Symposium explores Internet’s effect on news, politics, and trust

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At the first panel (from left) Greta Van Susteren, Bret Stephens, Scott Carpenter, Glenn Thrush, and Eliana Johnson. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Journalist Kurt Eichenwald has received many vicious Tweets about articles he’s written for Newsweek, but a particularly disturbing one came in response to a story he did on epilepsy, he told the audience at the “Truth in the Internet Age” symposium on Nov. 9.

Noting that Eichenwald has epilepsy, the Tweeter suggested he watch a certain video. The enclosed link led to a strobe meant to induce an epileptic seizure. (Luckily, Eichenwald said, he was unharmed.)

The journalist told his story during a session titled “Hate and Conspiracy: Where’s the Civility in Civil Discourse?” — one of three panels held during “Truth in the Internet Age,” which also included an interview with Law School Dean Robert Post. Former Fox news anchor Greta Van Susteren moderated the symposium.

The Law School auditorium was packed for the 2.5-hour event, and the conversation touched upon a range of topics. Here are just a few:

Anonymity and aggression: Many of the journalists noted that they had also been at the receiving end of personal attacks on social media. “Hate and Conspiracy” panelist Tanzina Vega of CNNMoney read a slur-riddled message she’d received just that day. Glenn Thrush of Politico, part of the panel titled “Fact vs. Opinion: Blurred Lines,” said he receives so many insults on social media he calls himself a “troll-encrusted human being.” The exception was “Hate and Conspiracy” panelist Graeme Wood of The Atlantic, who said he rarely received insulting messages from readers, but attributed that to the fact that he is a straight, white male who writes about Isis — a topic unlikely to inspire Western readers to attack him personally.

The anonymity the Internet affords only feeds this aggression, the journalists agreed. Vega commented that half of the people who say cruel things on social media likely wouldn’t “when confronted with the person in real life.” However, the general consensus was that, while removing anonymity on the Internet might temper this aggressive behavior, anonymity is so deeply engrained in Internet culture it is extremely unlikely it could be eliminated now.

Information vs. trust. Because it gives people instant access to a vast amount of information, the Internet has spawned a society where people think they have all the answers “so they don’t trust the experts,” said Post, during his interview with Van Susteren — noting that this mindset particularly frustrates members of the medical profession. This “anti-expertise” attitude has also increased people’s distrust of the government, he said, adding that this is worrisome since “a society without trust cannot govern itself.”

During the “Fact vs. Opinion” panel, Eliana Johnson of the National Review argued that such skepticism is not wholly unwarranted, given how often experts are wrong in their predictions. Numbers and facts can be misleading, she said, “The fundamental problem is that the people whose job it is to understand America really don’t understand Americans all that well.”

Greta Van Susteren, formerly of Fox News, moderated the symposium. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Facts vs. journalism. Several speakers noted that the Internet has changed how people consume news. In the past, there were limited news outlets featuring trusted journalists (such as Walter Cronkite), and now, there are ever-multiplying online news sources offering diverse perspectives, yet people limit themselves to only those outlets that reinforce their own worldview.

“Fact vs. Opinion” panelist Scott Carpenter of Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas) said he was even more worried about how the Internet has affected “the practice of journalism at this difficult time.” His fellow panelist Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal agreed with that sentiment. “So much of what goes by the name of journalism today is opinion,” Stephens said, quoting an editor who said the opinion section was “the most honest section of the newspaper” because “we announce that it’s opinion.”

Thrush noted that there are “radically different ways from a partisan perspective in this country in which people view facts and view the news media.” He referenced a study showing that fewer than 45% of conservatives trust the media in any way, while more than 80% of progressives do.

“To me, truth is an aggregation and synthesis of facts. … Facts plus thought equals truth,” said Thrush, adding that the media needed to do a better job of incorporating facts “into a larger truth.”

Vega said that “the lack of diversity in newsrooms has hurt [the media’s] credibility” by limiting the perspectives journalists bring to their subjects. For example, she said, while most journalists would agree that the media should pay more attention to the anger of the white working class, they do not think about the working class as including “black and brown and people of color.”

Politics and the Internet. The symposium was held the day after the presidential election, so much of the conversation focused on Donald Trump’s winning campaign.

Thrush noted that, when pressed about the validity of a statement Trump had just made, the candidate would usually say he found the information on the Internet. “He gathers information the way your mother would on Facebook,” said Thrush, describing the tactic as “the weaponization of mis-information.”

Johnson described Trump as a “Rorsharch test … people see whatever they want” and said “the media created him and fueled his rise.” Stephens agreed with this assessment, contending that the media often did “the favor of interpreting into coherence” some of the candidate’s jumbled statements. Nevertheless, Stephens said, “The perception among ordinary Americans that the media was on Hillary’s side was right.”

Student panel

The final panel of the evening featured four students: Josh Altman of The Buckley Program, which aims to promote intellectual diversity on campus; Madeline Colbert of The Politic, an undergraduate publication focusing on important policy issues; Abrar Omeish of the Muslim Students Association, which both provides a supportive Muslim environment and promotes education about Islam; and Arturo Pineda of Down, a publication by and for students of color.

Much of the discussion centered on the debates taking place at Yale and other college campuses about free speech. Altman noted that a student paper recently surveyed 25 students of various political beliefs and concluded that conservative opinions were generally not welcome on campus. While he felt free to express his political point of view in the classroom, Altman said, those views were often not taken seriously or attacked on social media.

Noting that Facebook has played a big role in how their generation talks about the news and develops political opinions, Colbert said, “Our very understanding of what is news, based on our Facebook feeds, differs from each other.” This, she suggested, often leads to an “anxious and angry way of talking amongst each other on Facebook, because our versions of reality are different.”

A member of the audience asked the panelists whether anonymous online communication was more or less truthful than face-to-face conversation. While eliminating anonymous online accounts might be one way to curb online aggression, Altman said, he believes a big question in the coming decades will be whether social media companies have the right to restrict speech, or whether that violated the First Amendment.

Omeish commented that face-to-face communication “makes us soften and temper” our conversations, but that also gives her hope “about what human interaction could be like.” Ideally, she said, it won’t lead to people feeling they can’t express their views for fear of offending another, but can instead “learn to do that kindly.”

Pineda recalled a face-to-face conversation he had with a “die-hard Republican” classmate during the campus unrest last fall. The two talked for three hours about “systemic racism and our lived experiences,” he said.

“Did we reach an agreement? We did not,” Pineda told the audience. “But the point of our discussion was to have a discussion … to listen to each other’s point of view and give each other the benefit of the doubt.”

Salovey and Shades

After the final panel, President Peter Salovey spoke to the audience members, expressing his hope that they had been energized by the depth and breadth of the evening’s discussions and would continue them in the days and weeks ahead.

“Sadly, we live in a fracturing world,” he said. “We can’t afford to splinter into groups of narrow self-interest.” Universities, he added, have the “opportunity and obligation” to be places that encourage people “to speak our minds and to listen.”

The evening concluded with a performance of “We Shall Overcome” by the undergraduate a cappella group Shades.

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