The PEN Pod: Tough Questions with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we’ll be discussing tricky questions about free speech and expression as they pertain to the ongoing pandemic with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of the forthcoming Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we talk about the continued dissemination of the conspiracy theory-laden video “Plandemic” on social media platforms, President Trump’s controversial nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, and the president’s continued attacks on journalists, including his recent lashing out at CBS News correspondent Weijia Jiang. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 10-minute mark).
“Plandemic” is the name of a new conspiracy theory-laden video that essentially says COVID-19 is a part of some sinister plot. It got seven million views on YouTube before it was eventually pulled, and it’s still making the rounds. How and why is this kind of disinformation circulating now, and how do we stop it?
It’s a really good question. It’s really troubling. People have pointed out that with the proliferation of conspiracy theories around the virus—even at such a time as we have a vaccine, maybe that a substantial portion of the population is convinced it doesn’t work, it’s dangerous, and that they shouldn’t take it—I think we have a subculture in this country and around the world that is fed by conspiracies that they find online, and they’re sophisticated purveyors with different kinds of motives. Maybe there are foreign governments that are behind it—it could be corporate interests, it may be just individuals with a monetary or ideological agenda who have an interest in persuading the public of falsehoods.
The power of disinformation online, we see, is enormous. By piercing into these subcultures where information is shared, where people may feel they’re on the outside of public debate, that they’re isolated, that their concerns are not respected—they buy into these ideas. In this case, the idea that masks are actually harmful and spread the virus, going to the beach can cure the virus, that a vaccine is going to be lethal and deadly—all kinds of false claims.
What do you do about this? In this case, fact-checkers were really on the ball, and it was almost a divide-and-conquer approach, where you had sophisticated fact-checking outlets systematically debunking claim after claim in this video. It was taken down from Facebook, and it was taken down from YouTube. It was contextualized in terms of the expert voice in the video, Judy Mikovits, who had a reputation where a major paper of hers had been withdrawn, so that was brought to light. Media organizations armed people with powerful rebuttals to the content in the video, explaining to them that it’s not credible, appealing to logic. So there was a forceful response. I think most people are not going to now stumble upon this. People who do are going to be alerted that it’s dubious, but there remains this hardened core of individuals who subscribe to things like “Plandemic” and other disinformation and conspiracy theories willfully, as a kind of rejoinder to our mainstream discourse. That portion of the population is very hard to break through to. I think that is a concern in our politics. Certainly, there are people where you feel, no matter what they see or hear, they’re not going to believe anything other than what they already think.
“The power of disinformation online, we see, is enormous. By piercing into these subcultures where information is shared, where people may feel they’re on the outside of public debate, that they’re isolated, that their concerns are not respected—they buy into these ideas.”
President Trump has an appointee, Michael Pack, whose nomination is now languishing in the U.S. Senate. This is the person who is meant to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media. He’s getting held up over some objections that the president might seek to turn that agency’s leading news outlet, which is Voice of America (VOA), into a propaganda arm. Trump’s actually attacked VOA journalists for months now, accusing them of supporting Chinese propaganda. What’s going on here, and why is VOA such a target for Trump?
This is an agency that has, for the last three-and-a-half years, been able to operate relatively free of any interference by the Trump administration. It’s an organization that’s led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Amanda Bennett, and has 3,500 journalists on staff. They report all over the world, and they reach an audience of hundreds of millions. The original purpose that VOA was created for, from World War II, was to spread a kind of American message of democracy and individual rights around the world. That’s the work that they do, and the way they do it is through credible journalism that’s factually grounded and uses journalistic methods and rigor.
The Trump administration cottoned on to this relatively late in the game—putting forward a nominee at the end of 2018 and not pushing him forward very hard. That nominee, Michael Pack, is a conservative filmmaker. He does have a background in public broadcasting, but he has spent the last decade or more of his career working with the likes of Steve Bannon and conservative media outlets on documentaries and short films. I think there’s a real concern that he’s going to bring a deeply ideological lens to the work of VOA and clean house, such that it will be an uncomfortable or unwelcome environment for serious journalists who work with the agency, and it will be turned into a mouthpiece of the White House.
We have seen this very odd pattern whereby—it’s not the first time president Trump has done it—you have the president of the United States attacking a federal agency publicly. VOA tweeted out a short video of the city of Wuhan, of a light show that was put up there when the lockdown was lifted. VOA tweeted this out and was criticized by the Trump administration for purportedly lionizing the Chinese and showing a sign of approval. In fact, VOA has done a lot of hard-hitting reporting on the COVID crisis in China, questioning the Chinese government’s narratives and its facts and figures. It was a very unfair criticism and a misunderstanding of the role of VOA.
“Hanging in the balance is this globally well-regarded, credible news agency that is not seen as just a shell for whatever U.S. administration is in power. I hope it stays that way, but we’ll have to see how much political capital the Republicans are willing to expend on this.”
And so, the administration has come to this late. The PAC nomination has a number of issues—there are financial questions about the dealings between a nonprofit and a for-profit organization that he controls, and a number of areas that Democratic senators want to scrutinize. Republicans realize the clock is about to run out, potentially, on this administration, so they want to push the nomination through. Hanging in the balance is this globally well-regarded, credible news agency that is not seen as just a shell for whatever U.S. administration is in power. I hope it stays that way, but we’ll have to see how much political capital the Republicans are willing to expend on this.
Speaking of attacks on journalists, this week, CBS News correspondent Weijia Jiang pushed the president on why he keeps trying to frame the coronavirus outbreak as a competition. In response, the president told Jiang to “ask China.” Jiang is Asian American. What does this say about the climate around racist language and attacks right now?
The president would say “Ask China,” I think, to anyone, and he’s pointing a finger at Beijing at every opportunity, I believe, as part of an effort to deflect responsibility for the catastrophe that the virus has wrought here in the United States, with the administration’s lack of preparedness, “blame China,” “ask China” is a common trope. Of course, it has a different inflection when you’re talking to a Chinese American reporter. It invokes the climate of anti-Asian American sentiment that we have seen swell up in the wake of the virus that has been exacerbated by this harsh anti-Chinese rhetoric. But the president is not somebody who’s remotely attuned to that.
You’d hope that the person in the White House would be mindful of how their words would be construed. To say it to an Asian American reporter is going to invoke this sense of targeting and hostility that we see as widespread within society. What’s striking about Trump is he just pays absolutely no mind to that—there’s zero conscientiousness. Conscientiousness around language is one of the major themes of my forthcoming book Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. I’d say that the ultimate lack of conscientiousness is what we see in Donald Trump. He doesn’t think about who’s in the audience, or how viewers at home who watched that exchange will interpret it.
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