Porn And Propaganda

Audio Length: 00:50:07

Transcript:

S1: Welcome to the porn and propaganda episode of Slate Molli your guide to the business and finance news of the Week. I’m Felix Salmon of Axios. I’m here with Emily Peck of Fundrise. Hello. And very special guest, Jo Bernstein of I’m not entirely sure what your affiliation is. Jo, introduce yourself.

S2: Hi, I’m Jo Bernstein. My byline is Joseph. But please call me Joe. I as of Tuesday, I’m a reporter, senior reporter at Buzzfeed News. I spent the last year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

S1: Welcome, Joe. You are back at Buzzfeed now. But during your sabbatical or whatever it was, you did manage to write a massive cover article for Harper’s about anti disinformation, which is a fascinating subject we are going to talk about. We are also going to talk about porn, because obviously it’s been in the news for the past couple weeks. There was this big sort of flip flop from OnlyFans. We’re going to talk about what that was all about. We are also going to talk about a rise in shoplifting thanks to the Internet and Jeff Bezos (AMZN). We have a Slate plus segment on Renaissance Technologies and that tax settlement. We have a numbers round that is probably the most depressing numbers around we’ve ever had.

S3: No bowling balls, but it’s

S1: all a good show, actually. And you get to hear Joe dropped some serious knowledge about the Internet and whether it changes how we think. It’s all coming up on slate money. So, Joe, you disappeared off to Harvard and disappeared into a pile of books and came out with a magnum opus on the cover of Harper’s magazine about this is my favorite word that you used in the piece, anti disinformation and the anti disinformation industry, which now I feel the slate money has been part of the anti disinformation industry, selv. We are part of the problem. But tell us what this industry is.

S2: I would like to start by saying we’ve all in way, various ways, shapes and forms, been a part of the anti disinformation industry over the past 10 years. We’ve sort of been inundated with new and exciting and sometimes disturbing, infuriating, anti-democratic forms of content. And we’re all sort of negotiating how to live with them. That’s just a broad lesson across lots of Internet, basically every Internet platform, specifically since twenty sixteen, there’s been a kind of a cluster of people in the media and academia and think tanks and sort of civil society groups, cash rich non-profits that have really devoted themselves to combating a concept that they call disinformation. And what this. Group of people of essentially knowledge workers assumes is that there is a stable category of thing called this information that can be fought against. And that that is like a like a neutral sort of like empirical good. And what I want it to do with this story is think about the assumptions behind that. Think about how this work takes place in the broader technological context, the broader sociological context, the broader media context. And take a step back and think about how that has worked over the past sort of four to five years.

S1: So the first thing to think is that what was that Netflix documentary that got everyone up in arms? That was terrible.

S3: The social dilemma,

S1: the social dilemma, that was it, that there was the social dilemma. And then there was also just anyone you’ve ever heard at a cocktail party or whatever, just like complaining about Cambridge Analytica and how evil they were. And I think, as you say in your piece, it all really comes back to this idea that there was something illegitimate about the way in which Trump won the 2016 election. The Russia in particular was injecting disinformation or misinformation or whatever you want to call it into Facebook. The people there for or thereby wound up believing things that weren’t true. Thanks to this brand new sophisticated way of getting people to believe things that aren’t true. And the consequence of that was the election of Donald Trump. And people got terrified, the power of social networks and have now seen this now terrified of this power and a bunch of different context.

S2: Right. And like right away, there’s like good academic research that studies the effects of fake news. That is not at all causal. That is not at all sort of, you know, directional like this stuff makes people vote for Donald Trump, but it sort of doesn’t get it just doesn’t get a lot of media space. And I think there was just an enormous appetite to explain why Trump was elected, why Britain left the EU. And blaming this sort of nebulous concept of bad information is in many ways easier than thinking through the various complicated reasons behind both of those things.

S1: And there’s this peculiar irony here, which I really love on one level, which is that the natural people to fight back against this narrative are the tech companies and specifically Facebook. And Facebook is uniquely incapable of fighting back against this narrative because it makes all of its money by selling the narrative that it can influence people. And if you buy ads on Facebook, then that is going to influence their behavior.

S2: Right. So one of the things that I sort of started thinking while I was working on this piece was about the framing of disinformation as a pollution issue. And so then I started thinking about sort of other big sort of classical like literal polluting industries, big tobacco, you know, the energy industry and how long and hard these industries fought to claim that their products weren’t doing the things that advocates claim that they were doing. And then how comparatively fast, big tech essentially took on board the disinformation critique. And then I started thinking like, well, why is it not in their interest to fight the basic claim of the disinformation critique, which is that information on social platforms causes people to behave in these specific ways, which there’s research that supports that. And I sort of think, well, actually, as you say, their entire business model is based on the idea that they are all persuasive, that they can standardize people to be persuaded. And once I realized that, it kind of unlocked a lot of things about this story for me.

S3: So the disinformation narrative then helps everyone on all sides of it, because it gives powerful elites, as we call them, sort of like a bogeyman excuse. And they don’t have to examine their own behavior or policies. They can just say, well, it’s Facebook’s fault. Facebook can say, we’re sorry, but at the same time, they can say it to Charman. We’re going to help you sell a lot more toilet paper. Look how influential and powerful we are. And then real problems underlying everything don’t really get addressed. That was very appealing about your piece. It was just like, oh, no.

S1: I mean, I guess one of the messages I took away from this piece is that maybe the problems that people are getting so exercised about are not so real after all.

S2: I don’t want to go that far and I don’t want to say that information on social platforms can’t have profound negative effects. I just think we need to be humble about massive claims, a massive sort of overarching claims about the nature of media facts, which is like an unsettled science.

S1: Do you think the Russia won the election for Donald Trump by meddling in Facebook?

S2: I don’t know. What do you think? I mean, no, I don’t. I don’t. There’s a twenty seventeen Stanford and NYU study, which. Concluded that if one fake news article or about as persuasive as one TV campaign ad, the fake news and our in our database, which is the database of Facebook users, that the study was examining what have changed vote shares by an amount on the order of hundredths of a percentage point. That is much more than Trump’s margin of victory in the pivotal states on which the outcome depended. So for them to have sort of for Russia to have elected Trump, you have to believe that this Internet advertising is like massively more powerful and persuasive than TV advertising, which we don’t even know is all that persuasive to begin with.

S1: Right. I mean, I think that’s one of the things we’ve learned in in the past few elections is that. Money doesn’t win elections, even though what it does do is buy lots of TV ads, and if TV ads aren’t particularly impressive and don’t really change people’s minds anymore, it’s hard to see how, you know, the Internet is suddenly way more powerful being able to have that kind of effect.

S3: So that was one of the things that I was kind of wrestling with after reading your piece. It’s like on the one hand, you’re saying Facebook isn’t as powerful as everyone is arguing it is. Social media isn’t as powerful as everyone argues it is. TV ads aren’t as powerful. Marketing isn’t as powerful. But like it is, though, marketing, TV ads, all that stuff does shape a narrative and does lead people to believe certain things are see the world in certain ways. So how do you square that?

S1: Emily, what makes you believe that?

S3: I mean, I just listen to a great podcast episode on Slate about how bottled water is basically a creation of marketing. Like no one needed bottled water. Marketers figured out how to bottle water literally and convince people that they needed to hydrate. And now it’s a multibillion dollar industry. And now I am actually working in marketing. And I can see like you can see measurable results, you know, like a CEO appears on TV and then, you know, traffic surges to a website, sales go up. It all does matter.

S1: Tim Hwang is a friend of mine. He’s also quoted in Joe’s piece. He has a great quote in Joe’s piece, basically saying The reason why digital marketing in particular has so much strength of belief behind it is because it lends itself so naturally to impressive PowerPoint presentations, basically, which show you exactly the kind of causality that you’re talking about. And you can say, well, look, we spent a bunch of money in this channel and then we made a bunch of money over there. Or I have this business where for every hundred dollars I spend on Facebook advertising, I make one hundred and thirty dollars in profits. And so it’s just it’s great business and it all ends on Facebook. And I think you’re right that that does it works at some level of the funnel. Right. It works in terms of if you have someone who wants to buy, you know, who has a general idea that they want to buy something and you put it in front of them, a button saying, here, you can buy it right now, you could get 20 percent off, then that’s going to be the thing that incentivizes them to actually buy it. Whether it works like higher up the funnel in terms of, you know, making people decide who to vote for or change their mind in terms of what they think about Ford cars is much less well defined. And I think it does work to some degree, but I don’t think it works much better than marketing. And an advertising has always worked. I don’t think digital is some kind of amazing marketing technology that has transformed the industry and its effectiveness.

S3: Yes. Marketing does work, but digital marketing might not be any different or better.

S2: But also it’s related to this kind of mid century idea that some combination of advertising and behavioral science has cracked the code to the human mind. And I don’t think that’s true. And I think attempts to sort of quantify that and just see exactly how it works, I just don’t think they’re accurate. And just to take your example, Emily, did people start buying bottled water because they saw ads for it or because they saw it in the store? I mean, those two things seemed to me to be separate questions. Right.

S3: But seeing bottled water in the store is marketing. There are decisions that go into where the bottles of water get placed. Right. And how they’re sold, et cetera, et cetera, like it’s all part of it’s all part of marketing and ad sales, like there is brutal competition over where the products are placed.

S2: Yes, it’s marketing, but it’s not messaging. And what I’m talking about is messaging.

S3: OK, well, I guess I think it’s all part of the messaging. I think all that stuff is very meticulously planned and crafted and sold to people. And that I guess I think people are pretty vulnerable to those messages, maybe not uniquely so on social media.

S2: That, to me is more like debating whether or not Trump or Biden goes first on the ballot unless about right when you’re talking about like placement in the store or whatever. What I’m talking about are the messages people are exposed to before they make a choice. And I think there’s a lot of evidence basically showing that those effects are not as strong as you think in a lot of Fortune 500 companies don’t even run 12 because it’s not clear that they work.

S1: So let me ask you two questions. The first one is just broadly, as the tech clash been over a bit, is there much less here than meets the eye? Yeah. Let’s start with that one. Have we all got too invested in this sort of tech clash narrative?

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