V Interesting

Propaganda & Social Media Politics with Sam Woolley, Prenatal Plus, Fieri Fallout

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We celebrate a major win for women’s reproductive health in the form of a new blood test. If you didn’t keep track of who got canceled this week, don’t worry – we kept a list. And V chats with University of Texas-Austin media researcher Samuel Woolley about how social media bots, artificial intelligence, and algorithms can manipulate public opinion and what that means for the future of democracies.

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V Spehar, Sam Woolley

V Spehar  00:08

Hey, friends, it’s Friday, July 14. Welcome to V interesting, where we break down the viral and very interesting news you may have missed. I’m V Spehar. And today, let’s celebrate a major win for women’s reproductive health in the form of a new blood test. If you couldn’t keep track of who got canceled this week, don’t worry, we’ve been keeping the list for you. And media Professor Sam wooley is here to just up end everything I thought I knew about tick tock and modern propaganda. All that more on today’s be interesting from Lemonada Media. Let’s be smart together. And now for some headlines. Let’s start with some good news for once, okay, because we need it right. And so this good news surprisingly has to do with women’s health. I know I couldn’t believe it myself. A new blood test approved by the FDA can help predict if a pregnant woman will get preeclampsia. Preeclampsia occurs when pregnant women with normal blood pressure suddenly develop high blood pressure and other complications. It can lead to serious even fatal complications for both the mother and the baby. This test can identify with 96% accuracy. If you’re at risk of developing the condition which is just incredible news. OBGYN are calling the new blood test groundbreaking and revolutionary. Not only does it help predict the disorder, but it acts like a countdown clock so doctors can know when blood pressure is expected to rise and how to prepare for that. Preeclampsia affects up to 7% of all people who get pregnant in the United States. No one knows definitively what causes the condition. But risk factors include high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and in vitro fertilization or IVF. And surprise, surprise, it disproportionately impacts people of color. Black women are three to five times more likely to develop preeclampsia than other women. The recent death of a Olympic track star Tory buoy drew attention to this. She was found dead in her bed this past May at eight months pregnant. Her autopsy listed respiratory distress and a clamp Sia, which are seizures brought on by preeclampsia. One of buoys the Olympic teammates Allyson Felix spoke out after her death, saying we need to do better for black mothers. Felix suffered from preeclampsia herself and had to undergo an emergency C section. Beyonce developed preeclampsia while pregnant with her twins, which led to an emergency C section as well. And even Serena Williams had a near death complication during her pregnancy. The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate of any wealthy country. It recorded 32.9 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2021, which is more than 10 times the estimated rates of Australia, Israel, Japan and Spain. states around the country have formed committees to track and review maternal deaths related to pregnancy in order to figure out like why this is happening and what policy changes could maybe help. But as right wing politicians continue to attack women’s reproductive rights, watch out this month lawmakers in Idaho decided to just dismantle their committee. If you don’t collect the data then you don’t have to acknowledge the problem, right or do anything about it. And let’s not forget, these are the same states putting women at even greater risk of complications due to pregnancy by restricting abortion access. I mean, this is something that we’ve got to keep a close eye on, folks, because I can only assume other red states will follow Idaho’s lead. Do your part Google maternal mortality review panel and your state to make sure it’s still actively collecting data and reviewing deaths. Speak out if the committee is at risk of getting dismantled. We cannot allow for this problem to get any worse than it already is. And I just realized I took this happy story about blood tests and then made it into a sad story on maternal mortality. I’m so sorry, my friends, we had to go there. Ah, gosh, hope we’ve got better headlines coming. Give me another chance.

V Spehar  05:52

But not with headline number two, because no, we’re going to Florida for our next headline. Speaking of red states. Let’s turn from Idaho to Florida where some Mickey Mouse fanatics are scared to visit the happiest place on earth. Now that a new law has taken effect. Yes, I’m talking about permitless carry. Governor Ron DeSantis signed the law in April and it went into effect July 1. See before July 1, used to have to get a permit to carry a concealed firearm in the Sunshine State. The process involves undergoing a background check, getting fingerprinted, and even completing a safety training course. But not anymore. The new permitless concealed carry law means anyone who is legally allowed to own a gun can carry it on them concealed without any common sense safety bars to clear is that a gun in your pocket? are you just happy to see me? Well if you’re in Florida, it’s probably a gun. This has some Disney goers afraid for their safety. And I should be clear, Disney maintains that their ban on guns still stands. Guests are not permitted to have firearms, ammunitions knives, weapons or any of that kind of stuff at the Disney resorts or hotels in the park even in the parking lot of Disney properties. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t try. In fact, Disney World saw a spike in concealed firearms trying to get past security during the pandemic. The Orlando Sentinel reported that at least 20 people were arrested at Disney on gun charges in 2020 alone, and not all incidents where somebody brings a gun to the park even end in arrest. In 2020 the Tampa Bay News reported that a Florida man staying at Disney’s Polynesian resort had packed an AR 15 in his tennis bag and a handgun in his backpack. He claimed that he was concerned about recent protests in the area. Why are you going to Disney World then? The Orange County Sheriff’s Office didn’t arrest him because he had a valid permit for these guns. And instead, Disney was forced to store the man’s ar 15 and handgun for him for the duration of his stay. So now that people don’t need a valid permit, will even more people be showing up to the park with guns. Will Disney need to build like lockers to house these guns? I mean, you’ll just be like what the sunscreen your water shoes and your AR 15 Just across from the Dippin Dots stand where? Where does it end? Legal experts say that Disney is located on private property and will likely be able to continue to control what items enter their theme parks. But in states with similar laws, theme parks have not been granted an exception to restrict carrying a gun onto the property. In other words, private property rights alone might not allow Disney World to maintain its current ban on guns. And knowing how much DeSantis hates Disney. I can’t imagine that he’s not going to fight for the right to have a handgun in his fanny pack while getting Snow White’s autograph. Alright, it’s not just the headlines that are bad, right? A lot of people were having a rough week there was a lot of people who got canceled this week or at least called out for their very questionable and problematic behavior. And let’s start with the biggest heartbreak of a mall. Guy Fieri, who’s photographed shaking hands and chumming it up with Donald Trump at the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Vegas. Up until now fury has managed to stay relatively apolitical, skirting direct questions about his political views even but this act with Trump had people on the internet calling him out for fraternizing with a fascist guy hasn’t said anything about this interaction yet, but I’m pretty sure that we’re at six on flavortown. Second, maybe to the shock of guy theory was Jonah Hill, who also faced a lot of criticism this week. His ex girlfriend publicly accused him of being a quote emotionally abusive partner model and surfer Sarah Brady even shared several screenshots on Instagram that allegedly show Hill telling her to remove photos of herself in bathing suits while surfing. Mental health experts were quick to point out that it seemed that hill was using therapy terms like boundaries in order to manipulate and control Brady. Jonah Hill has been Big vocal supporter of therapy. He even made a Netflix documentary last year about his relationship with his therapist. But weaponizing the language of therapy is a step too far and it seems to be a trend among millennial men. And BC reports that while this generation grew up with less stigma around therapy than previous generations, they’re also at risk of misusing this newfound vocabulary. experts warned that the language of therapy can often be manipulated to win arguments, police someone else’s behavior, and perpetuate misogyny. Speaking of misogyny on a similar vein, Kiki Palmer’s boyfriend or ex boyfriend now it seems Darius Dalton was dragged through the mud online as he shamed Palmer for wearing a sexy outfit at an usher concert. I mean, come on Darius. Jonah, can we not? Can we not comment on women’s clothing, please, we have to have more confidence in ourselves as partners to women than to think that her wearing short shorts is going to be reason for her to leave you. And it’s not just the guys, Colleen Ballenger, aka Miranda Sings not only got cancelled for allegedly grooming her underage fans, one of them claiming she sent him laundry as a joke when he was just 15. But in true cringy YouTuber fashion, she released a song called toxic gossip train that was I guess supposed to be an apology. But you’re not gonna believe this next part. She writes this apology song in which she basically attacks all of the victims. And then she monetized the song, it costs you $10 to download it.

V Spehar  11:32

And if you want to use any piece of the song, she hits you with a copyright strike, which has deep platformed 1000s of videos calling her out for the deeply problematic song and her past behavior. worse though, in canceled and sometimes you see somebody who got cancelled getting invited back in and man do you have to have the confidence to pretend like nothing ever happened and show up back on the scene. James Charles, the makeup artist who was flirting with underage fans just a few years ago, who this past year was invited to VidCon after parties, or my favorite Don Lemon who showed up to the White House Correspondents dinner the day after he was fired from CNN. I mean, I did kind of love that one though. All of this is reminding me so much of the excellent conversation I had with Claire Dieter recently about her book monsters and what to do with all these problematic artists. If you didn’t get a chance to listen to that episode, scroll down our feed and give it a try. She gives us a lot of space to explore what we do with the art of people who end up not being so great. Okay, that’s enough shit talking speculate and bad news and we’re gonna end on some good news for those seeking higher education. Oh, oh, no, it’s it’s not about loan forgiveness. Oh, no. But it is about grants. A recent change in federal law opens the door for more than 750,000 incarcerated people in the United States to now be eligible for Pell Grants. As of July 1 students behind bars and state prisons are now eligible to receive federal aid. Studies show that providing educational opportunities to those who are incarcerated leads to lower rates of recidivism. Getting your degree while serving your time used to be much more common in prisons until the 1994 crime bill excluded incarcerated people from the Pell Grants. The Marshall project reports that without those funds to prop up college courses, nearly all the education programs in prison closed. Fast forward to 2015 when the Obama administration launched a pilot program to restart Pell eligibility in more than 100 correctional facilities across the country. Five years later, in 2020, Congress quietly ditched the exclusion altogether. And just earlier this month, the US Department of Education began accepting applications on a rolling basis. Now some major barriers still remain. The programs must be designed and taught in person by reputable colleges and universities. And let’s just say there’s not a lot of schools that are lining up at the prison doors. Programs like this also take more prison staffing and classroom space. In short, higher education behind bars would need to become a priority in a way that it hasn’t been for decades. And that’s not going to happen overnight. But this is a huge step. And we are already starting to see the movement over the last eight years pay off. Last month, seven inmates in Connecticut earned their associate’s degrees from Yale, making them the first graduates from the Yale prison educational initiative. The hope is that Pell funding will propel more inmates to attend in graduate college as well. Speaking of the academically inclined Get out your smart kid glasses and favorite sweater vests, we’ve got Samuel Woolley at the University of Texas School of Journalism and Media opening up his office hours to us. Sam’s take on modern propaganda and the Internet got me rethinking everything I see and create on tick tock, especially as we enter the presidential election season, it is a conversation you are not going to want to miss. It is very humbling to your friend V Spehar. So stick around, we will be right back.

V Spehar  17:17

All right, we’re back. And today we’re talking about social media bots, artificial intelligence algorithms, and how those tools are being used to manipulate public opinion. My guest today is University of Texas Austin journalism professor Sam Woolley. Sam is going to break down how and why totalitarian governments use bots to manufacture consensus. We’ll also talk about the responsibility that social media personalities and influencers have in this current era of misinformation, especially in the lead up to the 2024 presidential election. And that includes me, I have a very big responsibility here. Sam runs the propaganda research lab where he not only works on improving Journalism and Communication in the digital age, but also on understanding how new technologies are impacting democracy. Here’s my conversation with Sam. Here we go. Hi, friend.

Sam Woolley  18:18

Hey, how’s it going?

V Spehar  18:19

Good. Before you got on, I was talking about how we were just meeting now but how I like came to know you and I was like, he was like, Can I send you a copy of my book? And I was like, Yeah, okay. Then one day, I just kind of opened it. And now I’m having like an existential crisis about my entire existence online and stuff. Oh, no. In the best way and the best way.

Sam Woolley  18:38

Okay. Okay. Good, good. existential crisis.

V Spehar  18:41

Yes, existential and good way. Because like when you’re an internet person, you sometimes like get lost in the sauce of what feels normal to you. And then you read your book, and you’re like, wait a minute. Am I part of a machine? I didn’t even know I was a part of

Sam Woolley  18:54

Their behind all of the things that we do, right? There’s all these crazy systems. So you know, I hope it was useful.

V Spehar  19:01

It was. So Sam, for the folks at home who are just getting to meet you now. Can you give us a little rundown of your background?

Sam Woolley  19:08

Yeah, sure. So my name is Sam Woolley, I run a research lab called the propaganda research lab that’s been around for about four or five years. Before that, I was at University of Oxford, where I was the research director of a team called the computational propaganda research project. That basically means I was studying how bots and AI and algorithms and all of these things factor in to the kind of messages we see in the propaganda that we get and the ways in which we’re both manipulated, and how we can spread democracy and beneficial things too.

V Spehar  19:43

Yeah, needless to say, after that you’re an expert in the propaganda space that when we think of propaganda, we’re oftentimes thinking of like top down propaganda, right, like Russian state TV or something where like Vladimir Putin is saying like, Hey, here’s the line we’re gonna give. And then there are these like bot networks that just parrot exactly what he wants them to say in a variable Rotarian way. But in your book, you get into the fact that propaganda can be coming from many different spaces. What made you want to study propaganda in the first place?

Sam Woolley  20:09

I’ve always been really interested in politics and really interested in political messages and the ways in which technology factors into how messages get spread. And so I started off with a tea party and how they’re using blogs and those kinds of things, to spread their messages, and became fascinated with this idea that propagandists will use any tool at their disposal to try to get their message out. Oftentimes, it’s a it’s a process of throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks. And that propaganda is really connected to PR and marketing that they’re deeply intertwined. Even in like the historical literature, you go all the way back 100 years and look at the writing of Bernays who is the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who famously wrote a book called propaganda. And it was all about how to sell commercial messages on the one hand, but also simultaneously How to Sell political messages. And people like Bernays and many others that were reading during the time, Lippmann included, were saying, we have to have propaganda in order to make democracy successful, because the average person person isn’t smart enough to make the decisions on their own. Now, I think that that’s like, very elitist and very upsetting. But when I started studying social media, I saw something really similar. I saw methods of control for social media to try to control the kinds of information people are getting simultaneous to those people getting a lot of really bad stuff, like conspiracy and garbage. And so it’s been a long road. I’m most interested in the tools that exist in between the person and the person spreading the message, and the people getting the message. So that’s why I studied like bots, and AI and algorithms and those kinds of things. Because I’m interested in how the message gets taken and repurposed and then gets to us and what that does in the middle.

V Spehar  22:04

And there is an awful lot of conversation about bots. Right now, I know there’s the chat bot conversation, should we be using them? Should they be replacing search engines? And then there’s of course, Elon Musk’s feelings that there is a need for more right leaning AI chat bots, because the current bots are too woke? Do you think the chat bots are too woke?

Sam Woolley  22:25

You know, I think that chatbots, like any code, are encoded with the biases of the people who create them. And so there’s been a criticism for a very, you know, relatively speaking long time that Silicon Valley leads the left, and therefore it encodes bias into its software. I think you could say pretty easily, though, knowing that Peter Thiel and many other people who are on the far right are very invested in Silicon Valley that there’s also conservative values encoded into a lot of software. And so on the one hand, yes, there’s certainly bias in the bots that are out there, and there may be left leaning bots. But there’s also a lot of right leaning bots. And there’s also bots that are built in the pursuit of objectivity in the same way a journalist might pursue objectivity. But if you take my route of thinking about things, it’s, I would say that true objectivity is not possible that all things are have politics, no matter what they are.

V Spehar  23:18

How do you think bots in a place like Twitter are really skewing the conversation to make it seem like these really extreme positions are more common than they are?

Sam Woolley  23:28

Yeah, so it’s a great question. Bots get used to create the illusion of authenticity, and the illusion of scale for campaigns. And people that understand how to use bots in a sensible way. Understand that they can guess they can buy bought likes and retweets and comments, but that’s basic, at a very basic level, they can also make use of algorithmic manipulation in such a way that they attract bots to. And so one of the biggest ways to attract bots is by being very sensational, by being conspiratorial by creating clickbait by creating content that is basically junk. But that people want to read so I always talk to people about like, the National Enquirer, or like these newspapers being at the front of the grocery store, because like, you look at it, and you’re like, you read the headline, you’re like, I gotta buy that, because that’s ridiculous. And so bots glom on to that kind of content. At the end of the day, it’s all about control. It’s an attempt to control the messaging and to manufacture consensus. So to create the illusion that everyone agrees that this is the thing and so everyone should talk about it. And that’s something I think we miss a lot of times these days, like we talk a lot about misinformation, how people spread falsehoods, but we don’t talk about how there’s a critical moment when disinformation, the purposeful spread of false content by propagandists from the top down, metastasizes into misinformation and becomes accidentally spread false content. The same thing is true with propaganda. A lot of times there’s a top down effort to spread it and there’s a moment where regular people pick it up and spread it wittingly or unwittingly. And that’s the most important moment that I think we should be focusing on these days on social media.

V Spehar  25:08

How do you think deep fakes are factoring into this new world, because they’re getting really good. And it’s, it’s getting very concerning. And even if you don’t believe, like, we can tell, sometimes in a deep phaco, the hands are off of the teeth are off, but that doesn’t look perfect. But on the opposite side, it also allows a figure to say, Oh, that wasn’t me, it was a deep fake, even if it was them.

Sam Woolley  25:30

You know, deep fakes are used to create more noise, and they’re used to create to engender less trust in the media system. And for a while there, people were like, oh, deep fakes. Like they’re not, you know, they’re not that great, actually, mostly cheap fakes, basically made videos like the slow down clip of Nancy Pelosi that made it seem like she was drunk. But it was made on like iMovie, that are that are more concerning. But now with generative AI, things like Dali and these kinds of programs, do you picture a huge issue? And they’re going to, they’re going to create a ton of problems, not just because they’re going to create hysteria, but they’re going to Yes, allow people off the hook for saying things that they certainly said or did that they that they claimed they did it, we live in a new era of politics where it’s become acceptable to say something one day, and then the very next day can claim you didn’t say it. And to rely upon the information ecosystem to allow you to get away with that, because it moves so quickly. That the other thing is they’re gonna become cheaper to use. And that’s when all sorts of people will use them, right? Right now, they’re kind of expensive still to create a good one.

V Spehar  26:36

And even with these safeguards, are these these other technologies that are supposed to help the average person determine between if something is fake or real or not? That also relies on the person receiving it wanting to be corrected, which is not very common right now. I mean, when you look at some of the like, fantasy Trump stuff that comes out, right, and it’s like Jesus with his hand on Trump, or like, Trump, walking in front of like a military thing that’s like, very cartoonish looking. But people really want to believe it so much that they’re making T shirts out of it and banners out of it. And they’re believing it so strongly. What chance do we really have to fight that deep fake into a fight that sort of like fantasy animation of political figures? When people they like it? They like it, and they’re happy with how it is.

Sam Woolley  27:25

Those sorts of people who have already bought into conspiracy or bought into these, these fantasy that what some alternatives out there will not journalist called the fantasy industrial complex that they don’t want to be correct. Yeah. And that when they get fact checked on social media, by the Associated Press, or by Snopes, or by some academic, that they actually reintroduce their views, because they’re like, oh, people from the top down are correcting me, I must be on to something, right, it makes logical sense. The second thing is that is that it’s not just a direct manipulation that’s occurring. It’s not just like someone talking to a bot and the bot tricking them most of the time, that’s not the case, or seeing a deep fake and the deep fake tricking them, it’s that the algorithms on social media are being manipulated. And so one of the points I make in manufacturing consensus is that people always say to me, I would never be tricked by a bot, I would never be tricked by a deep fake. And I’m like, maybe you wouldn’t be tricked by a bot or a deep fake, all the research shows otherwise. But we know that trending algorithms and recommendation algorithms are regularly really regularly checked by these things. And that most of the time chat bots, and deep fakes are built to speak, don’t to be sensational in a way that attracts the algorithm to them. So that then you have the social media platform, regurgitating it or curating it, if you like, and then saying, this thing’s really cool and popular because like 100,000, bots liked it, because it doesn’t differentiate between a bot and a person a lot of the time.

V Spehar  28:47

So there’s this thought on tick tock, and I’ve been discussing it with some of my friends who try to create like these gentle spaces for learning that the left may be responsible for a lot of the propaganda that gets spread by the right. So an example of this is there’s a trans woman who was talking about how trans people shouldn’t have rights. And she says all these like horrible things and like, really tried to be the Candace Owens of trans people. And she had a very small following. And a lot of people on the left hate stitched her to talk about how dumb she was and how she was eating her own and how they’ll never love you. But that amplified this woman’s account astronomically beyond what she would have ever gotten in a conservative right leaning space. We saw it happen again. With the issues of target there was this one woman who had a very small following who similarly thought if she could be divisive enough, maybe she would get to be on libs of Tik Tok or Fox News or something. And she went in and lied about there being tuck friendly bathing suits and lied about there being weird stuff in the children’s section. That did not go very far. Until political activists who are very left or who are what we call a call outs, tic tock stitched her 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of times and really made her the celebrity figure. Do you think that that’s on purpose? Do you think that’s one side or the other knows that it’s actually the reaction to their absurdity that validates the talking point and get the people on board with it.

Sam Woolley  30:23

100%, like, I’ve talked to so many people, you know, in various spaces in politics around this world and in this country, and the idea of like, creating reactionary content in order to farm rage is a very, very real thing. Social media makes that a practice that is necessary in order to get a following. And so people that want to become famous, understand that, like, they can be bombastic or they can be, you know, act really bad, in certain ways. Like, in fact, the New York Times did an article fairly recently about influencers on Tik Tok, who pretend to be people they aren’t and act like, I think what they were talking about is like, they act like they’re interested in like really trashy stuff and pretend like they’re really stupid, when in fact, they’re like, actually smart. And like, you know, not into those sorts of things in order to get a following. The same premise is true here. But it’s even worse, because, you know, it’s yeah, it’s this idea of rage forming this idea of saying, things that are purposefully, purposefully overblown, purposefully ridiculous, especially if you’re in a position that you would normally being saying something else in order to get famous to make money. And because you know that in this case, the lives are gonna go crazy, and spread it like wildfire. And so one thing I would say to people is that you need to be really careful about what you interact with online and how you interact with it. Because these social, because social media platforms are built in such a way that they prioritize content based upon engagement, the more engagement that content gets, the more that they will prioritize the content. And the same thing is true, it becomes a catalytic effect across the media. There’s another book out there, that’s a little bit more academic than manufacturing consensus, but it’s called Network propaganda. And it’s all about the snake eating its own tail, that cyclical process between far right influencers, online Fox News, the media ecosystem, and how basically, it all reproduces itself. But one of the core ingredients is left wing indignation, and anger and, you know, a misplaced attempt to be to be tuned in or to be woke, that actually ends up leading to a fallout that you never anticipated. Because you’re doing you’re, you know, you’re you’re stitching people so much, and you’re not actually focused on like, you know, the fact that you’re maybe the bait, or that you went for the bait, and that you’re the victim.

V Spehar  32:53

You can’t hold somebody accountable when there, their intent was to enrage you in the first place. So there’s, you can’t hold somebody accountable, who knew they were saying something? Absolutely batshit nutso. Because their their goal wasn’t necessarily to spread that original crazy thought it was to get you to react and to build your their following.

Sam Woolley  33:13

We talked about that idea of like strategic silence in journalism, like, the journalist should not write the name of a mass shooter, it’s they should be strategic about not doing that, because they don’t want to add to their manifesto and all of those sorts of things. People who use social media and who engage, especially influencers who might drive traffic to a specific person must also protect practice strategic silence, and think very carefully about when they interact with something, the best thing that you can do to someone who is toeing hate a hateful line, and these kinds of circumstances is probably to ignore them, because they already have a small following, they probably are never going to leave that that small section of the internet unless you add oxygen to the fire.

V Spehar  33:51

Absolutely. Who do you think is ahead of leveraging this for their power? Because when I when I look at, you know, the system of propaganda and misinformation online, I see a lot of very intelligent people going well, that’s stupid, and you shouldn’t believe that. And obviously, that’s fake. And that’s the end of their argument. But then you see a figure like Andrew Tate come out and say, The Matrix got me the mind controllers are here. I’m about to be arrested because I speak the truth. And his compelling, charismatic, sort of like embracing of this fantasy third world is working for him. And these bots and stuff are really radicalizing a lot of folks, as these academic people are kind of like you You’re dumb if you believe that or like, oh, well, it’s obviously fake.

Sam Woolley  34:37

There’s a report a while back and go to have this amazing quote, and it said, we can no longer fight the fire hose of falsehood with a squirt gun of truth. And I think that that’s pretty true. You know, like, I’m not advocating for fighting falsehood or falsehood, but what I do think is that we have to understand this stuff on a socio cultural level. We can’t just keep saying we’re gonna fact check it or we’re gonna say you’re dumb for believing this. We have to To understand it much more deeply, and on a case by case basis, and in particular languages and regions if we want to actually speak back to it because Britain Heller who’s who’s a friend of mine, who does a lot of work on AI manipulation, and used to work at ADL, and it’s worked in other places, she she’s fond of quoting this quote from The Art of War, which is like, we must, we must build a golden bridge over which our enemies can retreat, which is this idea that like, if people who believe or do really bad things, or who were fighting, and we perceive to be an enemy, don’t have a way to like, no believe come back into the fold, they’re not going to do it. And calling them dumb is not the way to do to get them back into the fold, no matter how reprehensible their views, if we want to create a more, you know, a more equal more a society that has more justice in it, we have to figure out a way to speak across these lines.

V Spehar  35:50

Yeah, it’s like religion, right? Because we’ve made everything sort of this, like, opinions are no longer opinions or deeply held beliefs, like religions. And when you try to tell somebody from any religion, that what they believe isn’t true, they think it’s a test of their faith, and they double down just as hard as we’re doubling down on these political conversations we’re having. Which brings me to another chapter in your book about political influencers on Tik Tok in particular, you explain how marketing firms and political groups pay small armies of Tiktok influencers to promote political content? Can you give some examples of what these influencers are promoting?

Sam Woolley  36:22

What I’ve become more concerned with, obviously, is smarter AI bots that are encoded with AI, but then also really highly coordinated groups of people or really influential people, because people, especially influencers, understand that you have to build a relationship with your audience in order to have an impact. And what we’re seeing now is political campaigns, hiring influencers, to spread particular messages related to candidates causes, whatever, paying them small amounts of money or compensating them in other ways, like giving them campaign swag, or like letting them meet the candidate or, you know, even in some circumstances, in some countries giving the person position in the government. And it’s worrisome because it amounts in many ways, especially when these people aren’t disclosing they’re being paid. It amounts to what what Facebook and other platforms called coordinated, inauthentic behavior, but really, it’s not coordinated in authentic behavior. It’s coordinated, authentic behavior, but it’s also being paid. And so there’s there’s a lot of like, potential legal violations. There’s also a lot of questions about what happens when an influencer uses their position to spread political content. But when they’re tied to another group, it starts to look a lot more like that top down propaganda system that we’re talking about, because for a long time, we’ve talked about this concept of the opinion leader, and functionally influencers are this generations, opinion leaders in a lot of ways. And they and because of that, they have a lot of power. And specifically, they have a lot of power in specific regions and on specific topics. And so they have the potential to really change how people think and feel in a way that like Chris Christie, or like Joe Biden don’t just because, you know, young people are gonna look at those guys and be like, I don’t they say nothing that I care about. And so their key conduit, and so we see both the left and the right, using these on the left, firm that was called Mainstreet one, they’ve since changed their name, built this apparatus, they claim they had a stable of 3 million influencers. At one point, I think they claim more maybe now, two, that they could activate on any issue. And the right has also been paying attention to the United States. And they use these things. There’s things like hypothesis, which people are probably familiar with, like conservative hypothesis on tick tock, and liberal ones. And all of this is predicated on this idea that you can control the algorithm if you have a sensible enough understanding of it to get it just push the kind of content that you want to push and TikTok.

V Spehar  40:17

With the presidential election coming up, what kind of worries do you have about political influencers on Tik Tok and, and potentially spreading misinformation or more propaganda?

Sam Woolley  40:58

First of all, say that I think political influences are going to play a really big role and 20 in the next election 2024. And they’ll continue to play a bigger role moving forward and other elections around the world. The social media companies think about two things. When they think about these kinds of questions. They think about trust and authenticity, right. And I think I think influencers on the one hand are the bread and butter of social media platforms, because they play into these things they are built, they build their followings on relational organizing on this idea that you create relationships with your your followers, and that you speak the language of your followers. And you say I’m you make this argument that I’m more like you than the, you know, the Rachel Mattos or Dan rather’s of the world, you know, at the same time, influencers in the 2024 election risk really violating people’s notions of trust and authenticity, if they’re taking payments from political campaigns and not disclosing that they’re taking those payments. I think the transparency part of it is really, really important. I think that disclosure is really important. We’ve seen a lot in our research my team here at UT Austin, that, that lots of these influencers, not because of maliciousness, but because of a lack of training and knowledge, don’t understand that, like, you know, they need to be disclosing these kinds of things more clearly. And so you know, part of it is an education thing, but part of it’s also maliciousness part of it is also leveraging influencers in such a way that you can sow disinformation, purposefully false content, amongst particular groups of voters that are going to be pivotal to this election. We saw in the last election, that it was a handful of swing states that were that were pivotal. And we saw an attempt to overturn the election, because of that. And in those swing states, it was often communities of color that were the deciding factor in in the way in which the vote happened. Those communities based upon research that I’ve just been doing with a group called protect democracy amongst with community leaders, and amongst the communities in places like Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin, are already experiencing a delusion of false content. And a lot of it unfortunately, is coming from influencers who have bought into this stuff, they may be being paid in some ways, they may not. But that is a risk that I think could cause the next election to be similarly, if not, you know, more adversely affected by false content, and not just false content about like the outcome of the election. But how, when and where to vote.

V Spehar  43:25

Which we did see that. And that is very illegal folks to like, try and tell people the wrong day to vote or when voter registration is or isn’t or who to write in on your ballots. And I think even the realistic expectation of a third party candidate in some cases is there to sow division amongst the major parties. And sometimes it’s easy to point out like, who is a political influencer, and other times it’s not and I spent, like a month, telling the world that I was not on Biden’s influencer army because an article in Axios came out in which the reporter was like, I interviewed with the White House with Rob Flaherty who’s in charge of the social media team, and he said that Biden’s got an army of influencers, that they’re going to be deploying to like help with the campaign this year. And they listed a couple people’s names, my name was not on it. And I talked to the reporter, and I was like, Is my name on that list? And she was like, Yes, I didn’t include it in the article, because I couldn’t vet that like that tract necessarily. And so I had to, like go back behind and be like, I want to be so open about the fact that I’ve never been asked to be on Biden’s influencer army. I’m not sure what the structure around this would even exist for that to happen. I’ve never been paid by the Biden administration. I’ve never been paid by the DNC. I’ve never been directly indirectly paid by the DNC to say anything about anything. And I think it’s a very dangerous thing. But there’s this kind of cool factor with tick talkers, right, where all politicians seemingly want to be able to use tech talkers, because they know it helps reach Gen Z and marginalized communities that helps boost their platform. It’s a very direct way to talk to people. And so they want to brag about having this like supportive influencers, but then They also want to try to ban the app and will like absolutely abandon you if there’s any little thing that goes wrong within that. So as we’ve seen, with even big companies abandoning tick tock errs, who have endorsed products.

Sam Woolley  45:11

And see so like this is it’s a double edged sword. It cuts both ways. On the one hand, you have this idea that like, you know, very true, which is that political campaigns want to make the most of having people who are social media savvy on their teams, and that includes having influencers on Tik Tok. On the other hand, you have these people that are doing this paid work and are saying that they’re doing it. And so, you know, there’s got to be a better middle ground where we figure out better means of disclosure, because, you know, people like you face reputational harm, while others, you know, are flying under the radar and getting away with it.

V Spehar  45:44

And some of it is, you know, there’s this fight between legacy media and new media, and the idea that like under the desk news, or Philip DeFranco, or somebody else may be getting more eyeballs, or may be getting more opportunities than the traditional media, newspapers and whatnot. And so oftentimes, for me, as a person who does tick tock and does the podcast and used to work at the LA Times, it’s difficult to watch that struggle between traditional media just trying to prove that new media is not you can’t trust it, you shouldn’t trust it. And then authentically reporting on the big issues of propaganda, or influencing political campaigns, or any of this kind of like bot stuff that goes on because there’s so much infighting in who gets to be the storyteller.

Sam Woolley  46:28

You’re so right. And there’s something that all of those groups can learn from one another. And in the early days of social media, the best thing about it was authenticity, right like that, that we can feel like we were talking to news media, and like, we were actually connecting with journalists, and that was the part of Twitter that everyone really loved, right? They’re like, Oh, I get to know, people that are sort of celebrities in my mind, like, or that are genuine celebrities. But over the course of time, like traditional news media, like they let that fall away, and you know, simultaneously, there’s things that influencers can learn and what and, you know, this whole bed on political influencers speaks to the fact that influencers do have to professionalize, like some influencers, you know, especially if they have, you know, massive followings, and they’re speaking about political topics, they, they owe it to their, to their viewers, to the users who tune into their stuff, to professionalize and to know what the consequences of the things that they do will be and to and to abide by particular codes of ethics, right? Because you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Like you get into an informational problem like the one that we’re in. Because you see a lack of regulation in the social media space, it doesn’t mean that there’s not great quality content and so much potential there there is, but it means that we have to have some sensible guardrails, because there’s always been those guardrails and other media, there’s just not those guardrails and social media and people take advantage of it. And the people that take advantage of it are propagandists who are attempting to manipulate public opinion.

V Spehar  47:51

Absolutely. So what are some of the big topics you think influencers and propagandists are going to be paid to create content about that maybe we can like keep an eye on.

Sam Woolley  47:59

The most divisive issues out there, right? So there’s going to be a lot of content about the number one, one of the number one things I think we’ll see content about will be about abortion, and about right to choose versus right to life. And there’s going to be people pushing influence content on both sides. We’re already seeing an attempt to manipulate Latino populations, who were, you know, very important voting groups in the United States, including Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Venezuelan Americans, etc, with with false messaging about candidates about where candidates stand on abortion, or like what their perspectives are. Simultaneous simultaneously, you see a lot of efforts to push like, you know, hate oriented messages aimed at other politicians because of or other people because of their stances. It Yes, it’s disinformation in some ways, but in other ways, it’s also it’s also like using a kernel of truth to attack someone to defend them. last election, we saw a lot of influencers be used to speak to leverage claims that people were socialists or communists against them, especially in South Florida amongst the Cuban population, because, and the Venezuelan population because they have particular fears about those things. Like, you know, Joe Biden is really far from being a Socialist or a Communist.

V Spehar  49:18

Could not say more times that he’s a capitalist at too much. to my chagrin says constantly, I’m a capitalist, like, stop Joe

Sam Woolley  49:25

Is a capital. Yes, yes, exactly. And he’s not shy about No, like, if you know one thing about politics, both on the left and the right, in America and elsewhere, it’s that there’s smear campaigns that attempt to put people in a particular light, and that’s going to happen here. There will also be an attempt to use influencers, to unfortunately, this is the most maybe the most unfortunate thing to motivate trolling and to motivate harassment and to motivate attacks against particular people so that they don’t speak. And in academic lingo, that’s what you Whole, like a chilling effect, an attempt to make it so groups feel like they don’t have a space in politics.

V Spehar  50:06

What do you think about politician saying they want to ban Tiktok? They need to leverage it to get the youth vote, but then they’re also like, oh, we should just ban it.

Sam Woolley  50:14

I think it’s, it’s, it shows just how little they understand how the internet works. The idea that you could somehow put tick tock back in the box after it’s been released is crazy. You know, most of my students aged 18 to 22. Here at UT know how to use a VPN. They know, they understand how to how to use how to use a VPN, so they can access tick tock anyway. But also, like, you know, it’s a it’s an attack on speech. Like, I think there’s reasons to be concerned about the Chinese government’s involvement in tic tock and the ways in which the Chinese government could benefit from from tic TOCs relationship with them. But I think that a worry is not the same thing as hard evidence. You know, it makes sense to stop people with high security clearance in the government from, you know, maybe having Tiktok on their personal computer out of those kinds of concerns. It doesn’t make sense, in my opinion, to have all government employees in a given state, like, for instance, for me in Texas, to not have exemptions. Luckily, now we’re able to have exemptions, and our lab does have an exemption so we can do the research we do. It all speaks to a broader thing, which is like, yes, there’s lots of issues with tick tock in the sense that like, you know, there’s quick virality, and it can create quick disinformation. But one of the things we haven’t talked about today that I think we have to talk about is the fact that a lot of political influencers that are out there are actually doing really, really important work, to inform their communities to spread good content about about how to vote to to make impassioned pleas about particular topics, and doing it with total transparency. We live in a world where there’s a huge distrust in institutions now, like around the United States and elsewhere. And there’s gotta be something that fills that void. And if what fills the void is garbage. That’s a huge problem. And so if we can have influencers that have the that have human rights in mind, and dignity and justice and equity in mind, then that will be really beneficial.

V Spehar  52:12

And there are lots of them. I’m pals with lots of them. There are a lot of people who are just extremely passionate about gun regulation and they’re not being paid. They’re extremely passionate. Jessica Craven comes to mind about voter registration and how the law shakeout or SCOTUS blog, another great account to follow for everything happening with the Supreme Court. And it’s not just these, like extremist groups in America, right? Like you could kind of consider like maybe turning point on the right or like, at advocacy on the on the left or something. It’s other countries also that are that are building into this new age of social media and getting their political points through influencers into American politics. How much do you worry about, you know, we have like the Cambridge analytical thing happened in 2016? Or how much are you worried about foreign investment in US politics, coming through propaganda of social media?

Sam Woolley  53:03

I think that there’s genuine reason to be concerned. You know, in fact, most of my research is focused a lot of the time outside of the United States. So this is a big passion of mine. I’m from here. So like, I’m concerned about this transnational flow. People have been concerned for a long time about Russia and China, like, you know, you had the Russia investigation after 2016. And now we have a lot of conversation about China because of TiC tock. I think that that both of those nations understand that in order to win the war of words and to end to, you know, win the war of of public opinion that they have to be on social media, and that they are in a big way, but also that they’re in traditional media, too, in these in this country. One of our big projects that my lab right now looks at diaspora communities in the United States and the ways in which they’re they’re contending with these kinds of challenges. But it’s not just Chinese people in Russian people who have moved to the United States that are that are having these challenges. It’s people from Vietnam and from Iran, and from a wide range of other countries where the country is in their home countries invested in trying to create some kind of change in the United States so that they get what they want. These things that we’re talking about today, the use of bots, influencers, trolls, for for a lot of the times for bad and ugly, but also you know, influencers for good and things like that is a big topic of concern and something we need to be talking about.

V Spehar  54:24

The new book you have out called manufacturing consensus, understanding propaganda in the era of automation and anonymity. What made you decide now is the time for this one, is it hitting?

Sam Woolley  54:35

I think manufacturing consensus is going to be a slow burn. And I think that’s okay. I think it’s meant to be theoretical. It’s meant to be philosophical, and it’s meant to push our understanding of propaganda forward, propaganda is continuously being reinvented. And then a big part of the reason that we are in the space we’re in now where people are talking have talked about the info pocalypse and everyone’s obsessed with this information is that we we tend to take a while to catch up And to realize that with new tools comes new techniques. And so this book is an effort to say, Hey, listen, here’s the toolkit that exists now. And here’s what it means for the types of propaganda techniques that exist. And it makes a lot of sense that we’re having a failure of trust and institutions, the new sorts of things, but it’s not going to happen forever. Fundamentally, there is a there is a positive note in this book, and it’s saying, there’s stuff that we can do. But it’s gonna require action from all sectors, not just politicians, not just social media, but also from you and me and everyone else that’s tuning in to the podcast.

V Spehar  55:35

I agree, I think this book is something that is so important and so special for people to read, and kind of like read, take a break, read, take a break, go back and read it again. And really just especially if you’re a tech talker, or anybody who makes social media content, the world is so shiny and fresh and exciting. And there’s so much opportunity, and we are so brand new in this world, that having the information that you put in the book gave me kind of like a crash course on, just like how to set up boundaries and checkpoints for myself, you know what I mean? Because flattery is difficult to overcome. So you get invited to the White House, and then all of a sudden, you’re doing this next thing and you’re like, of course, I don’t want kids to smoke. And of course, I would love to, like, I don’t know, meet with the governor of Pennsylvania. And then I’m like, shit, Sam. I’m getting sucked into the machine. You know?

Sam Woolley  56:22

I’m so glad that it’s pragmatically useful. Because that’s what it’s meant to be.

V Spehar  56:25

It’s like a self help book for social media influencers who are interested in American politics, really.

Sam Woolley  56:31

And anyone who’s interested in how social media impacts politics. Yeah, like for me, you know, it was a book, I felt like I had to write because I’d seen so many disparate threads about this kind of stuff going up around out there, and everyone kind of glommed on to their own thing. And I was like, Well, hey, listen, I’ve talked to so many people who work in the space, the PR, manipulation space, but also people on the receiving end, I need to put it down on the page and say, This is what I see happening. When you work on Emergent Media, emerging media and politics. Like sometimes like, you know, I was working on bots, and AI and manipulation in 2013. And I felt like I was doing I was crazy. And people would say, why, why are you doing this? This doesn’t matter, like, you know, and then it’s nice to have been vindicated in some ways. But also, sometimes you just have to sit and wait patiently. So I’m really glad you discovered it. And I’m really glad you think it’s worthwhile.

V Spehar  57:20

Yes, absolutely. We’re gonna keep talking about it. Because there’s so much more stuff like you said, emerging media coming out. We didn’t get to talk about it too much. But I do want to get your thoughts on the new virtual reality stuff that’s come out, Apple’s got augmented reality vision pro people are, you know, have their feelings about the metaverse and about like creating these alternate universes? And is that like, sort of disconnecting people from the real world? And everything’s kind of pretend where anything can be true. Are you concerned about augmented reality? Yeah.

Sam Woolley  57:49

Yeah. And in fact, in the reality game is a nod to that the book that I read in 2020. And there’s a whole chapter in there on XR, augmented reality VR and talking about this notion that it came from a friend of mine, Toshi Anders, who he’s a VR expert, and he always used to say to me, send me research on Disinformation and Propaganda and manipulations matters so much, because in you know, the body has no metric for fake, like, you can see it, you can kind of hear it, like you can smell fake and artificial flavorings, but your body when, like, you can’t feel it that sorry, you can’t really feel it that much when you’re wearing VR goggles, right? And so and so the thing that took Toshi standpoint, like led me to think well, what could this kind of stuff look like in VR, the same idea about like, you could be trained to learn about global warming by looking at the melting polar ice caps is true for if you were exposed to hateful content on these platforms, like people create these private spaces on in these virtual worlds. And they’re allowed to kind of do a lot of very, very worrisome things in those spaces. Like, it’s not just free speech, like we talked about child endangerment, we talked about, we talked about heavy heavy extremism and racism, these sorts of things. And so one of the big things you know, right now everyone’s obsessed with chat TBT and generative AI and I think rightfully so there’s a lot of concerns there. But I think we also have to keep our sights on VR AR and xr because social media platforms have sunk 10s of billions of dollars into these into these things. Yes, it people like to laugh about the metaverse and they’d like to laugh about some of these new products from Apple and others and be like, who’s gonna use that? I think in the next 10 years, a lot more people will be using them. And if there’s one thing I can tell listeners, it’s that any technology media technology when it gets created, and oftentimes technologies that aren’t media oriented, will be used in an attempt to control people it will be used to perpetuate some kind of violence, whether it’s it’s psychological violence or whether it’s like literal violence against your body. So Be aware of that and think about it, you know, in a pragmatic, grounded way, and understand that, you know, racism can play out on social media racism is also going to play out in the AR VR world.

V Spehar  1:00:12

Yeah, it’s like a practice zone for all kinds of horrible things that are maybe illegal in real life. But I mean, even going back to the Sims games, and like making your Sims do illegal things, people have always had kind of like this weird fantasy world where they could get away with illegal things in that world. But now that we’re putting our bodies and ourselves and our avatars into it, we’re obviously going to see some some, you know, breakdowns in mental health and in the space of where people maybe find that what they were able to do in the VR world, they want to give a try in the real world. And so I think it’s definitely something to keep keep an eye on and not write off to your point as, oh, that’s just stupid stuff that like, in cells and board people do at home, like no, this is this is a practice known for a lot of things. And your book does have a hopeful lens, also about things we can do to kind of like get ahead of this and not be so Doom squirrely forever. What What kind of hope can we give the listener at home?

Sam Woolley  1:01:04

I think the hope that we can give the listener at home is that, you know, people like you, and many other people who are in influential positions across social media and elsewhere are really becoming wise to this, the problems that exist in the information ecosystem. And in fact, many, many of you all have come into this work because of seeing those problems and saying, Hey, I actually need to, I have a duty to speak. And given that, and because of that, a lot of regular, most regular people are aware of the fact that like, you know, there are some serious problems in the informational world these days and in the digital world. And that means that there’s now the impetus for change. When I started doing this work, and, you know, 2010 2013, no one really wanted to listen, certainly not to social media companies. But most regular people, my parents, my friends, other people were like, What is a bot? First of all? And second of all, why should I worry about social media being used for manipulation, it’s like the best thing ever. In fact, I read all the time that it’s going to be the savior of democracy. And so now that we become more realistic about these things, and we understand their their harms, including data collection, surveillance, all of these sorts of things, but also propaganda, we can start to fight back. The thing is, what it’s going to take is electing people that are actually going to create change. There’s a big binary that gets set up by people saying like, Oh, well, if there’s any regulation of social media, it’s going to limit my speech. And what I say to people is, Mike Kennedy, who’s a professor at USC, he made this comment online, that was kind of a throwaway thing, but I thought it was really brilliant. He said, free speech is not the same thing is freedom to speak. Free speech is a particular, you know, set of laws and regulations that are, you know, codified in the Bill of Rights for us. But they’ve always been restricted, like everyone knows the thing about yelling fire in a crowded theater. But you also cannot spread disenfranchising content about how, when or where to vote, you cannot threaten people with bodily harm, you can’t do those kinds of things. And right now, there’s a pivotal, pivotal moment, where we’re starting to see some regulation in the EU. And there’s the impetus for some of that regulation, the United States, and I think it could be bipartisan. And so what is it going to take to get back to a time when we can have a logical conversation about how to protect people’s data, how to protect us from some of the worst stuff that exists online? And I think we’re getting there. And so I’m hopeful and people should be too but we’ve got to be the ones pushing it.

V Spehar  1:03:30

Absolutely. The name of the book, again, is manufacturing consensus, understanding propaganda in the era of automation and anonymity. And my guest today was Samuel wooley, thank you so much for being here. We will link to where folks can get the book in the show notes. It really like again, it’s like a great self help kind of like boundaries book for folks who talk about politics on the internet. It’s a great check, and I really appreciate you writing it. And it was a it was a joy to read.

Sam Woolley  1:03:57

It was such a pleasure to be here for you. Thanks for the work that you do.

V Spehar  1:03:59

Thanks, Sam. Big thanks again to Sam Woolley for that conversation, I learned a ton. I hope you learned a ton. I mean, there’s a lot to reflect on in terms of how to engage online and responsibly share vital information. Again, Sam is a journalism professor at University of Texas Austin, and director of the propaganda Research Lab, make sure to check out his book manufacturing consensus, understanding propaganda in the era of automation and anonymity. And be sure to tune into next week’s episode where we dig into the propaganda you most enjoy. Just kidding, we’ll be doing more headlines. Please leave us a five star rating on whatever platform you’re listening on. Follow me at under the US news on tick tock Instagram and YouTube. And guess what friends there is even more be interesting with limonada premium subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content, like country music artists, Ashley McBride on the best songs of the summer and her go to protest to get them Subscribe now in Apple podcasts.

V Spehar  1:05:07

V Interesting is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Kryssy Pease, Kathryn Barnes and Martin Macias. Our VP of weekly programming is Steve Nelson. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittles Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Mix and scoring is by James Farber. Music by Seth Applebaum. Please help others find the show by reading and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @VitusSpehar, @underthedesknews and @LemonadaMedia. If you want more V Interesting. Subscribe to Lemonada Premium only on Apple podcasts and follow the show where ever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.

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