Fighting disinformation is something everyone can do, and must do to protect our democracy

Fact-checker and rumor killer Brooke Binkowski talks about the history of falsehoods, and how to combat them
Rapper Nicki Minaj is among many people worldwide spreading false information about Covid-19 vaccinations. Phot: Eva Rinaldi/Flickr

Episode Summary

In a 24/7 news environment, everyone is surrounded by information. Some of it is true. Some of it’s false and much of it is somewhere in the middle. It’s often hard to tell what’s true because no one is an expert at everything. And that’s why social media has become universal. Now we’ve seen a new type of journalist emerge, fact checkers, and that’s a fascinating commentary on their importance to society because the commercial media industry, as a whole has been shrinking.

In this episode, I speak to Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of Truth or Fiction.com. It’s a fact-checking website that she heads up after working on another one called Snopes. After talking about her path into the this new form of journalism, we discuss how the rapper Nicki Minaj has provided a perfect example of how disinformation is believed and spread.

A video version of this interview is embedded below. A lightly edited transcript of the audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thank you for being here today, Brooke.

BROOKE BINKOWSKI: Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: So let’s talk first about what it is you guys do at Truth or Fiction, so that everybody who’s not familiar with your work can get a sense of it.

BINKOWSKI: It’s pretty simple on its face. What we do is just straight ahead, fact checking. But it’s really funny because you just talk about straight ahead fact-checking and it seems like it’s self evident, that there’s one truth, there’s one way of looking at things and that’s it. But it turns out that a lot of people get very annoyed with you when you’re doing fact-checking. This has been, the last few years have been a real crash course in that. But yeah, so we just do straight ahead, fact-checking myth-busting and so forth. What we try to do in all of our stories, although we succeed to certain degrees is we try to embed a sort of message into it.

Not a message, but like how we arrived at the conclusion, how you can find other examples of disinformation and how you can recognize this information. So it’s a lesson embedded in, it’s just here’s how we found it. We tried to teach by showing how we did it so that people have the tools later to pick apart disinformation and propaganda campaigns and weaponized narratives.

But sometimes it gets real silly.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And we’re definitely going to talk about that later in the show. And I do think it’s a good technique you guys are doing and showing people how they can fact check you. Because we’re in this moment now where nobody wants to believe that anyone else has credibility, other than people that they have heard of or who are their friends. And so that’s a great approach, I think.

But let’s talk about the approach though. So how is it that you guys are evaluating whether something’s true?

BINKOWSKI: A lot of the stuff that’s out there is disinformation is really easily recognizable at first blush to us. We never just go by our gut because of course that’s how you get led into all kinds of disinfo.

But a lot of the stuff that we are seeing now is very recognizable to those of us who have a sort of basis in history of disinformation. For example, one of the ones I’ve been exceptionally worried about lately has been the demonization of nurses and doctors who are pushing the Covid-19 vaccine.

They’re doing so out of a desire to not see everybody die in a global pandemic. And this is the best way we have, the best defense we currently have against Covid-19 is this vaccine, quarantining, masking and so forth. They’ve been demonized in such a way by disinformation purveyors as to call them out for ‘killing people for insurance money’ is the one I’ve just been seeing recently.

This is the doctor’s plot, the Stalin-era doctor’s plot which was informed by his own paranoia about doctors, but which was woven into an antisemitic plot in the 1950s because doctors were associated with being Jewish. And so this doctor’s plot ended up with people getting just absolutely railroaded and smeared.

It accused doctors of trying to kill Stalin and other people. So you see, it’s been modernized a little bit, there have been new details added in, but the structure of it is the same, which makes it easier to debunk because we already know. The seeds of its debunking already exists within it.

There are others that are just flat out lies. In that case, we do just ordinary journalism. We’ll call the person who allegedly said, let’s say somebody is alleged to have said the sky is red. First we go outside. The sky is not red. The sky is blue. Okay.

Now we call the person involved. Did you say the sky is red? Oh, you did. Oh, why would you say that? So that’s how we fact check. We try to use primary sources whenever possible, or vetted secondary sources in a pinch. We also recognize that people will lie about things they’ve said and done. So we try to make sure that’s accounted for in our debunks.

Of course we hit a point sometimes where we just end up like having to describe the mechanism of it. And so we’ll work that into our reporting as well.

I guess that’s like a really long-winded way of saying it’s journalism, that’s all traditional journalism.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And your background is in traditional journalism. So talk a little bit about that, your experience and why did you get interested in fact checking and things like that?

BINKOWSKI: Oh, sure. Yeah, I’m an old school journalist. I actually come from a family of journalists. I’m totally screwed. My family, so my family is like ‘Don’t get into journalism, don’t do it. You’re never gonna, you’re gonna start your whole life. You’ll never make any money,

And I was like, ‘Oh, no problem. I don’t want to do anything my family does. That’s why I’m getting into journalism.’ And my family is like ‘no wait.’ So that’s what I did. I became a journalist, mom and dad met in a newsroom that was a newspaper run by my grandfather and that’s where I was babysat growing up.

So I was screwed from the start. It was totally inevitable and it drives me nuts because I totally was convinced all along until about five years ago, I was like, this is all my idea, my freewill, my choice. I did it, because I know myself and I know my own mind and I’m doing this and now I really I don’t know, or it was, I just destined, I don’t know anything else.

I guess I could’ve gotten into academia. My brother did, or academia, like my sister. So anyway, I wanted to be — when I was 18 years old, this is how I fooled myself. I told myself I wanted to be a wacky DJ because Howard Stern was certain was really big when I was 18. It was 1995. So in ‘95 Howard Stern is like the thing. I wanted to be the next Howard Stern. I wanted to be the female Howard Stern. I wanted to talk about gross stuff from a woman’s perspective because nobody was doing that. It was the nineties, a dreadful decade for women in the United States in many ways.

I started interning at a local radio station, which also happened to be where my dad was an employee. And they wouldn’t hire me. So I went to intern at another station and the station hired me almost immediately.

So I have this name recognition that I did my best to deny but downplay because I didn’t want to have any unfair advantages, which is why I left San Diego. So I did all of this, grunt scut-work, intern stuff. Because I just wanted to work in radio. I wanted to be, again, next, the next Howard Stern, female Howard Stern.

And then one day, cause I was hanging around the radio station all the time and it was in a cluster. So there were AM and FM stations in this one building. And so I was hanging out at the cluster because I had no friends. And this is the kind of kid or the kind of young adult. I was just hanging out at the radio station cause I loved radio and a portion of the freeway had collapsed.

It was raining really hard. So my excuse for hanging out there was, I don’t want to drive home in the rain. And a call came in saying a portion of freeway had collapsed right by us. And they said maybe you should send a report out.

It was late at night, there were no reporters. And they asked me to go out there and they said, okay, just record something. Don’t talk, just record what other people are saying, if you can get some pictures, that’s great here, go. And so I went out there and I had to pop-start my truck because I had this crappy truck that I had to push it. So I’m pushing it and I jump in and I drive over to where it is and there’s this huge hole.

It’s pouring rain. There’s a car nose down in the hole. And this man is running at me yelling. He’s like are you with the fire department? Nobody’s there yet and I’m like, oh, I’m a reporter. And he’s like, ‘oh my God just tell everybody what happened to my car.’

And I’m recording, my hand shaking, ’ oh my God, my car is in the hole.’ That’s my car, it’s sinking. I got out just in time!’ And the hole’s filling up with rain and I’m standing at the lip of this big hole, looking into it with this guy. And a fire engine rolls up. He’s like ‘that’s my car, man.’ And as we’re all standing there, we hear this (collapsing sound) and little chunks start to fall from where our feet are into the water. And we back up in this pouring rain. And I stood there in the rain, watching this guy’s, poor bastard’s car sink. He was fine, but his car was very wet. And I thought: “This is what I want to do.” I was in the love.

That was it. I wanted to be a field reporter. It was like being hit by a bolt of lightning. I just, that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be there as it was happening. I wanted to be able to help out by telling people how to avoid this hole. I wanted to be part of the solution (and sometimes part of the problem for some).

And that was it. I was just hooked. That was what I started pursuing single-mindedly and I ended up getting my first full-time job in radio journalism in Anchorage, Alaska at KFQD a few years later when I was 23 years old. And from there, I went to CNN. And from CNN, I went to KNX and from KNX, I went to KPCC all in Los Angeles.

And from there I went to freelancing at the border because I wanted to be able to have the sort of editorial freedom that I needed, that I felt I needed, which I did need to be able to pursue the stories I wanted.

And that didn’t work out as well as I was hoping financially, I was actually starving to death. Like literally not buying food and hiding from my partner, how hungry—

SHEFFIELD: Your parents were right, apparently.

BINKOWSKI: They were totally. Oh, I’ve apologized so many times. They’re like, yeah, we knew you didn’t listen to us. So good luck with all that. But they also tell me they’re proud of me, so it’s almost worth it. But yeah, so I was starving.

So then I started looking for a full-time job and I’d been at the border, which is a whole other story in itself by then for a long time, I’d also put myself through a undergraduate and grad school. In that time, I’m just telescoping a whole bunch of shit together, and fell in love with the border. And from the border, I started realizing that disinformation campaigns were running, how people felt at the border about the border rather, and started to look around for jobs that would encompass that. Found a job listing for Snopes that happened to be in San Diego, which is where I lived. And I thought, oh my God, it’s fate. This is like one of my favorite sites. I want to go work here.

Worked there for three years as a managing editor did not end well. Never meet your heroes and definitely never go work for your heroes. Never. Don’t do it (laughs). Because it’ll turn out that your heroes, changed their ex-wife’s bylines to their own byline and plagiarized hundreds of stories on their site as they tried to rope you into their plagiarism scheme.

Anyway that’s a BuzzFeed story. You can probably go and look that up (laughs).

SHEFFIELD: We’ll put it in the show notes for people who want to get that part.

BINKOWSKI: I’m still so pissed off about it, but that’s a whole other thing. More stories are, I’m sure, going to come out at some point. But I didn’t know that at the time. So I got this job at Snopes and I realized that I was uniquely situated and qualified to be able to follow these disinformation campaigns, because I could see very clearly that they were originating from, or at least encompassing the border and immigration. And in many ways are the same disinformation campaigns I had already been fighting on the ground at the U.S.-Mexico border and in Tijuana and Mexicali. And so it was inevitable. And then I got publicly fired in 2018 from Snopes, and I ended up over here at Truth or Fiction and mouthing off on social media all the time.

I guess I’ve found my own niche for now. Hopefully this ends with a very lucrative book deal, so I can finally prove my parents wrong once and for all.

SHEFFIELD: Who knows? And you guys are working very hard over there to try to chase down all the different rumors and things like that. And there’s a new rumor every day, literally. And more than one actually. And one out there of course, very big one is about fears about the Covid-19 vaccines.

Nicki Minaj screenshot
A screenshot from a tweet posted by Nicki Minaj

And of course lately if you have not been on Twitter, the focus has been on the rapper, Nicki Minaj. I’m going to put up on the screen what she said. So Nikki Minaj, she said the following on her Twitter on September 13th, 2021: “My cousin in Trinidad won’t get the vaccine because his friend got it and became impotent. His testicles became swollen. His friend was weeks away from getting married. Now the girl called off the wedding. So just pray on it and make sure you’re comfortable with your decision, not bullied.”

And out of all the things that I’ve seen of disinformation over the years, she’s providing a perfect test case of how it works. And beginning with the idea that it was her cousin’s friend in Trinidad. So a place she hasn’t been to in a long time, doesn’t visit a lot and may not even know who the person allegedly is. But that’s one of the very common things in these rumors that people are hearing. Is it not?

BINKOWSKI: Oh, absolutely. The anti-vaxxer scare lore is just absolutely dreadful right now.

SHEFFIELD: Not just with vaccines though. It this second or third hand or fourth hand.

BINKOWSKI: Oh yeah, that. My brother’s cousin’s, nephew’s former roommates. Yeah. That’s like the friend of a friend — the dynamic is oh God, what’s his name? Jan. I am so sorry, Jan. I forgot your last name, but he wrote this, a definitive book on urban folklore. I think it’s Brunsville.

And he was the one who first called them “foafs”, friend of a friend’s. So yeah, the foaf dynamic or the friend’s cousin or the cousin’s friend or whatever. The farther removed you are from the primary source, which is why we deal with them, the less likely it is to be, debunkable because then you’re just trying to prove a negative and that’s, of course, what rumor mongers depend on.

And that was one of the reasons it was so irresponsible for her to say what she said. Who knows if the cousin’s friend or the cousin even exists, but she’s hearing a second- or third-hand.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Or let’s say her chain of information is true, in terms of that this guy exists and he said this to her cousin. How does she even know that he’s telling the truth? Because as the health ministry of Trinidad recently said that we have not received any reports about swollen gonads in response to a vaccine. And then also, meanwhile, having that type of symptom is a symptom of syphilis and gonorrhea (laughs).

And so that seems like a simpler thing to conclude. But she didn’t do that. And I’m going to put it back up on the screen though, but beyond just the second- and third-hand information, we’ve got the idea that ” so just pray on it and make sure you’re comfortable with your decision. Not bullied

BINKOWSKI: Bullied! (laughs) . Yeah, because the anti-vaxxers who come up to me and blow on me because they don’t like that I am pro-vaccine this is what they’ve done to me personally. They’ll come up to you and blow on you if they don’t like you. And if they know that you’re vaccinated or that they know that you’re pro-vaccine. They’re not bullies? Please.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it’s this very real sense of victimhood that a lot of them have where—

BINKOWSKI: Typical fascists.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And we’ll talk about the political angle of that as well, but in a second, but so this idea that, and unfortunately I’ve seen this a lot with people who believe misinformation, that they think that it’s mean to point it out to them. That they’re mistaken.

BINKOWSKI: Okay.

SHEFFIELD: Have you seen people say that?

BINKOWSKI: Oh yeah. And my response to it is ‘Okay. I think lots of things are mean too. I’m sorry, but reality is not going to give a shit about your feelings just because they happen to be particularly strong.’

The reality is the vaccine provides another measure of protection between you and Covid-19 and you see the reality of that playing out in like the Herman Cain award over on Reddit, where it’s just like all these, established anti-vaxxers who say, I’ll never take the vaccine. The next thing they’re dying, on a ventilator because they didn’t get the vaccine. It’s stuff like that. That’s the reality. It’s not like I’m here saying, oh yeah, take the vaccine. And then quietly laughing about it because it’s a depopulation scheme. I actually don’t even like bullying people.

It’s just, sometimes you need to bully people for the greater good. And if they have a sense of victimhood that just goes to show you, they’re putting their own individual sense of comfort ahead of the community at large. That goes to show you, they don’t give a darn about it. And that they should be treated accordingly.

This is inherently antisocial. You’re not pro-social and we need pro-social behavior right now.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then Nicki Minaj has provided another example of how disinformation works, that it has political uses as well. So after she posted her series — and she posted more than one — talking about how she was going to ‘do her own research’ about vaccines. And she was criticized by the majority of her fans on Twitter. And that’s an interesting thing about Twitter is that, it certainly it has its problems, but at the same time, you have an ability to respond to people and not let them just get away with spouting nonsense.

And so in her case, she got so much criticism from her fans on Twitter. She literally stopped tweeting and lied and said that she had been frozen on Twitter. And then she went over to Instagram, which in my opinion, everything on Instagram is fake, including the stuff from real people. Sad.

BINKOWSKI: Yeah. Well, it’s Facebook. Instagram is Facebook. Yeah. So if she’s gonna lie about that, what else do you think she’s lying about? Come on. She has no credibility at this point. And also, why are we looking to a pop star to have credibility to begin with.

Why are we doing this? Why are we still doing this? It’s been like six years of this particular attack. Why do we still have to keep responding in the same way? I’m not criticizing you. I’m talking about it too, but I’m just saying, why do they still have this hold, I understand a hold over pop culture, but why are they still allowed and able to spark international incidents?

This is a straight up international incident. This is the kind of stuff I was always terrified of becoming when I was younger. And now we have people doing it on purpose.

By the way, I think brigading public figures who lie or who spread lies, who are disinformation purveyors. I think that’s fantastic. I think everybody should do that because you see what a great effect it has. People need to be told when they’re spreading lies, they need to be suffering social consequences. I said bullying before, but I don’t think it’s bullying. I think it’s actually just consequences for lying. That’s the problem we’ve been living in this culture of impunity for far too long.

So there’s a political philosophy, the horseshoe theory, where basically when the far right and the far left join forces, that destroys one of the underlying pillars of democracy.

So the idea here is, if you can get the far right and far left to join up, democracy will eat itself over time. So one of the earliest ways to do this in the United States from a disinformation perspective was a site called Natural News and a guy named Mike Adams. It was a lefty, hippy site for a long time. It was all about wellness and alternative medicine, anti-vaxxers, and then all of a sudden, it’s like 2014 or 2015. It was all of that stuff plus buy guns to protect your individual rights. And then they started attracting the right. And so there were these really strong attempts to use anti-vaccine ideology and pro -gun ideology to bring the left and the right together.

I don’t think it’s particularly working because pro gun left-wingers are generally pro-gun to protect themselves from the far right. Whereas the far right are pro-gun for other reasons. I lived in Alaska, you can’t live in Alaska, it’s really difficult to live in Alaska and not handle guns because it’s such a hunting culture there and so forth. And so when I talk about gun control and things like that, I talk about it from a perspective of somebody who does think guns are fun. And that is very shocking to people,

But I don’t like gun culture and I have no problem saying you have to learn weapons in order to criticize weapons. Like you have to learn the basics of it to really criticize them.

Yeah. In the case of a Tucker Carlson though, so Tucker Carlson has become, he has become one of the biggest anti-vaccine people at Fox News Channel. And of course he himself will not disclose whether he has taken the vaccine, like all of them, all of their top hosts.

But they’re just going on and indulging these conspiracy theories by their viewers. And so he found Nicki Minaj talking about this stuff and he talked about it on his show. And then he read off the tweet that I had read this, third-hand account that she had and said, yeah, that seems pretty reasonable to just pray about it and decide for yourself what you think.

And she just latched on to what he said. And then meanwhile, somebody, multiple of her fans had said, look, that Tucker Carlson supports white nationalists and literally has them on his programs and is loved by them. And her response was ‘I don’t care who somebody is. I can talk to a Republican. And so don’t criticize me.’

So she’s conflating white supremacists and Republicans from the get-go and she’s okay with it? Like what? (laughs)

SHEFFIELD: She seems to be, yeah. But that’s how desperate she was for validation, and that’s an example though, going back to what you were saying about like Natural News and things like that, that once people have an idea in their head that’s not true, everything that they’re thinking goes toward trying to prove that idea rather than trying to just examine whether it’s true or not.

And so as a result, there has been a real tension that’s developed between fact-checkers and the political right. You’re one of the many people who have been in, in that been in the midst of that.

BINKOWSKI: I’m just out here doing my thing, I don’t like lies. I’ve never really aligned myself with any particular political party. I’ve never particularly aligned myself with any particular ideology, because I tend to not be much of a joiner. So it’s been really interesting watching people tell me what they believe my political beliefs to be.

I just go after people who lie and cheat and are corrupt. It’s not my problem that a lot of them happen to fall under the banner of the far-right. And it’s also not my problem. It’s not my fault that the GOP has decided to embrace this nativist, insane ideology.

There was a long time there when they called it California Republicanism and they didn’t want anything to do with it. At least publicly, because it was so nasty, it runs on disinformation campaigns and bad optics and lies and smears and all of that. So they came after me real early on.

I’ve been getting attacked for a long time from a variety of people because I did border work. I was one of the very few reporters in the United States doing it. So I’m used to it, but it’s always been smears, attacks on my perceived political ideology. Also perceived ideas of what I might be doing, the reasons I might be doing this for like sub rosa. Which are never right. So they’ll email me enthusiastically and tell me all the kinds of things they’d like to do to stop me. Like the violent things they would like to do to get me to stop talking or typing, the violent sexual things they’d like to do to me.

SHEFFIELD: I’ve been really closely tracking Nicki Minaj’s social media to really delve into the story to write something about it. And she’s been a magnet for conspiracy theorists. They are just latching onto her.

BINKOWSKI: Oh yeah.

SHEFFIELD: All of these Trump fans and worshipers are praising her and saying how they love her. And meanwhile, I’m sure most of them have never even heard of her until this moment.

BINKOWSKI: Right.

SHEFFIELD: And it’s interesting though. And so, when I mentioned earlier she went onto Instagram and did a live video. And in it, she said, she started actually going after the Democratic Party because she had claimed she was invited to the White House and then somebody asked the White House, so did you invite her? And they said, no, we did not.

BINKOWSKI: Of course not. I can’t believe she said that. I can’t believe all of this stuff.

SHEFFIELD: But in terms of the — just going back to the political dimension though, I used to work in conservative media. And after a while, I started noticing fact-checkers as a conservative writer. At first, my reflexive idea was to say that you guys are liberally biased. And you focus more on Republicans because somebody had done a study that looked at, let’s say I think it was focused on Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor versus the guy who was running against him in some election.

And they said, oh, look, Scott Walker was found to be making more false claims than his opponent. And somebody did a similar study like that in 2008 with John McCain and Barack Obama, and at the time, that made sense to me as a way of understanding that. But as I delved into the subject more, I realized maybe it’s because they lie more. Maybe it’s because Mitt Romney and John McCain, or whoever, were saying things that were not true.

And then once I did that, everything unraveled a little bit (laughs).

BINKOWSKI: Yeah. It’s a very depressing thing too, because I always thought for years — so my background before all of this was AM radio. So I actually, I used to have a lot of friends who swung pretty hard conservative. This pretty much changed one way or another in 2016 (laughs). Either they stopped being my friends or they stopped being conservative as they defined it, or became like Never Trumper conservatives, that type of thing. So I used to have a whole bunch of friends, we’d have these great, friendly years-long arguments about politics and about where we should spend our money.

This was just what we used to talk about. Around 2008 or so it started to get really rancorous. And it would come and go and I would just know like when to not have conversations about where the money’s going based on what was in the news media. But I did start to notice, over time, there was an attrition effect where the lies would start to — and I think by the way, I think that the GOP has been absolutely just riddled with disinformation purveyors. There are some in the Democratic Party, don’t get me wrong. But the power grab is definitely coming from the right side of things at the moment, which is not to say it always does, but it definitely is right now.

So authoritarianism is friendlier to the far right than it is to any other sort of fringe ideology, because it depends on a strong man type of model, more than any other. But I think that the people who invaded conservative thought did so explicitly to push more disinformation.

God, I think I started noticing with Sarah Pailin, I don’t know how long it was going on before that, but I just started to notice that there more and more people are quietly just not calling themselves conservative anymore. They would start calling themselves libertarians or, just not left.

And I think those are the people who started to see it first because this disinformation campaign started to come up over the last 10 or 15 years or so, I think, through the far right. It filtered its way into legislators, speechmaking and policymaking and so forth.

I’m obviously painting a very broad brush strokes. I’m just saying that it was a power grab and the power grab started from the right this time, which is not to say it’s going to be that way every time.

SHEFFIELD: But there is a history though, because if you look at the policy positions of the far right in the United States, they’re not popular. They want to cut Social Security or they want to eliminate the minimum wage or things like that. And Larry Elder, who was running for governor in California, that’s his position, he thinks there should be no minimum wage.

They have to come up with other reasons for people to get with them. It’s really unfortunate to see what what’s happening with Nicki Minaj, or what seems to be, because, Kanye West, the rapper, he got sucked into this stuff as well at an earlier point in time. And he really got into it at first and even ran a third-party presidential campaign designed to take black votes from Joe Biden in order to help Donald Trump. That’s how into it he was. And in his case, at least according to his ex-wife Kim Kardashian, he was developing some mental illness. And instead of trying to help him, a lot of these far-right consultants just tried to exploit him and use him to their advantage. And it’s really unfortunate.

BINKOWSKI: It’s so disturbing. Disinformation only exists to, for political purposes, even if they’re not immediately obvious at that time, disinformation exists in the end and I’m being very reductive here, but it’s really a good way to look at it because it’s too easy to get caught up in the twists and turns and details of disinfo, even when talking about it in a meta sense. But in the end, disinformation exists only to take rights away from other people, because you’re lying to achieve some sort of objective. And like you said, if those ideas are that good, you wouldn’t have to lie. Maybe there’s better ways you can describe them, to make them more popular. But if they were that good, you wouldn’t need to just completely manipulate it and drown out any sort of criticism.

Or, like I saw on a clip from Newsmax today with one of their hosts. I guess somebody mildly criticized Trump’s policy in Afghanistan, on Newsmax. And the host cut his mic and said, ‘We’re done! We’re done!’ And the veins started popping out in his head. If you’re relying on a cult of personality or authoritarian lies, disinformation campaigns, and weaponized narratives, you’re not that good at your job.

If you have to resort to lies, you’re just not very good at policy or government. And in light of all of this stuff with Nicki Minaj, she should be considered not at all credible, and she shouldn’t have been anyway, right? She’s a pop star. She hasn’t spent her life carefully building credibility. But now, I think everybody should, anytime she makes some sort of claim, people should say, okay but here’s what she did and said, in this 48 hour period and doubled down, and here’s who she appears to have been working for, at least in the service of, and so on and so forth.

I think that this should be applied across the board to, anybody who is a public figure in any way who starts spreading disinformation. But I see many people get chance after chance to do so. Very frustrating.

SHEFFIELD: What about the trends though? Because it’s obviously gotten worse, let’s say the past 10- 15 years. But how do you think things are in terms of disinformation compared to, let’s say in 2016 compared to now.

BINKOWSKI: It’s better. Because more people are aware of it. They’re seeing, we have five or six years now of this sort of pattern repeating itself, more people are seeing it for what it is. What’s very frustrating to me is seeing people who should know better, who do know better, who are denying that this is a pattern that this happens, that this is continuing to happen.

And most frustratingly, I think is the denial that this is a legitimate attack against the people of the United States. It’s not just the people in the United States and who’s behind it. I don’t know. And frankly, From my perspective, it’s immaterial. That’s for other people to figure out. What I care about, is the people and what the people are going through and what the people are being told. And that is, I think, what needs to end. And it ends by being called out by public figures who know better and who so far have not done so. And in fact, a lot of them are dedicating their energies to running down people who are saying stuff like this, to try to protect the American people in calling them, calling us, conspiracy theorists.

So it’s been really frustrating, but the people of the world, online and offline, are seeing it for what it is and they are fighting it accordingly. Look at how Nicki Minaj got brigaded straight off Twitter. That’s how you gotta do it. You got to tell people they’re screwing up.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s a great example of how the solution for this is multi-faceted. So obviously, companies like Facebook need to do a much better job. And in the past few days, the Wall Street Journal has just been coming out with story after story showing how Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg refused to reform their platform. And refused to make changes, to protect people from lies.

And it’s important here, I think, to note in this context that, some people have this idea that well, people are smart. They can know for themselves, whether something is true or not. And you know what, that’s maybe true on a certain level?

But it isn’t true in a lot of ways. I mean like this there’s this whole idea of an influencer on Instagram. Like people are looking to random individuals on the internet to determine what to wear or what their workouts should be or where they should go to eat, or what books to buy.

So this idea that you can just come up with everything by yourself and figure it out. It doesn’t work that way. And it never has, and it never has. People are influenced by other people’s opinions.

BINKOWSKI: We’re a social animal. We are humans. We’re primates. We’re closer to Bonobos than we are to any other species, as far as I know. And Bonobos, those are a very pro-social species. I was an anthro major. So this is actually entirely in my wheelhouse. We cannot — humanity, individuals cannot pretend ever that we are not dependent on other humans. It’s part of our adaptation. It’s how we’ve survived as long as we have. We have to be social beings. And the people who talk about alphas and lone wolves and stuff like that, they don’t understand what they’re talking about. The alpha pack crap, all that was based on faulty science and we’ve debunked it ourselves. It was based on a misinterpretation of how wolf packs work and then the romantic authoritarian, strongman types, the incels and the pickup artists and just the toxically masculine, brain poison types, men and women. The patriarchy. Those are the types who took this bad science and started applying it to humans and talking about lone wolves and alphas.

It’s crap. There’s no such thing as an alpha. There’s no such thing as an omega. But yeah sorry. I just distracted myself.

SHEFFIELD: Oh, and actually, let me just interject though. If you have any questions or comments — and actually we have somebody, speaking of which, who sent one in. This is a person on Twitter whose username is “prof_billkeep.” He or she says: “How much ‘as if quantifiable’ is this cultural, even historical belief in a social or political elite?”

So in other words, this idea of a secret group behind the scenes that’s controlling everything. How old is that belief?

BINKOWSKI: Oh, several hundred years at the very least. So it started out as antisemitic, conspiracy theories in the Middle Ages, I believe. I don’t know if anybody has ever tracked down, exactly what century it came from, but there has been this idea of the secret elite secretly controlling the strings for centuries.

This got written into a satire, a satirical writing known as the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which was basically like, ‘look at this ridiculous crap. Look at what people believe.’ It’s just an intended as satire. And then it, the satirical, does it sound familiar? The satirical context of it with stripped away. And then it was circulated as though it was fact later. And that has formed the basis now for an enormous amount of conspiracy theories. Oh my God.

So yeah, it’s like, there’s a secret group of elites who are controlling banks, media and oh, vaccines now as well. And it’s the Illuminati, it’s the lizard people. It’s the protocols. It’s QAnon. It’s every single conspiracy theory that any of us have had inflicted on us in the contemporary United States, the basis for it is always the same. And it has always been there just lurking to keep it on the fringes of our subconscious so it can be drawn upon.

I call it the disinfo sleeper cell, but I’m sure there’s a better name for it. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: And, yeah, I think that’s true for a lot of current conspiracy theories are traceable to that, but that idea is even older than the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. If you go back, and we can see this when you look at ancient religious cults. And cult in the ancient world means just religious group.

So a lot of them had these secret doctrines. And as paganism, the idea of having multiple gods. And a God of X and a God of Y gradually began transitioning toward ‘we’re going to dedicate ourselves to this particular God. And we’re going to find out what it is that they like, and we’re going to do all of that.’

And so they had all these secret little groups, so like the Pythagorean Theorem in math, there was actually a religious group around Pythagoras, the ancient mathematician. And lots of people in the Greek world had conspiracy theories about the Pythagoreans.

I also have conspiracy theories about the Pythagorean Theorem. I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding. I don’t.

And then there were also, secret political groups within the Roman Empire, for instance. Factions that were around the emperors. And they all had their own agendas and people had different ideas about what the other ones were doing this, that, and the other.

But even further back, you’ve had this idea, there was this idea of in early Judaism around the time that Jesus was alive called Gnosticism where there was a secret knowledge about the world. And that the God of the Bible was actually evil. And that he was the creation of another God and that other God had been kept from the world.

BINKOWSKI: I love this stuff so much.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah and I’m actually working on a big, long piece about this whole idea. So there is an actual connection, in some sense, between the human sense that we all want to think that we’ve figured out something else out that no one else has figured out.

It’s easy to think that. And we all have mistaken beliefs in some sense or another, right?

BINKOWSKI: Oh my God. I grow conspiracy theories, like in my backyard now. I’ve got these organic, bespoke conspiracy theories that I’ll never tell anybody (laughs).. I just got them all cropping up. It’s funny you should bring up Gnosticism because one of my big things lately is I stumbled across Lilith.

SHEFFIELD: You have to explain what that is, though, if you’re going to talk about it.

BINKOWSKI: Of course, okay. This is as best as I can tell so far with everything I’ve read. There’s no real deeper meaning as far as I can tell. It’s just interesting. But I have theories. Because I have theories about everything.

So Adam and Lilith, according to this myth, were both made from the dust. Adam says, or God says, all right, kids, this is your garden. Have fun, have at it. Adam says, let’s do it. Lilith says, let’s do it. So they go to do it. And by do it I mean, have sex. And Adam tries to climb on top of Lilith and Lilith says, no, I get to be on top. And he says, no, I’m the man. Therefore I’m superior. God made me first. And Lilith says, screw you, buddy. I’m out. And leaves him, leaves the Garden of Eden, flies out into the desert somewhere. Because she grew wings because she’s a demoness and Adam goes to God and goes: “My wife left me.”

So they try all these things to bring Lilith back. And Lilith is all “Nope, not coming back.” And finally God’s like: “Fine. I’ll just make you another woman. We’ll curse Lilith, make you a wife.” And then he takes Adam’s rib makes Eve.

And then Lilith gets pissed off because she thinks that Eve is being kept captive. She starts to feel bad for Eve. So she turns herself into a snake, goes back into the garden in disguise and climbs the apple tree and says to (Eve) ” I’ve put all the knowledge of the world into this apple. So eat it. So you’ll know what Adam’s really trying on you.” And that is what truly happened, according to the Lilith myths, which I just love.

It turns out that the Lilith story came from earlier stories about Inanna, the Sumerian goddess, I think of love and wisdom. And so there’s this sort of unbroken string of stories, which have been taken out of context and used as patriarchal folklore.

But there’s this other strain of Gnosticism, which my theory about it now, is that it’s been passed on from woman to woman as stories over the millennia to give them sort of strength when the men are wilding. ” But there’s a way, you can get through this terrible time.” And, telling these stories.

So yeah, love that stuff. But notice how it all is coalesced around knowledge? Around secret knowledge around knowing the truth. It’s really interesting.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it is. And that is really where this all comes from, this idea that we have a natural —and this is honestly part of our evolutionary development as humans. Just to go back to the anthropology sense, that animals that can recognize patterns in their environment are better able to survive than those that cannot.

And so that’s why they’re able to pass their genes on. And so over time, that’s part of what evolution is. That the smarter animals are able to exist. But now we’re at a moment here where sometimes the patterns that can be perceived are not true. They’re false patterns.

BINKOWSKI: That’s why that history becomes important, right? That false alternative ecosystem of lies, of the birther and the Bircher and the, anyway, sorry.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So much of this stuff is interconnected, which is really funny because when you think about it that’s always what the conspiracy theorists are saying. The reality is they are the globalists. They are the ones who are secretly having affiliations and controlling each other’s groups. And so Alex Jones, for instance, the far- right libertarian media entrepreneur, he buys from the same suppliers that Gweneth Paltrow does for her Goop website.

He literally sells some of the exact same stuff, but just under a different brand. And then she’ll take the same thing and say, you’ll become fertile if you drink this.

BINKOWSKI: What a freaking scam. Oh, it’s so frustrating.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. You’re saying that there is a greater awareness about this as a social phenomenon. But what about on the technological side? Because I think there was a lot of attention on disinformation and misinformation and lies after the 2016 presidential election. But it seems to me that a lot of people who became concerned about it, they tend to see everything in terms of Russia, and less in terms of we have a lot of homegrown problems. And in fact, so much of what they were doing was just picking up what Americans were making.

BINKOWSKI: Yeah. So the whole concept of this disinformation attack that we live through right now and disinformation attacks in general kind of run the same way all the time. It’s just, the info is different, right? So it makes it hard to recognize because you have to look for the structures and the mechanisms behind the information that you’re getting hit with, which is often very difficult because it’s very, emotional.

You said something earlier about how people — there’s been this idea of people being too smart to fall for disinformation which is a major vector. I can tell you because I’ve fallen for disinformation thinking I’m too smart to fall for it. And that is a major issue that you have to be aware of. If you know how smart you are and how savvy you are about disinformation campaigns, that’s when you need to double down and look twice as hard because that’s when you’re absolutely going to get tripped up by disinformation.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I always say skepticism begins with yourself.

BINKOWSKI: Yes! Oh god, that’s so good!

SHEFFIELD: You are not a cynic. You cannot be a cynic until you actually know what you’re talking about.

BINKOWSKI: Yes!

SHEFFIELD: Because it’s so easy to confuse naiveté for cynicism.

BINKOWSKI: Yeah, that’s true. And that’s really well put. Actually, I would say, in some ways, cynicism is naive. It’s naive to be cynical about the state of the world. It’s naive to be cynical about other people in some ways. Because when you’re a preemptively cynical, then you’re shutting yourself off to the things that could happen.

And some of those things could be good. They probably won’t be, but they could be. I’m not a cockeyed optimist anymore. So back to it, sorry, back to your original question, which yeah. Now I’m going to need you to put me back on track. Cause I forgotten it was basically technology, right? Technology’s role?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Are technology companies, are they improving at all? And to some degree, now I can I ask you just a very, maybe touchy question perhaps, in the fact-checking business, but it seems that to some degree, Facebook is trying to buy off some media companies by giving them money under fact checking. Is that something that’s true? What do you think?

BINKOWSKI: Are you asking me this because you know my history? Yeah, this is a very touchy question, and I’ll tell you my own experience with it. Facebook was offering money in exchange for fact checkers to fact check and the logic behind it was you’re doing work for Facebook. It’s extra work. You might as well get paid for it. This is what they were telling us when they were offering us money. It seems like decent logic.

You don’t accept money from people you’re covering. That’s just not how journalism is supposed to work. And I can’t believe so many journalists fricking fell for this nonsense.

So I said, absolutely not. We’re not taking any money from those people. They’re the ones who were pushing all this disinformation to begin with. This was back in 2016. And I’m like, at some point we’re going to need to take a stand and say, we’re going to have to distance ourselves from this. And we need to not take any money from them so that they don’t think we’re working for them because we’re not. We’re partners. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Journalism 101. Journalism freaking 101.

Instead, you’ve got all these newsrooms that are justifying taking this puny little amount of money. It’s like a hundred thousand. It was, I don’t know what it is now. A hundred thousand dollars. Okay. That’s not puny. That’s like way more than, a yearly wage for a journalist for the most part.

SHEFFIELD: Well, they expect that to pay like five or six people unfortunately.

BINKOWSKI: Exactly. Plus insurance plus whatever, but they don’t expect, they don’t care. They just think that’s going to be enough. That’s the lollipop you get, after you get beat up, they’re abusing these newsrooms and then giving them this tiny amount of money, which is just enough to get them, straight on the titty forever. Sorry. But that’s kinda how it is. Once you get that money, not having it sucks a lot more. It’s really easy to get dependent on it.

And I was like, we have to stay nimble because that’s, what’s going on. They are buying complicity. That’s what corporations have always done. That’s why you stay independent as much as possible.

I understand that it’s not possible always, but that’s why you have editorial firewalls, which I tried to function as at my old work, the bad place, Snopes. I tried to function as an editorial firewall, but you need an actual established editorial firewall in cases like —in every case.

Because otherwise, you get to situations like this, where you get a bunch of reporters, like Facebook does something egregious. And then instead of getting the outrage that you should get, because this is outrageous, they’re silencing journalists, they’re getting people killed by the hundreds of thousands by the millions. It started with Myanmar, but it certainly didn’t end with Myanmar. It started in Myanmar, as far as we know. But they’re doing all kinds of dreadful things. You shouldn’t be accepting money from them. So they’re not going to be inclined to change anything as long as this outrage is drowned out by money, because now you’ve got all these reporters who are just totally on the leash.

So Facebook’s doing something egregious. And instead of speaking out, like they should be doing, they’re like, ‘Ooh, I just wish Facebook wouldn’t do that.’ Because they know if they say something and Facebook’s not giving you that a hundred thousand dollars in anymore. Their editors are going to be up there — they’re going to be really upset.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and honestly, this is a dynamic that has really, it’s a pervasive dynamic in journalism with respect to any particular industry. So like in politics, a lot of the reason that you don’t see good coverage of certain individuals is about access. So like for instance, Newsmax, the right-wing TV network that we’ve been talking about a little bit here, the CEO of Newsmax, Christopher Ruddy, he was a big source for Washington DC reporters about Donald Trump. And so they’re not going to bite the hand that feeds them and actually tell people about what Newsmax does and all the lies that it tells. And so as a result, they didn’t get a lot of coverage while they were building themselves up. And it’s really unfortunate.

BINKOWSKI: And nothing makes me angrier lately. Oh that’s not true. A lot of things make me angry. But recently, one of the things that has been making me angry is these reporters who were releasing books. Now that contained information that would have really helped if they’d released it. You don’t need to give us your whole book. But like when Bob Woodward released that information about what Trump said of how serious he knew Covid was. And he, after sitting on it for a year, that’s a year of people who could’ve lived. That’s a year of people who may not be suffering. That’s a year of people, families that might not have been broken, shredded really by Covid.

It’s disgusting that reporters are just sitting on this information. And it’s for what? For personal gain, for their legacy? Who gives a shit? If there’s no people to carry that legacy on, there’s not going to be much of a legacy, is there? Oh, I’ve been so mad about that for ages. It’s just so frustrating to me to see this happen. Who do we work for? Come on.

SHEFFIELD: Or what is the point about what you’re doing? What are you trying to do? You say you’re trying to, serve the public by helping them, the public’s right to know. They had a right to know that a year and a half ago when you heard about it.

BINKOWSKI: Yes, and you don’t need to give us your whole book. You don’t need to screw yourself entirely. There’s plenty of other stuff in that book. I’m sure I’m never going to read it because screw that. But, I’m sure. So at least give us the details, like the vetted details that might have saved lives. That is just repulsive.

There are people who have done it, like that there was an excerpt I read and I can’t remember the reporter’s name. I’m really sorry. I’m terrible with names. But there was an excerpt from a book. I think it was in Bloomberg, but it was like a 25 page excerpt that had been adapted into an article. And it was a lot of, it was information that was already out there that had been put out there, but it put it together and organized it in a really solid way. It was an excellent, shocking, dreadful article actually.

But because that information hadn’t been set on, it was like, oh, we can go back and double check. Like readers can all check it and check it against what we already knew. It didn’t stop how shocking this article was. It was just, it was still really shocking.

It’s just, we need to know. We need to know things that are potentially life saving so that we can act accordingly. You can’t just sit on. It’s not privileged information when it affects the entire world.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, exactly. Maybe as the last question here, tell us, besides going after people who lie on Facebook or Twitter and try to correct them in real time, which is, a great idea. What are some other things that people can do to combat misinformation in their own lives?

BINKOWSKI: So nobody likes the answer to this question, but here’s what we can do. So there’s the online brigading, there’s offline correcting people, like family members or whatever. This is de-radicalization, this is something I don’t know very much about. I’m not good at it. I am not somebody you should do about de-radicalization anything. So just so you know, but there are there are ways you can do that. Consult with experts, not me because I don’t know. But from my perspective, that’s something you can do.

Another thing that you can do and you should do, and this really annoys everybody.

Okay. So I’m very sorry, but write letters to elected officials, letters like letters, not emails, also emails. Call their offices, like actual phone calls. Again, not emails. A lot of the people who are in charge of offices, political campaigns or just, working with the public in some capacity, respond to phone calls and letters much more than they do to social media and emails. That’s changing, but not very quickly.

That way they get to hear from a variety of voices, because right now, the only people who are showing up at school board meetings or who are writing letters to elected officials, or, sending emails, making calls are people on the far right. Because they understand that is an excellent way to get elected officials to do what they want. So they’re hijacking democracy to end democracy. So what you need to do is use democracy to save it so that maybe we can make it better later. Hopefully really soon actually, because democracy is in really bad shape right now. And it really needs a lot of help. But the way you help it is by participating in it.

So letters to elected officials. Yes. Also emails. Yes. Also social media. Make phone calls also newsrooms. If your local news organization is doing something like our local weekly put out this thing about how Antifas are the real fashion last year, sometime in the middle of all these Black Lives Matter protests and the White Aryan Resistance counter-protest, where all the white supremacists will come out and, create spectacles. This article comes out in the middle of it.

They got a ton of pushback for it. And I’m glad that they did. That’s what you need to do, because if it happens again and again, you at least have established a pattern and you can know who’s credible and who’s not. Keep lists of known white supremacists in your community that you never know when that’s going to be helpful.

Don’t weaponize those lists, just keep keep track of them for your safety so that you don’t inadvertently put yourself in a position where you’re beginning of a fist fight on camera during a school board meeting with one of them or something like that. But also extend that model to state, to regional, state, and federal politics. We currently have people in office who are responsive to the concerns of the people. So take advantage of that because right now, I think that the next big disinformation campaign is going to be what we were subjected to, my age group was subjected to in the nineties, which was —now, I know it’s a disinformation campaign – at the time. I thought it was spontaneous. Some of it was, but a lot of it was disinfo, which was don’t bother. It’s not going to matter anyway.

Disheartenment is a major disinformation vector. It’s very easy to dishearten people. It’s actually more effective in some ways than smears. Because then you’re doing all the work. Somebody tells you it’s not worth it. Then you just do it to yourself. Oh yeah. I guess it’s not worth it after all. It is worth it. Use participatory democracy. Use it while you got it, because we may not have it.

I know democracy is not perfect. I know American-style democracy has a long way to go. I understand that. My whole life has been dedicated to criticizing it, poking holes in it, showing people where it’s wrong so we can make it right again.

But it’s also the best thing we got. Cause I sure as hell don’t want to live in an authoritarian and/ or fascist society any more than I already have. I gotten a taste of it and it sucks. That’s what you have to do. But make sure that you speak out, use your voice because now more than ever with information and disinformation, warring, as Alex Jones says, there is a war on for your mind, sadly more for your vote or your lack of vote, but still, that’s where it starts.

And, just be aware of that. Be aware that your own personality traits are potential strengths and weaknesses in disinformation campaigns and act accordingly. If somebody is telling you something that you think might be disinformation or weaponized somehow, double check it. If it raises a great big emotion in you double check it. If you think that maybe you were just wrong all along about everything. Double check it. Those things do happen. Just double check is all I’m saying and participate in democracy.

That’s building resilience and building resilience is what we have to do because these attacks, as you pointed out it started, so a lot of these techniques are Russian. A lot of the psychographic stuff, the fire hosing, gaslighting at scale, a lot of that was developed by the Kremlin because it was developed by, they knew they would have to be nimble and possibly not, run on a lot of money. And they started developing these techniques.

SHEFFIELD: They were trying to destabilize societies on the cheap.

BINKOWSKI: And it’s working. But it’s also very easy to imitate when you see it in action and recognize it for what it is. It’s easy to recognize, but it’s also easy to imitate. If you’re a bad person and you see a bunch of people lying and it’s working, nobody can recognize disinformation, like a disinformation purveyor. That’s the worst part of all. They know what they’re doing. They’re the ones who are getting people sucked into it. It’s like the people who are pushing disinfo the hardest are the ones who don’t believe it until they do. And then it gets them the worst in the end.

But yeah, that’s what it was for, to destabilize. That’s what it’s being used for now. And it’s so much easier for anybody to do it now. It’s been democratized by social media.

SHEFFIELD: But the good thing is it’s been democratized to fight it also.

BINKOWSKI: Yes. And you can fight it in the same way on social media. You can fight it on its own turf by brigading, by fighting the lies, by drowning out the nonsense, by refusing to engage in it. Don’t let those, the people saying the lies, be the loudest voices on social media. We can drown them out. Oh, and the other thing that you can do is support journalism, support good journalism, wherever you find it, fight for it, fight for the voices that you trust that you know are credible.

I’ve been on this kick for ages that Facebook in particular, not just Facebook, but Facebook in particular, and Google and Twitter should forced yearly to pay into newsrooms to make up for what they have taken from us over the years. I’d like to see people pushing for that.

I don’t like telling people to subscribe to newspapers and things like that, because I know that money is tight. And I also know how much of that money gets skimmed off by advertising and by the publishers themselves.

SHEFFIELD: And executives who do nothing.

BINKOWSKI: Those executives, the news nemesis, ugh!

Yeah. All right, well I really appreciate you being here today with me, Brooke. And it’s been a great chat and let me just put up your information. So, Brooke Binkowski is the managing editor of Truth or Fiction. And on Twitter, she is @BrooklynMarie. That’s Brooklyn, just like the part of New York and that’s M-A-R-I-E for those listening. Thanks for being here.

BINKOWSKI: Thank you so much for having me and look forward to talking to you again soon.

SHEFFIELD: Great!

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.