about the news kind of becoming more preemptive. more involved. And actually, just the whole landscape, Twitter and Facebook are more involved than they were before. As you mentioned, right, Trump's timeline was more difficult to get to in terms of the content there.  Not impossible by any means. So yeah, social media companies keying in, you have news media, preempting things that the President is saying. You have some of the President's closest political allies calling the race against him. It feels like there's more work than ever to try to preempt or to combat this misinformation combined with all the other things we were mentioning about all the kind of scholars and journalists actively addressing misinformation. We've got so much more work. And, again, it doesn't appear to be sufficient to maintain people's collective belief in the integrity of the election. That everybody, right, will take pause when we think about that, so much work went into trying to head this off, and we still got a suboptimal result.


Shawn Walker  15:15

Can you say more? What do you think the suboptimal result was, then?


Michael Simeone  15:18

I think if we have 70% of Republicans not trusting the outcome of the election, if that is a consistent thing, or that is a symptom, that America could become far less governable than it is right now. And I'm not a political pundit. So I'm going to be very careful when I'm when I move out from there. But that suggests that the fact checking wasn't sufficient. That the countermeasures weren't sufficient to cross party lines to overcome the narratives of those kind of political party narratives that have been kicking around prior to the election. 


Shawn Walker  15:54

Well do you think that even though the media, political analysts, academics, all predicted that this was going to take days to sort through, especially due to the number of mail in ballots that require more processing than in person ballots, do you think that played a role? Because there was a bit of it was predicted, but there was a roller coaster right? So if you're watching the evening of November 3, then you see Trump has more votes, and then you start to see slowly Biden catch up to those votes, then eventually succeed in capturing a number of states that this process took a fortnight. And even though we were warned, this will take days, maybe a week, maybe more, before we have a final prediction of who's going to win. A lot of folks seem to respond to the lack of instant gratification, the election with belief in a lot of these narratives.


Michael Simeone  16:51

Yeah, I hear you on that one, that there was a cell phone on some of these in that the way that the success of the polls was covered, the way that the counting of the votes was covered? Yeah, I think you could make an argument that contributed to some of the collective unease going on. But as you said, people were warned. Also, over and over again, this is how this goes. How many pollsters in advance of November 3, between November first, second, and the morning of the third rush to put out essays and articles that said, "All right, now there's still a chance that Trump could win. And I want everyone to know that right." There were so much hedging and so much bracing for a nonlinear outcome here. But you're right, there was something about needing to see the result immediately in there. I don't know what to make of that completely. I do take your point that it might not be 100%, the outcome of the misinformation efforts that coverage and people's collective expectations surely has some responsibility in this. But I bring this up because I think it's important to think through how for us, a lot of times we think about fact checking as the solution. When I say us, I just mean like generally when folks do misinformation and disinformation, we think about fact check as that thing that has to happen. And that's 100%. True. That's got to go on the record. But I think this election fortnight, as you say, and I think it indicates how there's the priors to the election or the prior to that event are so important to determining how effective this misinformation or disinformation is going to be.


Shawn Walker  18:27

Yeah, there was this something in the air? Did we say that fact checking doesn't -- We've talked about this often on the podcast, right? We have a emotional, visceral reaction. And that causes us to open up even additional vulnerabilities. And fact checking just doesn't settle that emotional reaction to information or a situation as it's happening. So whenever folks that were pro Biden, at the end of the evening of November 3, their souls are crushed. Because even though they were told, this is what the map is going to look like, at the end of the evening, everyone hoped for something different. Then as the map started to turn more towards Biden, basically, the game shifted to where the folks that were pro Trump started to feel that and then the other folks on the Biden side started to feel more elation. And they traded that back and forth with various states. And that's something fact checking just doesn't wrap you in this warm blanket of comfort when you're feeling emotionally uncomfortable.


Michael Simeone  19:24

Yeah. And when we think about misinformation, and the election, a lot of times people tend to think that misinformation and disinformation causes political polarization. But again, political polarization is the vulnerability that misinformation can actually key in on. And there is a lot of political radicalization going on social media, and the bulk of it is going on the more conservative side of the political spectrum, right? This is just a matter of fact, right? When you look at law enforcement about all the kind of dangerous, politically radical organizations in the United States. Is that right wing extremism is becoming a perpetual problem. I bring this up because of something that kind of precipitated from all of the fallout of the election. So we talked about how there was limited trust in the outcome. We talked about how misinformation whenever we talked about how fact checking wasn't quite as effective as it could have been. And we talked about how the social media platforms intervened. One thing that was a constant theme that built into a roar on all these tweets that were hashtagging "stop the steal" is this idea that the news media was in the fix, was in the tank for Biden, was in the tank for Democrats. And this is really just a natural extension of nonstop attack on the press throughout the majority of POTUS 45's presidency.


Shawn Walker  20:58

This is just a twist of the fake news narrative, just like a slight twist in it.


Michael Simeone  21:03

Exactly. So no trust in the press, no trust in the media. And paired with that is this calling out of tech companies and this aggression towards tech companies as being biased. Again, that wasn't invented November 3. But it was one of these narratives that was kicking around. So now we don't trust the media, we don't trust the tech companies. We are going to move to Parler. That's one thing that happened this mass exodus, I think it might actually be today, when many people signal on Facebook, and on Twitter that they would be moving to Parler November 13. So there's a mass exodus going on. Or at least people are performing or claiming there's a mass exodus of people moving to Parler, which, as listeners will know, either by listening to this podcast, or if they're interested in misinformation will know that Parler is a very conservative social media application.


Shawn Walker  21:50

This is a bit of hyperbole. But unless you're practically saying, "I'm going to harm someone at this time in this place," you can basically say anything else except for that. What I think is, is interesting, real quick as the shift of Parler, I did use the word "active measures", I've been reading the book "Active Measures," so that's probably why it's in my head, about Soviet and Russian disinformation. But as social media platforms for being less passive about this, and I think it's important to say the empirical evidence from research states that the social media platforms are actually doing the opposite. They've actually raised up conservative voices rather than suppressing them. If we look at, you know, research around the circulation of this content in such that,


Michael Simeone  22:29

Yeah, Mother Jones had a great piece about this not too long ago.


Shawn Walker  22:33

So the evidence is the op- basically the opposite of what a lot of conservative lawmakers and pundits are saying it that's actually incorrect. That's disinformation. But this move to Parler was in response to those measures of active labeling of active fact checking items whenever someone mentions the election or includes a certain screenshot of those types of measures, which I find to be somewhat ironic, considering the social media platforms actually helped them to have a voice and to penetrate the larger social media network with those voices. So I find it ironic that they're now going to basically a fairly conservative-leaning, right wing echo chamber, where it's only like minded folks are there for the most part.


Michael Simeone  23:18

Yeah, it's the migration, right, to almost like an enclave where there's going to be a lot more homogenous thinking. November 6. Here is what I'm not going to mention who this is on Parler, who posted it, but here's the parley: "In a war, you're supposed to support your warriors and fighters. The Republican Party simply doesn't know how to fight back. They choose to ignore evidence and they have majorities and they fail to act when they have power. The Republican Party made its bed with their fecklessness, cowardice and disloyalty. Now they get to sleep in it." First reply: "With corruption at all levels of the government and justice system, will elections be fair and 2022 and 2024?"


Shawn Walker  24:07

Wow, we haven't even certified the 2020 election and we're already ready for the 2022 and 2024 fraud. 


Michael Simeone  24:15

Exactly. And another one from the same poster. "We need a new party to replace the Republican Party, it should be called the Patriot Party." Another post: "If Trump is victorious, he needs to make one of the goals over the next four years to completely gut and destroy the National Republican Party. This needs to serve conservative Americans and freedom-loving patriots." In those sentences, right. And in that rhetoric, signals the schism here between what could be called a Republican and what's going on with folks going over to Parler.


Shawn Walker  24:53

I also think that you could, in some ways replace Republican Party with Democratic Party and you would see activists on the left are saying the same thing about the Democrats. I think both parties are having these conversations about why there wasn't a landslide on either side. In ways, Joe Biden's victory- So, the Biden-Harris victory was pretty epic. If you look at the popular vote, it's, you know, fairly epic with respect to the number of electoral college votes that he's receiving. But you didn't see that transfer down to the Senate, the local and the state government. And there's a lot of disappointment around that. So there's both sides are wondering, "why didn't we get the landslide that we all expected?" Instead, we have this sort of mixed government, which is not what either party wants.


Michael Simeone  25:41

Yes, I think there's a case for both political parties are doing some soul searching. I think it is remarkable when one group of self identified members of a political party are exiting a number of social media platforms to a social media platform that they feel like is going to be more supportive of what they're saying. And another thing that I'm observing on some of the tweets that I've been collecting and looking through is this call for a ban on even Fox News, but all major news outlets and a boosting and kind of rise in prominence of news sources like Newsmax and OAN. So it feels like there's a shift going on, not just in political parties, soul searching, and doing the math on what the future of these political parties looks like. There's something going on here with people exiting social media platforms, exiting their viewership of different news programs, and committing to new sources of information and new social media platforms. That feels like a pretty remarkable break. If on Parler, they're going to call it the birth of the Patriot Party. Again, we're not pundits, we don't know what to what to call that right now. But just from a kind of social media side of things and Information Studies kinds of things, like, that is remarkable that you have people just leaving the ship and going off on their own island.


Shawn Walker  27:03

I would say there's a bit of a realignment of the information environment in this way, in that if you're subscribed to a lot of the disinformation and conspiracy theories that have been circulating before and during the election, then you're realigning yourself to the- I use "media outlets" loosely because Newsmax and OAN are classified by many scholars as propagators of mis and disinformation. But you're realigning yourself with the outlets that provide news stories that confirm your beliefs.


Michael Simeone  27:38

Yeah, and it reminds me of this term that that comes up a lot is this idea of the echo chamber, that I think a lot of people will have heard of, but not really unpacked what exactly that means. Shawn, could you define a little bit about when people say echo chamber, what's the force of that term in terms of like how it was coined? 


Shawn Walker  27:55

Two terms that echo around, there's echo chamber, plus, there's also some folks might have heard of a filter bubble. But this idea that social media is a space where you join groups and the people that you follow, and your friends are basically only those that echo your beliefs. So your beliefs are just bouncing around and being reinforced by your slice of social media versus a filter bubble. Meaning that like your search results, a lot of your content is then personalized so much that opinions that are against your beliefs, or information that challenges your beliefs are filtered out. And I would argue that a lot of the research says neither one of those things exist to the extent that folks use these terms. So a lot of times when they're thrown out in the media, they're thrown out in this extreme fashion. What we know that there is a bit of confirmation bias within these platforms like you do get filtered content, the links you click on in Google reinforce, and cause future personalization of your search results over time. But the evidence shows that in most social media sites, you're not receiving (and unless you're heavily curating your friend groups), you're still receiving information that might be countered to your beliefs.


Michael Simeone  29:15

Yeah, I did some web scraping of Breitbart News using Chrome and I forgot to log out of Chrome. And so my newsfeed was filled with Breitbart News for a good while as a result.


Shawn Walker  29:29

My social media and personalization algorithms are so broken, I get such a weird content now as a result of this work, especially after this podcast. It's amazing what pops up, "I'm like, that's not news. Why is that in my feed?"


Michael Simeone  29:42

It does feel like these filters exists. These filters are a lot of ways right? how a lot of the internet is monetized. But yeah, this idea that it's just a completely hermetic seal, no other content and no other people will get in. This goes back to some of the things we've talked about before or you make the point that like mentally that filter is just as powerful as whatever the technology filter has on how you consume the internet.


Shawn Walker  30:05

Probably more powerful.


Michael Simeone  30:07

Yeah. So where does this leave us, then? What does it tell us that people are moving to Parler? That there's a distrust of the media, there's a distrust of technology companies. And now it seems like if you're looking through the social media around the election, we've got people who will produce, they'll take a thumbnail of a chart from ABC looking at the vote tallies, and use that as evidence that there's been election fraud. You will look at people who will just look at a table or a piece of paper against a window and use that as evidence of election fraud. Where are we now in terms of trying to make sense of why there was so much mistrust in the election this year?


Shawn Walker  30:58

I think we have to then really go back to President Trump and a lot of the high level officials in government their rhetoric. Instead of reinforcing the trust in these institutions that count the vote, which you know, at the county and state level, instead of reinforcing that these folks have integrity, the elections have very specific rules that are followed, that the evening of voting, whatever the news media says, has no impact, zero impact on official vote counts of what the vote looks like, and who's declared the winner by the state. There's no connection with what A.P. says versus what the state says the state says, "you're in the business of prediction, we're in the business of counting." But after almost four years of rhetoric from government officials, not all but some government officials, saying that these officials are unethical and that fraud is going to happen, then no matter what those institutions say, and the leaders of those institutions say, some of these people aren't going to believe them.


Michael Simeone  32:00

Actually, there was a pretty interesting article on NBC news about how a lot of these misinformation stories turn the believers of misinformation into sleuths. And this, I think, is consonant with a lot of the things that we've been saying about QAnon. And even talking about Wayfair and a number of other conspiracies, but it turns any conspiracy theorist into a little detective.


Shawn Walker  32:26

I think it's dangerous when we turn folks into basically Sherlock Holmes without any expertise of a complex area. So, for example, we're not experts in election law, at least I don't think you are either, Michael.


Michael Simeone  32:40

I don't think so. No, I wouldn't bet on that.


Shawn Walker  32:42

So.we have to rely on officials that are saying, here's the process, and the process is different from state to state, because, (or county to county even) that this is how we count the ballots. This is when ballots are allowed to be there, arrive in mail, this is, and they're different. And the problem with turning everyone into sleuths is that you then have to spend inordinate amount of time to understand policy and election law, which varies from state to state and sometimes county to county. Or else your Sherlock Holmes B.S. detector is going to go off inappropriately is that, for example, we saw there was video footage, because many of the counties have webcams in their vote counting center and election officials, transcribing ballots. So when a ballot has an error, when it goes through the reader, they will often then take that ballot in front of multiple staff members, team members from the Democratic and Republican parties, they'll then transfer that ballot to a new ballot, fill it in exactly as it was, discard the old ballot, and now they can run it through the machine. The folks were saying, "Look, they're making new ballots." But if you understood the process, you would be you would understand what they're doing, you would understand the level of observation. And you would also understand that I hope these people wouldn't do this in front of the webcam. If you're trying to create fraud in the election process, doing it on camera seems like a really poor choice.


Michael Simeone  34:08

Yes. Furthermore, if you're going to have an election conspiracy, you shouldn't publish a chart that shows the fraud happening in real time. It reminds me so one of the articles that mentions the idea of of sleuthing is by Ashley Nerbovig for the Detroit Free Press. This was published a couple days ago. "Internet Sleuths use Misinformation and Attempt to Prove Dead People Voted in Michigan" is the headline. The use of the term sleuths reminds me of like a long time ago, I used to teach introduction to film and film theory. And one of the things that I had to teach brief tangent, but I promise it's promise it's relevant. 


Shawn Walker  34:49

(Laughs) Okay.


Michael Simeone  34:50

Isthis idea that in a lot of detective fiction, and certain film genres for detective fiction, one of the assumptions is that the world is irredeemably corrupt, and that you're surrounded by a world that's just steeped in vice and that no very little good can come out of it and you have to glean whatever you can. But that makes the detective figure more compelling from a storytelling point of view. They are the flashlight in the dark. And it occurs to me that when we have a nonstop assault on institutions, when we have, as you pointed out, a nonstop assault on expertise, when we have a non stop assault on the media, when we have a non stop assault on technology, when we have a non stop assault on meaning, then all of a sudden, this idea of being a detective is really compelling. And so in some ways, yes, we're living through a 21st century, incredibly strange and disruptive moment where disinformation and misinformation have a ton of different power. But at the same time, this reminds me of an early 20th century detective story, where there's this idea that you're going to connect all the points that you need to make meaning all of this. That desire to make meaning that, desire to find order is related to the fact that you're in an irredeemably corrupt world where nobody can be trusted. 


Shawn Walker  36:19

I really like that you just described many of the discussions that we've had around the election process for four years, that it was irredeemable and impossible for the election to not be a fraud unless there was one specific outcome, which was a landslide victory for Trump in both the popular and Electoral College.


Michael Simeone  36:39

Yeah, and granted in this movie of November 2020, there's a lot less whiskey drinking than say, for your classic film noir. 


Shawn Walker  36:48

Are you sure about that? I feel like there's lots of whiskey drinking around 2020.


Michael Simeone  36:54

There might have been a lot of whiskey drinking all around the United States. You're right, 


Shawn Walker  36:57

And the world.


Michael Simeone  36:57

I'm totally off base there -- and the world. But I think that does show that the assault on institutions than the assault on expertise really does fuel how susceptible we are to misinformation. In 2016, there was this idea that there were these impeccably calculated misinformation operations. Right. So Russia, Cambridge Analytica, that it was a data nerd affair, that all of this was just so well thought through, and it barely, but just move the needle over one way or damaged America in a profound way, whatever your take is. But what we're seeing here is it's not this kind of impeccably calculated campaign. It is just preying on people who are already very vulnerable.


Shawn Walker  37:46

On both sides, I would argue, I think that often one side of the political spectrum has a misbelief, incorrect belief that they're not vulnerable. The only the other side is vulnerable to use the popular term, one side believed the other side or sheep. But in general, both sides are pretty vulnerable to this.


Michael Simeone  38:06

Yes. And I think that vulnerability framework, works pretty well for thinking through why an election that is really pointed, right, that helps illustrate exactly how divided culturally, politically a lot of folks are, that makes us especially vulnerable. Not that state politically, for folks is the outcome necessarily of misinformation. It's actually the kind of receptor for misinformation.


Shawn Walker  38:35

And that also prevents us from being able to have conversations about policy disagreements, potentially disagreements about what we each think are facts. And instead, we're in the trenches lobbing what we think are sort of truth bombs on the other side, and just kind of throw them back and forth. So we don't really get to meet in the middle. There are cases where you end up being a disinformation troll, rather than actually having a conversation. Both sides just lobby, these more trolling, what about this fact? What about this fact? Instead of having a conversation saying, what are the underlying beliefs? And how can we come to a conclusion together or a better understanding together? versus I just want you to come to my side and believe that I'm correct.


Michael Simeone  39:20

Yeah. And I think that's actually a really great place to end thinking about going more upstream, about addressing misinformation, not in terms of the operation, the information operation itself, but going more upstream on people's belief systems. And that's where a lot of these conversations have to be. That's got to be some kind of follow up to fact checking. Fact checking is wonderful and necessary and amazing, as we've discussed over the last 45 minutes, it can't be the only thing that we turn to.


Shawn Walker  39:50

We need a larger repertoire of not necessarily just tools, but I don't know. Do we need tools, what do we need? What's another word for this?


Michael Simeone  39:59

You know, I think tools is maybe a little too instrumental to think through. But I do think there needs to be a certain kind of empathy, not exclusively in how people feel. I'm not trying to say that there needs to be some kind of cuddly way through this, but also kind of empathy about how people are reaching the conclusions that they're reaching. I think that can be really helpful. If I hear somebody say something that I don't agree with, it got such a rise out of people years ago, when there was this idea raised about alternative facts. And even though it was awful and deceptive, it was also accurate in some ways about how people really do operate from sets of alternative facts. And if I'm going to be outraged completely every single time that someone is behaving off the set of alternative facts, I'm going to be exhausted. Sometimes you can't afford to do anything else, but react strongly. 


Shawn Walker  40:56

What that really makes me think is, if we come at this from a tools perspective, like you're saying, then I think of that as a surgeon, like there's something we need to extract from someone, we need to cut out this sort of bad part, these bad beliefs, this incorrect set of facts that they're attached to. Versus something that's more holistic, comes from this sort of healing perspective of that there's, this is this holistic set of issues that we need to address. I don't know how to describe them at this moment in time yet, but that's different than-


Michael Simeone  41:25

No, like a systems level approach.


Shawn Walker  41:26

Right? Versus I have to cut out your bad appendix which is that's where you're, that's the part of your body where the these incorrect beliefs are held. If I just cut that appendix out of you, then you'll go back to being, 


Michael Simeone  41:38Ri

I'll just fact check it. 


Shawn Walker  41:39

Yes. I'll fact check you into health, which, yeah, that doesn't work. And we just saw that didn't work. This 2020 was a great example of how we can't fact check something into a better existence.


Michael Simeone  41:50

Yeah. And that this information disorder that we're in is a manifestation of a lot of other social ills that we're experiencing as a society from economic, cultural and beyond. That's a really happy place to leave everyone, I think. But thanks for joining us this week. Be thoughtful, and be well. 


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