Nieman’s 80th Anniversary Reunion Weekend
Transcript: Yochai Benkler
Michael Anti: 2007, I was a Nieman here. At that time, one of the best things of the Nieman fellowship is you can easily find very good lunch at Harvard. Different thing. I took this chance and almost the last year because the financial crisis then happened.
We took the chance to go to the Berkman Center to enjoy very many good lunches and listen to professors. Especially, Internet and social media evangelicals and other locales to talk about how great the social media … the whole word. I was really enlightened, including the book of, “Wealth of Networks,” written by Professor Yochai Benkler. I was really enlightened.
Back to China. When the Berkman Center and Harvard Neiman set the fire inside of me, I also set fire back to China. Together with my friend to trigger not all the social, Internet‑based activism, and also a lot of a good story happened.
It was very fun. It really showed the bright side of the Internet, which can bring the society a freer and maybe richer and freer. That’s the main thing I got from Harvard, but then I also not only I promote this activity but also I witnessed that.
In the witnessing, I observed a different thing. First, the government was not so stupid, sometimes very smart. I called it a smart censorship, based on which I gave a TED talk in 2012, but I thought it’s a very glitch of the human matrix. Made by lack of Chinese cheats.
It’s not really the normal face of the Internet, just like China’s special. I was wrong. It’s not a glitch. Maybe it’s the basic structure of Internet. Internet also have the negative side.
Then all the populist moment — disinformation, fake news. Also we will call “the enemy of the people.” That’s really, really bad. Everyone’s asking two questions. First, what is going on over the Internet? The second, maybe more important, what is going on with the American politics?
We come here now and pleasure to introduce Professor Yochai Benkler again, because he will give us another talk, another enlightenment about the very next negative side of the Internet. Maybe we can find a real answer from his speech. Thank you.
Yochai Benkler: Thank you for that very kind introduction. Very happy to see you all today. 2016 ended the year in which the OED called post‑truth the world of the year. The year in which, by December, 46 percent of republicans respondent to a YouGov poll that they actually believed there was some truth, that there was emails that showed pedophilia being run out of the Clinton campaign.
By August 2018, 51 percent of republicans were saying the press is the enemy of the people, while 91 percent of Democrats said that the press was an essential part of democracy.
What had happened, that moment became the moment where we asked what happened and the fundamental answers that had been circulating for the past two years have focused on technology.
It’s online echo chambers. It’s algorithms that put us into filter bubbles. It’s Russian box. It’s alt‑right trolls. It’s Cambridge Analytica. It’s clickbait fabricators. Technology allowed us to identify anxiety washing over us in an out of control process, but didn’t force us to take sides in partisan terms.
That helped both, professional journalist and social scientist come up with an A‑political answer. My colleagues, Hal Roberts and Rob Faris from the Berkman Klein Center and our fantastic team there have finished and have come out now with a book called, “Network Propaganda” where we analyze for million stories over three years before and after the election.
Trying to understand how these stories were linked by media producers to each other, were tweeted, were Facebook shared using data science and natural language processing and simple text analysis techniques to understand what people are talking about. Trying to connect it to TV and TV archive and using multiple methods. Not only data science, but also data guided case studies that more like journalism.
Also a broader political economy putting this in the context of 30 years of political, institutional, and cultural change.
This is the image that gives us both the best news and the worst news. It describes the leaking practices of media producers, which media link to which other media. This is not a function of the choices of consumers that create supposedly echo chambers.
This is not the algorithms because it’s not what Facebook does. It’s the decisions of media producers to say, “I listen to you. You’re a good authority for me. It’s an image of the supply.”
The good news is that for all the anxiety about the impending death of journalism, mainstream professional journalism continues to provide the most authoritative, attention‑getting information out there. There is no general disorientation and post‑truth where people don’t know where to go to get reliable information at the macro level.
That means you can do something about this. If there’s anyone who can do anything about this, it’s you. The bad news is that the right wing of American politics has spun out of control, become an insular media ecosystem that is deeply stuck in a propaganda feedback loop, where all the sites from top to bottom repeat identity‑confirming bias narratives and attack anyone who doesn’t fit.
When we look at Twitter, which is the attention side. We have the same thing on Facebook. We see the same pattern, possibly even more extreme. Fundamentally we don’t see polarization. There’s not right versus left. There’s right versus the rest.
The technological solutions should show symmetry among populations that are at the same technological frontier. If the critical driving force that was overwhelming were technology. Then populations that use the same technologies should largely with some noise have similar patterns of use.
Something else must be driving this when we see such high asymmetry. Another way of looking at the data is you see that on the right, the more extreme and purely right‑wing focused you are. Whether you’re looking at producers and how they link to each other or users on how they share on Facebook or on Twitter.
The more extreme and purely right‑wing you are, the more attention you get. On the left instead you get a more or less normal distribution of attention with a peak on mainstream classic center and center‑right publications.
When we compare this to surveys, again you see the same thing. You look at the survey from “PUE” at the top on media use by Trump supporters. Heavily focused on Fox, very little anything else, and Facebook is a fraction of “Fox.” When you look at Democratic voters, it’s much more evenly spread.
When you go a couple of years earlier and you actually look for patterns of trust. You come up with a remarkable conclusion. Parallel people, those who are consistently on the right treat Hannity and Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck on “Talk Radio” as their most trusted media.
The next time anyone tells you, this is a phenomenon that happens on the right and the left ask them this. Can you defend the proposition on Hannity and Limbaugh, and Beck are the equivalent of “PBS,” “The BBC,” and “The New York Times.” If you can’t stop talking about symmetry, stop talking about polarization. Go away. I have nothing to say to you.
The dynamic is not about whether there are actors. Many of the stories we read every three weeks about crazy Facebook happening on the left and the right. There is supply on Facebook of clickbait that is extreme on the left and on the right.
Take these two, which are the most closely matched stories we found. “Trump raped a 13‑year‑old.” “Clinton runs pedophilia rings.” When you compare the most clickbaity sites ‑‑ “Occupy Democrats,” “Bipartisan Report,” “Addicting Info” on the left, “Ending the Fed,” “Western Journalism,” etc., on the right, they’re symmetric.
You see they’re symmetric? Even more on the left and on the right. When you then look at the most linked‑to sites, those with the most authority, the most tweeted sites, the most Facebook‑shared sites, the symmetry is gone.
Because the critical difference is that the top sites on the left, after the story came, and it was actually the most Facebook‑shared story, much more Facebook when it came out on HuffPo, the Trump rape claim, but immediately, within days, “Jezebel,” The Guardian,” and “The Daily Beast” come out with debunking stories that explain why this is true, and it disappears.
By contrast, on the right, the source is Fox News online. It then gets replicated across the top media, and, much more importantly, given their massive audience share, it gets transposed to television, from the so‑called straight news of Bret Baier to Newt Gingrich going on Hannity and Greta Van Susteren and repeating it all over the place.
That’s the critical dynamic. That’s where the people are. In the book, we then go through a series of case studies. One of the clear things you see is that, since the election, Fox News has turned itself into a propaganda channel for the president.
We can use text analysis to look at changes in framings over time. From 2012 to 2016, the deep state is about Turkey, it’s about Egypt, there’s a little bit of libertarian.
Once 2017 hits, it becomes Obama holdovers are out to get Trump. You see that, and you see critically that’s what driving the online coverage is what’s driving the TV coverage down on the bottom. It is a periodic running of stories about the deep state to defend Trump at every point of major transitions that are bad for him on the Trump‑Russia investigation.
You try to get quantities. The Seth Rich conspiracy, that was supposed to tell the story that it was Seth Rich, an insider, not the Russians, who hacked DNC emails, at the beginning, it comes from online sites. Some Russia‑associated, some not, some just basic right‑wing sites, like the “Gateway Pundit,” some alt‑right personalities.
It has a huge bump, if you see on the bottom left, relative to the entire period. Incomparable when Fox News TV, both the DC affiliate, “Fox & Friends,” “Fox Online,” and Hannity more than anyone, adopts the story in order to run interference on the Comey firing and the Mueller appointment.
We have a chapter on how beautifully “Breitbart” created a propaganda campaign over two years, to make sure that, right after the Democratic National Convention, the press would focus on the Clinton Foundation.
In fact, they succeeded. It’s a beautiful piece of information operation to actually get it to happen.
Again, look at the size of the coverage over on the left until the moment in the fall of 2017, when Fox News adopted for a month not to go after Clinton, but to go after the Mueller investigation.
Essentially, the story is Russia got 20 percent of US nuke industry under Obama. Hannity makes it clear. He’s also, by the way, the most popular on YouTube on this particular topic, as you see in the top corner, but even that is a fraction of what he gets on TV every night, and he runs this for a month.
The transition is Clinton kickbacks, which is a false assertion, gets translated very quickly, and this is real Russia scandal, not the other one that all of these fake media are telling you about.
What’s it about? Time to go. These particular lifelong Republican investigators are the ones who sold Russia 20 percent and didn’t tell the American people. Flat‑out lying for a month on a television station that has 25 to 30 percent of population watching it.
That’s the real source, and then this guy, who sells the Seth Rich conspiracy, who sells Clinton pedophilia, and who sells this story, is talking about the fake media, and then he tells the one thing that is true in this particular segment.
We’ve been telling you for years journalism is dead, and that’s in fact what they’ve been doing. We trace in a chapter on the political economy how combinations of changes from UHF and VHF television, AM and FM radio, satellite and cable, all the way to ’96, create on the background of cultural changes an audience and a segmentation strategy of an outrage industry.
By the time Breitbart is founded, in 2007, the right‑wing propaganda feedback loop has already been set in place, and the only competitive strategy feasible online is in favor of replicating the propaganda feedback loop.
’96 is the inflection point. That’s when Fox News is launched, and that’s when deregulation allows “Clear Channel” to create talk radio, coast to coast, 24 hours a day, of the outrage industry. You see that’s the point at which the right and the left separate on the feature of how much do you distrust media journalism.
I don’t want to let Breitbart off the hook. We have a chapter that looks at the question of immigration and how immigration became so profoundly important. There is no question that from February 2014— this is comparing Breitbart to other right‑wing media as well as “CNN” as a baseline — they’re driving in red, they’re driving the debate.
They spike during the debates on comprehensive immigration reform, then they go to sleep, and then they create this duet with Trump, where he says call and response, and they completely change the agenda and force it into immigration.
What is immigration for them? We can use natural language processing and various text analysis techniques to try to understand what’s distinct about different parts.
What’s very clear is that the white supremacists are identified by their frank antisemitism. But what’s the different between the right and the center and center‑left and the mainstream media is that for the right, over and over again, despite the fact that, factually, immigration of Muslim immigrants is not a particular high proportion here.
This is about Muslims, Islamic terrorism, terrorism, Muslims, they’re coming for you today. Everywhere else it’s Latin‑American immigration, except for on the left where it’s a combination of talking about the right and about the left.
Finally, let’s not let you off the hook. July to September, before the Podesta emails, the great, big email release of Russian hacked emails, Gallup asks Americans, “What do you associate with Clinton? What do you associate with Trump?” For Clinton, it’s overwhelmingly emails. For Trump, it’s more immigration and jobs.
When we analyze only top mainstream stories, tens of thousands, actually, well over 100,000 stories associating Clinton or Trump with a word, repeatedly, Clinton is associated with scandals, in particular email and The Foundation. Trump is associated with immigration and to a lesser extent, jobs.
All the coverage is negative. It’s critical to understand that a way in which mainstream professional media performed objectivity was to be neutral. The way to be neutral in the context of such different candidates was to be massively negative against everyone. Critically, in an asymmetric propaganda environment, neutrality is complicity.
Let me sum up. The critical driver is not technology. It is institutions and political culture in interaction with technology. That means we should see different patterns in different countries. You should be very careful to take what we see in one country and assume that they’ll be exactly the same. You need a rich understanding of the local and political culture in media ecosystem.
The good news is professional journalism still captures a tremendous portion of attention, still is viewed by most of the population as important. If there is one real potential source of solution, it’s that professional journalism keep speaking to everyone but move from the idea of objectivity as performance of neutrality to objectivity as transparent accountability.
If that means that your stories consistently favor one side, that may mean not that you are not balanced, but that reality is highly skewed. If you don’t report highly skewed reality correctly, you end up where journalism was about climate change 20 years ago, creating the false impression that there’s a genuine scientific disagreement when the facts were already known.
Don’t do that. You have a real responsibility and a real possibility to make a difference. Thank you.