Philip Bump

Anthony Longhitano interviews Philip Bump on his talk “How Subjective Media Replaced Institutions”.

Anthony Longhitano:        Welcome, this is Expert Open Radio, I’m Anthony Longhitano and I'm a volunteer with TEDxAsburyPark. Today we are talking with Philip Bump, who’s a speaker scheduled at this years TEDxAsburyPark conference, on May 18th. Welcome Philip

Philip Bump:        Thank you, sir.

Anthony Longhitano:        Philip, why don’t we start by having you tell us a little bit about your background.

Philip Bump:        Sure. So I’m a national correspondent for the Washington Post.  Prior to that I worked for a website called The Atlantic Wire, which is essentially a news blog for The Atlantic Magazine. And prior to that I worked for an environmental site called Grist. Prior to that I worked a number of jobs, I’ve been a designer, I worked as a consultant. So I've done a number of things which I think have helped inform my ability to report, particularly in politics, for the Post.

Anthony Longhitano:        Thank you. And how about spending a little bit of time introducing the topic that you're going to be talking about at our conference on May 18th.

Philip Bump:        Essentially what I'm doing is I'm going to be walking through the ways in which the American media landscape has evolved away from public trust in institutional media and into sort of a shattered system of trust that allows in any number of random actors with potentially, and at times, demonstrated, negative effects. You know, it's not meant to be “hey, everyone, needs to go subscribe to the Washington Post because that's the only place you can trust” although of course if you want to subscribe to the Post  you are more than welcome to do so… but it is instead trying to look at how politics, partisanship, the Internet, all of these things have combined with the lack of confidence in institutions broadly, to give us a scenario in which there are a lot of people that don't have confidence in the information they receive, and so they put confidence in faulty information.

Anthony Longhitano:        And Philip, what's the title of your talk going to be?

Philip Bump:        How “Subjective Media Replaced Institutions”.

Anthony Longhitano:        So this is a topic that’s been in the news, over the course of the last few years, maybe not exactly in the way that you’ve framed it...what has brought you to, you know, want to focus attention on this at this point especially with our TEDx conference?

Philip Bump:        Well, I think it fit neatly with the theme of chaos. There certainly is a element of chaos in the current media landscape. But, more broadly, it's something that, as someone who works for mainstream media organizations, something which I have been aware of, I've paid a lot of attention to over the course of the past several years. I mean it’s, since prior to the 2016 election, I’ve seen lots of examples of ways  in which people have seized upon information that is faulty, that is inaccurate. And since the 2016 election, in particular, I've seen a lot of really, really negative effects of that. Even as recently, the shooting down in Southern California, at the synagogue, which is a direct offshoot of people putting confidence in a media ecosystem which spreads hate, and spreads bigotry, and spreads and encourages violence. And that's the sort of thing that is a direct result of the Internet, is a direct result of people losing confidence in the validity of institutions, and I think it's worth noting, particularly now.

Anthony Longhitano:        And I agree, and we also had that terrorist event in New Zealand a few weeks ago...

Philip Bump:        Yes..

Anthony Longhitano:        Another example of a, of a hate crime where a lot of unwanted publicity occured because of that. But the Internet has been around for years, certainly in its most recent incarnation since the mid 90’s, early 90’s, and people have not vetted information, shall we say, on their own, for a long time. And what is it...if the Internet has been popular let’s say since the mid 90s, why do you think it has come to ahead in recent years where this has become a phenomenon where it seems like the Internet is out of control.

Philip Bump:        I’d say a couple of reasons. The first is the advent of social media, which, in addition to what it does fairly obviously sharing photos and so on and so forth, it is the thing that's really differentiated the mass media, back in the 1980’s was not necessarily that reporters were everywhere in a way that they are currently. It was that the Washington Post had a distribution mechanism which most people had, didn't have. ABC News had a distribution mechanism, mainly the airways, a lot of people didn’t have. Radio stations had a distribution mechanism people didn’t have. That’s gone out the window with the advent of smartphones and social media. People, anywhere, can post news anytime about anything and people have grown accustomed to seeing random Twitter users being the ones to break scene. I mean this guy, who’s sitting in Abbottabad, observes the Osama Bin Laden raid , right?  He was the first person to report that happening, because he was on Twitter at the time.   We’re used to seeing that, and what happens then, as a result is we’ve built these little ecosystems, these little environments in which, people can share information, can distribute broadly to a large group of people, what it is they’re seeing and hearing. A lot of times that is not accurate, and the example I like to give is… There have always been people who were into dressing up as animals, right, we called them the furries, now. And the only reason we knew the furries exist is because furries went online, and they found that they had this community of like-minded people. And now there are entire conventions where people like to dress up like animals. No one would ever have expected, that the Internet made that possible. That is a, sort of, I wouldn’t necessarily say its an innocent, way to look at it. But, that is not something that is particularly nefarious, but that's a community that’s emerged because of the Internet. Now, what we’re seeing though, is we see a lot of communities that are nefarious emerge...we’re seeing white nationalists, we’re seeing the alt-right, we’re seeing people who have motivations of hate. They too can find communities, and those communities not only help them share information, but they also provide a support structure. And so they, in the same way, that a furry can go in a community and say, “you know what, you’re not so weird, I also enjoy dressing like a wolf” Now Nazis can go on and say, “you know what, you’re not so weird, I also think that people who aren’t white should be murdered”.  And that obviously is a broadly negative thing for the country and the world.  

Anthony Longhitano:        So, if it's the advent of social media and the ubiquity of the Internet that has sort of catalyzed this phenomena, is there a case to be made that social media platforms have a responsibility to somehow, try to ensure that, some of the information that is shared on their platforms, is curated whether by a human being, a set of human beings, or some kind of, you know, AI algorithms or whatever?

Philip Bump:        Yeah, I mean I think they acknowledge that, right. I mean Facebook, Youtube (which is owned by Google), Twitter, they have all taken steps to try and root this stuff out. And a good example is, when you look at the rise of the Islamic State, the Islamic State was very, very deliberate about trying to reach out to people, and build a community of like-minded individuals on social media. And the platforms got together, and they came up with a way of tamping that down. It hasn’t been 100% effective, but it has been very, very effective. The challenge is that the ideology and the means and the rhetoric  of Islamic State is much less integrated into American culture than are things like white nationalism, and hate, and very extreme political views. Those things are part of American culture, in a way that the Islamic State isn't. And so, I think its proven more difficult for them to be able for them to weed those things out in a timely fashion.  

Anthony Longhitano:        I would agree with that, but is there also a case where, some of the functionality of the social media platforms that allows the amplification of these messages, is actually based upon the economic model of the social media platform itself. Not necessarily relative to the negative message, but obviously the more, clicks, the more advertising, the more advertising the more revenue there is for the social media platform, the algorithms that determine whether something is popular and therefore enables more attention with the audience is also the same kind of mechanism that can allow for the amplification of these hate messages.  

Philip Bump:        That’s exactly right, and over the course of the 2016 campaign we saw lots of examples where people understood that they could make money by sharing nonsense about the 2016 campaign. And people were able to leverage Facebook to share this stuff, Facebook got a cut of the profits from that. Facebook made money off the Russians that were trying to interfere with the election, right? I mean they were paid money to run these ads. But I think over the long term, it is not a good brand for Facebook to be associated with things like genocide, as, as they were accused of having helped facilitate in Indonesia. It's not helpful for Facebook, or for Google, or for Twitter to be seen as a place that coddles white supremacists. While there is an economic incentive for them to allow people to share whatever they want to share, and they do, there is also an economic disincentive to allow people to share things which are obviously harmful to society.

Anthony Longhitano:        Good point, very good. How much of this phenomena would you attribute also to the situation of information illiteracy on the part of users...the fact that users are not necessarily going the extra step to vet information, to see if it's accurate or not.

Philip Bump:        Yeah, I mean that's a huge problem. I mean, we’ve seen studies that look at the extent to which people accept or reject untrue information. There appears, according to some studies, to be some correlation between age and the receptiveness to sharing or accepting untrue information. And that may be itself, an actual side effect of having grown up in a media ecosphere in which you could generally trust what you read in the media. If you grew up thinking that anything you read was something that was reliable, and now you’re reading news sites that you may not have heard of before, but are sharing information  you may be more willing to trust those things. There certainly is the case that, people need to be better attuned to whether or not they are getting accurate information, but part of the problem as well, is that people are also living in a much more polarized, political space. Part of that means that, because Republicans are so skeptical of Democrats, and Democrats are so skeptical of Republicans, that people tend to seize upon news stories which reinforce their existing biases, and share those before they recognize that those things may not be accurate. And so, part of it too, is just that everyone is so amped up, generally speaking about politics, that a lot of these political stories, in particular, get shared, simply because they reinforce peoples’ biases.

Anthony Longhitano:         Is there a case to be made that the anonymity of the Internet is also something that catalyzes this behavior?

Philip Bump:        I think that, it certainly is the case of something like a 8Chan, which is this message board where both the New Zealand shooter and the guy down in Southern California both were active participants. There’s an anonymity there, which lets people really express extreme views in a way that they probably wouldn’t if they had to put their names to it. That said though, I'm not sure that, you know we’ve seen lots of other people have undertaken really horrific acts using their own names and aren't particularly shy about it. So, I don’t think it's, it is necessarily a component of people acting badly or sharing negative information, but I think it can at times, exacerbate how negative the results of those things are.

Anthony Longhitano:        Are there other people who you could point our listeners to, who are also active about talking about this issue?  I mean, obviously, there’s yourself, are there other people or resources that you could point our readers to, who, you know, may be interested in following up on this topic on their own..

Philip Bump:        There’s been a lot of good research data about partisan polarization, for example, by Pew Research Center, there’s been a lot of good analysis of media usage by Pew as well. There are a lot of reporters who focus specifically on hate groups and organizations. Twitter, in general, is a good place to follow reporters who you think are interested in any particular subject, because reporters spend all day on Twitter as a place to, you know, sort of generally find people that you are reporting on things you are interested in. But beyond that, media criticism has really shifted to a large extent on trying to figure out how this emerged and how this problem can be fixed. There’s a lot of places that have been doing good coverage of that.

Anthony Longhitano:        Do you think this is going to correct itself, by people becoming more aware of it or social media platforms taking action, or is this something where there's gonna be a need for some kind of governmental regulation, to incent the social media platforms to accelerate their activity in trying to correct this?

Philip Bump:        The social media platforms have indicated a willingness to try and self police, there's obviously a broader question of the extent to which any business is going to effectively police itself if it could undermine its profit motive. I think we're going to, sort of have to see. I don't think Congress is going to pass anything over the short-term which does much about this, and while President Trump has complained about social media platforms, generally through the lense of this unproven and undemonstrated argument that conservatives are unfairly targeted on the platform, I think that it is unlikely at this point, that any legislation will pass, and I think that it is in the companies’ self-interest to try and do as affective job as they can to prevent that from happening, so that their hands aren't tied by the government.

Anthony Longhitano:        And when I was listening to your application to give the talk at TEDxAsburyPark, the thing that came to my mind, immediately, was in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s there was this thing called the yellow  journalism...

Philip Bump:        Sure.

Anthony Longhitano:        which was in the extremely very traditional, written word, of newspapers and stuff like that. You know, the media platforms at the time, the big newspapers, some of them were guilty of...because of their own economic self interest... propagating, you know, false information that, you know, got people riled up and caused newspapers to be bought. The thing I don't remember though, is, that problem somehow was solved. And I don't remember...maybe you do, you have more information about the history of journalism than I. How did that come about? How did that problem self-correct or whatever?

Philip Bump:        I think that the majority of it was there was sort of self-correction by media institutions, in which it became part of the culture to reinforce objectivity and reinforce a willingness to self-correct when mistakes were made. When we’re talking about things like William Randolph Hearst at the turn of the last century who was taking steps to try and advocate his political positions through his papers, news reporting, that came to be seen as a negative in part because people like Hearst were doing it, right? You know, I think that obviously World War II also played a role in this in which there was a premium on accurate information, in which there was a premium placed  on America as sort of an idealized place and it was really after World War II that we saw this sort of standard of “okay we are going to be objective, we are going to self-correct, we are going to do our best to represent fairly both sides of the issue to people”.  It is absolutely the case that over the span of American history, the minority of time has been spent in a world where that was a predominant and prevailing attitude of news organizations. What's different now, is not that we are returning to the days of William Randolph Hearst controlling distribution mechanisms and making up stories as they go, but instead there is no one controlling the distribution of information. It is this massive, massive marketplace and in this particular case that has meant some bad actors have really been able to thrive. It's more akin to, you know, the world prior to having a sort of modern medical industry, and people were selling snake oil on every corner and claiming that it cured things, until the medical industry cracked down and was like “hey you can die if you drink this stuff” here are standards that we’re applying and so on and so forth that sort of revised how that world worked and people put confidence in it because they found that they weren’t dying and these snake oil things didn’t work. The question is, is there something we can do similarly on the media end to revise how our marketplace works.

Anthony Longhitano:        But isn’t the role of distribution, is now being played to a large extent by the social media platforms, right? So, isn’t...the analogy I was thinking of is, editors at William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers or whatever, is analogous to people in Facebook ,Twitter, etc., that are responsible for the distribution mechanism. They’re are not creating the news, but they can, perhaps, through the mechanisms of their platforms, restrict propagation of false news. So that, that was the analogy I was trying to make. So you don’t see that…

Philip Bump:        No, I, I don’t see that because part of the problem, false news means a lot of different things in a lot of different contexts, and it's been used obviously , now it's sort of a political term which is used in a way that I think is not particularly helpful. But if I get a news story from the Washington Post, and it says that X happened. I can tweet out that story with a spin that may or may not be accurate about the story itself. Right? And what, how does Facebook or Twitter correct against that? How does Twitter, Twitter or Facebook, correct against, if I take a picture of something which I think is  UFO in the sky, right? What are they going to do? Are they going to say this isn’t a UFO? Are they going to say it is a UFO? I mean, like, how do they police things, which may be not necessarily distributed with nefarious intent. There certainly is the case that some of this stuff , there are people who really believe, I mean look at this QAnon phenomenon, right? This is...this is a really, really toxic subculture primarily within the Trump world, I’ve spoken to a lot of folks that adhere to this. But there are people who really believe that they see these things and they’re sharing information that is useful and correct. And not everything that everyone who ascribes to QAnon says is incorrect, so how do you police that? How do you, if you are the distribution mechanism, how do you say, “no, you can’t tweet this thing” and “you can tweet that thing” in a way that's effective, especially, you know if they’re sharing... we did a study, there’s a study that was done by a researcher at the University of Washington, who looked at, how conspiracy theories thrived after a mass shooting. She looked, I believe, at the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. One of the things she found, is that, one of the most shared news sites, as part of this conspiracy theory is the Washington Post. Why was that? Because we bumped an aspect of the conspiracy theory, which conspiracy theorists saw as legitimizing their view. So they shared a lot of Washington Post stories, which obviously were accurate. But they did so in the context of trying to prove more broadly that this was something that was accurate. That’ can’t police that. And so what you have to do, is you have to figure out a way to train people to be more skeptical and more directed about how they actually approach what it is that they are reading.

Anthony Longhitano:        Okay well Philip, thank you very much for being with us today, you’ve been listening to Expert Open Radio. Here’s a reminder to get your tickets for the largest, highest rated TEDx conference on the East Coast. It's TEDxAsburyPark on Saturday, May 18, 2019. And you’ll have an opportunity to hear Philip talk about “How Subjective Media Replaced Institutions” in more depth at that conference on that date. So, thank you again Philip.

Philip Bump:        You bet, thank you.