Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana, where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission because victory for Louisiana requires you.
I'm your host Lynda Woolard. On this episode, I have a delightful conversation with Louisiana author Sam Spitale about his brand new illustrated guide book, How to Win the War on Truth. We talked through his multi year quest to weave together a primer that ranges from deadly serious to whimsical - on politics, history, psychology, the forces of power and media literacy - to create a roadmap for Americans to become better informed voters and better equipped purveyors of truth. Be sure to check out the links in our episode notes for where to buy the book, and get more information.
Sam's Spitale! Thank you so much for joining me on Louisiana Lefty today.
Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.
We are here to talk about your new book How to Win the War on Truth. But I always start the podcast with how I met my guest. And we met on Instagram through I guess a mutual friend, Dylan Field Turner, who knows you from your hometown, Amite, Louisiana.
That's where our current governor is from, by the way. And apparently according to Dylan, your grandfather owned an oyster bar and was a great boogie woogie piano player.
Yeah. Spitale's Oysters was a bar I kind of grew up in. My great grandpa maybe started it. And then I guess the last owner was my uncle, Guy, who did play the piano and actually cut an album or two way back in the day. The building's still there, but I'm not sure what it is anymore. But yes, Spitale's Bar.
Well, what's your origin story with how you ended up where you are today writing a book on winning the war on truth?
So my political origin is probably not very typical of most people back home. I've always been a registered Independent. When I was 18, I did not know the difference between a Republican and Democrat. So I checked independent. And I actually did not learn the difference for at least 10 years after that.
Growing up, I was more politically averse. But I was intellectually curious about the world. And so I always read a ton of books. I worked in a library as my first job. I always read a ton of psychology, neuroscience, socio-economics, inequality, you know, stuff like that. And I still read a ton. So by the time I took an interest in politics, as an adult, and began to understand the difference between the two parties, I was a little dumbfounded to learn that they were not two equal groups arguing about the best way to solve society's problems. One group seemed to be proposing solutions based on science and data, and dealing with real world problems. And then the other group was coming from a place of belief about how they think the world works or how they want the world to work or how it should work. So essentially, denying there was a problem, like global warming, or trying to keep a problem from getting solved, like rising healthcare costs, or solving problems that didn't exist, like voter fraud.
So when you when you read as much as I do, I feel like there's very little disagreement among experts in a given field. You know, there's just science and for the most part, most of them agree that we have this problem or that problem. The debate should really be in how to solve stuff. But when that information leaves academia and enters the public sphere, science meets resistance. So suddenly, these established facts are now contested or denied, and they become partisan. And why is there resistance to facts? Because it threatens someone's business interests or political power. Like the fact that cigarettes cause cancer or burning fossil fuels causes global warming, you know, there's no disagreement among scientists, and there never was. It was the tobacco industry scientists that discovered the link between cigarettes and cancer. It was the oil company scientists who discovered that they were causing global warming. There was no disagreement, there was only the illusion of disagreement, financed by the oil and gas industry or Big Tobacco. It was even the same public relations companies that sowed that confusion.
So without having been raised in either political tribe - my parents weren't very political either - I wasn't partial to either party, which I feel like made it pretty easy to cast a critical eye on both, without any of those tribal tendencies getting in the way. And then I came to understand that, you know, many of those political beliefs that we grew up with in the South, and most of the country, like tax cuts stimulating the economy or welfare queens mooching off the system, you know, most of that stuff originated from one side of the political spectrum. And in South Louisiana, where I grew up, these myths just pervade the landscape. They're not political myths, they're just cultural myths. The line between politics, culture, and religion is just so blurred.
And so I think relocating to California after college helped me see past a lot of these beliefs for what they are, as they don't have quite the same cultural hold on the west coast. So I feel like a lot of these beliefs are like believing in Santa Claus: once you understand who creates that belief, and what purpose it serves, you never go back to believing in Santa, you know, these myths lose their power. So as I grew out of believing a lot of these things, I guess I kind of expected other people to do so too, you know, as they become an adult and see the world, to understand things aren't like we're often raised to believe. So many friends and family back home never grew out of these beliefs.
So over the years, I kind of became fascinated with understanding, not only why we hold so many of these beliefs that are not true, but who sold us these beliefs in the first place, you know, who benefits by us believing them? And traditionally, that's been the political right. And, you know, my view of politics I guess it's kind of academic. What I think a lot of people don't understand is that the entire left/right orientation dates back to the French Revolution, when King Louis XVI called a meeting to handle the country's fiscal crisis, all the power brokers and moneyed interests who agreed with the king assembled to his right, and then the lower and middle class laborers who disagreed with the monarchy assembled to his left. And so that division between left and right is virtually the same today.
So these myths or propaganda, you know, come from the powerful, who are traditionally on the right. And that started with the Catholic Church who coined the term propaganda, which literally means "spreading the faith," not spreading the truth, or spreading facts, but spreading things they want us to take on faith. And that's because at the time the church was trying to fight something that threatened its power, which was Protestantism. And over time, that right wing power structure gave way to monarchies and aristocracies. And during the Middle Ages, when the merchants and craftspeople began climbing the rungs of society, from lower class to middle class, that same power structure felt threatened. So what did they do? They created corporations as a way to control the growing middle class and maintain their power.
That leads us to today, you know, the right wing is the ruling class of corporations and the billionaires who control them, or in the simplest of terms, the 1%. And the left wing is traditionally comprised of the poor and the rest of the workforce, or the 99%. And if you look at their voting records or policies, regardless of what they claim, they align exactly like that. A policy either benefits one group or the other. Labor gets a wage increase, or the corporation gets awarded more wealth. You know, each policy decision can benefit only the 1% or the 99%. You know, who benefits by universal health care? The 99%. Who benefits by for-profit healthcare? The 1%. You know, the same is true with student loan debt. Who benefits by forgiving student loan debt? The 99%. Who benefits by burdening students with debt? Only the financiers and the financial interests.
So the reason most people don't think of the Left and Right this way today is a testament to me of how successful the forces of power have been in shaping public opinion, selling the public the point of view of the 1% in order to defeat the 99%. And this looks like all the stuff we currently identify with politics: identity politics, anti-government sentiment, racial resentment, welfare myths, you know, literally anything that keeps the 99% fighting each other so that the anger is not directed towards the power class that deserves it. And so the only people who really benefit by right wing politics is the oligarchy corporatocracy. They are literally the only ones. And I still believe that the main reason the general public doesn't see things this way is because we are so indoctrinated and misled by years and years of political myths and bullshit that benefit only the power class. I know that's a very long answer.
Well, it sounds like you came to politics from an academic way almost.
Kind of, yeah. I was not indoctrinated growing up with anything besides just the beliefs themselves, like never knowing what they were associated with, or what voting left or right meant or any of that.
So do you have other career highlights you can point to that have kind of led you to the space you're in today?
My professional origin story, you know, I grew up in Amite, like you said. I graduated from Amite High. I went to college at LSU where I graduated from the Manship School of Mass Communication. My Bachelor's focus was in advertising with a minor in psychology. So I've always been interested in media and psychology. I went on to grad school and got a master's in media management. And while I was in grad school, I interned in the marketing department of Casino Rouge in Baton Rouge. And then I interned in Public Relations at Lucasfilm, and was very fortunate to get a job in licensing at Lucasfilm after I graduated from grad school. And so licensing and product development had also been an interest of mine, as well as storytelling and film.
And as I've gotten older, my interest, you know, began to change a bit as the world we lived in, began to change. So I left Lucasfilm in 2014, to focus on my own creative projects, film and TV scripts, which were more story driven, but also journalism, which I feel like has become more and more important since 2016. And, you know, to me, I kind of see storytelling as a fictionalized form of journalism, like they're both concerned with getting to the truth at the heart of the human experience. They just go about it in very different ways. But you know, you're never going to see a movie where the corporation is the hero and the poor people struggling to pay rent are the bad guys. So the tools of storytelling I feel like help you see the real world in the proper way.
Okay. I just finished your book, How to Win the War on Truth. I really liked it. A couple of nuts and bolts questions I had: What made you decide to write this book now?
I guess I've been toying with the idea since 2016. It came out of so many conversations with family and friends. You know, after the election, there was just so much information during that year, or so much misinformation, which to me was pretty obvious. But the more I talked to people back home, the more I realized just how many friends and family just believe stuff that wasn't true -- crazy stuff, but also just the typical political myths that we're so indoctrinated with. So I kind of became obsessed with how to penetrate those barriers of belief. How do we help people see the bigger picture and see beyond whatever they've believed for so long and see how those beliefs are manufactured and sold to us? And so I decided, you know, the answer is equal part a crash course in media literacy, equal part psychology lesson, equal part understanding the forces of power who benefit by everything. And taken together, I hope it's a learning tool for critical thinking. So, yeah, it came out in 2016. I just kept toying with the idea and playing with it, and then eventually turned it into a book proposal and sold the book idea.
Those things are all inter woven in there. And it's also an illustrated guide. How did that come about?
I kind of always pictured the book illustrated, because I knew there needed to be a graphic component, like the learning tool, the critical thinking tool in the book, I felt like you really needed the visual of that to help break things down. And so I kind of thought the book could either be like, fully illustrated. There's a great book on economics called Economix, and it's like an illustrated history of world economics. And it's brilliant. And so that was an inspiration for the book. So I figured it could either go in that direction, or like spot illustrations, like a Randall Munroe book or something. The publisher and agent all thought illustrated was the way to go to make it more accessible and provide a healthy dose of whimsy and humor, that otherwise the dry topics might not have. And I wanted it to be more fun and have a sense of irony, kind of like political op ed cartoons and stuff. And so, yeah, so I think it worked.
Yeah, it comes across. And there is a ton of data in there, a lot of charts and graphs. You don't have footnotes, but there is a huge bibliography in the back.
That's actually a small bibliography, because the original one was like, at the first version was 80 pages. So that got trimmed to like 30 pages, and the redundancy taken out. And so there's still a bigger bibliography. They're supposed to put it on the website. So there's, like 800 sources total. There's yeah, there's so much data in that book. We ran out of room to put it all in the back.
As I told you, I got both the paperback book and the audio book, and you talked to me about that a little bit, because you're taking an illustrated book and making an audio book out of it. So that was quite a feat as well, right?
Yeah. Well, were you able to enjoy both? Like, did they feel a little different? Or do they feel the same?
I enjoyed both. And the way I approached it was I kind of went back and forth between them. There were a few times when I tried to listen to the audiobook and follow it as I was looking at the book, and you could do that. But I also kind of when I'd be driving, I'd be listening to the book, and I'd come home, I'd read the book. I was trying to do this all very quickly, so that facilitated me doing that, right? The audio book is great, by the way, I thought the narrator was really good.
I haven't listened to it yet, but I need to. I have it. I just haven't had a chance. But I tried to put a lot into the audio book that didn't make it into the book. I squeezed in a lot more examples in the audio that I wasn't able to put in the book, but you lose all the pictures. So I know there's a downloadable document at the end of the audio book, right, a PDF with some illustrations?
The narrator did mention that a couple of times, but I haven't been able to find it.
I need to look and see which pictures ended up making it. So the book, honestly, started out as a PowerPoint presentation in the very first draft to kind of teach these lessons. I was like, "Alright, I don't know what I'm doing with this, maybe this is a class or seminar or workshop or maybe this is just a presentation for friends who were frustrated with other friends who believe all the bullshit... you know, why do we believe all of this bullshit?" And so it started out as a presentation. And then I turned that into a manuscript. And then I turned that into the book proposal. And I sold the book proposal. And then we had to turn the manuscript into a graphic novel script, which is kind of like a screenplay script, but with art direction. You break down the panels and the pages, and then you have to give the artist direction on what you want to draw per panel. And then we got to the graphic novel script. And that took a lot of time, breaking things down, trying to figure out, you know, which charts go where and how much we can squeeze in on a page. And then once the audio book contract came in, then we kind of had to reverse engineer it back to a prose manuscript. But this time, it needed the final copy from the book, which changes a lot in the editing process. And then things I had cut out, I added, and then tried to describe the information in the graphics for the audio to get the information back into word as opposed to charts.
It works, by the way. It worked really well.
I'm glad to hear that. I want to listen to the audio book. And we rearranged a few things in the audio book. Because again, without the pictures, I felt like, you know, the order needed to shift a little bit. It was a lot of work, several years in the making, and I'm very excited to be able to share it with people.
There's so much information in there, I can believe it took a long time to do. Let's get into the info you share, because it is meaty. So we obviously can't cover it all. And why would we want to? Because people should buy the book. But you start with the story of Hot Coffee, which I think was fascinating. There's a great documentary about that, that I actually will also put in the Episode Notes when I post this. But this story is about the elderly woman that almost everybody's heard of the story about, the elderly woman that bought coffee at McDonald's and burned herself. And the way that was packaged and sold to the public veers crazily off from what that story is.
Everybody thought that that was probably the perfect example to start the book with because, you know, to this day, every single person has the wrong impression of the Hot Coffee story that I've talked to -- friends, family, everyone. It's not a left/right thing. I remember when it happened like a little, or I remember us talking about it in college at the time, and didn't know much about it. But again, it was more just the joke like, "Oh, somebody spills hot coffee and..." so as a society, we have this impression of what it is, and it's just so not the real story. It's the spin McDonald's sold us. And it was part of a bigger movement, not to get rid of questionable lawsuits, but to excuse corporate behavior, you know, for corporations that manufacture hazardous products, or sloppy sales, that they get out of paying money in lawsuits. And that's what it was really about. And you know, and that's why the coffee example is so indicative of the bigger picture. Yeah, we believe things that serve only the wealthiest of corporations. And the little man is screwed. Yeah, the documentary is great. That documentary is great. I highly recommend it. I think it's called Hot Coffee.
It is called Hot Coffee. And the thing about that is it really goes into how we've ended up with the judiciary system we've ended up with, so it's a really good documentary.
Yeah. And people when people see those images, they're not the highest quality images. But you can find the pictures online of Stella Liebeck's burns, and they are just eye opening. I mean, they're scary looking.
I don't think I remembered from the documentary, it might be in there, but you mentioned how they had already been sued multiple times, just because they kept their coffee at this excruciatingly high temperature. Why didn't they just put the temperature down? It's so bizarre.
I don't know, either. But yeah, they had paid out like 800 incidents, or things they had to pay out, and I don't know why they didn't. I don't kno, if it's just like a corporate behemoth and until they have to really pay money, they don't change their ways. It usually takes government intervention, regulation, or a lawsuit before companies correct course, even when doing so would be very easy. There's no reason the coffee had to be as scalding hot as a car's radiator. It makes no sense. Because even a Keurig or home brewing is not nearly that hot.
You give a lot of great political history lessons in this book. Interestingly, there's this fella named Edward Bernays that comes up a lot, related to Sigmund Freud.
Yeah, Freud's nephew.
Well, tell us who he is. And I want to know, is he a villain in the war on truth?
You know, even Bernays had, like, some standards. But Bernays really was, I guess, the grandfather of American PR. Freud, you know, was kind of the grandfather of psychology or psychoanalysis, and Bernays, his nephew applied those insights into modern public relations, advertising, marketing, basically selling the people stuff that they either didn't need, or selling us ideas that weren't acceptable at the time. And so he really kind of started the modern advertising industry. And, you know, he definitely sold us stuff we didn't need, like getting women to smoke cigarettes at a time when only men smoked. And, yeah, his writings, you know, are about manipulating the public. I don't think he saw it as manipulating the public for evil. I think he saw it as influencing public opinion, so that, you know, we buy stuff. It definitely worked. We buy all kinds of stuff, even when we think advertising doesn't work. Or we think it's obvious, it's not always that obvious. Bernays really pioneered publicity stunts. He pioneered celebrity endorsements. He even influenced regulation and stuff, like when women started cutting their hair in the 20s, the hairnet industry was losing money. So if women weren't buying hair nets, because they had long hair, what else? Why else could we sell hair nets? And so he convinced health officials to require hair nets to keep hair out of food, so even manipulating the government in that way to sell product.
It's kind of crazy, but his tactics have just become so insidious when you have bad political actors and misinformation outlets, and propaganda outlets, that do nothing but manipulate the people. Whereas Bernays was kind of more benign, I feel like today, a lot of the political lies are way closer to Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebles. His main three directives were manipulate/appeal to negative emotions, direct anger at an adversary, and repeat the falsehoods. That's all you're getting right now from Fox News, from a lot of websites that claim to be news. I mean, everything from Infowars to Breitbart adhere very closely to Nazi propaganda tactics. And the lies are kind of the first start, selling lies as truth, repeating lies enough where people believe them. You know, that's the root of fascism. That's kind of how we got fascism.
You also talk a lot, in addition to politics and history, you talk a lot about, as you mentioned, psychological ideas like heuristics and priming. How do those play a part in this?
And implicit bias. Yeah, you know, priming, you know, the welfare abuse myth comes to mind, because growing up in the South, it's a real racial belief. And so if you hear this belief in the South, that minorities abuse the welfare system, that's priming. And so, if you grew up hearing that, then that's all you're ever going to notice. You're going to notice minorities who seem to be abusing the system, whether they are or not. And you fail to notice all of the white people on welfare, which is the vast majority of welfare recipients. And you fail to notice welfare helping people survive and helping people escape poverty and feeding the hungry. All the other narratives that are part of the social safety net get ignored. If you're only primed with that one narrative, "Oh, there's abuse...." I have the percentage in the book but even back during the welfare queen heyday, when all these lies were being promoted, like welfare abuse was like 1%, or something, you know, like, it was nothing. There are way bigger problems than that. It's miniscule, you know, people mooching off welfare is miniscule. But if we're primed to notice it, we think it's bigger than it is.
A lot of the political lies these days, you know, the first time you hear them, that's priming, and then every time you hear it, that's confirmation bias. And so, you know, eventually you believe it's true, even if it's not. I mentioned in the book, the availability heuristic, like again, if you hear the word welfare your mind may immediately go to welfare abuse, or someone abusing the system. And that's just an example of the availability heuristic where we think of whatever the most readily available narrative that we've heard repeated, regardless of if it's true, accurate, or complete falsehood.
And you talk about how emotion and repetition really play a role in propaganda.
Yeah, emotion is so important. I kind of feel like emotional awareness, emotional intelligence and psychology, I feel like should be a part of school curriculums from the time we go to kindergarten or first grade until we graduate. Because the self awareness that we lack, that you really only get if you go to therapy, or if you read psychology, you just never become self aware of your emotional reactions, the emotional undercurrent to a lot of our choices or decisions. You know, there are studies that show that emotional intelligence is more important to success and life satisfaction than regular intelligence, than IQ. And so one of the biggest ways that we can become aware is recognizing and labeling our emotions, and especially the negative emotions, not just when someone pisses us off, or not just in controlling our own reactions to life, but noticing when politicians and pundits are trying to negatively arouse us, either by making us angry at some type of outgroup, or minority group or making us spiteful about certain people. Any negative emotion that is directed towards a group of people who are not in our own tribe is usually a very clear indication of manipulation. And that's all you get from some of these right wing media outlets these days.
So, it occurred to me pretty much all advertising and political messaging is spin. When does it cross from spin into propaganda?
Well, I feel like spin is just another name. When I was trying to figure out what we should call the book, spin seemed to be the 90s terminology for propaganda, like so many of the books had spin in the title, and even through the early 2000s. And then the terminology kind of changes, and by the Trump years, it was "post truth." And so I feel like they're always kind of describing the same thing. I feel like propaganda has kind of the umbrella term for all of the bullshit, whether it's lies, misinformation, falsehoods, and you know, they all have small differences. I guess I think of spin as traditionally... I'm trying to think of how you define spin without using spin.
Right. So I think of it as trying to put your message in the best light.
Yes. That's a great definition. That's what I think of it, too. You think of it more as a reactionary, "Oh, this fact has come to light, and now you need to spin it in such a way that it doesn't look badly on you." But that's not even what happens anymore. Now it's just straight denial of the fact. And it's just lies, you know, because so many of the politicians that condemned January 6, now it's even less spinning it and more just denying they said that. It's just a whole other level. It's just flat out lies a lot of the time or misinformation or whatever you want to call it.
You talk about in the book -- and I hear this on social media all the time, people talking about the fairness doctrine. People on both the left and the right bemoan that it doesn't exist anymore, but they seem to bemoan it for different reasons. And I'm wondering, would that even work today? Or would it become a vehicle for both siderism and false equivalencies?
Yeah, I don't know. What's interesting about the fairness doctrine, and for those that don't know, our network news was supposed to provide two sides to hot topics. So if a political pundit came on, and was talking about one side of an issue, then you would have the other party talking about the other side of it. What's unique about the fairness doctrine is that it never had to be enforced. Network news actually adhered to it. And they were pretty fair in how they handled things that they didn't really need it. And so when they tried to put it into proper law, the Reagan administration killed it. And I think a lot of that had to do with... so much goes back to Nixon. Like, it's amazing how much in our modern climate goes back to Nixon. But one of the things that came out of the Nixon White House was they thought Watergate was a PR problem.
We think of Watergate as corruption. You know, Watergate happened, he took responsibility, he left office... Not exactly. His administration thought it was a PR problem. So when you have all of the major news outlets covering Watergate in a very fair and balanced way, and you don't have a network to spin it, the journalism bar worked like it was supposed to. And he eventually had to leave office. And so the idea was that if the right wing could have a media outlet, then they could keep another Nixon from being impeached. And Roger Ailes had his handprints on this, a lot of the political consultants of yesteryear, who are still around, you know, they had this idea, and that ultimately became Fox News.
So when the Fairness Doctrine was struck down, the first thing that happened was right wing radio. So radio wasn't that partisan. And so the first thing that came out in the late 80s was right wing radio, and the right dwarfs the left on the radio by ten to one. And so what you had was all these very partisan, ideologically driven, right wing outlets that came up, like Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh was, to me, pure propaganda. I mean, it was a lot of hate speech, but what is he doing? He's making the listeners angry, he's directing their anger at people on the other team, or whoever it may be. And he was really nasty about it. I mean, he was such a bully. He made them angry, he directed their anger, and he repeated the bullshit constantly.
Some of the books I've read, a lot of that homegrown militia movement came out of right wing radio, because you know, you have these people during the 80s, all they had was anti government sentiment. So during the 80s, it was Reagan's "Government is not the solution, government is the problem." So you had a decade of all this anti government sentiment, then you have right wing radio now, which is brainwashing people into thinking the government's coming for your guns, the government is evil and bad. And then when Clinton got into the White House, it just amped that rhetoric up even more. And so you had all of these disastrous militia movements, like things that were happening in the 90s. And today's, you know, anti government, Proud Boys, Oathkeepers, like all of that is just a further growth of that movement that is egged on by right wing radio, now, that's expanded into the internet and Fox News.
And so you have this complete alternate reality. And even as early as - what was it 2008? - the Bush administration's Department of Homeland Security said that the greatest terrorist threat in America is not Muslims or immigrants, it is lone wolf, right wing white extremist men who basically have been brainwashed. And you saw the culmination of that in January 6. And so it's just so much bigger than it has ever been before. And I honestly don't think you have any of that without right wing radio and TV and Internet. Without anyone selling those ideas, you don't have Paul Pelosi being knocked out with a hammer. I don't know who said it, I've read so much it's hard to remember now, but someone basically said they speak the hate into existence. And I think that's completely true.
If there's a Louisiana Lefty listener who has not yet watched the documentary, The Brainwashing of My Dad, that's another doc I highly recommend.
It's a great one. I don't think the dangers of Fox News can be overstated. Because people think it's news. And it's not. It was never designed to be news. It was designed to basically indoctrinate people with a pro business, right wing agenda. Even in studies by experts who study communication methods, those that are viewed as left wing media adhere to the tenets of journalism, most of the time, and those that are viewed as right wing are little more than propaganda outlets.
So that brings me to this question, and you answered this a little bit when you talked about your political origin story, but as I'm reading the book, it to me seems like it has a liberal slant to it. Is that because truth has a liberal bias, as that saying goes? Or were you tailoring this for a specific audience?
I wasn't tailoring it. And we actually had discussions. I feel like this question has so many answers to it. You know, the first is when we hear the words liberal bias. Again, that's another branding. You know, this message was sold to us from the Nixon White House. "Liberal media" came from military propaganda in the Nixon White House that did not like the news coverage Nixon was getting on the news. So if they could smear the media as having a bias, then they would look at Nixon more favorably. And so I was thinking about this recently, though, if news looks like it has a liberal bias, it's because the job of the media is to hold the powerful accountable, you know, speak truth to power and hold the powerful accountable. And propaganda comes from the powerful, and that originates on the right. An example I like to use... Well, let me step back.
First, I just want to say that's a really great answer.
Oh great. Well, I don't even feel like it hit on what I'm really thinking. The book is not selectively elevating right wing propaganda and ignoring left wing propaganda, but tracing how propaganda has predominantly been a function of power structures, and power structures are right wing by definition, you know, the church and the aristocracy and the monarchy and corporations and Nazi Germany. And so with that speaking truth to power, if power is usually right, then it looks left. And the power in people have to say, "Oh, that's just left," because that's the only way they can deny it.
If you're speaking truth to power, the power can't speak truth back. They have to smear whoever is speaking truth to power. This is an example I was gonna say earlier, another one I use: it's so easy to dismiss news stories that powerful people don't like. No one complains about Fox News because it has a conservative bias. We're complaining about Fox News because they're lying. They're spreading misinformation. We're arguing the facts, basically. But if the right is smearing the left, they're not arguing the facts. They're just saying, "Oh, they're liberal bias." And so because of the way the two sides are arguing, that should tell you everything you need to know.
Liberal and conservative are such emotionally charged labels. I feel like it's better to look at an example. So I like to use this example from the past. Let's imagine you're running an American newspaper in the 1860s. You decide to profile a family that are slaves on a plantation. So your job as the news, as the journalist is to show the people what life is like, what is it that the slave family goes through, and the male of the family has been severely beaten, you know, can barely walk, the female's been raped by the white slave master multiple times and has children of his that he doesn't claim. So let's say this story depicts a grim but accurate representation of slave life. Naturally, the slave master is going to be pissed. So you run that story. That story is true. The slave master demands that you tell his side of the story. So what is his side of the story? It's that all of allegations are false. The workers are well taken care of. We love them just like family. Do you run that story if all he is doing is trying to maintain power? So your story is speaking truth to power. That is why you're running it. You're not running it because it's liberal. You're not running it because it's a left wing agenda. You're running it, because this is journalism, exposing the truth that other people do not want shown the light of day.
Is that a liberal versus conservative point of view? Technically, if you look at the definitions, I guess it is, because, you know, liberal was basically just defined as favoring progress or reform, and protecting the rights of the individual and governmental guarantees of liberty. Whereas conservatism is defined by preserving existing conditions, institutions, and power structures, and restoring traditional ones, i.e. limiting change. And so if you look at things as those two forces, then yeah, technically, it would have a liberal bias. But it's also just reality. And so the terms liberal and conservative to me are just so you know, they use them as labels, but because of branding and bullshit, and PR, I feel like they mean different things in the collective consciousness. Whereas when you go to the dictionary examples, it makes it very clear that one of those sides are usually fighting for things that are trying to make the world a more equal place. And the other is trying to resist that.
That's very helpful framing. We talked in the pre interview video that we did, that'll be on Facebook and YouTube, about Elon Musk buying Twitter. And I feel like he poses a danger to the platform. But because there's so much journalism, reporters media on the platform, I think that in particular is a danger as well. Whereas he professes to be a free speech absolutist, he's discovering that's not the easiest thing, particularly when he has such a fragile ego. In the book, you talked about censorship through noise. And I found that to be an interesting concept, too. I don't think I've ever heard of that before. But I see some of that I feel like on Twitter, where it's almost another way of flooding the zone. Right?
That's basically Steve Bannon. It was through a political scientist, I think in a book where I read about that. And I think the term was created to describe what was happening, I think, in like the Middle East, or these other countries, where if the dictator or whoever, you know, if bad information surfaces about them in the public sphere, or online, instead of denying it, they just flood the zone with all of this noise. You know, focus the hate on someone else, make up stories, distract. And because of the internet, you can do that. Whereas, thirty years ago, if you only had traditional media, that couldn't happen. And so the opportunities for this noise are so vast, and that's what we see happening with election lies, and January 6, and you know, there's just so much noise.
And how does that result in censorship?
Oh, because if there's only one truth teller, but thousands of bullshitters, then the truth teller doesn't stand a chance. Because in the marketplace of ideas, you know, all the bullshit is more heavily subsidized. So it's basically just overpowering the truth tellers with bullshit. And, you know, that's I guess what may be happening on Twitter, depending on who gets a voice and who doesn't.
We spoke earlier this season to someone from the Biden administration that's helping with Biden and Harris's big push to make sure everyone in the country has broadband. And we've thought of the internet as being this great democratizer and getting information to all these people, but I have a lot of people asking me these days, "Is social media a problem? Is it a direct threat to the truth? Is it a direct threat to democracy?" What do you think about that?
I mean, I think so. Partly because, yeah, it democratizes who can have a voice online. And so that gives lots of people a voice that may not have one. But what it also does is enable bad actors to go hog wild with bullshit. And, you know, that is hard to control, but what they can control are the algorithms that show us this stuff. And it's the algorithms more than the medium. That is the problem.
I talk in the book, Barbara F. Walter, How Civil Wars Start, I quote her, it's just a great book if you haven't read it. But basically, she tracks the decline of democracy across the globe to the Facebook algorithm. It was like 2011 when they instituted the new algorithm that instead of showing everything from your peers, whatever you click on and respond to the most, it's going to send you stuff in that direction. And the more it sends you - YouTube does this too - then the more extreme is the content it's sending you. So if you get angry over something, and you spread that, then the algorithm knows, "Oh, send him more angry stuff that makes him angry like that." They're looking for that emotional response. Because that guarantees, you share it, and you get angry, and it's manipulation. And then so you're just going to keep going down that rabbit hole. So before long, you know, you are in that rabbit hole, and you're only getting these posts that make you more extreme. And that's one of the biggest problems. Because I think the vast majority of the Facebook posts now are more crap than news. You know, it's the lies, the distortions that are the most posted because, again, those have the highest level of engagement, because they're making you pissed or angry at somebody.
And it's how a lot of those January 6 insurrectionists found one another.
It puts you in an echo chamber, because the only thing you're getting in your feeds are more lies. I mean, yeah, you should have critical thinking enough to know that this is bullshit. But at the same time, if everywhere you're getting your information is the same message, then the fault's really lying with the handful of bad actors that spend their lives brainwashing you.
And I think that's what we have going on right now with the Republican Party. It's not just that the voters are clueless, and have been misled by years of propaganda and all the modern lies of the Internet age, but that you have a very small group of bad actors at the top that know they're full of shit that know the people they're selling it to are going to buy it and won't know any better. They're just more Machiavellian. And they know how to manipulate people. And that's what they're doing. And I don't know how they stop until something bad happens, like until a Paul Pelosi is murdered.
We've come close, right?
We've come close. And I don't even know if that would do it. Because even seeing the response to what happened to Paul Pelosi, it's appalling. You know, seeing how they're justifying this 80 year old getting beaten with a hammer and a fractured skull is just more fodder for the propaganda mill. I think of it a lot like the 60s. Think of how many people had to be assassinated before things calmed down. And the 60s was more clear cut. I mean, it was basically Black people wanting the same rights as white people, and white people being so bent out of shape about it, they kept killing people. If you really want to put the 60s in the simplest of terms, like that's what happened. You know, Martin Luther King was assassinated, JFK was assassinated. I mean, you look at all of these people, who basically just stood for peace and equality shot down because of white racism and white racists. And I mean, the police, the violence, the protests, you know, I mean, in a word, racism is what it all was, white people not wanting Black people to be able to vote.
So, in your last chapter, where you're starting to talk about what we do about this, one of the things - if I understood you correctly - you propose that to be better consumers of information, we should focus less on what we believe, and more on our core values.
Yeah, Adam Grant is another writer who writes about that. And a lot of times the reasons that it's hard to change our opinions and our beliefs is because they're tied to a tribe or a political party. Instead of being tied to these beliefs, we should be more motivated by our values. So, what's important to us? Is it equality? Is it whatever the value is: honesty, trust, charity, taking care of the poor? Then we adjust our stances or our alignment to reflect the values that are important to us. And, yeah, that's one of the best ways we can clarify our values, and who really embodies that? Or who embodies that by their policies, if we're talking about politics?
I'll say one more thing on that. The thing about values is, they're usually positives. They're a positive value, and a positive emotion. And so, if we're led by that, then I think that would go a long way to helping people vote in the right way. Because if we're voting by negative emotions, punishing a minority, whatever it is, if we're led by a negative emotion, welfare fraud, anti immigrant sentiment, keeping taxes low, like the emotion that underpins those are more negative. And that's usually a sign we're being manipulated.
Fiscal responsibility, or keeping taxes low, I feel like it's the driving factor by so much of our voting habits for at least one side. But, you know, what I like to point out to friends is, you know, what is the emotional value that undercuts that? So like, what is it that drives you to vote to keep your taxes low? Or to be fiscally responsible? What is the emotion that underscores that and what would the opposite party be voting for in the other direction? A robust social safety net? Right, that's why we want to spend more tax dollars? And what is the emotional value that underscores that ? That's charity or concern for the less fortunate or making sure people aren't falling through the cracks of society. And so if you're voting for that, then you're moved to vote for a positive value. You're not moved to vote for a negative value. And the opposite negative value of that would be self interest or greed, if you're voting only to keep your taxes low. That's the difference.
And so why are some people voting for self interest, and other people are motivated to vote for the other thing? And so are you motivated to vote by positive values? Are you motivated by negative values? And to become aware of that, and really consider what that means, who's benefiting by each of those? And so I think that's what it means to vote your values.
Okay, so is individual responsibility, the only way for us to win the war on truth? And by that, I mean, taking responsibility for our own media consumption and information consumption, or is there a way for us to help our family and neighbors reset how they take in information?
Well, you know, you could block Fox News on their TV, with the child controls or whatever. I mean, we definitely have to be responsible. But what I hope the book does is enable people to understand why our friends and family think the way they do and are voting the way they do, so that it may provide a better blueprint on how to show them how they're misled, or why they're misled. I think the answer's probably a little different for each person, depending on what's really driving someone's bias or motivation or whatever.
But even more important than the individual, I think we have to hold the powerful people accountable. You know, we need Facebook to frickin moderate and do a better job, we need accountability for mediums that lie. Like Alex Jones, the decision was definitely in the right direction. But if you have Tucker Carlson or you have these people that are spewing hate speech, and a violent act happens because of it, which, you know, we don't have a strong history of fighting legally in this country. But I think that needs to change. I think you have got to have accountability. If you have that loud of a megaphone, and the words you're spewing incite hate and violence, then you've got to be held accountable, because legal accountability is the only way you're going to get all of these mini Goebels to stop.
I don't know what else the solution is. Fairness Doctrine would be nice, but I don't think it's very realistic. I think accountability for what people say in positions of power. Is there any better example than January 6? And so, you know, you asked all of those people that have been held accountable why did they do what they did, everyone has said the same thing, "My president told me to." The ideas have to come from somewhere. The footman may be carrying out the bad deeds, but someone's planting ideas in their head.
You've mentioned that you speak to friends and family and try to interact on these issues. And I do think that's got to remain part of the equation. Because right now, while we're working towards trying to get accountability, there's people trying to block that accountability from happening. But yeah, a couple of stories: Tim Ryan told the story the other day, that a mayor from an Ohio city stopped him and said, "I really need you to win, because I need to stop hating my neighbors."
And that's a really interesting framing for where we are, politically. I personally have a story where, because I've been hearing about other people on in the media, talking about trying to speak to folks who are really bought into these Q Anon conspiracies and whatnot. I have a doctor who helps me out a great deal, but he's very bought into the MAGA conspiracy theories. And I engaged in conversation the other day, just to dip my toe in the water. And I thought, "Lynda, this is insane, you're not changing this person's mind." But the thing that I found on the other side of the conversation is they at least said to me, "Well, I can have a conversation with you, and you were able to speak to me rationally and calmly and kindly without putting me down." And I thought, "Well, at least I walk away from that guy with him thinking, 'that's a Democrat, that's a liberal. That's not a demon. That's a human.'" And I think that's part of where some of this has to keep heading.
Yeah, I agree. It's just, there's just so much hate speech and demonizing going on. Because it's not just that the conspiracy theories are that people are believing in aliens visiting or something apolitical, it's that the conspiracy theories are directed at vulnerable people, and to someone's benefit. And so the division it's sows in society at large is just dangerous. And that's why it's closer to Nazi Germany, because this is what basically you know, they were doing to direct anger at the Jews except here it's -- well hell, it's at the Jews here too these days, as well as immigrants. Immigrants were the scapegoat in 2016.
But whatever the group is, if it's a vulnerable group, they don't have power. And so when these people stir up hatred, and conspiracy theories, and lies, you know, there's nothing easier in the world than just to hate somebody who's different. And so if people in power, our leaders or people with megaphones, are getting us to do that, that's just super dangerous. And so we have to resist it. And we have to hold them accountable for spewing hate speech. You know, it's the ones with power and a voice that really need to be held accountable for what they're disseminating.
Is there anything else besides the book that you're working on right now that you want people to know about?
At the moment? It's just the book.
That's quite a lot. It's very clear you put a lot of time into that book.
Yes. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
I highly recommend it!
Yeah, I'm glad you listened to the audiobook as well, because that's really great to hear.
Well, let me get to the last three questions I ask a version of every episode. And I think I want to ask you what you think our biggest obstacle for truth is right now.
The biggest obstacle for truth is partisan media to me. I think partisan media, it's really hard, with such a megaphone, you know, no amount of clearing up the message is going to work if the partisan outlet never clears up the message. So that's why I think you just have to hold them accountable. I think that's the that's the most dangerous to me, the biggest megaphones that do not correct themselves. I think it's the biggest problem, because there is just so much bullshit. To a degree, I think you can ignore the online bullshit if it never reaches the bigger outlets.
But at the moment, those bigger outlets are amplifying the bullshit in the smaller outlets, because it fits their agenda. Fox News exists to make money, and to spin a corporate agenda. And if making the viewer angry and hate someone is good for business, then they're going to keep doing it. And that's what that business model has proven. There's a really good book, I'll leave viewers with: Foxocracy is fantastic. Written by Tobin Smith, I think. But somebody was on the inside, and really talks about the marketing strategy and the business strategy and behind the scenes look. It's a fascinating book. But basically, they know exactly what material will incite the audience. They know how many retweets and views they'll get when they post stuff to social media. They know which guests get the most feedback from viewers. It really is a science and a business that's there to make people angry and make the the machine more profitable.
That's a very dark business model.
What's our biggest opportunity for truth?
One thing about the right is they're really good at selling a certain narrative. And the left is not always good with supplying a counter narrative, or more importantly, clearing up that narrative. And I guess the one I'm thinking about at the moment, is about like inflation, when I see some of the politicians on the news, being interviewed about inflation, and they keep trying to tie it back to voting for the stimulus checks but the person they're interviewing about it is not clearing up that misbelief. I mean, the stimulus checks did not cause inflation. Inflation is caused by corporate greed and other factors, but primarily corporate greed. And those measly stimulus checks from two years ago when everybody was unemployed and couldn't pay rent, that did not cause inflation. And so I feel like, you know, correcting the misinformation, but putting it in the right context. The entire world right now is experiencing inflation and our measly stimulus checks from two years ago is not causing inflation in third world countries. I mean, it's just stupid and ludicrous.
And the fact that these people being interviewed can't put out what we're going through in the broader context, it just like baffles me. It's not like we're in this alone. And a lot of times in the news and in politics, it seems like other countries haven't had to deal with these issues before, like we're the first person to ever have this argument. And I feel like you can pretty much kill that argument by just telling what every other country has done to fix this problem, and we don't ever do. But inflation for the moment is the big one. And no one's talking about how corporations are at a 60-70 year high with profits. Inflation is at a 50 year high, but corporate profits are at a 70 year high. And price markups used to be like 30% 50 years ago, 30% of our products cost was markup. And now it's over 60%. These are facts that explain inflation, and arguing whether or not someone should have voted on the stimulus two years ago is just ridiculous.
Katie Porter is the only one I hear making your case there on inflation.
Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, there are a handful, but that they're the outliers is what's so ridiculous. Robert Reich, I follow and he's just brilliant. And I feel like he's spot on the money. But you know, he's not necessarily someone they have on CNN discussing things, which they should because he's a former labor secretary, and he is an economist, and this is what he does for a living. So instead, they're interviewing political pundits that don't have the answer. They have their party spiel, and some are worse than others. They need better representatives out in the media, correcting the lies and misinformation, and it needs to be a party platform, not just on an individual basis. I feel like that's an opportunity that they just seem to be lacking: selling the truth.
Okay. Sam, who's your favorite superhero?
I think Wolverine. I like Wolverine. He's one of my fallback Halloween costumes, so I'm gonna go with him.
I love that. You're the first Wolverine we've had. I love getting the new superheroes.
What's the most popular one you get?
I get Black Panther a lot and Wonder Woman a lot.
Oh, that makes sense. Because we're currently in a cycle where their movies have a little more prominence.
Sure and a lot of women grew up as young girls, Wonder Woman was the one that you saw. Right? That was the first one you saw that you kind of looked up to. But you're right, Black Panther is very of the moment look, but it's also had such a huge impact. The the MCU version of that has had such a big impact on how folks have framed how they they view their own culture. So I think that's been a big one.
But anyway, I so much appreciate your taking the time to speak with me today. I love the book. And I hope people will buy the book and read it because I think it's a really important work.
Thank you. I appreciate you having me and I hope we didn't go too far over.
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