Our world is awash in mis- and disinformation. Conspiratorial thinking and misguided beliefs and attitudes towards science are widespread. But combatting this deluge of problematic information must be done with care. Too often, argues Whitney Phillips, we dismiss the people who consume or propagate such information as irrational. In fact, given the experiences they may have been having on the internet for many years — or what they may have been encountering via traditional media for decades — their views, troubling as they may be, may in many cases be perfectly rational.
Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, investigates the intersections between media ecosystems, beliefs, and politics. Her research has taken her to some of the internet’s darkest corners, but she argues that it’s futile to treat those virtual spaces in isolation, because the cultural factors that paved the way for their creation are all around us — and in some cases are almost mundanely mainstream.
Phillips’ latest book is You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, co-authored with Ryan M. Milner.
Our conversation was conducted over Zoom and by email and has been edited for length and clarity.
And so if you’re steeped in those particular media networks and those narratives — especially about liberal bias, or about how you can’t trust experts, because they’re lying to you, or they’ve got vested economic interests, or they’re just liberals, so you can’t trust them — if that is the oxygen that you have breathed your entire life, that’s what you bring to Facebook; that’s not what Facebook gives you. So once you go to Facebook, with those narratives fully internalized, you start searching for certain things, or you engage with certain kinds of people, communities, then the algorithm starts feeding you more of what you’re already bringing to the table.
But the one thing that unifies the conservative movement and right-wing media is that it was a reaction against the consensus-based mainstream. It emerged because conservatives didn’t feel like their views were being accurately represented, or didn’t have a home within mainstream media. So those networks were created because conservatives, rightly or wrongly, felt like their interests were not reflected in the mainstream. So they created an alternative media ecosystem to solve for a problem that they had identified.
I was less focused on individual liberal people versus individual conservative people, whose beliefs, already, can vacillate between conservative and liberal positions depending on the issue, and was speaking more about the network structures and media wraparound of right-wing media — with Fox News the center of that universe in many ways.
From that vantage point, it doesn’t make sense to equate what happens on the left with what happens on the right. For one thing, “liberal media” subsumes all kinds of positions and publications, making it an unwieldy concept to begin with. Just ask someone on the far left how they feel about CNN, or even The New York Times, and they’ll have all kinds of critical things to say.
There is certainly false and harmful information and all kinds of informational problems emerging from legacy center-left media — I don’t know any media scholar who argues that there aren’t! But the big question is: Do I stay up at night worrying about democracy-eroding information coming from legacy center-left media in the same way I do about falsehood on the right? I don’t.
And Fauci is part of the government. So if you also have a kind of anti-government impulse within the milieu in which many people are raised, someone like Fauci, as a figurehead, represents everything you would have kind of a knee-jerk resistance to. And then you consider all the ways that Trump and his Republican allies in Congress actively politicized Covid.
Phillips: Well, first of all, describing someone is “crazy” is ableist and propagates this idea that people with mental health issues or mental illness are somehow less than human, which is inherently problematic. But besides that, what the word “crazy” does, as used in that way, is to suggest that these beliefs are somehow unexplainable and that they are incoherent, and that they’re totally irrational.
Now, I’m not suggesting that they those beliefs are correct; QAnon is not real, full stop. But at the same time, you have the cumulative effect of being told the same kinds of stories throughout your whole life, right? So we might be talking about someone who was raised on right-wing radio growing up, and then Fox News comes around and they’re watching Fox News their whole life; then they go to Facebook and their affinity networks ensure that Facebook’s algorithm are feeding them information that’s confirming of their existing worldview. And what ends up happening is that there’s a media “wraparound” effect, whereby everywhere a person looks, they’re seeing what feels like evidence for their particular worldview.
Phillips: I think of them [the algorithms] like salt in some ways — that they intensify the flavor of food, not because they change the flavor of food; they just make that flavor more intense. So if you think about that in terms of sort of beliefs, and what people are bringing to their social platforms, algorithms can absolutely enhance those beliefs, both in negative ways in positive ways, by showing people more of what it is they want to see — but people come to those algorithms asking to be shown certain things.
So we just can’t simplistically say, “it’s the algorithm that’s radicalizing our kids” — you don’t just take someone who’s a run-of-the-mill, everyday person, a centrist or a moderate, and have them watch 10 YouTube videos, and suddenly they’re a Nazi. That’s just not how belief happens; that’s not how identity-formation happens. People who are getting sucked into rabbit holes are by and large people who go to those platforms asking to be fed something.
Up until this point, the impulse has been to think big: How do we scale solutions to these challenges? How do we get government to intervene? How do we get Facebook to do whatever to its algorithm? It’s not that we shouldn’t be talking about those things or thinking about those things — but it’s also a question of what’s going on within the information ecosystems of local communities. Where can people turn in their own communities if they have questions? Who are the trusted leaders within communities?
And so for me, part of the solution needs to be “assessing the local” and thinking about the role that local information ecosystems, local news reporters, and local faith leaders can play. How can we harness trust and healthier information exchange within more manageable, smaller chunks of space? Because there’s never going to be a top-down solution; that’s not going to happen.