Disinformation: How can we beat "fake news"?
Why does it matter that different people have different perceptions of the truth? If you’re trying to run a country, it can make a big difference. In this episode host Nelufar Hedayat speaks with former U.S. Republican Congressman Denver Riggleman, “godfather of fake news” Jestin Coler and Belarusian politician Svetlana Tikhanovskaya about disinformation’s effect on politics and leadership.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
This is Course Correction, a podcast from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. For season two of Course Correction, we’re focusing on polarization, which for me is the big problem of our time. Each episode, I look at one big issue with a whole bunch of people who will challenge my views and help look for solutions to these problems. Today, I want to start by going to what has to be one of the most polarized places on Earth, the U.S. Capitol, and look at facts, alternative facts and dirty politicking.
MAN WITH AMERICAN ACCENT: He goes, “You’re evil. You’re like the general of the sodomite armies.” It was at that point that I figured I might not be on the right side of the Republican Party. [LAUGHS]
NELUFAR: That’s Denver Riggleman, a former U.S. Republican Congressman from Virginia. He’s describing an encounter he had over the summer with a fellow member of the Republican Party who’s a hard-core supporter of the former president, Donald Trump. In August 2020, Representative Riggleman coauthored a bipartisan resolution condemning QAnon’s anti-Semitic and extremist conspiracy theories. A week earlier, President Donald Trump appeared to endorse QAnon.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF DONALD TRUMP: Well, I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate.
NELUFAR: For standing up to do the right thing, but against his own party’s leader, Riggleman paid the price.
NEWS CLIP WITH AMERICAN WOMAN SPEAKING: Riggleman will not head back to Washington. The Congressman was ousted by challenger Bob Good during the 5th District’s Republican convention Saturday.
DENVER: What I found is, is that it wasn’t about integrity or who you want to be as a person. It is how do you destroy that individual to win an election? And I’m very good with words. I’m very good with policy. But it didn’t matter because I did not capture the emotional zeitgeist that was going on with these individuals. I just refused to do it.
NELUFAR: For the congressman, it seems that facts themselves were being weaponized to enrage and polarize American voters.
What does it mean when facts no longer win elections? What does it mean for democracy when elected officials who supposedly speak for the people feel forced to play along with disinformation just to keep their jobs?
This is where we are in 2021. Here on Course Correction, we think through solutions to our world’s problems, but thinking and then talking through solutions means working off of a common set of facts or information. Conspiracy theories like those spread by QAnon have led to mobs of misinformed people, some of whom have demonstrated a willingness to cross the threshold of speaking out, turning words into full-on violent action.
So what can be done? On this episode of Course Correction, I’m talking to a man dubbed “the godfather of fake news.”
MAN WITH AMERICAN ACCENT: I may have deceived people at times on purpose.
NELUFAR: As well as a Belarusan politician who has fled for her life, in part because of disinformation.
WOMAN WITH BELARUSIAN ACCENT: We can’t trust politicians anymore, because everything is a lie, and you know, the dictator in our country is the biggest liar.
NELUFAR: But before that, a few more words from Representative Riggleman.
Most politicians have to deal in disinformation or to squirrel the lines. You have to. And I wasn’t willing to do that in some cases. And it really cost me. And I knew what I had to do. I knew how to win. I knew who I had to pay to win, and I just didn’t want to do it.
NELUFAR: I really wanted to speak to Congressman Riggleman on a very personal level like this, because I agree with him. It’s getting harder and harder for all of us — politicians, voters and even journalists like me — to sort out the real from the fake, because there’s so much to be gained from politicizing and polarizing people to think the way you want, so that they can act the way you need.
DENVER: I actually think the Republicans will do very well in 2022 in the midterm elections. I think the “stop the steal” language is going to work to get a lot of people to the voting booths, and I think the Democrats are in trouble with the election integrity messaging. Whether it’s false or real, people don’t care about that. What they care about is they’re emotionally in a tribe, and that tribe has to win. And if they have to utilize that emotion to win, they’re going to do it.
NELUFAR: And now the stakes are just that much higher, because we’re now in this age of social media, in which information and disinformation can spread like wildfire. The lines between what’s real and fake are intentionally being blurred in increasingly sophisticated ways. The watershed moment for disinformation happened five years ago, during the 2016 U.S. election, when Russian trolls pushed conspiracy after conspiracy, all in an effort to rig it.
NEWS CLIP WITH AMERICAN MAN SPEAKING: The major indictment unfolding today in the Russia investigation. Thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian companies accused of a massive effort to meddle in the election. Their aim: to help Donald Trump’s campaign and damage Hillary Clinton’s.
NELUFAR: But the misinformation wasn’t just coming from Russia.
American-made fake news and websites that were making a fortune from these lies and misinformation started to fill up social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. One man, Jestin Coler, caught my attention. He was deep into fake news. As the founder of Disinfo Media, he ran dozens of fake news sites that were created to have the appearance of local news pages. Here’s the twist.
Jestin Coler wasn’t a true believer in Trump, QAnon or any of it. In fact, he was a Hillary Clinton supporter. He says his initial foray into fake news came from a fascination of how gullible people were in believing anything they read online. And then Jestin had an idea: What if he could publish things so outrageous that it would show everyone that they need to double-check their sources before trusting information on the web?
The plan worked… a little too well, as it turned out, and that’s where our conversation began.
NELUFAR: So I’m less interested in this idea of, like, fake news and what it means, and do we live in a post-truth world? And I’m more interested in those really old things like deception. Were you part of that deception? Did you deceive me?
Well, possibly sometime you have read something that was deceptive that was published by a site of mine. The majority of the things that I published throughout my publishing career were more on the satire side, less deceptive.
But you’re right. And that’s kind of where the line is between like satire, right, and fake news. Just like the intent of the creator, whether it is to deceive or educate or things like that. So I understand what you’re saying. And I may have deceived people at times on purpose.
NELUFAR: I’m not looking for a soundbite from you. I’m not looking for like a gotcha moment. I’m genuinely interested in what you did, because I mean, to be fair, you got me, you got hundreds of thousands of people, billions of clicks if you count them all in the end. But you said something in and amongst that kind of spoke to me. You said intention is really important. How powerful did you feel? What was that like when you knew that you wielded such amazing raw power?
JESTIN: Well, I think that’s kind of stretching it a bit. I would never consider it to be raw power or anything like that. I mean, to be honest with you, I was always surprised, and actually, sometimes disappointed. You know, and there were times where we would write a piece that like we would literally say, you know, “according to a person with no knowledge” and then go on to say whatever it was. And that would still get shared around, and people would be like, “oh, my God, look at this.” You know, “read this.”
NELUFAR: So I’m going to push back a little because you did have power. You did. And I really want to understand, if not power, then what did you think was happening when people kept reading these stories and you kept making money and you kept hiring writers who kept pushing the boundaries?
JESTIN: If you spent more than about 30 seconds on there, and you didn’t get the impression that your leg was being pulled, I kind of wonder if you should be on the internet at all.
JESTIN: Well, because it was just ridiculous, you know, like stories that were just totally not even in the realm of being possible.
NELUFAR: I think I’m understanding your position a little bit more. So this is good. This is good, because the whole point of this podcast is that I don’t come to it with any kind of feeling, except anything that I feel authentically.
And by the way, like, I don’t think you’re the bad guy in this.
Like, I know. I know you get a lot of news coverage, and people think that you’re like a MAGA person who hates immigrants, all immigrants. Do you want to kill immigrants?
JESTIN: Oh, God, no. I’m the most liberal person you’ll find.
Bet me on it. Trust me. Name something.
JESTIN: Immigration? I’ll let you know. My wife is from South America. You know, my entire family is made up of immigrants. My children are first-generation immigrants on her side. I have absolutely nothing against immigration. I love it. But, you know, the reason why I got that kind of — people got that impression, again, was the Denver Guardian site.
And, you know, I know that this sounds ridiculous to anybody. You know, now saying it to myself, I’m like, that was stupid.
NELUFAR: Sorry. Just because we want to paint a picture for our audience.
NELUFAR: Just tell us about, like, the headline and what the gist of the story was.
JESTIN: The headline. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it’s something along the lines of “FBI agent investigating Hillary’s email found dead in murder-suicide.” Again, I’m naive, probably in my thinking, but thinking here of the site and being everything about the site was fake.
NELUFAR: Okay, just some context here. This fake article for a fake newspaper, The Denver Guardian, went viral. And while Jestin contended that if you saw it on his site, it would have been easy to identify it as fake or satirical, once it spread on social media, Jestin admits that that context was lost and the outrageous joke turned into a misinformation weapon. Many people wound up believing it, which in turn helped further radicalize opposition towards Clinton. Clinton herself knew she was losing against fake news.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF HILLARY CLINTON: It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences. This isn’t about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk, lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days to do their jobs, contribute to their communities. It’s a danger that must be addressed and addressed quickly.
NELUFAR: I figured out something that made me understand Jestin in this challenging conversation.
NELUFAR: I get it. Jestin, you weren’t making content to radicalize people. You were reading the comments of radical people, and then making content. I guess what I want to talk to you about — a little bit about — is the Jestin then versus the one now. Knowing now the consequences, knowing now that some of the things that you made might have been repackaged, repurposed, you know, remade into things and ending up on people’s feeds and Facebook and all this. Do you regret the sum total of what you’ve done?
JESTIN: It’s a good question. I do not. Again, I believe there are things that I have, lines that I cross that I do wish I could go back and take back. But I don’t, I don’t, you know, and, you know, kind of I feel like even since that time, I’ve done my best to help other people understand it as well.
NELUFAR: Jestin’s sites were actually very profitable at the time. He estimates he and his writers could make up to $15,000 dollars each, every weekend, generating fake news. But these days, Jestin is out of the game. He spends his time talking at journalism events about news literacy, and is even doing some more writing, although this time it’s for a book.
JESTIN: So, you know, I’ve given talks at the Google disinformation summit, and I’ve spoken to folks at Mozilla. And, you know, I’m kind of trying to do the, I guess, kind of a redemption tour kind of thing to kind of get myself — I just feel bad about it, too.
NELUFAR: You can’t get away with that. You can’t get to you can’t say “redemption tour” and say you regret nothing. That’s — that’s a contrast.
JESTIN: I told you I had regrets. Now you have regrets.
NELUFAR: So let’s talk about some of those regrets, because I think, I think often we assume that someone like you or or in your position, let’s say, we often assume like, you should have known better. “You should have known then that there would be riots and insurrection in the capital. Why didn’t you know that?”
JESTIN: I mean, you couldn’t have foreseen that for any — anything that you’ve ever done in your life, you wouldn’t have foreseen how different that was. And I’m not going to walk around with myself saying that “I did that,” because there’s a million players out there. You know, there’s such a demand for this kind of content out there. There will always be suppliers. You know, it is what it is. You know, it’s kind of the Wild West online. And I don’t take blame for all of that anyway.
NELUFAR: I guess I, I have to ask you about the 6th of January 2021. Do you think that there’s a direct line that could be drawn from some of the content you’ve made to some of the things those people believed?
JESTIN: I had absolutely nothing to do with QAnon.
NELUFAR: That’s not the question. I’m not looking for blame, because the blame can be from everyone, from my mum sharing that stuff through to, you know, you and anyone else.
The question is slightly different — it’s whether you can see objectively a line.
JESTIN: A line between them.
NELUFAR: Did you help create some of the content that led to people feeling so disillusioned, so, so distrustful about what they were reading and seeing and fake news and mainstream media? No one needs to say that, you know, “mainstream media.” Do you see that line? Because I can see it. I just want to know if you can see it so we can talk about it.
JESTIN: I don’t know that I do. I mean, unless you’re talking conspiracies as a line.
NELUFAR: I’m talking about the general hubbub online of like, “don’t believe what you see.” You know, “don’t trust your lying eyes,” you know, and all this stuff like. Do you, were you part of that milieu, part of that dissonance that was being created of disinformation? Do you see that line the way I see it?
JESTIN: I don’t see the way you see it, but I do see one. Sure.
No, I’m not — I’m just, I’m not as firm about, you know, I guess I haven’t thought of it in that way. You know, distrust of the media had been going on from before I got here. And, you know, you could kind of see this kind of going, you know, back in 2012 when I started really monitoring this stuff, you know, it wasn’t — I don’t know.
I mean I know it’s fair to say that conspiracies, you know, that I did contribute probably to people thinking about conspiracies. I don’t know about getting involved in conspiracies or whatever, but if that’s the line you’re speaking of, where you can read something online and disbelieve your own beliefs and get into something like a QAnon, then I don’t know. I don’t think I had anything to do with that.
NEFULAR: Jestin was helping to fan the flames of the polarization in the U.S., despite his stated intention being to have fun, profit from it even, but that had serious, unintended consequences. And that’s from someone who didn’t start off having bad intentions.
But what about when you intentionally try to weaponize misinformation? The world recently saw the result of a huge misinformation campaign led by Donald Trump: the January the 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol in which scores were injured and five people died as a result.
ARCHIVAL AUDIO OF DONALD TRUMP: All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats, which is what they’re doing, and stolen by the fake news media. That’s what they’ve done and what they’re doing. We will never give up. We will never concede; it doesn’t happen. We don’t concede when these steps involve…
NEFULAR: Authoritarian leaders are quick to use misinformation to quash any rebellion and hold tight control using it. And that’s exactly what happened in Belarus. The country is a former Soviet state that still maintains close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For the past 26 years, it’s been led by Alexander Lukashenko, who admires and emulates President Putin by maintaining an autocratic grip on power and crushing any opposition, especially when it comes to one brave citizen, who became a symbol of hope and change for the Belarusian people.
My name is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
I graduated as the teacher of English from the university, but I hardly ever worked as a teacher. Yeah, this is my fate.
NEFULAR: Tikhanovskaya has a new title: “the elected leader of Belarus.” It’s a monicker, she admits, that still seems hard for her to believe. The plan was for her husband, Sergei, to be elected. He was a prominent activist and blogger speaking out against the leader Lukashenko. But those plans were derailed in May of 2020, when Sergei was arrested.
NEWS CLIP WITH BRITISH MAN SPEAKING: This amateur video shows Tikhanovskaya’s arrest. He had already been in and out of jail three times in a month. He apparently provoked the authorities by calling President Alexander Lukashenko a “cockroach” and encouraging supporters to come to rallies, holding slippers to swat him.
NELUFAR: That’s when Tikhanovskaya did something extraordinary to honor the sacrifice of a still-imprisoned husband.
SVETLANA: At that moment I had to show him my love, my attitude. I gave my documents instead of him to the Central Election Commission.
NELUFAR: Tikhanovskaya wasn’t the only one. Two other women submitted their papers after their partners had also been either jailed or kicked out of the country. The news of their candidacies provoked Lukashenko. Overnight, the three women were met with massive smear and disinformation campaigns, targeting them to turn the voters against them.
Then came the biggest lie of all — the election itself. In August of 2020, Lukashenko declared himself the winner of a sixth term in office, despite claims of widespread voter fraud, which sparked massive demonstrations.
NEWS CLIP WITH WOMAN SPEAKING: The streets of Minsk, Belarus’s capital, filled with protesters. Chants of “change” and “long live Belarus” resounding through the city.
NEFULAR: Leaders from all over the world called for Lukashenko to step down.
The U.K., EU, U.S. and others imposed sanctions on Belarus, but still, he would not cede power.
The crackdown started. An independent news site was banned, social media blocked and rolling internet blackouts persisted. Voters were left in the dark. Disinformation about the election results filled Belarus, trying to turn the people against Tikhanovskaya. Things got so dangerous, Tikhanovskaya feared for her safety and of her two young children. They fled her country and took refuge in nearby Vilnius, Lithuania.
Her story is the extreme of what happens when disinformation pervades society. So when we connected, my first question to her was: How does she expect to become an effective leader of a country where people have such little faith in what they hear and read?
SVETLANA: You know, I have never been involved in the politics of our country because, you know, this regime is ruling the country for 26 years already.
And so people, they came to a decision that you don’t have to be involved in politics because you can’t do anything with this. We can’t influence any decisions. We just have to take them as they are. And so most of the Belarusian people are apolitical because we couldn’t influence any decisions.
NEFULAR: This is devastating to hear. Quite the opposite to what happened in America, where disinformation contributed to violence, disinformation in Belarus has meant people have given up on the truth.
NEFULAR: This must make you frustrated. It must make you think you can’t trust politicians, that you can’t believe them.
SVETLANA: Yes. This is, of course, such a mood among people, that you can’t trust them because we understand that politicians, they take care only about themselves or about people who are close to Lukashenko, you know, to please him. Multiple people. But for the regime, and of course, it was and it’s a great mistrust for government, for politicians, because of this gap between people close to Lukashenko and general people.
NEFULAR: Svetlana, I want to understand, when we’re talking about this idea of trying to make a difference, trying to make a change in the country that you were born in, that you represent, how can we make a change if reality is not reflecting the truth?
SVETLANA: Oh, it’s a rather difficult question.
You know, we have, you know, the situation in Belarus is the same. We understand that politicians are lying from the TV screen. Politicians are lying everywhere. They are lying about COVID numbers. And, you know, people, even if they don’t want to touch politics at all, they understand that something is wrong. We don’t believe these numbers. We don’t believe the statements. And step by step, year after year, they understand this. We can’t trust politicians anymore, because everything is a lie.
And, you know, the dictator in our country is the biggest liar, because when I had to flee to Lithuania, I heard so much lies about myself, because they told people that Tikhanovskaya wants to bomb Minsk.
They lied about my husband: They found $900,000 behind the sofa in his apartment. Yes. And after this protest movement, you know, a lot of people had been detained and kept in jails. And these people, you know, they had been beaten so badly. And after this, they made them incriminate themselves on the camera, and show this video on TV channels. We don’t trust our state TV anymore.
And people now with the presence of the internet, people started to look for alternative ways of getting information.
NEFULAR: How can you fight these attacks on you in such a difficult environment?
SVETLANA: You know, first of all, we have to stay true to the facts, and the best truth tell us about the events in Belarus. So these are millions of Belarusians who have been participating in protests since August 2020.
So we don’t have to persuade anybody in our truth because it is evident. This truth is shown by people on the streets.
NEFULAR: But there is a cost, Svetlana. There’s a cost to the truth.
SVETLANA: Of course. For sure. For sure. You know, I know where the truth, and I didn’t betray my truth of people who think the same. I didn’t betray myself in any of my decisions. So I see the things that I believe in, and this is my truth. You know, and when they say on TV that Tikhanovskaya did this or that, and I know that this is a lie. So I’m honest in front of my people, and I can see the real truth about the situation, about myself. So if you are sure in your truth, it’s very, it’s rather easy to stop these attacks.
NEFULAR: I want to move on a little bit. You want to establish a democracy. How, Svetlana, do you plan to establish a democracy in a country where one person says they won? You say you won with 60 to 70% of the votes. If you can’t agree on a set of realities, how can you establish a democracy?
SVETLANA: I have to say that democracy is difficult thing, as a matter of fact. We are striving for democracy. We want to establish this democracy in our country.
Democracy is something that you have to learn to live in, because if you are living for more than 20 years, then dictatorship, you don’t know how it is to take responsibility for your decisions. You can’t understand how it is that you can influence the situation, that you can influence the decision in the parliament, in the government, that you need a lot for this country. It has to be learned by people. So it will take rather a long time to establish this democracy, and it will take a long time to trust government.
So only with clear messages, only with statements, with actions from which people will see that, yes, this government is taking care of us, and I hope we will learn how to live with this trust with democracy. It will not take too long a time.
NEFULAR: You are the elected leader of your country, so you say. But as a woman and as a woman who has worked hard to be where you are right now, who has fled, there are multiple dangers that you face, which is why I’m speaking to you currently, not from your home country, but you’re in Vilnius. Women who have tried to lead nations have often been attacked, assassinated or attempts made on their lives. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was assassinated. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom had an attempt made in her life with a bomb in Brighton. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh was also thought to be under attack by a suicide bomber.
These are serious issues. Is this fight that you are fighting to try and change things, to be fair and to tell the truth, is it worth the risk?
SVETLANA: You know, I asked this question many times to myself, because in the periods when I felt so tremendous fear in myself, sometimes I doubted. Maybe it’s easier to step away and leave as it is now, because it wasn’t your choice. It was fate why you are here. Why should you take such tremendous responsibility on yourself? It’s rather difficult to have children. You just — you’re their mother, you have to take care of them.
But when you understand that you’re not alone, that the majority of Belarusians want the same and they sacrifice their lives, they sacrifice their time, spent in jails, you understand that you don’t have any right to step away. You just can’t leave it.
NELUFAR: If you are able to become the president of Belarus, what kind of national policies, what kind of laws will you have to make sure that the same lies that Lukashenko has been saying cannot be said again on TV, on social media?
SVETLANA: You know, there should be freedom of words. Should be. And we can’t — we are not judges. We can’t say “you say lie” or “you say truth.” It’s up to people to investigate the words. It’s up to people to understand who is the liar and who tells the truth. You can’t say “I forbid to tell lie,” because you don’t know if a person lies or doesn’t. It’s up to listeners to understand.
NELUFAR: Thank you so much, leader-elect.
SVETLANA: Thank you. Thank you so much.
NEFULAR: Fake news is a fickle thing, but it always leads to distrust, disempowerment and anti-democratic tendencies. For many Belarusians, it’s been the norm for too long, making people apathetic and despondent. For Americans, it’s been weaponized to force division.
So what’s next? I posed this question to our earlier guests, first former Congressman Riggleman.
RIGGLEMAN: I just try to push forward in a way that says, “listen, look here, here and here. Check your source.” And that is the one thing I’ve gone back to. I don’t know if this helps. The person who’s arguing with me that I know that they’re wrong or they’re coming from a place that maybe is really off as far as disinformation, like, what’s your source?
And as soon as I start asking those questions, they collapse under the weight.
NEFULAR: “The godfather of fake news” Jestin Coler has a slightly different opinion. He thinks there needs to be more to push social media companies to be accountable for their content.
JESTIN: There’s no credibility scoring. There’s no consideration for where this content is coming from. Like they literally do nothing about it. There are certainly things that they could do. It’s just they’re they’re either, you know, incompetent or unwilling to make the changes.
NEFULAR: I didn’t start this episode, of course, correction thinking that my belief in our elected leaders would be stronger. But that’s where I’ve ended up. There are good women and men that will choose to stand against the polarized politics that divide us, rather than spread disinformation that would tear us apart.
They give me hope. As for who’s responsible for regulating and ensuring the flow of information, that is such a big question, we’ve decided to devote two whole other episodes to it. In the coming weeks, we’ll explore the issues of deplatforming and “cancel culture” and what we gain and what we potentially lose when we decide who gets to speak and who should be silenced.
That’s our episode. What do you think? Tweet us at @DohaDebates or me, I’m @Nelufar, and I always love hearing from you. If you like what you hear, write a review of the show. It really helps spread the word about what we’re doing. Course Correction is written and produced by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Editorial and production assistance comes from Foreign Policy, with producers Sarah Kendal, Sofía Sánchez and Rosie Julin. The managing director of FP Studios is Rob Sachs. The show is brought to you by Doha Debates, which is a production of Qatar Foundation.
Our executive producers are Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.