Fake News, ClickBait, and the Value of Conversation

Nolan Higdon, the author of The Anatomy of Fake News, joins Matt again to talk about the post-election analysis of clickbait, fake news, and issues of digital literacy.  This conversation reaches into many related facets, such as critical thinking, content marketing, ad fraud, and logical fallacies.

Conversation is the main topic.  The value of conversation, especially with those that may think differently, have different backgrounds and experiences, and what we can learn.   This not only applies to politics or social issues but business as well.

Business media is subject to clickbait headlines, just as much as political news.   Business and marketing news is just as subject to stories about popular trends but tends to avoid serious treatment of issues, ethics, or in-depth content.  Rather, media tends to act as a cheerleader for the new shiny thing in business and marketing!

Transcript

[00:00:00] Matt Bailey: Well, hello listener, thank you for joining us again on the Endless Coffee Cup podcast. And today I’m excited. I have a returning guest Nolan Higdon, and now you may remember Nolan, uh, we interviewed him from his book, The Anatomy of Fake News, a couple of weeks, maybe a month or two ago now, but Nolan’s returned for another conversation about fake news and media. And Nolan, how are you doing? It’s good to have you back.

[00:00:31] Nolan Higdon: I’m doing well. This is so great to be here. It’s one of my favorite podcasts to come and chat. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you. So this is cool.

[00:00:38] Matt Bailey: I appreciate that. Uh, since the book has come out, uh, what have you been doing and, uh, how has that, how has the reception of the book been?

[00:00:47] Nolan Higdon: Well, I’ve been, I’ve been zooming everywhere. Um, there was because of the election day was on the horizon, um, there was a lot of demand for me to come give talks about how to detect fake news and what is fake news, and I got to say in the last, you know, four to six weeks, I’ve been talking at least somewhere once a day, if not more.

And you know, across the ideological spectrum, right, left, and center, people are interested in detecting fake news, so I was pretty optimistic by the response.

[00:01:12] Matt Bailey: Oh, that is cause for optimism. That’s a, that’s a ray of sunshine there in an otherwise, you know, judgmental world that, you know, people are now realizing it’s a problem and we have to solve this. I, that’s very, very hopeful to hear. I’m glad to hear that.

[00:01:29] Nolan Higdon: Yeah. It’s um, you know, for years I’ve been kind of beaten on this door, um, but I think something about, uh, maybe the last four years or so, uh, woke people up to the fact that it’s not something we can keep ignoring or just kind of laughing at it’s a, you know, really serious problem, and so I’ve been heartened to see people’s interests and, um, changing their own news using habits.

[00:01:49] Matt Bailey: Well, and just the, you know, the willingness to sit down and talk. I mean, that’s, that’s kind of the idea behind, you know, my podcast is even having people that might think differently. There’s a value in conversation and learning something that you may not know.

[00:02:05] Nolan Higdon: Yeah. Uh, you know, there’s, there’s so much, you can just learn from other people, and you can also learn about your own biases. You know, there’s a great book by Malcolm Gladwell he wrote, it was called Talking to Strangers.

[00:02:16] Matt Bailey: Ah.

[00:02:17] Nolan Higdon: And in it he talked about how we have all these preconceived notions of people, like whether they’re, you know, we’re scared of them or whether we think they’re harmless, and then they do things that disprove that, that thesis.

And so the way you really get to know folks is by talking and engaging with them, you know, that’s a jump right back into the election, but I thought this was one of the interesting thing about the electoral outcomes was people’s perceptions of the “other side” and the way they treated so many identity groups like monoliths, um, you know, proved it, you know, really to be, you know, off if not totally inaccurate.

And I think it, it’s another kind of example of why we need spaces, like, um, you know, the Endless Coffee Cup and things like this, where you can just engage in ideas in a, in a comfortable space.

[00:03:00] Matt Bailey: Yeah. And, and that’s one thing that bugs me, especially around election time is all of a sudden, it’s a, it’s a binary view of people. That you either left or right. And if you’re right, this must be what you’re about, and if you’re left, this must be what you’re about. And, and, you know, it ignores the nuance of what people go through. Now, granted, I will say there are people that, you know, “I’m a diehard Republican always have been. I’m a diehard Democrat always have been.”

There are those people, but I think for a lot, you know, there is some agony, there is some questioning. Where will I go, uh, or, you know, as we joked here at our houses, holding your nose and making a vote, there’s a lot of nuance and yet, it’s always framed in binary that you voted this way, you must believe that.

[00:03:52] Nolan Higdon: I think it’s a critical point. People are, um, complicated. They’re, they’re contradictory. It could be a new gas station opened down the street, that’s why they vote one way versus another.

[00:04:01] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:04:01] Nolan Higdon: And people make decisions off random things, and I, you know, there’s so many just examples coming out of the early election data of like increases in like people of color voting for Trump from last election. There was some women who voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton, and these voting patterns are just outside of our binary discussion.

[00:04:21] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:04:21] Nolan Higdon: And I’m, you know, not interested in justifying them or anything like that, but getting deeper to understand people, like why did they vote a certain way? We know, like in 2016, you know, about 13% of Trump voters had voted for Obama previously.

Like what’s, what’s that like, what, what goes into the decision-making? To me, I’d like to engage in those conversations rather than, you know, label or dismiss these folks.

[00:04:41] Matt Bailey: Absolutely. I mean, you’re getting to the heart of nuance. You’re getting to, you know, where things become personal. And this is something that, you know, occurred to me and, and just really kind of, I guess the day I came to this realization, it just struck me that, wait a minute, we’re all trying to solve the same problems.

I, you know, for example, homelessness, no one thinks it’s a good idea. And no one is advocating that we keep people on the street. It’s that we all have different ideas about how to solve the problem based on your experience, based on, you know, how you grew up and, and those types of things. And it’s not until we come together to talk about these different ideas and yeah, we’re going to disagree, but at least you heard what’s driving someone else’s opinion or passion about the subject.

[00:05:30] Nolan Higdon: Yeah, I think we’re in a much better place if we can agree on what the problem is, but maybe disagree on the potential solution, but we’re in a, you know, we’re in a bad place when we disagree on what the problems are. I mean, if you think half the country is the problem, I mean, that’s, that’s a problem in itself.

You know, we, we need to at least agree on what these, these problems are, and I, you know, not to bring everything back to, to news media, but I think news media has gotten so lazy that it, it draws our attention to, “Look what the Democrats did today,” or “Look what Trump tweeted today,” and we get fixated on that.

We disagree about it, but those discussions are not going to address homelessness, they’re not going to improve the lives of your children, they’re not going to combat climate change, they’re not going to make food more readily available. That, they’re, they’re really distractions in, in that sense. I think if we start to get an understanding of that, then we can have a context in which we can engage with each other.

[00:06:22] Matt Bailey: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and this tends to go along with the theme of, of your book, which I really enjoyed, which was, it’s personal responsibility. We can’t rely on the government to, you know, manage or make laws about communication or even, you know, restrict free speech. And then also we can’t expect the companies to self-regulate. It’s an individual responsibility.

[00:06:49] Nolan Higdon: We live in a democracy, and we really forget how, one, radical the idea of democracy is, and then two, like how serious it is to live in a democracy. Democracy is a 24 hour a day job. That’s why I sort of balked at this notion that democracy was on the ballot this year. Democracy is on the ballot, it’s on our radar, or at least it should be every single day.

And so the whole reason we have the press is to serve our democracy. It’s supposed to inform us, so the fact that we treat it like, you know, trivial entertainment or, you know, clickbait we can post online, it’s really doing a disservice to democracy. And so my plea is to, you know, reassert our commitment to democracy. Don’t be a media consumer, be a media user, you know, use this stuff to, to strengthen our democracy and to, to make the world look a little more like you’d like it to look.

[00:07:35] Matt Bailey: That’s a great, great point. It’s interesting that, you know, you’re writing from a political perspective, but, you know, my background is in marketing and business and the connection and the correlation between what you write about political news media, I see it also in business news, as well.

That there is the clickbait about, I like to call it the new shiny object, you know, we see it, you know, right now Tik Tok is the shiny object, and you know, it’s getting people’s attention and marketing managers are, you know, say we’ve got to be on Tik Tok. Everybody else is there. And it’s just so funny to see a lot of the same parallels that happen with clickbait and sharing news and not really fully immersing yourself in it or participating in it, but rather following the headlines and making decisions based on headlines. I’m amazed at how pervasive it is in business, as well as in personal and political arenas.

[00:08:36] Nolan Higdon: I think of a, there’s a, there’s a commentator named Krystal Ball, who, she says that like the stock market is a graph of rich people’s feelings.

[00:08:44] Matt Bailey: That’s great.

[00:08:45] Nolan Higdon: And they basically respond to these new things like Tik Tok and things like that. But that’s fascinating because I’ve always wondered, and I know you could probably speak to this, like the opposite. Do those of us who are not in business and finance, we look at those things like market indicators and we overemphasize them or make decisions off of them that maybe we shouldn’t, where those inside of the industry kind of maybe like balk at those quick ups and downs from Tik Tok and things like that?

[00:09:10] Matt Bailey: Not really. I, you know, I’m not watching the market as much as I watch the media and how it talks about different social media platforms or different trends. It, you know, a couple of years ago it was all the millennial trend and how to talk to millennials and how to market to millennials.

And you know, now it because of Black Lives Matter and because of some of the social issues, well now it’s, well, how do we connect with Latinx? How do we connect with them? And, and this is the new marketing, and you have to be more inclusive, you know, and it’s, and it’s a trend. It’ll go away in another six months, and it will be replaced with something else. So in that way, it’s, it’s like the business media is a perfect reflection of the 24 hour news cycle.

[00:10:00] Nolan Higdon: That is fascinating. But yeah, I definitely see those trends, you know, the banners and kind of the, the signaling, but then it does dissipate as the next important thing comes along.

[00:10:06] Matt Bailey: Well, and that signaling, I, it’s so interesting. I was reading something the other day, especially through this pandemic, about people overwhelmingly are saying, “Yes, we’re relying on brands to make us feel better and make us feel safe.”

And yet the same amount of people say, “I don’t trust brands because they’re opportunistic.” And this was about the pandemic, it was about race relations, it was about social issues, that we want the brands to take a stand, but at the same time, if they do, they’re opportunistic. So I love the duality of what people think and the responses there.

[00:10:42] Nolan Higdon: There does seem to be like a, you know, and I, you know, you would definitely know this from a marketing perspective, I’m sure you have some thoughts on this, but to me it does seem like perpetual signaling from both, like, industry and politics. Like the Democrats are really good in my opinion, about comparatively to the Republicans about talking about gender and race.

And the Republicans increasingly are better about talking about class because Democrats ignore it. But when it comes to actual like policy or structural changes, then like everybody is silent. And I see that like from industry like, you know, Amazon was putting up like a Black Lives Matter banner while at the same time, it was stamping out an effort of unionization by a black man, you know, getting him fired from their warehouse. So it’s, I don’t know those kinds of, I guess, dualities of behavior that, that really, I think, feed into people’s cynicism.

[00:11:29] Matt Bailey: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think, well, we just saw it, uh, what I think yesterday, uh, Gavin Newsom apologized for attending a party that was illegal under his recent, uh, proclamation there. And yeah, it’s got to make the everyday person just cynical about the whole system.

[00:11:48] Nolan Higdon: Yeah, the ways in which like, uh, elites, those in power and the economic elites, whether it be Newsom or Trump or Pelosi behave, um, is, is really like in your face at the same time, they’re kind of lecturing you on values and morals and ethics. It ends up ringing hollow.

[00:12:02] Matt Bailey: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s, uh, you know, and that’s what I get from the business side when I see brands trying to bring an ethical or moral message and, uh, you know, we all know you’re beholden to investors, and this is geared towards sell more stuff.

[00:12:17] Nolan Higdon: Yeah. I mean, that’s, you know, that was the, like the Nike/Kaepernick ad was, you know, I think, you know, symbolic of that, they’re were appealing to young millennials and activist millennials, um, with that ad.

Um, but again, they didn’t lead to Nike changing any like internal business practices, as far as I know, or, uh, overseas practices that, you know, contribute to the same type of, um, exploitation and manipulation that African Americans have experienced in this country since its inception.

[00:12:42] Matt Bailey: That’s a great point.

[00:12:43] Nolan Higdon: So those kinds of moments, I think are important. Yeah.

[00:12:46] Matt Bailey: Yeah. And that’s, uh, I mean, we see a lot of that and, and that was something, I think someone even brought up, uh, I was trying to think who it was, but, uh, yeah, when they, I think it was very early in the Black Lives Matter when Nike put out some press releases and did things and said what they were going to do, and someone wrote, “Well, Nike, if you really care about this, maybe you should pay your taxes.”

And, uh, and then just went in and showed how they owe billions of dollars that’s offshored, uh, that they’re protecting from taxes. And if you truly wanted to invest in your community, that would be one way to do it.

[00:13:24] Nolan Higdon: Well, yeah, to hit the, hit the nail on the head there, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

[00:13:27] Matt Bailey: Exactly, exactly. Well, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is, is clickbait, and especially from a news perspective, uh, you know, kind of what are those things that you can identify about clickbait, uh, to help protect yourself from it?

[00:13:45] Nolan Higdon: The most effective clickbait, um, like all, you know, fake news really tries to appeal to quick reactionary emotions. These can be things of like, you know, the, the happiness we get from confirmation bias, the, uh, appeals to like fear and hate, like, “You don’t know who’s coming,” or “You’re never going to guess what’s about, you know, Trump’s about to do,” those types of things.

And where they leave it like an open-ended question, an actual headline is supposed to sum up the story in some degree, so you know what you’re reading about and why. If they leave it like open-ended or questioning, or they appeal to reactive emotions and you know, or where you just feel like you have to click on it to know what is in it’s rather than expand upon the headline.

Those are generally signs of clickbait, uh, you know, clickbait, I, you know, some of it’s like earliest antecedents were actually things like, um, business practices would use. They would use like sponsored content or video news releases. And they would, you know, use these in different formats.

By the time of the internet, they would use them on actual news websites. So there’d be like a gray box around it and say sponsored content, but then you had supposedly journalistic outlets, like the Huffington Post, where they try to, you know, make everything they did clickbait, um, and so they would get you to click on their supposedly legitimate journalist stories.

Well, the other, like Legacy Media, they saw the internet going in this direction, they started doing it as well. And so now, even though it’s all clickbait at some level or much of it as clickbait at some level, um, it’s hard to determine whether or not that clickbait is going to lead you to a journalistic story or, you know, some paid ad or, or some eternal clickbait, like, you know, twenty-five pictures Matt Damon doesn’t want you to see, and you have to click through each one or, you know, something like that. But that’s kind of the state of it as of now.

[00:15:30] Matt Bailey: Yeah. I always tell people, yeah, if you have to click to the next page, that’s a big sign that you’re in the wrong place. That’s uh, that’s big number one red flag right there. If you have to click to continue or, or things like that, or click to go to the next page that, that right there, they are totally ad funded and that’s, that’s driving the story. It’s funny.

[00:15:53] Nolan Higdon: You know, it does illustrate though, larger economic trends, problematic economic trends, and news media that, you know, kind of going back to our conversation began about recasting ourselves as media citizens, rather than media consumers. Media citizens, you know, they use news media, but increasingly, people are using it for entertainment, not democracy.

And so click, click bait is trying to get folks’ like, attention drawn to the content because that, you know, desire to, to inform yourself doesn’t exist, so this is the way they’re drawing people to content.

[00:16:28] Matt Bailey: Oh, absolutely. I, you know, Taboola being one of the larger companies in this space, it just defaults to, I think what is probably the most salacious or the most clickbaity of all clickbait headlines and they employ, you know, just what you said, the 10 reasons why, or pictures they don’t want you to see.

And again, it goes against every journalistic practice in creating a headline. Uh, it’s supposed to summarize what the article is about, and then you get in and see the details. The big payoff is, is not in the article. It’s the headline. That’s the number one thing that is supposed to get your attention and also let you know, here’s what the story’s about.

[00:17:08] Nolan Higdon: Yeah. And you can see this with stories that, uh, go into print and like other outlets, like if they have an online magazine or if they have a traditional newspaper back when print was a little more accessible, but the internet was still being used, they would have different headlines for the same story if it was on the internet versus if it was in print.

[00:17:23] Matt Bailey: Sure.

[00:17:24] Nolan Higdon: Um, because yeah, clickbait, you know, it gets more eyeballs on the internet than like the traditional standard journalistic headline.

[00:17:32] Matt Bailey: Absolutely. And so I’ll, I’ll give you a little bit of insight here. So I’ve been in my digital marketing career, I started out with search engine optimization back in the nineties, and I would say about probably 2005, 2006 is when clickbait started really getting popular in the search engine optimization community, because they knew if you can publish an article and then get people to link to it, you would rank higher in Google.

And everyone was in love with this case study where someone wrote an article about, I think it was like a 12-year-old kid who stole his father’s credit card, bought an X-Box, and then hired a hooker to come to his house and play games with him.

And this was an article that they wrote and put out, and all of a sudden everyone’s linking to it. And they were saying, “Look, we got all this traffic, we got all these links.” Well come to find out it, I think it was a website for a car dealer, and this is what they produced in order to get better rankings in Google.

And so it started this snowball effect of, “Let’s write content with crazy headlines and we get people to link to it.” And the thing was, it had nothing to do with the business. There was no business objective at all, and it took probably about five years for people to realize that yeah, maybe the content of these articles should relate to the business somehow. But in some ways, I feel like the search engine optimizing community has a lot to apologize for.

[00:19:17] Nolan Higdon: I mean, well, I concur with that, but, uh, I think that it also, you know, speaks to something, and your story there illustrates this really well, which is that a lot of internet users have, I think this false sense that the internet is like this boundless window into all information, and we can do whatever.

But really the internet experience is very managed by the structures that were put in place. So like, just the idea that if it gets clicked on more, it should be higher in the search engine, that’s not a fact, or that’s not necessarily the best way to deal with things, right? But it’s the way that served like search engines’ models.

[00:20:00] And so now people change their content as a way to do that, and as a result, we get that content in our searches. And so I think it speaks to the faux sense we have that the internet is organically giving us information. In fact, it’s really managed from the side of companies, but also in fairness also managed from our side.

We like, we click, we pick our friends, we, um, you know, choose which websites to go to and, and those kinds of things, as well, so we also manage it from our side as well.

[00:20:17] Matt Bailey: Oh, highly manage it. I mean, just think about any social profile that you’ve created, you know, it’s, some of them are, you know, they’re better than a CV. There, they are, “You are awesome. It’s only the best pictures. It’s only the best accomplishments.” I mean, we have incredibly managed social presence and in the same way, everything else has managed to that. That’s a great observation.

[00:20:43] Nolan Higdon: Yeah. Um, you know, we, we find, we block, um, and the algorithms remember our choices and customize future ones accordingly.

So in that way, I see the internet as much more of a managed space and also, um, you know, communication theorists have long talked about this, that, uh, you know, we, we have a different like public face than we do private face. And as we increasingly are on screens, more and more, whether it be like zoom meetings, zoom for school, social media profiles, uh, we’re getting more and more used to playing a character, um, in this public, in this public sphere.

And that also speaks to our interpretation of other people is really managed as well, we only get to know them in this very like public setting, which is different than how those folks may be in like a private setting, for example.

[00:21:24] Matt Bailey: Oh, absolutely. I, one of our past podcasts, we were talking to someone who, they’re a coach when it comes to presentations and making pitches, and they were talking about adapting to the Zoom pitch or selling through Zoom. And, you know, they went through the basics of how you are framed on camera, where your lighting should be, what you should wear. And it really was a managed production of how you appear on camera. And he said, how people see you and your lighting and your eye contact have everything to do with it, has everything to do with your credibility.

And people will accept your sales pitch if you look good, if you look the part, if you’re easy to listen to, and you’re making eye contact, which means you’re looking at the camera, not your screen and throughout all of that, it was, wow. This is a curated image, but it’s a necessary thing to do if you’re going to do business this way.

[00:22:27] Nolan Higdon: Did you send that podcast to Jeffrey Toobin?

[00:22:29] Matt Bailey: Uh, no.

[00:22:33] Nolan Higdon: He could, he could, he could have used that.

[00:22:35] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:22:35] Nolan Higdon: No, but I think it, all jokes aside. Um, no, it does, it does speak to that man’s persona. We’re learning how to kind of make pitches for lack of a better word through Zoom screens, which is fine. It’s, you know, it’s a, it’s a part of interaction and there’s always been some public dimension to being social, but, um, I think we oftentimes conflate that public persona for a private persona.

[00:22:55] Matt Bailey: Yeah. And that’s, uh, he said one thing that I thought was very interesting that, that people will make judgements based on what they see in the background, and then immediately, you know, I’m looking behind me to see, “Well, wait, wait a minute. What do I got on the wall here?” That’s, but that was, you know, all part of what creates that, that persona, that you’re broadcasting out.

[00:23:16] Nolan Higdon: Yeah, and it’s kind of, you know, in addition to the, the persona too, I mean, we we’ve gotten, uh, you know, I’m guilty of this as well that we, we were in a, you know, data collection age and all this, I’ve been a big advocate for privacy and trying to mitigate some of this surveillance that’s become normalized in the war on terror era, but in the Zoom era, you know, it really is creepy how many people look into like my home office, you know, like on a daily basis through Zoom, but I, you know, become like awkwardly comfortable with it or like expecting it.

And it’s like, there’s a camera in the room and I, and I know that, and I account for it. Um, that sort of normalization is also kind of a odd thing that’s happened in this pandemic to say the least.

[00:23:52] Matt Bailey: Yeah. I didn’t realize that until one day, I think I had a promo picture taken and it was from my home office, and someone commented on one of the books in my bookshelf. I was like, “Oh, wait a minute. You know, maybe a high-resolution picture wasn’t the best idea. I don’t know.” But yeah, that’s when, uh, the problem privacy thing really comes around.

[00:24:16] Nolan Higdon: Oh, heck yeah. Just that, I don’t know. The whole idea of that now the workplace is the home, I think this will be a new frontier because right? Traditionally the home has been a safe place away from work and that we fled, you know, workplace to go home. And now, uh, my commute is literally just across the stairs.

[00:24:33] Matt Bailey: Right.

[00:24:33] Nolan Higdon: And so, when do I stop working? When am I off work? When am I work Nolan? When am I home Nolan? You know, those kinds of questions I think a lot of people are wrestling with, uh, in this era as well, and that speaks to the power of media, you know, how’s that going to change our relationships is a, is a question we’re going to be facing.

[00:24:50] Matt Bailey: Absolutely. It’s going to be interesting to see how this evolves over the next few months, and if things ever get back to some kind of normalcy, it’ll be interesting to observe.

[00:25:00] Nolan Higdon: Yeah, for sure. I think that one of the mistakes that was made was this belief that if Trump, you know, leaves office or gets voted out, that things will go back to normal. Traditionally, and this has been a case throughout U.S. History, when things get bad, or get weird, or get scary, Americans try and vote for stability or normalicy or return to the past, however, you want to say it, um, but it never happens.

[00:25:22] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:25:23] Nolan Higdon: You know, we, we always, we change, things change, um, and so learning how to, to address and deal with those changes, I think is a better way to position ourselves rather than, you know, “Make America Great Again,” or go back in time, or “Returning Normalicy,” which was the 1920 political slogan and things like that.

[00:25:41] Matt Bailey: I think people just wanted the news media to stop yelling headlines every day. To me, that seemed to be the biggest reaction. It’s like, I just, I’m tired of hearing the screaming. I just want it to stop.

[00:25:55] Nolan Higdon: Yeah. The resistance elements, um, and then the, you know, conservative Trump mocking of liberals every day, uh I’ll admit it was exhausting. I, I turned off, I had to look at 24-hour news media for my last two books, but I basically turned it off in, in February. And I’d like to say it was because I was just, you know, over it, but I literally just couldn’t deal with it. I was too tired.

[00:26:15] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:26:15] Nolan Higdon: Having like outrage fatigue.

[00:26:18] Matt Bailey: I think that’s where most of America was, absolutely.

[00:26:22] Nolan Higdon: Like everything was doom, and gloom, and end of the world.

[00:26:25] Matt Bailey: Yeah. Which makes it so much harder to read into the results. I, I look at it as they wanted a return to media normalcy, that let’s go back to the, you know, sort of the devil we know, and, and, and I’ll be fine with that.

[00:26:39] Nolan Higdon: That’s I mean, that’s true. It’s at sound level and that, that election coverage, I, you know, I tuned back into the 24-hour news networks for the election coverage. And I mean, that was like journalistic malpractice, as people should be arrested when they cash their paychecks, they’re stealing money, the way that they kept giving in to numbers, and they follow the numbers, and the numbers, and the numbers, 24 hours a day for 7, 8 days.

You know, I was like, there’s a whole other world of news happening out here, and these numbers won’t matter until the election is certified. So like this, this, you know, glue people to their screen to watch, like some county will never visit and have their numbers come in, I think it was, was misleading, and it’s also, distractionary from a lot of news that’s going on in local communities, but also like major stories. Like our COVID cases were skyrocketing at that same time.

[00:27:21] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:27:22] Nolan Higdon: You know, like that, to me, it was a much bigger story than what’s going to happen in like Wayne County or something like that at that time.

[00:27:27] Matt Bailey: Yeah. I noticed that as well that, hey, there’s some major events going on in the world that are being ignored and this gets to, you know, I’ll bring up Postman again, where the news is the news, rather than reporting what’s happening, they’re reporting on themselves reporting something. And, you know, again, and we kind of, we can even go into the polls where the polls are, you know, the media taking a poll and then reporting on the poll.

And it almost that, that lazy kind of, “Let’s report this rather than actually go explore something that’s happening and, and inform people as to what’s happening.”

[00:28:06] Nolan Higdon: Yeah, my book, Fake News, uh, the, The Anatomy of Fake News, was all about how fake news is a pervasive problem, et cetera, et cetera. But one of the things I pointed out, I made sure to spend a lot of time on was that a lot of traditional news outlets and people in traditional media do produce and do perpetuate fake news. Um, but the, the catch is, they keep their jobs, and they keep getting to act like they’re experts.

And I think you talked about polls, there’s a prime example, like in 2016, I mean, the, the polling you could, you could argue was wrong because they were only looking at “likely voters” and Trump turned out new voters and perhaps that’s true.

But in 2020, they polled and over polled and still got it wrong, and then you had people like candidates, like, uh, Harrison in South Carolina raising millions of dollars off these polls that showed them ahead, and then they lose by double digit points. And the news media, this, they thought it was their job. Like you said, it was to report these polls as fact. And it’s just, it’s mind boggling how these folks keep their jobs.

And I think that speaks to why the news is the news. I mean, I have to admit I’ve had many opportunities to create ventures of, you know, basically reporting on the news and I’ve always withheld cause I long for the day when the news is not the news, but you know, unfortunately it seems to keep becoming a bigger and bigger problem, or before I can even get to the issues I care about, I have to, you know, go through the process of disentangling the news media narratives around the problem.

[00:29:33] Matt Bailey: Oh, absolutely. I had to ask, you know, how many times can an expert get things wrong and still be called an expert? Uh, I don’t know. Maybe we elect them. I don’t know. It seems to me, you know, we, we used to joke, you know, you’re failing up, you fail, you get promoted.

[00:30:00] And again, we heard this in 2016. We got it wrong. We got it wrong. Maybe we don’t have enough empathy for people that disagree with us, or maybe we’re not taking a step. You know, did they learn from that? I don’t think so. It just seemed to get more resolute in what we’re going to do. And these people don’t know anything.

[00:30:09] Nolan Higdon: I think it does have to do a lot with where these media places are located. And also, the people in media tend to come from like Ivy League backgrounds and they’re in, you know, their own bubble. And I don’t, I don’t mean that to disparage them, because I live in, you know, the San Francisco Bay area, which, my God, bubble doesn’t even begin to describe what, what we have going on out here. But, you know, I’m lucky enough to, to travel a lot of the country giving talks and gigs.

And so, you know, unless you’re in a big city, it’s like Trump and Pence signs everywhere, and folks just have a different focus. They have different issues they care about that in like these giant cities. And so whether or not I agree with them is irrelevant. I’m just aware of them. But when you go back to the city centers and, and these like liberal bubbles, you know, they’re just like, “Oh, yeah. You know, we’re, we’re getting all of these problems. We’ve got this big momentum, we’re changing the country,” and I’m like, you should really drive around outside of the bubble. It’s, you know, there’s, there’s some stark differences that have not been addressed.

[00:31:02] Matt Bailey: Right. Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And that’s the thing. They start arguing about things and yeah, there’s no issues. I, even through the debates, I was just not really surprised. I’m like, we’re not talking about any issues. We, we successfully avoided any issues in these debates. That, that was the news.

[00:31:22] Nolan Higdon: Oh yeah. This has been, you know, a pet peeve of mine is that Democrats have treated demographics as destiny. And so basically their argument has been, you know, use favorable rhetoric toward demographic groups that are expanding in size, and those people will turn out to vote for you because you’re not the other guy, and because you’re using favorable rhetoric, and we don’t have to get into policy, cause once we start getting into policy, we turn off potential voters. You know, they’re always chasing that, um, Republican unicorn voter in the middle.

[00:31:50] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:31:50] Nolan Higdon: Interestingly in this election, you saw a lot of that “demographics are destiny” start to break down and that, again, people are complex. Some are swayed by issues. Some are swayed by behaviors and attitudes. It’s much more complex.

And so I do hope that part of the transition from the post Trump era is not only a recognition of the shortcomings of Trump’s rhetoric and behavior, but also the shortcomings of the democratic party and neoliberal ideology that, you know, made people take a gamble on Trump in the first place. I think a dedication to policy is a step in that direction.

It, and again, some of the data shows that, that basically if you were for universal health care, regardless of whether or not you were progressive or conservative, you won in this election. And I think it speaks to how policy initiatives drive out votes. Um, you know, legalizing marijuana drives out votes, but catchy phrases appeals to demographics aren’t necessarily that successful.

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[00:34:17] Matt Bailey: Yeah, that was interesting. Out of the state ballot issues were definite trends as to where the country is going, and it really doesn’t fit the narrative of either a Democrat or a Republican. It really is almost a conflicting view of what we’ve been told people are alike. And so I was really fascinated by the different ballot issues around the country and the marijuana laws and things like that. Uh, very, very interesting to see.

[00:34:45] Nolan Higdon: You know, I have to say, I mean, I’m embarrassed for my state here of California with the prop 22 initiative, which if, you know, for listeners who don’t know, uh, basically independent contractors like Uber and Lyft and things like that were reclassified as employees. So they would get more benefits and workplace rights by the state.

And voters had a chance to, to switch them back to independent contractors, and Uber and Silicon Valley were behind this transition, um, as was that the democratic party, as well. The, the interesting part was the messaging. They, they message it as, you know, being an independent contractor allows like entrepreneurship and some sort of like autonomy in the workplace, primarily for people of color and that’s who we’re in a lot of the commercials.

But it ignored like economic realities or God forbid I say it, like class issues that, you know, a lot of these folks, why are you working a second job? Like, you know, not, why do you choose to, like, why do you have to work a second job? What is it about our economic system that forces folks to do this while driving down the value of their vehicle and things like that?

And so I thought it spoke to, uh, in a, in a state in California, we can’t blame Republicans cause we’re a Democrat state top to bottom. And I thought it kind of spoke to the way that they’re so focused on kind of demographic messaging, um, that like economic realities are like an afterthought, and unfortunately, a lot of those Uber drivers who are disproportionately people of color are on the losing end of that gamble.

[00:36:08] Matt Bailey: Hmm. Wow. That’s interesting. Yeah. It’s uh, it’s almost like you can’t play the same demographic games, you know, it kind of goes back to what we were saying before. It’s, it’s not binary. There’s a lot of nuance, and unless you understand what that nuance is, you’re going to miss the boat.

[00:36:23] Nolan Higdon: I think you see when they treat like communities of color, like monoliths, like the, the Latinx vote, right? Like if you know, Latinx only in, in this political discourse and media, Latinx voters only care about immigration. And, you know, Democrats want all folks to immigrate, and Republicans want nobody.

So it’s obvious they’re going to vote Democrat, but then you look at the numbers and it’s like, first of all, within Latinx voters, they care about a multitude of issues. And it’s totally different in Texas compared to Florida, compared to wealthy, compared to poor, compared to Cuban compared to Central and South America.

Um, and then you saw some folks actually vote for, um, you know, Trump and increase the, the Trump’s Latinx turnout, despite his rhetoric against Latinx immigrants. And so again, you know, we said it just, it speaks to, we have to get out of this, this space where you feel comfortable talking about folks.

Like monoliths realize that we do have national elections, and when we pay attention to national elections, but what works in one area does not work in necessarily another area. And that, that takes like nuance thinking, like maybe Latinx voters in California care about X, and maybe Latinx voters in Texas, you know, disregard X for Y. And we got to start thinking, I think, in that way, if we ever want to really understand our country and our democracy.

[00:37:35] Matt Bailey: Yeah. Well, and like you said, uh, people may vote one way because a gas station went in down the street. It has everything to do with what my life is like right here, right now, in this moment, in this place. That’s what’s going to affect me more than what’s going on nationally or anything like that.

[00:37:54] Nolan Higdon: Yeah. And we, politicians used to know this, this is the odd thing about Democrats and Republicans for like last 30 or 40 years. They’ve really forgotten how to like, kind of speak to people’s realities, instead they just kind of make promises about what tomorrow is going to be. Um, and then I think they’ve lost that kind of connection.

And you see it, you know, it’s at some level, I guess it’s kind of funny watching these people struggle like, you know, Trump, the rapacious capitalist pretends like he cares about like, you know, the working class, and Obama, remember he like tried to go bowling and it was like a setback for bowling, and George W. Bush was trying to be a cowboy, even though he was like a rich Connecticut kid, right? And all that.

Um, so they’re, they’re kind of, they’re kind of funny in that sense, but, um, it, it just, it comes off like, just so, so fake to people, but it speaks to how I think that the distance between the ruling class and the actual people that they can’t even find like commonalities anymore.

[00:38:48] Matt Bailey: Hm. Wow. Well, this, I mean, it’s strangely related. I did want to talk to you a little bit about this and you know, one of the things about rhetoric that I absolutely love are the logical fallacies, and especially in politics, we see a use of the fallacy of the straw man. I, and I love it because you, you, and I think Obama was particularly very good at this when he would say, you know, “Some would say that no one should have healthcare.”

And you know, I’m like, “Wait, who said that? Where’s that come from?” And, and then, you know, and that’s the straw man, you prop up your opponent’s argument to such an extreme case that no one in their right mind would say, well, yeah, that’s a good idea. And then you knock it down. That’s why it’s called the straw man.

[00:40:00] But what has really impressed me or pressed itself upon me, I would say over the past four years, do straw men exist anymore? Because I would see things online and maybe this was part of the fake news or, you know, Russian interference. I would see people post things, and I would say “That is probably the most extreme case I would ever imagine.”

And someone is posting it with no irony whatsoever. And I felt like we’ve lost the straw man. There’s no such thing anymore.

[00:40:10] Nolan Higdon: That’s, it’s so true. I mean, yeah, like you said, a straw man, right? It, it occurs when you take another, you know, persons or sides, arguments, and, and you distort or exaggerate it, right?

Like, the reason why people usually commit straw man is because it appeals to audiences. You know, it’s like, I would like to, I’m going to choose to argue against the argument I wish you made, rather than the one you did make, you know?

[00:40:31] Matt Bailey: Right. Yes.

[00:40:32] Nolan Higdon: So, um, but, but I think that the fallout from that in a messaging perspective is we have a straw man perspective of people we, we disagree with, and, and the news media is, you know, uh, recycles these, they play these clips of straw man arguments, but they don’t break them down factually.

So like, you know, when, when Donald Trump is saying that, like Biden’s gonna sell America to China and that Biden’s a socialist, I laugh. I laugh, right? Because I’m like, like in California, you know, we’ll, we’ll teach you what socialism is. But, um, the, a lot of voters, you know, they buy it and you, you drive around again the country, and you see like, no socialism here and they’re talking about Biden and Harris or, uh, you know, we’re going to protect America from China and Biden and Harris.

And you recognize how powerful those, those straw man sort of arguments are. After the election, just to be fair and kind of point to both sides, Mike Pompeo made that comment about how he expects a fair transition after the election, and he said, you know, we’re going to make a transition into the second Trump administration.

And then he followed it, he followed at any rate, okay, you laugh, everybody gets, this was a joke. And he followed it up and said, “Of course no matter what happens, all jokes aside, whatever the electoral outcome is, we’ll, we’ll make sure it’s a fair and safe transition.”

If you look in lefty circles right now, like John Oliver and all these shows, they’re talking about how, “He’s, he said, we’re going to a second Trump administration.” It’s like, that’s not what he, what he meant. To be clear, there’s a context here. You’re making a straw man argument. But now there’s this fear of like Pompeo is leading the resistance to the, you know, the Biden election, which, um, at least that comment is no, not evidence to support it.

[00:42:08] Matt Bailey: No. Yeah, it was, it was half of what he said, and I have been so interested to see that spun around and yeah. And it turns into clickbait headlines, and it’s just crazy to see that. But what fascinates me about the straw man, is that actually a, like you said, I’m going to argue what I wish you asked. Uh, but at the same time, if I were to use a straw man against you, it now forces you to respond to it and to respond to a baseless, uh, misrepresentation of your view.

And so rather than disputing, now you have to defend, and it really puts a lot of now the attention is on the statement, however, outrageous or incorrect, it’s now, you’ve got to defend it. And that’s what I think is so unfair about it, but that has become really the basis of policy debate of, uh, you know, left versus right. It’s just been a fascinating watch to see how it’s used.

[00:43:13] Nolan Higdon: Yeah. I would say it’s a, you know, weird space cause like most people, myself, really, included you aren’t trained at a young age on how to respond to absurdity. You know, that’s not something we train people to like expect, right? In that sense. So how do you respond to absurdity?

Well, traditionally, what politicians used to do in the pre-internet days, you ignored, uh, ridiculous claims because if you gave them any attention, then you drew more attention to them. Like you said, now you end up defending something you never said. Um, but however, in the internet age, I mean, it’s, it’s been a different game.

Now they take these straw man arguments, they post them everywhere, they report them everywhere, they comment on them everywhere. And you not commenting, it’s treated like you’re somehow hiding and afraid of what you said or embarrassed by what you said or did or whatever like that, you know, whatever it is.

So it forces people to come out and respond. And again, as you mentioned, once they respond, then they’re in a, in a space where they’re defending something they didn’t say. And then the argument becomes about what the argument was rather than like what they were trying to achieve in the first place.

[00:44:10] Matt Bailey: Yeah. And it’s gotten to the point now where it is so extreme and what used to be a straw man, I feel like now, is there actually people that believe that? You know, I, and maybe I’m falling for the clickbait. I see things I’m like, wait, that’s the most extreme position you could take. How is that a good idea?

[00:44:31] Nolan Higdon: You know, the, the, the straw man arguments are commonplace and they’re, they’re shaping our politics. And again, you know, we’re kind of, we’re, we’re laughing at them at some level, but they are really powerful. You know, like, uh, a lot of the straw man claims that came out after the election about, you know, supposedly it was stolen and that, um, you know, the Biden camp was going to, you know, claim they were going to do whatever it took, which is not what they said, but, but these arguments resonate.

A lot of people are, you know, questioning, was the election legitimate, even though there’s really no evidence to discredit the election. You know, and I think that’s the, again, the power of those straw man arguments is, you have otherwise rational people believing irrational things. And one of the things I point out in a lot of my work is that the reason why, why false content or straw man arguments are so dangerous, it’s not because they’re, they’re wrong or disprovable and people believe them.

It’s because they get people to do things they think come from a place of moral righteousness, but actually turn out to be hugely problematic. So, if the election was stolen and you stood up to defend democracy, that’s not a, that doesn’t make you a bad person. I think that makes you a good person. You should always defend democracy.

But false content and straw man arguments about the election get, you know, good people to go out and discredit seemingly accurate elections. And so that kind of transition, I think, is important to, to recognize is that rather than make fun of people who fall for these arguments or act upon them, we should recognize that their reaction comes from a place of good in a lot of cases.

[00:45:57] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:45:58] Nolan Higdon: And so how do we, how do we, you know, law to that while simultaneously recognizing that the problem with like news literacy skills or recognizing, you know, fallacious arguments.

[00:46:08] Matt Bailey: Uh, it comes back to kind of what we talked about earlier is, is everyone wants free, accessible, and fair elections. And I kinda, well, well then I’ll add a comma, “Don’t we?” That is what we want, right? And like you said, we have to agree on this first.

[00:46:29] Nolan Higdon: Yeah, like you have to. I mean, this is the, you know, the “ripping my hair out” thing about democracy. I think your question gets to this is that I have never, ever in my life counted ballots. I would wager that you never have either. Um, my entire life, I generally have accepted the results of electoral outcomes.

And I’ve been anchoring out election night for most of my life. But I, but I accept it, and that’s because democracy is predicated on us having faith in the process. And there’s a lot to say to critique the process, but if people, you know, not even a majority, just enough, don’t have faith in the process, then you don’t have a democracy.

So this is this whole debate and fake news and straw man arguments and things like this. These are really, really dangerous. I think we need to reassert that idea that look, the reason why we engage in news, and conversation, and discussion, and we have ballot counters, and we have mail-in ballots is because we want the most accurate results. We can, you know, trust in it. It’s not because we want to “win” or “destroy” the other side.

[00:47:29] Matt Bailey: That is a great, great point. Again, yes, it comes back to, you know, we’re agreeing on the same things and we, and we have to have that, “Let’s identify the problem first.” And if we can agree what the problem is, then we can create a better narrative for us to work together and solve that problem.

[00:47:47] Nolan Higdon: Yeah. I think you take two groups who normally are not put together, but they’re the majority of the public, like a lot of them, Trump voters who were polled, although now I’m citing polls, which might be problematic, but, um, let us, Trump, you know, that they show general disdain for the system, and they believe elites in Washington don’t address their needs.

There was also a Knight Foundation study that said there’s 100 million people who are disproportionally people of color, um, who don’t vote because they don’t believe either party addresses their needs.

[00:48:16] Matt Bailey: Yeah.

[00:48:17] Nolan Higdon: You know, regardless of all the differences, you know, we’re, we’re talking somewhere between like 125 to 150 million people who share that, that same sentiment, they see the same problem. You know, imagine if you could have someone speaking to how do we address that problem together? That’s a huge chunk of the country. You know, it’s like 50% of the country.

[00:48:33] Matt Bailey: You could get another party or two out of that, which might not be a bad thing. But yeah, that’s, I mean, I’ve always been fascinated, yes, at how many people don’t participate in the process. This was a situation, I think this is probably, this was when Obama was running against Hillary in the primaries, and my wife and I went to France. I was speaking at a conference there, and in a typical French fashion, they split us up to different tables.

So my wife was left to fend for herself at a table, and I’m at another table. And the entire conversation was about, “Who are you voting for, Obama or Hillary?” And my wife is just sort of in this, uh, well, you know, I don’t know, it’s, it’s, it’s who, and she has, she lasts, you know. To me afterwards, she goes, “They assume I’m voting for either.”

You know, it’s, it’s just this, but then one lady asked her, and it was a very interesting question. She asked her, she goes, “Do you believe that you can change things? Do you believe your vote will make a difference?” And my wife thought for a second, she goes, “Yes, I do believe it will.”

[00:50:00] And the lady responded by saying, “That’s the difference between you Americans and us.” She goes, “We have no faith. We, we, there’s nothing I can do that will change anything.” And it was such a realization for her, and, and, and we’re talking about that. That, you know, I think that number one, is an American thing that, you know, the stress on the individual.

But yet also, at the same time, I think we have also lost that with a number of people that believe that, “No matter what I do, my voice won’t be heard. I’m not going to change anything.” And I think, that I think is probably one of the larger failures, uh, that as a country, there’s people that have been left behind, uh, that don’t feel that anyone speaks for them. And that, that’s a big problem.

[00:50:37] Nolan Higdon: Yeah. And I think that’s a, you know, a great point to emphasize shortly, because we’re on the heels of this election.

And for folks to remember moving forward, which is, there’s all these different elements of democracy, which are, you know, like we talked about in this, uh, talk today, we talked about propositions, we talk about elections, there’s presidential elections, local elections, state elections. Those are all part of the process.

So is reading news and informing yourself, which we talked about, but another element that we all often all gloss over because it makes us feel somewhat uncomfortable at times, is democracy is a full-time job that requires activism, organization, and agitation. And, you know, so people ask me, “Does, like, you know, voting work?”

And my answer is, “Well, it depends.” If you go to vote for the guy, you want to have a beer with, and then you go home for four years, then no, it’s not really going to work. But if you vote in someone who you try and, you know, organize, agitate, protest, push, annoy, to get to do, you know, X, Y, or Z, then democracy works and then your voting works.

And, and this is bared out by the, you know, examples historically. I always like to point out that these presidents who come into office on, you know, totally different agendas, end up doing like progressive legislation, because they’re forced to. So like Woodrow Wilson never really talked about women voting in this country, but he was trying to sell democracy to the world, and women protest in the white house to embarrass him saying like, “How can you deliver a democracy world if you can’t deliver it here in DC?”

So he was like, “Get them the right to vote and get them off my lawn so I can do my foreign policy.” And…

[00:52:06] Matt Bailey: Great.

[00:52:07] Nolan Higdon: And, you know, an even better example is Dwight Eisenhower, right? Eisenhower probably did the most civil for civil rights of a president of 20th century, not because he was Mr, like, woke, uh, military man, but because the protestors on the ground were destabilizing the country and they were giving the Soviets propaganda to use against American way of life by highlighting his racism.

And so Eisenhower was just like, this needs to stop. We need to get this off TV because I’m trying to get all these, you know, post-colonial countries underneath, like the Western sphere, and then this is not helping. And so it’s, it’s putting that kind of pressure on leaders rather than having them be a friend or a hero, um, recognizing them as an employee you need to constantly pressure. That’s how democracy works.

[00:52:50] Matt Bailey: Great. That is a great, great example. Wow. Yeah, they are an employee and I think we forget that.

[00:52:57] Nolan Higdon: Yeah, and it’s, it’s difficult to fire them, so it’s important that you go through a good hiring process.

[00:53:03] Matt Bailey: Absolutely. Well, I wasn’t satisfied with the hiring process and wasn’t satisfied with the vetting process, it wasn’t, I want another round of candidates, that’s what…

[00:53:12] Nolan Higdon: Of course, the search committee has.

[00:53:14] Matt Bailey: Yeah. Nolan, hey, this has been, uh, a wonderful hour and I always look forward to talking with you and getting your input. So, uh, thank you so much for spending some time with us here.

[00:53:26] Nolan Higdon: This is always a pleasure and I’ll come back any time, keep up the great work, and hopefully your listeners keep tuning in. Thanks.

[00:53:32] Matt Bailey: Well, Nolan, I want to have you back because as you said, you do a lot of work in privacy and, uh, you know, especially, you know my side with the business and media and you, you know, you’re on the media side too.

I think we should absolutely have another conversation about privacy, and I think we could probably fill a couple of hours on that.

[00:53:49] Nolan Higdon: It’s a date. I’m in.

[00:53:50] Matt Bailey: Alright. Listener, thank you so much for tuning in to another episode of the Endless Coffee Cup, and you can find Nolan’s information on the show notes on the page.

So, Nolan, thank you again. Listeners, thanks for tuning in, and I’ll see you next time on the Endless Coffee Cup.

Featured Guest:

Dr. Nolan Higdon

History and Media Studies Lecturer

Twitter: Nolan Higdon | Twitter

Listen to Nolan Higdon on an earlier episode:

Endless Coffee Cup: “How to Spot FAKE News”

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