We’ve been seeing a lot of questionable data being thrown around recently — think Trump’s interview with Jonathan Swan. As the election approaches, we can’t help but notice how data is being used to manipulate people. This week we dive into conspiracy thinking and talk about how tech today is being used to spread what were once fringe opinions to the masses.
Paul Ford Donald Trump is not a complete anomaly in American history and nor is conspiracy thinking or QAnon. There’s a nice rich tradition going back hundreds of years that explains how this happened. [music fades in, plays alone for 14 seconds, ramps down]
PF Hey Rich.
Rich Ziade Hi Paul.
PF We are headed towards an election in America.
RZ So for those that are listening to us six to eight years from now, because the archive will be considered one of the great intellectual endeavors in podcast history. It is 2020. And there is a general election, a presidential election in the United States coming up in about 70 days.
PF 75 days. Yep. I gotta tell you, I spend less time tweeting than I used to, but I still spend a lot of time reading Twitter. I want to see what’s happening in the world at a very specific—like, Twitter isn’t one thing happening in the world, it doesn’t try to provide a viewpoint. It’s just a firehose of human anguish. And I’ve learned how to read that. And I bookmark certain things. Anyway, look, I am watching previously healthy brains not function anymore, on Twitter. I’m watching as we are getting closer to this very, very tense point, and a very, very tense moment. After many months of pandemic, wildfires in California, I’m seeing like, reality is slipping for a lot of people, not just a lot of people, you got, you know, the president saying that QAnon folks are good people, are good Americans and stuff like that. It’s just wild. And this has always been the wrist and it’s gonna devolve into conspiracy, that we’re always right on that edge.
RZ I have to be fully transparent here. For the first 30 years of my life, I ignored politics. Like almost wholesale ignored it from the mayor, to the President, to global politics. And the reason is, my circumstances were very unusual. We left a war, the war civil war in 1975, came to America, as long as it wasn’t a serial killer in the White House. We were happy, we were fine. Because we were leaving a very volatile, insane environment, right? So it all looked the same. And so for a very, very, very long time, I didn’t really look in that direction. And then it feels like the last four years and the way it’s melted down and become so divisive and become so fueled by conspiracy and conjecture and anecdotes, is unique. And like we’re all melting down as a human society, as a human species. And the truth is, we’re not. We have always been in the garbage bin as human beings, and our desire to manipulate each other drives almost everything from this car salesman, right up to the President.
PF Well, right now there’s not a lot of difference. [Rich laughs]
RZ But let’s talk about the genius that is Donald Trump. And the genius that is Donald Trump is that he applied a pure PR and marketing template to a strata of society that has never been applied before. He applied, essentially, the made for a TV ad, the crazy campaign of like how nothing sticks to—
PF Like the shamwow guy.
RZ And everyone thought, you know what? DC is too dignified, and Americans are too smart to buy into that.
PF There are a bunch of people who were not like white media dudes, who said he could win, he could totally win. This is real. And everybody’s like [Paul chuckles] ”No, hey, come on now.”
RZ ”It’s too nutty! It’s too crazy!” Yeah.
PF ”No, no, America doesn’t want that.” And they’re like, ”No, no, trust me. Seriously, like I’ve been pulled over by cops, like eight million times, like America wants this shit.” And it turns out, whoa! Okay. So we learned that conspiracy thinking has been part of American history. Like there’s a great essay from the 60s. It’s about, it’s the ‘paranoid style’ in American politics, right? Like, paranoia has been a real theme for decades and decades.
RZ We talked recently in a previous podcast about how facts just aren’t enough to convince people, that you have to frame it, you have to flourish it to really get it across. And here’s what conspiracy theories like QAnon and others do. They feed our desire to show faith. It is a meaningful thing to close your eyes and believe in someone else, without all the information. If you have all the information, it’s cold and clinical. But if you don’t have all the information—
PF That’s science!
RZ That’s science, but I believe in you, Paul Ford, I believe in what you’re about. And that creates an emotional and quasi spiritual and for some truly spiritual connection, that can be exploited in a very, very dramatic way. These are not evil people. These are people that are seeking connection and that are probably in circumstances where they feel very, very powerless, right, on a grand scale. I think what’s changed—just to finish this thought—this is a classic template for cults, right? That’s how you, like the cults, they target runaways, right? They target people who are lost, [mhm] or disenchanted. I think the difference is, and this is how we bring it full circle to the wonderful world of technology in the internet, is that the tools got really good, really fast.
PF Like ideas can spread really, really quickly. I mean, so first of all, I mean, look, it’s worth caveat-ing. I’m gonna just like correct a little bit, which is like, I agree with you. I think people come to this because they feel powerless and they’re not motivated by evil. Sometimes they’re motivated by really messed up pasts, but it can get evil really fast. [yes] Right, like once you’re in there, and you’ve got somebody telling you, ”you need to hate this kind of person and prove it,” [yes] it can get evil really fast and like, I don’t care how you define evil. It’s just bad. So you got to watch it like it’s toxic in the world.
RZ There’s something that happens and I see this because I’m Lebanese and I see it within the Lebanese are very fractured as a society, they’re very factional, [right] they sort of have loyalty towards clans and religions. It’s like just eighteen little mini societies, right? But here’s the thing that I think is happening in America that I’ve watched happen in Lebanese society for the longest time. Once you commit, and you sign on, and you get the tattoo, even though in your heart of hearts, you know, it’s gone off the rails and it’s bonkers. You can’t leave.
PF Oh, you can’t leave it. You can never leave.
RZ You can’t—not just because it’s become part of your identity. It is a huge deal. And Lebanon is going through enormous turmoil right now. Enormous turmoil. It’s just melted down as a nation. And there are still people inside the country that fully rationalize why they support some group that is objectively responsible for the mess they’re in. They can’t help it.
PF You know how people like to talk about the Illuminati?
RZ Yes. Define the Illuminati for those that don’t know what it is.
PF So the Bavarian Illuminati, there was a panic, it’s this reaction to the French Revolution. This gets going in America in 1797, there’s a book called Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe Carried Out in Secret Meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati and Reading Society.
RZ That’s the name of the book? Did you just read the title of a book? That’s a hell of a title. [Paul & Rich chuckle]
PF That’s the name of the book. That’s the title. And it’s written by a scientist, right? So like, this is what you’re up against. I remember in the late 90s, early 2000s, there was this big movement of like, forward thinking atheists who were going to cast off religion and one of the great proponents is Richard Dawkins. And Dawkins of course is kind of an enemy of the particularly woke Twitter left because he’s very, comes down very hard on Islam, in a lot of basically kind of racist ways, feels racist to me, at least. And a lot of people feel that way as well. Right. So, so like, you just, it’s in this circle where like, people show up and they’re like, ”science is going to get us out of this.” And then they’re saying stuff that you’re like, ”I don’t want to live in that world.” [right] There’s no escape. So you’ve got this baseline. Like you got to think about conspiracy thinking in America, and in the world, but especially here because people are kind of self-taught a lot. It’s like a substrate. It’s like the weather or like soil like you forget it’s there. And then you know, like, there’s a lot of worms under you right now. But you don’t think about all the worms, but if you reach in the ground, you’ll be like, ”Oh my god, there’s worms everywhere! How long has this been going on?”
RZ This is a great point. I think one of the things you’re highlighting here is that you would think science would sort this out, but it doesn’t feed the beast that people when they want to put faith in something, to line things up in their minds and to explain what’s going on in their lives, science just it’s just not fun. You ever pull up an abstract to a medical article? Doesn’t really pull at the heartstrings.
PF And then there’s hundreds of years of history of things like you know, phrenology or eugenics, then you’ll you’ll find out that some legendary scientist you love and respect—I mean, one of my favorite, I’m not gonna say who but one of my favorite bands in college like a band I loved. I was like, I haven’t thought about them in awhile, I go and look at the lead singer songwriters Twitter feed and it’s like, ”oh, vaccines. Oh, we lost you.”
RZ Gosh, darn it. Paul, you know, I’ve been a fan of Steely Dan’s for such a long time. And I can’t believe, I can’t believe it.
PF Ohhh I know. I know. Pedro, the lion is advocating nuclear holocaust. [Rich laughs]
RZ So to bring it to tech, and I think it’s worth talking about it in the context of technology, because I think, is there a moral slash ethical slash legal responsibility on behalf of these platforms that are capable of amplifying what used to be the crazy guy who held up a sign at the mall, to millions of people?
RZ Are they responsible and what you seeing now as we as we record this podcast, Facebook, approximately three years late is actively taking down QAnon posts and articles and this and that, under a very sort of quasi legal set of guidelines that they’ve put forward and whatnot. We didn’t know what we built, right?
PF We’ll see.
RZ We didn’t know what we built.
PF Well…we know. Facebook knew. It’s three years too late and five years after.
RZ It is pretty late, isn’t it?
PF But what happens, right? Let’s have empathy for the leaders of Facebook, it’s the same thing over and over, which is like, ”well, you can’t police free speech.” Well, actually turns out you can a little bit and it’s not really free speech if it’s a platform for advertising and stuff, like you can police a lot. So you’re gonna moderate it. ”Oh, God, that is it. Now, like 30% of my revenue is going to go to moderation.”
RZ Farms of moderators, just rows and rows and rows and moderators, right?
PF Here’s the thing, you put off the ethics of it in order to find a solution, like you just assume a solution is going to forthcome, you’re going to iterate your way to this being okay. And I think that that strategy doesn’t work. If you’re going to be ethical, you have to be ethical in the moment. You can’t defer ethics.
RZ We’re also in the middle of pandemic, listener from five years from now.
PF Oh boy, are we.
RZ And one of the interesting things I’ve seen is how statistics, essentially, the insights you’re trying to gain, and it just got to a point where everything was a graph, like the article was a graph.
PF [Paul chuckles] Everything!
RZ And not only was everything a graph, the graphs themselves, were starting to get subjected to manipulation, just as you could manipulate a journalist.
PF Oh like in Florida, yeah.
RZ If you do it, you know, logarithmic or if you do it, you know, to scale a certain way you could show it so that it doesn’t look as bad.
PF Sometimes they would just move it out of the sequence. [Rich laughs] Just like, you know, February, February would show up, like after—
RZ Or you overlaid over a country that’s not doing well, but it’s a tiny country. So the per capita number looks bad.
PF You know, there’s a great short book that everybody should read. I read it years ago, I should reread it. It’s called How to Lie With Statistics. It’s got lots of pictures in it and kind of cartoony, I think it’s from the 60s. And it’s about how to lie with statistics. It’s like, you know, do this with your map and it’s in the guise of that kind of cynical guide, it shows you how many ways you can mess around with stats and charts.
RZ And I think it highlights how incredibly complex this information is and how hard it is to really render a judgment by staring at a graph. Graphs, charts, dashboards are big business.
PF Well, I’m torn. Right, I’m to the point now, where if I walk into a large enough business, like a really big enterprise, and they want to do something, and especially if they’re talking to Postlight about doing something innovative, I go, ”Okay, that sounds great.” But I’ve seen a lot of those projects die on the vine because it’s very hard to like land something new and innovative inside of a big work. So I go, ”Look, let’s lead with the dashboard, lead with the presentation and the metrics that you’re going to use to measure, that you’re going to present up the chain to your boss, you’re going to spend money on some outside vendor who you know, shouldn’t be in the room in the first place. Dammit, we could have done this better ourselves, right? So that’s us, that’s Postlight. Don’t try to force that through and instead start the workshop with ‘how will we measure success and what are the metrics?’ ‘Cause that’s what your boss thinks about.”
RZ Very senior people. I mean, it’s catnip for them. Big decision makers love the dashboard.
PF ”We’re gonna make one of 150 products that they’re somehow connected to. Okay? So like, don’t assume that our product is going to be special in any way, it’s going to get, at most, a couple hours of their attention. And so what do they really need to know? What are the analytics show? What does the audience show? What research were we able to do? Does this inform our decision making and has it driven any revenue?” Like that’s the way they’re thinking. What do they want? They want a couple slides in the deck once a month.
RZ They want summary information. It’s passive. There’s no button that says ”increase spend.” There’s nothing there. It’s just for consumption. I mean, look, we just said, we just made a bunch of assumptions that people get how big of a deal dashboards are for senior thinkers—
PF Oh, they’re such a big deal.
RZ And big thinkers, and executives inside of companies.
PF Dashboards get over index. It’s really just like the visual output in the slide is—[Paul chuckles] go back to that thought, but the dream for an exec is to look at something and go, ”Wow, it looks good. Said we’d get there and here we are. Can we do better?” Then you move on to something actually horrible. Right? And that’s your that’s the rest of your day.
RZ Here’s the thing, Paul, data, and dare I say big data?
PF Hmm, the best kind.
RZ Lacks opinion or agenda. It’s just data. Can you imagine if you had a SQL query, which is like, ”select star from people table and tell me who’s the nicest.” Right, like render a judgement.
PF Order by order nice, yeah.
RZ Order by nice, right? So I guess what I’m getting at here is data, in its rawest form, is boring, is scientific, is not interesting.
PF It encodes what’s happened, right? So it’s what you’ve chosen to throw into the log file.
RZ It’s what you’ve chosen to throw into the log file, but when you pull out, right, the people that make the biggest decisions, or alternatively, like we’re talking about before with the charts on the pandemic, the millions that are reading a thing, the people that make the biggest decision, want a very thin layer that somehow tickles their brains and tells them what’s up, which leaves enormous, I mean absolutely enormous room for manipulation. If I’m looking to get a million bucks out of my CEO for an initiative, I’m going to sit down with a data person. And I’m going to tell a story like it’s never been told before. He’s going to feel like snowboarding on those charts,
PF Or that we’re all going to die. Those are your choices.
RZ What, I mean, I’m working back from the outcome I want, right? And I’ve got all this raw data and it’s like ouff. What you don’t show is often just as powerful as what you do show and what you do show can be skewed and spun and twisted in 20 different ways here, right? Because people want immediately digestible information. They’re not going to wade through the charts. Some, you know, really brilliant CEOs can’t help it. They want to go in. I have a good friend who can’t stop looking inside the data. You can’t snow him. You just can’t do it.
PF No. And I’ve been in meetings with someone who used to be a fund analyst recently. And they’re like, ”What is this data? Where did it come from? What choices have been made in its presentation?” And like, if you don’t do that work ahead of time and present that he’ll make you go back and do it. Like you can’t just show up.
RZ And I think, you know, for the for executives, they’re really good ones can’t help but peer in and and say, where’s the ”Where’s the rest of it?” I’ve done it. And I’m not a data person. I’ve done it. I’m like, ”I need to see, well, this doesn’t tell me enough, like this summary…” well, then usually, the interrogation is through questions about what’s inside and if they can’t answer it, and then it falls short.
PF We’re in a funny spot too, because we build data driven products, but our business is not at a scale where it can be particularly data driven, because we have, you know, relatively big clients and maybe 20 of them rolling at any given time, and you can’t extract a lot of statistical signal from that data set.
RZ I guess what I’m getting at here, you know, we don’t audit journalists. We just sort of let the reputations sort out what’s going to happen to them. [yup] If they do it real bad, then they’re kind of screwed. And they don’t get to write again. And then and the publication actually gets roped in and their rep gets hit, right?
PF Yeah, that’s right.
RZ There is no independent standards body, there isn’t one for when data shows up in front of a CEO, either, other than the CEO questioning what you’re doing, you put that alongside of, you know, drug trials, which are like ”Thank you for the data. Now, go do it again, and go do it again. And now try it with a larger sample and go do it again.” And that is a world where they’re not looking, they don’t care about your reputation, because people’s lives are at risk. Right?
PF But hold on, actually. And there you have a regulatory body in the FDA that is very stringent is known for rejecting things. And that has a really clear set of protocols. There’s an expectation of scientists and doctors on either side. It’s like a lawyer in a divorce case. Like you’re not going before the FDA without doctors.
RZ Yes. And I think, I think they they really tie their success and reputation around that credibility. Like it’s a big deal for doctors, right? It ruins you if you played games, right? So I’m going to actually magically bring this all full circle, Paul.
PF Ohhh yeah. You’re going to connect the dots, you’re going to show us what’s really going on in America.
RZ Well I guess here’s what I’m getting at. If you zoom all the way out, no, not what’s going on America, I think what’s going on in the whole world is people with agendas, fudge stuff and manipulate other people through information all the time, whether it be through data, or whether it be through a conspiracy theory.
PF Okay, so for me, here’s how I see this. I think human beings are very vulnerable creatures, and that we don’t even know what we believe most of the time. [Rich laughs] I really do. Like I don’t, until it is tested, until you are asked to do something or until you are in a crisis situation and have to make a choice, you don’t really know what you believe, you know what you think you believe. Which is why I actually have a lot of empathy for, like when I meet veterans, and there’s some folks I advise and work with, like, I have a lot of empathy for them because they’ve been in positions I’ve never been in, where they had to make decisions that were much more complicated than decisions I have to make. And what do people need, they need meaning, they need structure, they need community. Now on the other side of this, you have these giant organisms in corporations that are increasingly based around aggregating and understanding data and using that to define their decision making, because they’re at a scale where everything else is essentially impossible. They’ve exceeded the cognitive abilities of humans to understand them. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t know what’s happening at Facebook. Not really. He knows certain things. But he knows very, very little. There is an essay years and years ago by this programmer, Steve Yegge, who wrote about giving a presentation to Jeff Bezos, I don’t know how real this is, you know what he decided to do before he went before Bezos? He took out like random slides, like every other slide, so that Bezos would have something to do, because all that guy does is see decks all day, right? What’s fun is filling in the blanks and going, like, ”What about this? What about that?” Well, but, you just cut out every other slide. And part of me is like, ”Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Like if you just cut out every other side of the world would be a lot more interesting.”
RZ Let me ask you a heavy question then. We all mostly agree that the likes of QAnon and the likes of other people who sort of exploit these platforms to do bad things, should we step in and figure out a way to not allow that to happen? The doctors do it when a drug company puts a drug forward, we not only do we step in, we comb over every bit of it, because people’s lives are at stake. It turns out people’s lives are at stake here.
PF What’s happened is that the volume on all of the things that define our society is just turned up not even to 11, but to like 20. Just shrieking in your ears. The closer you are to social media, the more and more exposed to it you are and so the politics of this moment and the way that people believe in conspiracy theories and their urgent need for some kind of affiliation while they’re literally at home and not able to see and touch and interact with other human beings, as well as their beliefs about like medical systems and banking and religion and very like all those institutions, right? Everyone is suddenly just shouting about how they feel, because they, I think they feel very afraid and very vulnerable. And they need the world to know that they’re okay, they figured it out. And what that does is it just tests every one of our foundational beliefs over and over again, free speech and so on. Meanwhile, at the platform level that is being encapsulated as a set of dashboards and a new strategy for moderation, or we’re gonna add, we’re gonna, you know, change the heart to a star, or vice versa. And so the gap between those two is so vast, and we come back to it over and over, but the only thing that can fill it is some kind of framework that everybody agrees to follow collectively with an enforcement mechanism behind it, which usually would mean government except in right now, we’re not in a state where we could construct something like that.
RZ Just to close this out. I want to I want to get to where you’re getting at here. Are you saying that there are laws when the QAnons of the world show up and it starts to gain traction? Isn’t that the slippery slope that everybody fears, that Zuckerberg fears around free speech?
PF Well, this is what’s tricky, right? Regulating that is tough. Part of it is just taste. Just like, Jesus, Facebook. Could you cut us a break? Like pedophile pizza restaurants? Do we need that all day long? Everybody laughs at it until it literally becomes policy. Like, I mean, a lot of this wouldn’t be as bad if we didn’t have a chief executive in the United States who would amplify it.
RZ I mean, this stuff was simmering for a long, I mean Fourchan has been around forever, right? I mean, it’s…
PF No but like QAnon would not have achieved the same level of cultural purchase under Mitt Romney.
RZ Okay, so you’re making an interesting point here. He didn’t have to pass laws, you don’t have to pass laws, you just have to convey a certain set of values that really don’t allow something like this to catch fire.
PF Well, it’s going to always be there. You can’t get rid of it. It’s been there for 300 years.
RZ It’s been there for thousands of years. Yeah. Yeah.
PF For thousands before. So like, you can’t really manage that when you truly try to regulate people talking about that you do get into the realm of thought crime and it gets really really slippery. That said, when you know people calling for violence or making false accusations and you know, libelous accusations against people is, you know, we’re in a zone where people are actively saying like, ”This concept of free speech is no longer valid because it’s so threatening to me and my community.” And they’re right. Right. Like, it is threatening, it is scary. And they don’t feel that they can operate day to day or they see people attack nearby, right? So like, you’ve got that community just like really going, ”What the hell, you know, like change the rule so that I don’t feel like I’m gonna die every time I log into Twitter” and other people going like, ”Well, now come on, we have this we have this principle enshrined in the Constitution.” And instead of having a consensus driven set of governing principles on top, we actually have someone who amplifies the absolute worst of it. We’re in the worst moment and what it what it actually shows, frankly, is that norms and culture do as much work as law does to keep a society moving along. When the norms fell down, the law isn’t really up to the task of keeping a society together. It’s, I would say, you know, over the last four years, it’s like held us together. Like we haven’t imploded completely as a country, but we’re closer than we should be.
RZ I mean laws tend to lag, right? Like the process around something being codified, like customer norm being codified into law takes a long, long, long, long time. You can see it for years before Brown versus Board of Ed, the landmark civil rights case. You saw dissents, the actual opinion that became the majority that changed the law was sitting there in the dissents for years and years before. [right, right, right] It takes years to simmer, to come to a boil. I was going to call your answer a cop out answer but I think it’s the right one, which is, no laws don’t fix it. They’re just too slow. You know, when’s that software patch coming out? I’ve had this bug for I don’t know how long they’re ever gonna patch this thing. Laws don’t work. But I think the values that are conveyed at the top do and the ones that manipulate and I, you know, we said this earlier in this podcast, it’s a brilliant marketer and a brilliant PR person is playing with fire here. And I think that’s how we got to where we got to.
PF Yeah. and has been for years. And there’s been literal death as a result, right? Like, I mean, this is hopefully we get through this, but I mean, look, what are you going to do? I mean, I think all you can do is move forward, you cannot change the past. There are a lot of voices and a lot of signals about how to manage this. I don’t think people are going to go build a lot more open community web platforms.
RZ Well, there’s not a lot of unclaimed land left, to be perfectly frank. I mean, there’ll be some—
PF No, that’s right.
RZ I didn’t expect TikTok to show up.
PF There’ll be more video, there’ll be more stuff, but they’ll be controlled by very large companies, they’ll be pretty tight moderation and algorithmic selection loops. And increasingly, I think they’ll be closed communities and they might be close to except for like, 5000 people like they might be pretty big. But yeah, maybe once a year, there’ll be a fad new media platform that people are into for a while, that’s about video and includes a lot of teenagers dancing, but nobody wants to build the next Facebook as far as I can tell.
RZ But if you do want to build the next Facebook, Paul, [Paul laughs] [music fades in] I gotta say, this is what, this podcast, if you plotted them all, it probably falls, it’s an outlier, no doubt, but I’m glad we talked about this because I think it speaks to the implications of technology, and the responsibility that comes with it.
PF Look, all of this stuff is in the culture, built right in, but the platform’s are absolutely it accelerating it and, and enabling it in a lot of ways, right. And so like, yeah, I mean, frankly, if you said, ”Paul, do you want to build the next Facebook? Or do you want to build a really useful Software as a Service tool that could help, you know, communities?” I’m going for number two. [Rich laughs] It might not have a viral growth pattern, but I’m going for number two these days. That’s a lot more interesting.
RZ Great discussion, Paul Ford. I feel like I was on NPR or something here.
PF Yeah. Now we just lost about a third of our revenue. [Rich laughs] It’s pretty exciting.
RZ For the other two thirds [Paul & Rich laugh] checkout Postlight.com, we build big, awesome platforms for big companies, big government, we do it all.
PF You know what we are? We are your strategic partner. When you need that dashboard, frankly, we’re great. We will help you make a real dashboard that delivers real value in your org. We’re ready to help.
RZ So check us out. Hello@postlight.com. Have a great week, everyone.
PF Bye! [Music ramps up, plays alone for 3 seconds, ends.]