While swiping my way through TikTok, I found a rare voice looking to do more than entertain, imitate or give voice to a mildly annoyed cats. This person was breaking down interviews and media moments, not to be snarky, but to help all of us better navigate through the seemingly overwhelming amount of misinformation, disinformation and outright conspiracy theories getting fed through the unsuspecting and often unprepared, media.
Evan Thornburg, who goes by the name @gaygtownbae on TikTok, took an interview between Jon Stewart and Oklahoma State Senator Nathan Dahm for Stewart’s show The Problem with Jon Stewart and showed how Stewart is so good at what he does, calling BS on someone trying to push an agenda.
While I am always in awe of how Stewart can pick apart a bad argument, Thornburg turned the tables on Stewart and revealed how and why Stewart is so masterful at what he does. Thornburg showed that Stewart is less a super genius (apologies to Stewart) and more a super prepared interviewer who was aware of the tools used by those intent on misinforming, disinforming and spreading conspiracy theories. See the TikTok below to show what I mean. In the clip, Dahm was using an anecdote to sway the conversation and Stewart knew that anecdotes are used because they stick closely to an actual truth without being completely true or completely false.
@gaygtownbae #stitch with @kryptomovies1977 the most important point in combatting disinformation in this interview. #misinformation #bioethics #publichealth #thesis #debunking #fyp #politics #interview ♬ The Champion – Lux-Inspira
With that in mind, I wanted to hear from Thornburg to see if local journalists could learn some of the same tools, so they, too, could be super prepared for an interview. Because, as Thornburg points out, misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories are a threat to public health and should be addressed as a symptom and danger to our communal health.
TVSpy: Tell me about yourself?
Thornburg: I am a public health professional who specializes in health equity. Basically I redesign systemic public health practices, programs, data/surveillance collection, and initiatives to better provide access and support for vulnerable and marginalized populations. I work in communicable disease, specifically HIV and have gotten to work on COVID, so a lot of my current work has been extensively impacted by misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories. Knowing so much about the history of HIV in public health and then getting the opportunity to work on COVID gave me a unique perspective in seeing the long term affects misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories have on public health professionals’ ability disrupt epidemic, syndemic, and endemic disease. Long after many in the media had moved on from the excitement of reporting on the controversies that disinformation stirs, public health workers are left with combating stigma and the confusing or abusive legislation/policy that was created from the reactionary politics due to inundation of disinformation into general public forum.
You broke down what Jon Stewart did in his interviews or, in particular, the interview he did with the Senator Dahm about gun control. How can local TV folks do the same when faced with word salad, stories and maybe even outright lies?
First and foremost, I really would desire to see more journalism/news media interrogate the “who and why” when offering a platform. John Stewart did a great job of combatting his guest’s attempts at steering the conversation or dispersing disinformation, but the question still is; are there better guests he could have had that would have educated his audience more about the truth of the issues? Absolutely. Watching an hour of a disinformation creator get dunked on can be cathartic to some extent, but it does not change an audience’s knowledgeability or engagement with the issues. News should want to inform, educate, and stir to action on the topics that are covered.
If someone is getting the word salad run around from a guest, don’t follow them down their rabbit hole, you acquiesce the center point of the conversation that way and then it is in their control not yours. Arguing with a guest on the conversation topics they chose ultimately leads to opening Overton’s window (which says politicians can act only within an acceptable range) for your audience more often than it results in changing your guest’s heart or mind. Lastly, call out the manipulation technique they are using, then re-center them by restating your question. Pointing out the technique forces the guest to deny it, and in denying it they are forced to abandon using it for fear of it being pointed out again. Even if they don’t abandon it, continue to directly call it out. Your audience at minimum can learn to spot manipulation in conversation by watching you do this. A few studies that I read as part of my thesis concluded that news audiences want to learn something, and most people like watching the news as something informative because they want to be informed. You can always use a deflective or lying guest to inform your audience of what deflection and lying look like, but it means you will have to be confident in continuously pointing it out in real time.
What are some key tactics folks use to spread disinformation?
I touched on this in answering the previous question, but I think it definitely bears repeating, which is using larger more legitimized or trusted media platforms to amplify their reach and diversify their audience. Disinformation exists a bit inside of a conundrum of sorts, in that it needs the rest of us to participate in order to spread and not die out or become stagnated in isolation. Creators of disinformation, in order to monetize and gain communal profoundness/power require their followers get trapped in a silo so they rarely if ever are exposed to debunking information that would lead to them questioning the validity of the creator/leader and the disinformation. But, in getting trapped in a silo or information feedback space, disinformation cannot access new converts very easily. Silos and hyper partisan information spaces are easy for most people to dismiss as questionable or lacking in validity, for example how likely is it for someone to go to a website titled something like “TheRealTruthNews.net”? Not very. But, how likely are they to watch a 2020 interview with someone being promoted as a “grassroots reporter asking the hard questions about healthcare”? More likely for sure. One, because the general public is more likely to implicitly trust a longstanding investigative program from ABC because of its history as a source, its size, its wide-reaching platform that has built on cable providers, etc. Two, the way the interview is being promoted, it is general practice for a major news entity to use more innocuous language to describe their programming as a way to reach a broader audience with diverse views.
Creators of disinformation count on this design to make them look more moderate and reasonable, help spread ideology, and confuse viewers with cherrypicked or misused data. Most creators of disinformation are trying to create enough of a viral cacophony on public forum and sharing sites like social media to garner visibility from more mainstream entities, whether they be local or national. From there, because a lot of larger media has moved to reactionary models of reporting, these media entities grab topics that already have a lot of groundswell occurring and try to ride the wave by offering all kinds of spotlighting. It’s an old trick of “squeaky wheel gets oiled” and creators of disinformation play this game with intention. They reach for outrage and incendiary rhetoric or disintermediation, which is a tactic where they essentially invent a problem in order to draw an audience in then double down with more ideological ideas that move followers slowly toward aggressive and dehumanizing conclusions. This ultimately hooks larger media sites when a peak in viral sharing is hit on social platforms like Twitter, Tik Tok, and Facebook.
Disinformation also utilizes kernels of truth to tether itself to in order to make sense and seem plausible. This design of being stitched to real historic and/or medical facts is a key way that creators of disinformation make their premise seem acceptable or logical in order to access larger media platforms. They then leverage that truthful point combined with the legitimation extended through the platform to seed dangerous concepts to unwitting viewers.
How does disinformation affect public health, our communities, our society? Does local TV play a part in this?
In my thesis I present six ways that disinformation affects public health. They are: 1) Inciting individual and communal violence through radicalization 2) Targeting vulnerable and marginalized populations by convincing the general public that they are responsible for disease and public health issues as well as convincing these groups to not seek out or access healthcare 3) How disinformation preys on people with fragile mental health and how consuming it erodes individual and communal mental/emotional health 4) Creating confusion and exhaustion through media with information oversaturation, particularly when there is a public health emergency and information sharing is crucial 5) Influencing the creation of legislation and policies that are antithetical to medical best practices and endanger the careers of public health and medical professionals as well as the lives of individuals seeking care and 6) How politicians, religious leaders, tech companies, and media personalities are all incentivized to create and distribute disinformation because of the way they can monetize off of the attention it garners or the affects it has on individuals’ healthcare choices.
Yes definitely TV plays a part in this, in the 6th premise which is monetizing off of disinformation. Media is a core component of most of these, and has little reason to act with integrity and honestly because of the wealth that can be accumulated through rage farming with disinformation.
TVSpy: What’s the difference between misinformation and disinformation and conspiracy theories?
Thornburg: Misinformation is what commonly happens when individuals who are not trained in understanding science or medicine attempt to share information. This mostly is innocent accidents where one person is trying to educate another within a group but doesn’t realize that they either misconstrued or left out a vital piece of information. This happens all of the time, frequently when someone is newly diagnosed with something and trying to communicate information back to their loved ones, community members, etc. Misinformation can often be resolved through a number of corrective learning methods that experts or professionals can engage.
Disinformation is the intentional creation of misleading, misrepresentive, or completely malicious information, with the intent of manipulating a consumer. A subcategory of disinformation is malinformation, this is disinformation that is specifically created to target and harm a person or a group. These are harder to address because they are intentional, which means simply providing the right information doesn’t disrupt the creators of it, rather it just fuels their bottom line by drawing in more attention to them.
Conspiracy theories are the complete ideology that springs out of a collection of disinformation key points, usually impacting a group that is siloed by their loyal and excessive consumption of disinformation. These can range from the harmless and strange to the fanatical, aggressive, and paranoid, with many often becoming extreme over time.
If you could give local TV journalists one tool to use when interviewing people, what would it be?
Thornburg: To understand what non-partisan really is. A huge trick that fascist, authoritarian, and abusive ideologies use are forcing the general public to revisit and relitigate established communal consensus on basic ethical premises. They then label those norms as hyper partisan or political, when in fact they aren’t. The result of this recentering is that media, in an effort to appear non-partisan, allows for bigotry and hatred-laden discussions to occur on their platforms in an effort to present “both sides” of a discussion. This idea that there are multiple sides to a topic is conceptually sound when talking with 1) a group of honest experts or 2) topics that are entirely opinion based.
Having sports pundits argue over who the greatest boxer in history could be is by all accounts harmless and in many respects heavily opinion based, but denying the holocaust happened when there is already established proof and professional consensus that it did is not “two sides”. It is platforming doubt in longstanding truths, eroding trust in experts, and passively destroying the hard wrought careers of people who have dedicated their lives and livelihoods to establish these truths through research and/or science. As a journalist, holding a line of ethical integrity by refusing certain conversations is integral to keeping our societal foundations, especially those that enshrine humanity, empathy, and dignity for others.
We do not need to “both sides” conversations about the humanity of people who are different because of their country of origin, sexual or gender identity, disability or ability, religion, etc. Clear research has established the dangers that are posed by guns and banning abortion as well as abortifacient medications, these are no longer political perspectives, they are arguments against distinctive, thorough, repeatedly proven science. At some point journalism, like medical professionals, has to set a boundary related to lying, denying, and misleading conversation points no matter how much a creator of disinformation decries that this boundary is political. Journalism is what keeps any society a bastion of democracy, and when it faulters in its duty to inform, investigate, and set these kinds of boundaries what quickly follows is the fall of civil rights and freedoms of those who have been refused power. Use intelligence, nuance, and always ask yourself “who benefits from this? Who could this harm?”