Our Body Politic

Trump’s Federal Indictment, Political Rumors and the Dangers of Tech

Episode Summary

This week, Our Body Politic host and creator Farai Chideya unpacks the latest indictment against former President Trump, with former Senior Investigative Counsel for the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, Soumya Dayananda. Then, she digs into why political rumors thrive and how to challenge them with MIT Professor Adam Berinsky, author of the new book Political Rumors: Why We Accept Misinformation and How to Fight It. Plus, Farai talks with Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Julia Angwin about how technology is changing our everyday lives through surveillance and fear speech.

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya [00:00:04] Hi, folks. We are so glad that you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you haven't yet, remember to follow this podcast on your podcatcher of choice, like Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcast. And if you have time, please leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us and we read them for your feedback. You can also reach out to us on social @OurBodyPolitic. We're here for you, with you, and because of you. So keep letting us know what's on your mind. We'd also love for you to join in financially supporting the show if you are able. You can find out more at OurBodyPolitic.com/donate. Thanks for listening.

This is Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. On August 3rd, former President Trump made a quick stop on his private plane to Washington, D.C., where he pleaded not guilty to federal charges of orchestrating a criminal conspiracy to try and overturn the 2020 presidential election results. After the 27 minute arraignment, Trump was back on the campaign trail where the next day he landed in Montgomery, Alabama, for a fundraiser. To find out more about what this indictment means, we're speaking with Soumya Dayananda. She's an attorney in Washington, D.C., who served as senior investigative counsel for the House Select Committee to investigate the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol, where she led a team of attorneys investigating the law enforcement and military response on January 6th. Welcome to the show, Soumya. 

Soumya Dayananda [00:01:32] Thanks for having me. 

Farai Chideya [00:01:33] So it's been two and a half years since January six. And former President Trump now faces four federal criminal charges, including conspiracy to defraud the United States. Can you walk us through that charge? 

Soumya Dayananda [00:01:46] Sure. So the indictment very much reflects the broad, multipronged plan that the former president had to essentially undermine democracy, stay in power and defraud voters of their legitimate votes that they cast. So the first count of the conspiracy to defraud the United States is really about how the former president knew that he lost the election, but continued to spread the lie that the election was stolen. And that really does cover the big picture of the story. The several conspiracies that are charged brings out the different themes that I'm sure Jack Smith's team will be able to prove in court in terms of the different means and methods that were used by the former president and his co-conspirators. So the second count concerning the conspiracy to obstruct a government proceeding really has to do with leading up to and on January 6, the pressure he put on the former vice president to essentially reject or delay the legitimate votes of the states on January 6. And then finally, that third count has to do with defrauding people of their right to vote. So it really does tell the full story as well as when you look at the indictment and it goes through the means and methods. It really lays out all the different schemes in terms of the pressure on the state officials, the pressure on former Vice President Mike Pence, the pressure on the Department of Justice to declare there was widespread fraud, even though there was no evidence to show that any of that fraud would impact the outcome of the election. And then you also have the day of itself and how the former president exploited that violence that occurred on the day of. 

Farai Chideya [00:03:40] So the last charge, conspiracy against rights of citizens, stems from a reconstruction era law that was passed to punish Ku Klux Klan members for intimidating Black voters. What do you think of the resonance of that law being used? 

Soumya Dayananda [00:03:54] I think it's the right charge based upon the facts that were gathered. I do think that it's important to remember that it is the charge used to oppress or intimidate or threaten any votes that were cast. So it's not dependent upon the person of color who cast it specifically. And I think to use this tool to be able to tell the broad narrative that occurred in those states that mattered in terms of Michigan as well as in Georgia, in Pennsylvania, is really incredibly important. 

Farai Chideya [00:04:26] And I think that you make a really great point. Even though the roots of the law are in the reconstruction era. This was an incident that would have deprived many, many white citizens of their right to vote. And one of the things that strikes me about this entire question and this entire investigation is that white Americans were just as much at risk for losing their rights, had the false elector scheme gone through. Do you think people understand that? 

Soumya Dayananda [00:04:57] I do. I think that obviously it resonates for people of color, knowing the history of this particular charge, its obviously top of mind for anyone who lives in Detroit or in Philadelphia, where there were those efforts to say that your vote doesn't count. And I think that's something that can resonate for people who live in those areas and were familiar with what happened at the time of the election. 

Farai Chideya [00:05:20] Did anything in the indictment surprise you? 

Soumya Dayananda [00:05:24] So I think it largely reflects the work of the committee. It really goes to show that the investigation was validated that we conducted in the House. I do think there are some notes of surprise. They obviously were able to get the contemporaneous notes of former Vice President Mike Pence, as well as some conversations that they were able to pierce executive privilege and put those conversations in the indictment, I think is really compelling. 

Farai Chideya [00:05:52] Tell me what it feels like for you as someone who played such a key role in the investigation into January 6 to watch this unfolding. Does it feel like a validation of the time and the effort and the stress that you went through and your teammates went through to do this work on behalf of the citizens of the United States? 

Soumya Dayananda [00:06:12] Yeah, I think for a lot of us, it's incredibly validating. I think the unique structure of how the committee unfolded, what its makeup was in terms of its bipartisan members, and then just the culmination of the summer hearings. It is something that the country really hadn't seen before. So while we were able to educate the country on the role of the former president, as well as these co-conspirators that are laid out in the indictment, there wasn't that accountability. So now that you have this accountability from the Department of Justice, it certainly makes the work more meaningful. 

Farai Chideya [00:06:48] The rebuttal coming from the Trump camp, the prosecutors state that Trump, quote, had a right, like every American, to speak publicly about the election and even to claim falsely that there had been outcome determinative fraud during the election and that he had won, end quote. Is it Trump's First Amendment right to lie about winning the election? What is he allowed to do and not to do? 

Soumya Dayananda [00:07:11] So, you know, I think that Jack Smith did a really great job in paragraph three of educating people as to what the former president can and cannot do. You certainly can say the election was stolen. You can be upset that the election was stolen. Of course, you can pursue lawful means to pursue your position of there was fraud and it impacted the outcome of the election. What you can't do is actually take unlawful steps and enter into a criminal conspiracy to undermine the election. So it's important that he did put that paragraph in there to tell people that, yes, you can be upset, you won the election, you can be upset that it didn't go your way. But when you take these series of steps from the dates of the indictment, in particular from mid-November until January 20th and in the schemes that were laid out, you have the corrupt intent. And that's what's important here. 

Farai Chideya [00:08:12] Moving along with what happens next. Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, as well as Donald Trump, have publicly criticized Judge Tanya Chutkan, can the D.C. district judge overseeing former President Trump's latest criminal charges? And there was a 2021 ruling where she wrote, quote, Presidents are not kings when ordering Trump to release records to the January six Select Committee. Tell us a little bit about releasing the records and also whether or not her decisions in her statements may be provoking Trump's supporters. 

Soumya Dayananda [00:08:47] During the House investigation, we requested documents from the White House, and these were communications that the former president deemed were privileged. So there was litigation that occurred. And Judge Tanya Chutkan was the district court judge who issued that decision. And she essentially accepted what the select committees argument was, which is that the privilege is with the executive branch, it's with the office of the president. It doesn't extend to the actual individual. President Biden, the current president waived the privilege so it allowed the documents to come. So I think that, quote, Presidents are not kings. What's really interesting is that the line right before that is that his executive power doesn't exist in perpetuity. And I think that's really the crux of who he is right. He thought he's the president, He's going to stay in power and just ignore the will of the people. And that's really what she captured in that decision to essentially say, you don't hold it anymore. You're not a king that is allowed to hold on to this privilege. The privilege exists for good reasons. And documents were evaluated by a case by case basis by the Biden administration. But largely that decision, as well as when the Supreme Court decided to not undermine the decision of the two lower courts, allowed us to get a tranche of documents which were incredibly telling to the president's state of mind leading up to and on January six. 

Farai Chideya [00:10:14] And the judge's full statement was presidents are not kings and plaintiff is not president to your point that the decision was made when President Biden was in office, not President Trump. And so I want to touch on another potential criminal case from Fulton County, Georgia. The former president had asked people to find him bonus votes. And if there are charges filed in Georgia, which many people expect, if there's charges on both the federal and state levels, what takes precedence or do we even know that? 

Soumya Dayananda [00:10:48] We've been anticipating the Georgia indictment for a long time and frankly thought that it would come before the federal January 6th indictment. But Alvin Bragg has already announced he would defer to the federal cases, the Florida case, as well as now the D.C. case. And I'm not sure Ms. Willis said anything in that effect, but I think that that's essentially what would occur, that the federal case, because of its breath, that also covers the Georgia conduct, would preempt a trial date. Certainly, I think still bring it. But if there is a trial schedule involved that I expect Jack Smith’s indictment to go first. 

Farai Chideya [00:11:27] So, Soumya, the road to justice can feel long. Does it give you hope that there might be some accountability at the level of the president for former President Trump's alleged role in the January 6 insurrection, which, of course, you and your colleagues spent so much time documenting? 

Soumya Dayananda [00:11:46] Yes, I think that this provides the evidence that we gathered to be tested, and that's what the criminal justice system is. He will have zealous representation. There will be talented federal prosecutors on one side of the courtroom proving the elements beyond a reasonable doubt. And there will be an incredibly capable judge to manage both sides and a box of 12 fair and impartial jurors to judge that evidence that they hear. So the day is here, and I'm really looking forward to the accountability that will provide. 

Farai Chideya [00:12:22] Samya Dayananda thanks so much for joining us. 

Soumya Dayananda [00:12:25] Thanks for having me. 

Farai Chideya [00:12:28] That was Samya Dayananda, attorney and former senior investigative counsel for the House Select Committee to investigate the January six attack on the United States Capitol. A note to our audience. We recorded this conversation before the state of Georgia presented its case to the grand jury against former President Trump regarding election interference.

With so much misinformation in politics, who is really paying attention? MIT Mitsui Professor of Political Science and author of Political Rumors: Why We Accept Misinformation and How to Fight It Adam Berinsky would likely say that if you're listening to this, you are one of the weird ones, not because you're actually weird, which you may or may not be, but because you care about politics at all. The current state of our politics often centers the loudest voices in the room. But Adam believes it's the people who sit at the periphery of politics and who are often ignored, who are key to pushing back against political rumors and misinformation that can destabilize democracy. Thanks for joining me, Adam. 

Adam Berinsky [00:13:44] Thanks for having me. 

Farai Chideya [00:13:46] I want to ask you about something that's not in your book. Your Twitter bio says Mitsui Professor of Political Science at M.I.T. forever, a New York Jew. And I am forever a Black girl from Baltimore. Both of our demographics are not doing so great in the disinformation wars. We tend to be heavily targeted. And as Twitter has evolved, I've noticed a lot more blatantly antisemitic content appearing on them. Does that seem to you just a hallmark of the cycle that we're in? 

Adam Berinsky [00:14:15] I think that's right. And sort of typical targets. It's nothing new going back to the Dreyfus Affair. You know, sort of the George Soros talk is very reminiscent of the Rothschilds of the previous century. Same thing with Black Americans, both as targets of disinformation and subjects of disinformation. But I think that social media just makes it easier for people who want to disseminate this information to find each other and to find an audience. 

Farai Chideya [00:14:45] Before we get too far into the conversation. Can you explain your definition of a political rumor, and is that different from misinformation or are they the same? 

Adam Berinsky [00:14:54] I think it's very similar. The key to a rumor is two things. One is that it spreads through social networks and through social transmission. That's a rumor. And not all misinformation does that. But I think the key that kind of links it to other forms of misinformation is the fact that it precedes and is endorsed by people in the absence of any kind of evidence, think about the Watergate conspiracy. Right. That was a conspiracy theory until it wasn't right, until we had evidence of Nixon on tape covering up the crimes of the Watergate break in. And so I think that's the key there, is that I think about what is the balance of available evidence, basically accepting a rumor or accepting a piece of information in the absence of publicly supportive evidence is a hallmark of a political rumor. And there's a hallmark of a conspiracy theory. And I think in the broader class is a hallmark of misinformation. 

Farai Chideya [00:15:51] So there's a section I'd love you to read us from political rumors. 

Adam Berinsky [00:15:55] And begin by quoting Rosenblum and Moorehead quote, The new conspiracists seek not to correct those they accuse, but to deny their standing in the political world, to argue, explain, persuade and decide. And from attacking malevolent individuals, conspiracists move on to assaulting institutions. Conspiracism corrodes the foundations of democracy, and that the quote there, such a strategy is especially pernicious because it does not require individuals to actually accept political rumors. The mere questioning of political reality can have serious downstream consequences because sowing doubt about political policies and claims is much easier than resolving such doubt. In this view. Purveyors of misinformation do not need the public to accept one view of political reality. They just need ordinary citizens to doubt and mistrust authoritative voices in the government to say they are not sure if rumors are true or not. 

Farai Chideya [00:16:56] And that brings us to the category of people that you call the unsures. I think a lot about descriptions that various people have given me of the purpose of Russian propaganda, which is to make people unsure of what the truth is, not necessarily to persuade that A is true and B isn't, or B is true and A isn't. So to return to your book, who are the people you describe as the unsures as and what's their role in this environment? 

Adam Berinsky [00:17:23] I talk about three types of people. There’s people who reject rumors. There's people who accept rumors, and then there's people in the middle, these unsures who, you know, you ask them, do you think this is true or not? And they say like, well, not sure. Some of these people are genuinely uncertain, people who, you know, haven't heard of this. But I've done follow up studies where I ask people, what is it that led you to a particular answer? Believing, not believing, not sure. And a lot of the folks who say they're not sure essentially say where there's smoke, there's fire. So give Obama's birthplace rumor, for example, Right. They don't say like, yes, he was definitely born in Kenya. They said like, well. I've heard a lot of things and I'm just not sure what to believe there. And so this this uncertainty, I think it's really important in a lot of the book I talk about that the folks who say like, yes, this is a crazy story that I absolutely believe. But I think as big a problem is these people who say that they're not sure. Right. That the kind of that these are people who are not willing to necessarily accept the rumors, but they're not willing to reject them either. Right. And so we think about these folks, it's a large mass of people, depending on the question, can be 20%, 30%. But you know that these are people who basically are the victims, essentially, of the rumors going around in the environment. They're not saying like, wow, that's definitely true, but they sound like I'm just I'm not really sure exactly what to think here. I hear lots of different things. Maybe it's true, maybe it's not. 

Farai Chideya [00:18:55] Is it even more important to really understand the unsures than the people who are the committed Qanoners or otherwise affiliated with a threat of disinformation? I mean, what do those two different roles do? The people who are the believers in disinformation versus the unsures. 

Adam Berinsky [00:19:15] I think that they're both dangerous and as we saw in January 6, you know, a subscription of beliefs can these extreme beliefs can under some circumstances, lead to extreme action. So I don't want to minimize that. Right. But it's also important, I think, in the kind of gets lost in some of the discussion is this focus on these unsure people. And so I think when we report polls, we want to think about who's definitively rejecting these rumors. And kind of think about everyone else there. And so I tell you is that these uncertain folks are important not just because they fail to reject rumors, but to think about how people approach politics in the first place. The thing I tell people all the time is, you know, most of the people most of the time don't care about politics. They don't follow politics. So whenever I talk to an audience and this is true of your listeners as well, I say you're weird because you're interested in politics. And I say this right not to make people feel bad, but to say the way that you think about politics is not how normal people think about politics. I tell my students, You're taking my class because you're interested in politics, but most people just have a casual interest in politics and you know that they'll vote in some elections and they'll show up and for important decisions in an environment in which they haven't been paying much attention to politics. So a lot of these people say, like, I'm not really sure what's going on can be voters on Election Day. And if they're not willing to reject these political rumors, these politically motivated rumors, it has the potential to affect the decisions they make. And so we're talking a big swath of the public. Right. So it's not just these fringe people who show up on January 6, 2021, or people who are in these. Qanon networks and discussion boards. The existence of that kind of political rhetoric can spread to people who are just casually interested in politics. But these are people who might vote on Election Day, and these rumors could have some serious consequences. 

Farai Chideya [00:21:24] Back to your book. You talk about the historical antecedents of modern day political rumors. What are one or two examples of, you know, in the wayback Machine of American history of what got weaponized? 

Adam Berinsky [00:21:38] Right? So back in the 19th century, a lot of political campaigns had evidence of candidates talking about their opponents kind of lineage of sort of illegitimate children that they fathered, talking about having potential ties to foreign governments. So that goes way back. We don't have to go that far back in this country to think about things like the Kennedy assassination and sort of how those rumors persist till today. Right. This kind of attention like was that covered up? It's something that grabbed the public's imagination and continues to today. In terms of American politics, I think what's really important is thinking about the role of various political leaders in spreading misinformation, like Robert Kennedy Jr. He's someone who has a forum and is been given a forum spreading misinformation about the COVID vaccine. What's different in the current era is how politicians are talking about these rumors and misinformation, thinking about the 2020 election, kind of electoral fraud, thinking about how politicians talk about it. Right. So some Republican politicians, like, for example, Donald Trump says like, okay, right, this election was stolen. Other Republican politicians don't say that, but they say we need to look at voting regulations we need to look carefully at. Things like this. We're not saying that it was stolen. And if we have political leaders who are willing to play this game, it's like, you know, not really sure. And combine that with an electorate where most people aren't paying really close attention to politics. If the politicians are sending mixed signals, voters are going to hear those mixed signals. So I think that that's really dangerous. 

Farai Chideya [00:23:27] So as we wrap up, what do you want to leave us with in terms of where we might be headed next, either into the 2024 election cycle or just more broadly as we try to stem the tide of political rumors? 

Adam Berinsky [00:23:43] Well, I should say I don't have a lot of happy stories in a world in which politicians are weaponizing misinformation. I think that a lot of the blame lies on the politicians. It's like, yes, we should be working on responses and thinking about different ways that we can approach misinformation. But I think at a fundamental level, you know, we need to have politicians taking more responsibility for this. 

Farai Chideya [00:24:07] That was Adam Berinsky. He's the director of the MIT Political Experiment's Research Lab and Mitsui Professor of Political Science at MIT. His book, Political Rumors: Why We Accept Misinformation and How to Fight It hits the shelves on August 15th.


Farai Chideya [00:24:38] These days, technology is a lot like the air we breathe. It's everywhere and seemingly impossible to live without loved ones, and friends can be reached instantaneously. Information and news is easily shared across the world. But these technological blessings come with technological thorns from encoded racial bias to mass government surveillance and the spread of misinformation. Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Julia Angwin has spent her career covering the evolution of tech and its dark underbelly. She joins us today to discuss the role of tech in our daily lives and what the future might bring. Julia, welcome to Our Body Politic. 

Julia Angwin [00:25:13] So great to be here. 

Farai Chideya [00:25:14] Your origin story, like many tech companies, starts in Palo Alto. What was it like to be you as a kid, and what did you think of your hometown? 

Julia Angwin [00:25:24] It was the personal computer revolution. My parents had moved there to be part of this exciting moment. I grew up really thinking that kind of computers were everything. I learned to program really young, and honestly, it wasn't until I went to college that I kind of realized there was more to life. And fell in love with journalism. 

Farai Chideya [00:25:45] So I did a Knight fellowship at Stanford in Palo Alto 20 odd years ago in East Palo Alto, which used to be kind of a race class dividing line, has become much more gentrified. What was the Palo Alto, East Palo Alto situation like when you were growing up? 

Julia Angwin [00:26:03] So I grew up three blocks from the creek that separated East Palo Alto from Palo Alto. I grew up just knowing that you don't go across that creek, right? It was so segregated. It was like you would never walk across it. I remember thinking to myself, people in the South, like they lived in these segregated towns and didn't they realize? It was only later when I went to college in Chicago and I lived on the South Side, so I was suddenly in like a Black middle class community. And I had this awakening when I was like, Oh my gosh, I grew up in the segregated South in Palo Alto, right? And so it was just like a situation where I didn't even realize what I was in until I left it. 

Farai Chideya [00:26:45] Let's talk about what you think being an early programmer did to your brain. I'm interested in coding because I recognized it was another form of language. So how do you think about what it might have done to your ability to speak about it in text language to people through journalism? 

Julia Angwin [00:27:05] I studied math in college, and so my relationship with computers is really through my relationship with math in some ways, which is that I really enjoy the process of taking something very messy and complex in the world and trying to distill it to its actual most core elements. And that's what math and computers force you to do, right? They take the implicit and make it explicit. And I think what I ended up realizing that I loved about journalism was it was similar. You were trying to prove something that had happened in the world, and sometimes the data you needed to prove that thing was a document or maybe some interviews or just you witnessed something. And so I enjoyed that intellectual challenge the same way that I understood the challenge of what does it take to get this computer to execute this instruction. 

Farai Chideya [00:27:54] So much of your work has dealt with equity. I think about the piece that you did that really highlighted the ways that Facebook allowed what should have been illegal categorizations of residential listings on its platform. Can you talk a little bit about that work? 

Julia Angwin [00:28:11] So I was covering Facebook at ProPublica and I noticed that they had these racial categories. They had recently introduced them, which I think was around 2016. They were making guesses about what they called ethnic affinity. And I think that it said I was African-American. I was like, I'm definitely not. I'm a very white woman. And so I started thinking about, well, what could you do with those categories? I talked to some civil rights lawyers and they were like, actually, we have been raising this issue with Facebook that you could discriminate in ways that are illegal using those categories. So I decided to test that proposition. I bought an ad for housing on Facebook, and I used this dropdown menu called Which Audiences do you want to exclude? You could just exclude different groups. And so I checked off like exclude African-American, Asian-American, and it was like, cool, I was approved. I could not believe it. You could just literally automate a massive civil rights violation. And for listeners who are not aware, like the Fair Housing Act, one of the landmark civil rights laws explicitly says you cannot discriminate in housing listing on race, age, gender, actually lots of different characteristics because people used to put in their ads like no Blacks or whites only, etc. and this was meant to eradicate that. And suddenly Facebook's algorithmic system was allowing that to happen. But silently. 

Farai Chideya [00:29:39] My mom was an intern at the Washington Post in 1967 and she could not find acceptable housing. To the modern day she has beaten herself up for not turning her pain at having been forced into substandard housing, which was illegal but totally common into a story. And most people are not journalists who do the kind of analysis that you do. What does it mean to you in your heart to do this kind of work where you investigate these things? 

Julia Angwin [00:30:10] This might sound really awful, so maybe it's a mistake to say, but I do feel like it feels a little bit like reparations. I feel like I have benefited from a lot of privilege as a white woman. And I've also, you know, faced lots of discrimination as a woman for sure. But as I have learned more about the history of this country and our just racially motivated crimes, I feel like I want to make it better. What I come to all my work with is I really am fundamentally an optimist. I do feel that if we could just mitigate the harms, we could keep the good stuff. I think it has empowered a lot of voices and so I want to make sure that we take the bad stuff off of it so we can keep the good parts that powered the Black Lives Matter movement and the MeToo movement. I want those things to succeed. And so I see my role as a little bit like of the janitor, the cleanup crew, like trying to make the spaces a little safer. 

Farai Chideya [00:31:03] Journalism not generally known as the place to secure the bag. What makes you stay in the game? 

Julia Angwin [00:31:10] My mom's a bit of an activist, and her mother, and I come from a line of Jewish women who really were fighting for justice. 

Farai Chideya [00:31:18] Julia, you've been writing for the New York Times of late, and I was really struck by your piece about fear speech. People are more familiar with the term hate speech. So what's the difference between fear speech and hate speech? And what is fear speech? 

Julia Angwin [00:31:31] It's such an important distinction and one I learned about from Susan Benesch at the Dangerous Speech Project, where she has been studying. What is the speech that leads to actual genocide, Right. Like, let's just look at genocide and what kind of led up to it. And it's almost always this what she calls dangerous speech, which is the way you motivate humans to overcome their natural reluctance to violence is by making them afraid that someone is about to do violence to them. And so before the Rwandan massacre, before the genocide of the Jews by Hitler, there was always this speech about they're coming for your children, they are actually coming to kill you, so we have to kill them first. And so when you start to look at the lens of fear inducing speech, everything looks a little different, right? Like the way the big platforms police speech is they have all these rules about hate speech. And you can't say these things that are hateful and sometimes hate and fear intersect. Right? But not always. A good example of that is the guy who broke into Paul Pelosi's home and attacked him with a hammer. When the police took him away, they asked him, why didn't he look, I didn't want to, but I had to write because the Democrats were going to kill us all. He felt like he was doing his duty. He's a soldier in wartime. Right. And so he had been indoctrinated by this fear speech. He didn’t hate Paul Pelosi and soldiers in a world of surly hate the other side. They're just doing what they need to do to protect their families. And so that's why fear speech is so effective. And so I feel like one of the things I was trying to make the point in that piece is that we have developed all this language and norms around what we allow on as hate speech, but we aren't policing the thing that really leads to violence, which is fear speech. And that's something that is important for the platforms to take seriously and they really haven’t. 

Farai Chideya [00:33:21] And what about the July ruling that says that the government can't contact platforms? Now, that ruling has been temporarily paused by a federal appeals court. 

Julia Angwin [00:33:30] I mean, it's interesting because if you look at how the platforms evolved, you know, they all started off with this very libertarian government. Keep your hands off of us mindset. So all the platforms started off with this, like we're not going to bow to government. And some of that was nice, right? Like, do you remember during Arab Spring they were like, No, we're going to fight to keep these dissident voices online. But over time, what has happened is that governments have really a lot of sway over these platforms, and they require them to take down certain types of speech. This happens all over. Germany has restrictive rules that I think most of us would agree with but are about taking down Nazi content. And India has a lot of rules that we might not agree with about, you know, things that they say are going to harm the collective. And that often tends to be like a Hindu nationalist approach. Over time, the platforms have become more and more beholden to governments, and they do the work of those in power to silence those not in power. So overall, I'm not against the idea of fighting back against that. But the way the courts are trying to do that here in the U.S. are kind of convoluted in the sense that, like it's not as if Joe Biden is calling Mark Zuckerberg and telling him to take down something. Mark Zuckerberg is trying to curry favor with the government to make sure that they don't pass all the laws against them. And so a lot of that censorship is generated actually by the companies themselves. Right. It's not a directive. 

Farai Chideya [00:35:05] So I'm going to read a little bit from the ruling from U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, who was nominated to the bench by former President Trump. And he said that government officials are forbidden to meet with or contact social media companies for the purpose of, quote, encouraging, pressuring or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression or reduction of content containing protected free speech. One of my bugbears is the use of the term free speech in ways that are really not in line with how the phrase was originally used in this government. Free speech in the law is about the relationship of the government censoring your words, and a lot of times these tech companies have become intermediaries where they are not government. So therefore they could make rules that are not directly about free speech, but they do overlap with the public information infrastructure. Where do platforms fit in that and how do we begin to make sense of it? 

Julia Angwin [00:36:08] Yeah, it's a complicated space, right? Because the platforms, in my opinion, are essentially quasi nation states at this point. They are governing speech around the world and governing public discourse around the world in ways that honestly that governments are jealous of. Right. That they're like, I wish I had that power. And I think what I struggle with is a lot of the framing around making sure the government doesn't censor individual speech. That's a protection of a power dynamic where individuals don't have that much power and the government does. But then when you look at these platforms, they have more power than most governments. I would say almost all governments, right? If they decide they don't want to do a thing that a government wants them to do, they often just say, we're not going to do it. So there are the different scales. So I don't think applying free speech protections to them makes as much sense, right? Because they are themselves a quasi governmental entity that is actually seeking to censor individuals. And so what we need is protections as individuals against the platforms, not protections for the government, against the platforms. 

Farai Chideya [00:37:22] The reality is that individuals are individuals. We do not all act in concert with each other in the way that a corporate entity does. And corporations via Citizens United have sort of human-like legal attributes that allow corporations to set a lot of the tone and tenor of how our society is evolving. So what would it mean for people to be able to have a different relationship to platforms where we decided more of how our data was used? Is there any recourse? 

Julia Angwin [00:37:57] There's a couple different recourse options, right? So my favorite one is liability. I think that in America, liability is the engine on which all change runs. And so if the platforms were liable for their activities and they had to pay a fine or suffer consequences, they would change their behavior. So, for instance, we are talking about this fair housing situation where they were enabling discrimination that clearly violates the Fair Housing Act. The response that Facebook had in court was that they were protected by the Section 230 immunity that Congress gave to all the tech platforms back in 1996, which is a sort of a blanket immunity from liability. And that is a real gift that I don't think they deserve. And they may have deserved it at the time, but they currently do not deserve that. Right. I as a journalist, spent so much time thinking about liability and getting liability insurance and making sure that every word that I write is accurate and can be defended in court. And I don't see why I have to go to that. And they can just enable any kind of lies and civil rights violations and just be like, ha ha, not our problem. So liability would shift the burden a lot and would help a lot. My first New York Times opinion piece was about Section 230 and how we have to draw a line and make it so that it is no longer a free pass for everything. And the line that I suggested is there's a difference between conduct and speech. So Section 230 is meant to protect the platforms from the fact that somebody goes on there and says a mean thing about their cousin, and the cousin says something about mean about them. And this is a defamation claim, right? That is understandable. Right. Enabling user comments, I think is still something that we probably if we want to allow comments, we probably need to have some sort of immunity for defamation there, but it shouldn't apply to conduct. Meaning I built a system that enables automated racial discrimination or you know what I mean? Or I'm Amazon and I sell products that kill people, right? Target gets sued when they sell products that kill people. Amazon claims Section 230 immunity when it does, right? And so we have created like an unfair liability situation. So I think fixing liability would fix a lot of it. But there are other options. So the European model, if they pass a package of laws that are going into effect in August, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act, and part of that offers all users the ability to dispute any sort of moderation decision against them. So that is interest of liability. So it imposes a cost on the companies. When they do moderate, they're going to have to then pay for some sort of appeals process. 

Farai Chideya [00:40:41] So I was interested that you mentioned Amazon in the Section 230 discussion. I got a flag from someone who is another investigative journalist who said that there were suicide kits being sold on Amazon and that Amazon had worked very hard to prevent people about talking about the human cost of selling those kits. Is that part of what to throw is being used to surveil? 

Julia Angwin [00:41:09] Yes, absolutely. There's a long tradition of them using that as a shield. I will say there's sort of an encouraging sign. It , we're not in the mood that you got to be liable for these products. So it seems like even without congressional action, because people have been asking Congress to amend Section 230 for a long time and they haven't. It does seem like some courts are just actually having enough with the like deathly products. And so some judges are just like, No, actually you're liable. 

Farai Chideya [00:41:40] So let's go to your career. So you start out in Palo Alto. You learn to code. You study mathematics. How did you become a journalist and what is your path through the industry? 

Julia Angwin [00:41:50] So I went off to college at University of Chicago, and I got into journalism honestly, just because I needed a job and the college newspaper wanted somebody to lay out ads. And so I was in this sort of campus newspaper newsroom just laying out ads, but sort of soaking in the vibe. And I remember thinking like, this seems like so much fun. I basically just said, I'll start trying to do some stories. And so I started as a reporter and I really quickly realized I just loved it and had a knack for it. And so I ran for editor in chief and was editor my senior year in college. And then I basically had to make a choice because I've been working my summers at Hewlett-Packard and I had a job waiting for me. But I was kind of like, you know, I really would love to try to keep going with this journalism thing. So I went to D.C. instead and worked at a little tiny news wire service there as a journalist. And I kept thinking, I'll go back to tech at some point. Like, this is just kind of my youthful rebellion, right? But I never did. And it turned out, of course, that having a tech background really ended up being useful once people needed people to cover technology. 

Farai Chideya [00:43:02] I have one more sort of like thematic question before we wrap up, which is about surveillance and technology. I just went not too long ago to an event at the Ford Foundation moderated by Mutale Nkonde, the CEO of the nonprofit communications agency AI for the People. And here's what she had to say about algorithmic bias and surveillance: 

Mutale Nkonde [00:43:27] Here in the United States, Microsoft, which has been infamous for creating surveillance technologies and policing and other harmful tools, has now given the U.S. government frameworks, which we should all be terrified by, because if we read them, those frameworks are going to be like, just help us make money. 

Farai Chideya [00:43:46] In this country, we love freedom, we fight about freedom, and there's the freedom to the freedom to do certain things and the freedom from the freedom from unjust things. And surveillance is often perceived as an unjust thing, although it certainly has its uses. What do you think about how the question of surveillance has evolved with technology?

Julia Angwin [00:44:13] That was at least a decade or two into my career as a reporter covering technology when I realized it was transforming into a surveillance business. And then I launched an investigative series at the Wall Street Journal about surveillance called What They Know. And then I wrote a book, Dragnet Nation, about sort of what surveillance looks like in this modern world. So Google, Facebook, Microsoft, they all know so much about us because of their commercial products that we use that track everything we do, and then the government goes to them and says, Tell me what you got on Farai, Right. And there's like a legal process around that. But it's like in some countries there's less of a process and there's also what is the incentive for these companies to fight those requests? And so essentially the companies can inform on us. And then of course, what they can do is they can come to you, Farai, and say, we know you did a bad thing. Why don't you inform on someone else? Right? So, like, it's all informants all the way down, and it's a really terrible one because now we're in a world where that is sort of what people do, right? Like when you're mad at somebody online, a lot of people will inform on them by mass reporting where they'll mass report somebodies posed as being illegal, even if it isn't. So we we've taken on that informant culture and used it as our own game. And that's one thing that I think we really if you had asked people 20 years ago, do you want to be like the Stasi where everyone's informing on each other, people say, no, no, definitely don't want our society to be like that, but we are sort of slowly turning into that. And so I think it's been really corrosive. And in addition to the fact that, of course, we're living in a police state is a terrible thing. But I also want to bring it down to the personal that we have actually imbibed that juice and now we think that that's an okay way to interact with each other. 

Farai Chideya [00:46:02] So you mentioned and I'll wrap up here, Julia, that you consider yourself an optimist, but what makes you an optimist? What keeps you amid everything that you cover and you're writing for The New York Times and all of the other work you've done in journalism, what keeps you optimistic? 

Julia Angwin [00:46:17] I grew up in a world where journalism was gate-kept by, I don't know, call it ten white men, right? Like, whatever it was, it was some number of white men, right? And you and me, Farai, we're not really welcome in that club. So I do think that tech by blowing up those gatekeepers and democratizing the gatekeeping process a bit has been overall a force for good. And what I would like to see is a mitigation of the harms so that we can keep the good parts. And so I guess I still don't want to go back. For a long time we have cars without seatbelts and people were dying, so let's just get some seatbelts on this situation. 

Farai Chideya [00:46:58] I love that. That is a perfect place to end. Thank you, Julia. 

Julia Angwin [00:47:02] Thank you. 

Farai Chideya [00:47:03] That was Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Julia Angwin, a New York Times contributing opinion writer. She's also the author of the books Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance and Stealing Myspace: The Battle To Control The Most Popular Website In America.

Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can also find us on social @OurBodyPolitic. Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora farms and Rococo Punch. 

I'm host and executive producer Farai Chideya. Nina Spensley and Shanta Covington are also executive producers. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Monica Morales Garcia is our producer. Natyna Bean and Emily Ho are our associate producers. Nicole Pasulka is our fact checker. This episode was produced by Monica Morales Garcia and Morgan Givens. It was engineered by Mike Garth and Harry Evans.

This program is produced with support from the Luce Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, The Pop Culture Collaborative, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.