The Digital Deal Podcast

Truth Preachers

March 20, 2024 Marta Peirano, Nina Jankowitz & Fabian Scheidler Season 1 Episode 3
The Digital Deal Podcast
Truth Preachers
Show Notes Transcript

The changes in how information is collected, produced, and disseminated leave their mark on the way information is consumed. This episode unpacks the qualitative shifts the algorithmic dissemination of information has brought to the media landscape and how in turn that affects citizens and their engagement with the democratic processes. We talk to Marta Peirano, Nina Jankowitz & Fabian Scheidler about how mis- and disinformation alter the societal fabric and what the future of journalism holds.

The Social Dilemma
The Facebook Dilemma
Joy Buolamwini
Algorithmic Justice League
Bad News - Play the fake news game!

Books by our guests:
Against the Future. Citizen Resistance in the Face of Climate by Marta Peirano
The Enemy Knows the System by Marta Peirano
How to Be a Woman Online by Nina Jankowitz
How to Lose the Information War by Nina Jankowitz
The End of the Megamachine - A Brief History of a Failing Civilization by Fabian Scheidler
The Stuff We Are Made of - Rethinking Nature and Society by Fabian Scheidler

Host & Producer: Ana-Maria Carabelea
Editing: Ana-Maria Carabelea
Music & Mixing: Karl Julian Schmidinger

The Digital Deal Podcast is part of European Digital Deal, a project co-funded by Creative Europe and the Austrian Federal Ministry for Arts, Culture, the Civil Service and Sport. Views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the host and guests only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) can be held responsible for them.

Ana-Maria Carabelea: Welcome to The Digital Deal Podcast, the series where we talk about how new technologies reshape our democracies and how artists and critical thinkers can help us make sense of these changes. My name is Ana Carabelea, and today I am joined by Marta Peirano, Nina Jankowicz, and Fabian Scheidler.   

Marta Peirano is a Spanish journalist, curator, and writer specializing in technology and power. She is a columnist at El País and RNE (Spanish National Radio). Her book "El enemigo conoce el sistema" was New York Times’ best Spanish essay in 2019. Her latest book, "Contra el futuro" is a critical analysis of technologies for managing and mitigating the climate crisis.   
Nina Jankowicz is an internationally recognized expert on disinformation and democratization and the author of two books: “How to Lose the Information War” and “How to Be a Woman Online”. Currently the Vice President at the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience, a non-profit focused on countering disinformation.  
Fabian Scheidler studied history and philosophy and is a free-lance book author, journalist, and speaker. His book "The End of the Megamachine. A Brief History of a Failing Civilization" was translated into several languages. Most recently he published "The Stuff We Are Made Of. Rethinking Nature and Society". In 2009, he received the Otto Brenner Media Prize for critical journalism. 

In the past two episodes, we’ve spoken about how machine learning perpetuates the logic of capitalist accumulation and looked at how algorithms make sense of the world out of incomplete data sets. In this episode, we talk about how this distorted, fragmented, incomplete algorithmic image of the world, can become more than just a representation, turning into a reality.  
Marta, Nina, Fabian, welcome! Thank you so much for joining us. I want to start from the idea of your book, Nina, that misinformation and disinformation are not just an online issue, and false narratives have always appeared also in mainstream politics and not just the dark corners of the Internet. My question is, has something fundamentally shifted with the digital revolution, and are we witnessing more than a quantitative shift that allows information to simply spread quicker and wider, or is this a qualitative shift? 

Nina Jankowicz: So, I look at this as not necessarily just a narrative shift, but a shift of speed and breadth that is also extremely targeted. That's what the algorithms allow us to do, right? They allow us to target the lies, the falsehood, the emotional content to the people that are going to be most affected by it, that are most vulnerable to it. And I think that's what makes it so powerful. You put dieting content in front of a teenage girl who's extremely self-aware at best, and self-deprecating at worst, and bad things can happen. Similarly, if you put content that is encouraging an insurrection in front of a man who is lonely and feels disenfranchised in America in 2020, he might storm the Capitol. And indeed, we've seen both of those things play out. And I think that's what is really the gunpowder in the powder keg of our digital age right now. 

Marta Peirano: Yeah, to what Nina just said I would also add that this is not only a technology that allows for a wider scope - like you can get to people faster, cheaper, and in massive quantities - but also you can make the other people not see what they get. And this, for me, is the key feature of this new technology, the thing that separates it from the past, that makes it a quality change and not only a quantity change. In the sense that before, any politicians throwing a toxic campaign would have to convince a whole country with just one message and the whole country would have the ability to go to the public square and then discuss and debate whether or not the message was appropriate or true or a fact. But now the technology allows - because of the micro-targeting, but also because of the obscurity - for a campaign to reach each one of those people separately and bring a different message to each one of them while they still think they are getting the same, which is a total problem for people like us. There is no accountability if the press or the justice system doesn't have access to this kind of campaign. 

Fabian Scheidler: Yeah, I do completely agree with that. I mean, we are witnessing the destruction of the public sphere. It was always contested, as power and money play a crucial role in determining who can spread information. But now that power is again concentrated in very few hands, and they can micro-target everyone without other people knowing that they are targeted, it's really a way to destroy a rational debate. 

Ana-Maria Carabelea: As authors and journalists, I assume at least an awareness of these things, has influenced your practices when you're having to deal with generative AI, the attention economy, and the algorithmic dissemination of information, that, like you say, is micro-targeted. Can you talk us through your experience a bit and how that's changed, how you do your job, basically, the journalistic practices or the writing of a book? 

Fabian Scheidler: Yeah, I started my journalistic work, in fact, with the founding of an independent news outlet called Kontext TV. We were a little bit inspired by Democracy Now and other outlets like that and the idea was to make voices heard that are unheard in mainstream media from the Global South and so on. We were very much embedded in the global justice movement in those days when it still existed. That was in the early 2010s. After five or six years, I really found that the whole scene disintegrated. The political scene disintegrated, and also the public sphere disintegrated. I think we lost our audience because this kind of movement was divided into smaller parts and the way media function changed dramatically. And so, we had to rethink completely the way we work. 

Nina Jankowicz: It's been interesting for me because I kind of grew up on the Internet. I'm definitely a digital native. I had a MySpace way back when, I had a live journal way back when. I hope you still can't find them on the Internet anywhere. But it's been interesting - especially over the past couple of years - to see certain platforms fall out of favour. I was just saying to a group of writers I belong to, that the best platform for me right now is LinkedIn. That's where I get the most engagement, that's where I get the most civil discourse. Whereas on Twitter, where I was the subject of - well, it was a cross-platform campaign - but I've been the subject of a pretty widespread hate campaign and harassment campaign. I've blocked 600,000 people on Twitter at this point with the assistance of a plugin called Block Party, which, unfortunately, since Twitter closed its API, is no longer functioning. But Twitter has become almost useless to me - where I used to get so much engagement, where I used to get leads, where I used to talk to sources, where I used to have producers reach out to me. As a platform, not only since the takeover of Elon Musk but since before that as well, has just become completely useless. I've seen Facebook go from a place where I could interact with family and friends and keep in touch with sources in places like Ukraine - where Facebook is the bread and butter of daily life and communication online - to be something that is now just filled with cat videos... Especially since I’ve become a mom, it's just like baby videos, which I don't hate. It's a nice escape, but it's not the place it once was.  

So the way that that's changed my work is that it's really fragmented it. I mean, I used to have a sense of community on a place like Twitter, and now I'm kind of having to rebuild that from scratch, and nothing has really taken its place.  

You also talked about AI, and I've struggled with this a lot. My husband is in the tech sector and a little bit more techie than me. He's like the type of guy who listens to podcasts on two-times speed and is always using all sorts of different new technologies to augment his life. And when Chat GPT came out, he really started to use it in his work a lot to generate new ideas or just brainstorm things. And I think that's what it's good for. But I've been really reticent to it. For instance, I'm really bad at coming up with headlines or titles to things, and that's something that Chat GPT - if you put a summary that you've written in there - is pretty good at doing. But I just feel so icky about it, I can't bring myself to do it. I've started to play a little bit with my newsletter with DALL-E - the image creation platform - and I found it really difficult to generate the prompts necessary to create the image that I want. It’s interesting because I saw in the program for Ars Electronica here, they have a prompt battle as one of the exhibitions, which I thought was quite cool. I would definitely lose that. 

Marta Peirano: I saw the Prompt Battle in Berlin when it launched, and it's just awesome. It's a phenomenal game. I totally agree with you guys. But also, as a journalist that does a lot of public speaking, I get asked a lot what do we do with this crisis? It so happens that I entered my first newspaper when I was like 17 and journalism has been in crisis since I started, since my first day. Now, what I see is that newspapers are having real trouble engaging with the places where the action, the information is actually flowing - which are not Facebook or Twitter, or even Instagram or TikTok anymore but mass communication messaging systems that are private, secretive, and protected by cryptography, like Telegram or WhatsApp. I think most of the political campaigns are happening through Telegram and different WhatsApp groups - like parents’ groups, school association groups, et cetera. This is where most of the stuff is happening, and it's really difficult to access without infiltrating every association in your country. So, I do think we have extreme difficulties that, funnily enough, are being resolved in other environments.  

I do think newspapers are having a crisis, but journalism is in a golden era because you have Bellingcat which is using this fragmented reality to actually recompose things, people like Forensic Architecture who are creating tools for reconstructing spaces, using digital material that has been atomized all over the Internet. So, the incorporation of those tools, I think is one of the key features of future journalism. But right now, we're in a bit of a limbo. 

Ana-Maria Carabelea: So we need to figure out which direction to take. This slides well into my next question. We started from the online as this democratic space - at least that was intended - and it's now become a space in which virality has replaced fact-checking and where we’re seeing this ‘constructed’ credibility at the moment. If we can take a step back, can you pinpoint a moment in time where we took a wrong turn, or several moments in time that might have contributed to journalism being in this crisis (this particular one)? 

Marta Peirano: I can quickly think of one: the day an expert in Google search entered the newsroom. The day we hired a figure in the newsroom that didn't work for us, but worked for Google. That was the day I thought, we're not working for the public, for the right audience anymore. We're working for a searching tool that is giving us a lot but is also transforming our work in ways that might not be so productive. I think that was a very clear first turn for me.  

Fabian Scheidler: I see it also in historical terms. There is a dialectics of technology and information. For example, when the printing press was invented - today it's hailed as a major step forward - but it was mainly used for religious propaganda against witches and so on, for centuries. It took at least two centuries until it was used by people in the Enlightenment movement to change power structures.  

Very often you have this tendency that technologies, once they are introduced, serve the ruling elites. It's clear. They have the money, they control these technologies, and they own these technologies, which is one of the major problems with all the things we are talking about. But as time goes by, the public changes and movements come up and may take over this technology. It happened with writing. Even writing, when it was invented 5000 years ago, served the ruling classes for their logistical purposes, for organizing slavery, for their own propaganda about their religious ideas, their ideas about the world, and so on. Some thousand years later, the first prophets of the Bible started to criticize power using writing. So, technology can in the long run be turned around. But we are certainly seeing a phase now with an enormous concentration of power and technology in the hands of people who are really running the planet against the wall. 

Nina Jankowicz: For me, the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a really instructive moment just because we saw the bothsidesism that had beleaguered the modern press being manipulated by, in this case, Russia, but since then, so many other bad actors have learned how to do just that. I think the press has become a little bit wiser since then but still, we see even since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, this equation of “oh, Russia believes that NATO has expanded too fast and therefore it's okay for them to invade the sovereign nation” and we don't really see the context being added. That's particularly bad when reporting on secondary crises that aren't familiar to an audience, especially a Western audience, whether it's Ukraine or somewhere in the Global South. That for me was a moment where - especially as someone who had watched that part of the world and knew Ukraine quite well - I just stood in shock and said, how could this be the reporting that we're doing? You're going there and interviewing these men, these little green men, as we called them back then, without insignia, who have clearly come from the Russian Federation, about what they're doing in a sovereign nation. It was bizarre without adding that context. And I hope since then we've learned a little bit of a lesson. But obviously, you know, the press has a duty to be impartial and in some ways that can be manipulated by the people who wish to manipulate it. 

Ana-Maria Carabelea: What do you think are the real-life implications of these developments, especially if we're thinking about democracies and the way they operate? What real-life effects do you see on citizens and their involvement in the democratic processes? 

Nina Jankowicz: I can talk about my personal experience. I've always written about disinformation being a democratic problem, not a partisan one. In the United States especially, it's become very, very partisan and polarized. And if you mention Russia, if you mention disinformation, you are just a crazy woke liberal. But the truth is that right now it might benefit one party, but in a couple of years or a couple of months even, it might benefit somebody else. And I've always tried to impress this upon people. Last year, I was appointed to a role within the Biden administration that was going to be leading the coordination of counter-disinformation work within the Department of Homeland Security. The right-wing went absolutely berserk when this was announced, in part because the administration did a terrible job communicating about the effort, but then was just caught like a deer in headlights and was unable to push back on this narrative. And as a result, what happened was there was this informational vacuum, and people trained their sights on me and my family. I was eight and a half months pregnant when this all happened, so very, very close to giving birth to my first kid. And at the time, we were getting death threats, we were doxed, people were sending me horrible, horrible stuff. I was on Fox News pretty much every hour for several weeks. And this has changed the security situation in which I live for the rest of my life. Unless I move and dye my hair and change my last name, there are going to be people who believe that I committed treason against the United States and think that I should die for that. And in a state where guns are legal and people often do use them in acts of political violence, it's a pretty scary existence to have. It's not just about these big protest movements or coronavirus conspiracy theories. There are a lot of cases, like mine, where individuals have been harmed and put in harm's way because of this kind of post-truth movement or the normalization of disinformation in our political discourse. I think that is really scary.  

And on top of that I'd add that the more we allow and normalize these narratives that elections are rigged, or you can't know the truth, we all have different truths. That really robs people of their agency. It robs them of the ability to go out and say I condemn this, and I'm going to condemn it with my vote, and that can change something. I think what we might see from that - although it hasn't been the case so far, and I think that's just because we've been in such a weird moment, in the United States at least - is that people are going to become disengaged in the democratic process. They already are at the local level with getting in touch with their representatives in Congress and town councils and things like that. But I think people are going to turn out less and less. I've seen that firsthand in the post-soviet space where there “is real election interference” and people don't trust the process, so they don't come out and vote. And you can't have a democracy when people aren't voting. 

Ana-Maria Carabelea: But on the other hand, I think what you're describing is much more political engagement, just not through the processes that we have in place, because getting death threats, that's actually people being very engaged. 

Nina Jankowicz: Yeah. Antidemocratically.  

Fabian Scheidler: For me, one problem is disinformation and all these fake news. The other problem is the reaction to disinformation, because there are a lot of people, even on the liberal side of the spectrum, who say, well, we have to censor away on social media, information that somebody deems as being misinformation. Of course, there's a lot of bullshit around and there's dangerous bullshit around, but I think engaging in censorship is a dangerous thing because now you can be for censorship because it's about the right wing but tomorrow it will be you. So, I think we should still allow public discourse on things that we don't agree on, and we should even allow some of the bullshit to happen, as long as it’s not bullshit that is threatening the life of people.  

For example, let's take Myanmar. There was all this hate speech and death threats for years. And people in Myanmar depend on Facebook completely. All the information goes through Facebook. And there were NGOs calling for Facebook to shut that down, and they didn't do it. So that was a huge problem. I think we should shut down on hate speech that is really inciting violence, but we must accept still that people have different versions of the truth, even if we don't like it. Because if we don't, the right-wing will use that against the left wing as well. 

Marta Peirano: Yeah. The example of Myanmar is very illustrative because it's one of those places where they have free basics, which is this Facebook infrastructure that allows for you to have a data plan without paying for it, without paying for it in money. And that's pretty much everything they have to communicate. And so, there is a clear correlation between the empire of free basics for millions of people on the globe and the incredibly hard impact of disinformation campaigns, especially in cases like this, where they basically lead a genocide.  

But I was going to say that, actually, for me, one of the main losses in countries that have other means of communication that are not Meta or Facebook-owned is that we, as journalists, have lost the ability to explain the world in terms that allow for you to disagree with your neighbours without thinking that they are either crazy or evil. I lived in Atlanta for a year, and it was the time when Obama was going to the primaries. That was my first encounter with Fox News on a daily basis. Fox News helped me understand, for instance, why a place like Atlanta - which for me was very strange, but at the same time shockingly nice, the people were shockingly nice and gentle and sweet and helpful - was this red state. And watching Fox News somehow helped me rehumanize these people because I understood where they were coming from. They were being fed all this information. So when you allow for an infrastructure like free basics to secretly go to people's ears and bring them all sorts of information that they make up and that nobody knows about, that you never hear of, that you cannot cover in your newspaper, that you cannot denounce to the police, that you cannot talk to the teachers, you cannot talk to the parents, you cannot have a network of resilience against it because you don't know that it's happening, then our ability to sympathize with people that are different from us is lost because we are missing the tools.  

Ana-Maria Carabelea: To end on a more positive note, do you see any ways out of this? I think you all have already hinted at some things but does something need to change in the journalistic practices to counter everything that's happening? Or what do you see as a potential way out? 

Fabian Scheidler: For me, one thing is to leave your bubble and go offline to talk to real people, to meet people. Every person is a medium and when we stay in our bubbles, whether on X or wherever, the divisions will only grow. So, go offline. And another point, of course, is to question the ownership, the property structures of the tech companies. I think we must break them up, and we must make sure that we have public infrastructures with open software, transparent algorithms, and so on, which are not made to make people addicted. That's the way tech companies work. They are addictive tools. They are addictive weapons, you could even say, because the way they work is to maximize the time span of people on Facebook (or wherever) so they can sell their ads. That's a crazy business model, we have to change there.  

Marta Peirano: So true. I agree with this. I think talk to your neighbors should be the first command in this case. It also bothers me that we are now in a time where the newspaper subscription model is becoming mainstream. This means - and I work for a newspaper that has a subscription model - but the subscription model means that you end up having more or less something like a football club, where people pay for your newspaper and don’t pay for any other one, because who can pay for all the newspapers. And this also aligns with a particular activity and follows a particular set of people. It's almost like journalism is becoming all this network of clusters. And I think this will prove to be a really big mistake. 

Nina Jankowicz: I'm really interested not just in algorithmic transparency, but kind of radical transparency from the platform side. One of the crazy things that I started thinking about a lot over the last couple of years, around when Frances Haugen from Facebook did her big whistleblowing advocacy, was that a lot of the data that we write about is either from whistleblowers or it's from researchers and journalists who are probably bending the terms of service of the platforms a little bit to get the data that they need, or it's from the platforms themselves. And that is only partial at best. It is crazy that there is no oversight over the decisions that these platforms - that are our digital town square and really the global town square, where so much gets discussed - are making inside. There is no oversight over any of the business decisions, algorithmic decisions, over any content moderation that they're doing. We wouldn't allow that for an airplane manufacturer or a car manufacturer. And yet we're allowing it with something, I think, much more precious. I'm not in favour of censorship - and I just want to put that out there because everyone thinks that I am, having been in this position in the Biden administration, I wouldn't have taken the job if that were the case - but what I am in favour of is encouraging more of this transparency. We're working toward that in Europe with the DSA, we're working toward it in the UK. The US is lagging far, far behind. And the way that I think that could work is that you have an intermediary government oversight committee that can act as a clearinghouse for the data that journalists, researchers, and academics can then get their hands on and tell the stories that we all need to tell about the way that we're having conversations online and who is governing them. I think that's hugely important, and I think that will contribute to better information literacy and civic literacy in our society, which only a few countries are really investing in right now. I think that can be a public good. I used to call it media literacy, but it's about more than how media operate, it's about how these platforms operate and the fact that when you go on there, you are on an addictive commodity, and you need to understand that. When our aunts and uncles and moms and dads say: Did you see my Facebook post? And we have to say: No, we didn't, because it wasn't served to us. Sorry, Aunt Susan, I don't really interact with your cat pictures or whatever. We need people to understand that to better understand how they're interacting with the world around them. 

Ana-Maria Carabelea: At the end, I usually ask my guests to send listeners off with a homework and name anything, an article, a research piece, a book, an artwork or an exhibition that you saw recently, and you think everyone should know about. 

Nina Jankowicz: I was recently in Venice with a bunch of really inspiring women in the tech sphere, and one of the women that I met was Dr. Joy Buolamwini, who is the head of the Algorithmic Justice League. Check out their work on how AI is fueling racial injustice and gender injustice. It's just really incredible stuff. And she also writes poems about it, which I think is very cool. 

Fabian Scheidler: I would recommend the film The Social Dilemma on Netflix. The people from the tech industries, major developers speak out about how these companies work and why we should dismantle them. 

Marta Peirano: I'm a bigger fan of The Facebook Dilemma that PBS did just one year before. It had many of the same guests but I think it goes deeper into the thread of misconceptions about how it works and its ability to build parallel realities for so many people. Instead of a book - there are so many books right now that are exquisitely precise about this topic - I was going to propose a game. There is this game called Get Bad News that was made by researchers at Cambridge University. And it's a game designed for inoculation, this idea that you don't tell people what's wrong and what's right but teach them to see the signs of a campaign designed to create illusions. I use this game a lot with students. It turns you into a media mogul that is running disinformation campaigns and teaches you to become very good at it. And at the end of the day, it becomes very clear what are the keys to a disinformation campaign: that it triggers your emotional responses, it uses the statistics in a very particular way, it tends to have a tone that is very identifiable once you have seen the patterns. It's a lot of fun. So, Get Bad News - an extremely useful tool for information inoculation. 

Ana-Maria Carabelea: Nice. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Nina Jankowicz: Thanks for having us. 

Marta Peirano: Yeah, it was awesome. Thank you. 

Ana-Maria Carabelea: That's it for today. I'd like to thank our guests Marta Peirano, Nina Jankowicz, and Fabian Scheidler for joining us, and thank you for listening. The Digital Deal Podcast is part of the European Digital Deal, a three-year project co-funded by Creative Europe. If you want to find out more about the project, check out our website