Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers

Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify

Evergreen Podcasts Earns First-Ever Ambie Nomination for 'Burn The Boats'

Press Release
prnewswire.com

Esosa Osa: Fighting Disinformation

| S:1 E:81
Esosa Osa: Fighting Disinformation

Esosa Osa is the Deputy Director of Fair Fight Action, an organization founded by Stacy Abrams that advocates for election reform.

Longtime listeners will remember that Esosa guest hosted an interview a few years ago. You can listen to it here.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Esosa Osa, the Deputy Director of Fair Fight Action, an organization founded by Stacy Abrams, that advocates for election reform. Esosa is also a good friend, and has been a guest host on this show. When it comes to defending democracy, she represents that rare combination of strategic thinker and frontline fighter. Esosa, we have lots to defend these days. Great having you back on.

Esosa Osa:

Thank you so much, Ken, happy to be here.

Ken Harbaugh:

First of all, what do you make of the dramatic swings in overall voter sentiment just these past few months, especially after Roe V. Wade was struck down?

Esosa Osa:

I think that there's just an extraordinary amount of resolve and dedication and momentum that we're seeing from voters across the country and in Georgia, as we experience this democratic backsliding and as rights are being taken away. Starting with, we saw it with voting, we've seen it with freedom of speech, freedom to protest, we've seen it with the Roe decision. We will likely continue to see that to play out. And so as we are in this critical time for our democracy it's not a surprise to me that people are becoming more aware and determined to make their voices heard.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm seeing that same resolve, and it gives me incredible hope. But we're up against some pretty stiff structural headwinds, which is what I want to spend most of our time talking about. This information economy we now live in denies us even a shared sense of reality. We had Dan Pfeiffer on recently, who said we've moved from this period of arguing about shared values or shared identity into arguing about what's even real. And this is an area that you spend a lot of time and attention on, the disinformation ecosystem. I'll pause there to get your quick thoughts, but I've got a bunch of specific questions I want to put to you.

Esosa Osa:

Yeah, no, absolutely. I think we are seeing a really troubling increase in bad information, manipulative information across our general information spectrum. And it's been happening for years, and a lot of it's disinformation. That's a specific term that essentially means lies with the intent to lie. And why this is so dangerous, it's so dangerous for a few reasons, and the first is really that it is incredibly difficult to correct the first thing that people hear about a topic or a subject. That's a we need you to forget the pink elephant in the room type of situation. And two, our brains work the same way at large, how we learn, how we collect information. And the most important part of that is that the more times we hear something the more likely we are to believe that it is true, and to believe others believe it's true. And so when you have lies that are amplified at the highest levels of our democracy, it is not surprising that a lot of people will believe those lies. And it is not something that one type of person is more likely to believe than others. It is something that is very dangerous, very toxic, self perpetuating, extremely hard to correct. And in societies that have freedom of speech, this is one, this is a very corrosive type of thing to inject in that type of society, because it's very difficult to limit any of those lies. And so we are seeing the impact of what can happen when you have a massive platform and you can tell people things that are not true. And the second someone believes one type of disinformation it becomes extremely, extremely, becomes much easier to get them to believe other types of disinformation. It becomes easier for them to mistrust and to have a distrust of society, of their community, of institutions at large. And it's a really, really, really difficult thing to stop or turn back.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you talk a little bit about that freedom of speech trade off? Because within the legal academy, which is my background, there's this idea that the answer to offensive speech is more speech. In other words, the way to counter hateful rhetoric and misinformation is to make sure that reliable information has a chance to compete. Is that just hopelessly naive in this day and age?

Esosa Osa:

I think it is a hopeful take on a former world. What we are, and again it depends on what we're talking about and when we're talking about it. We had four years of the person with the highest reach, the biggest platform, the President of the United States telling lies on the largest stage.It is very difficult to trump the largest amplification position in the world. And we are in a situation where, as online information very, very much disrupts the equilibrium of what we're talking about. When we know that when lies can spread as quickly as they can spread online, that hey, if we could get the truth to spread as quickly maybe we'd have an argument there. But that's not the way these platforms work, that's not the way we are wired to share information. And folks that are trying to push out more truth in order to kind of combat those lies are at a structural disadvantage when it comes to how social media platforms in this day and age just operate.

Ken Harbaugh:

Let's talk about how they operate, because I think the naivete among the first amendment zealots, and I'm quite a zealot when it comes to the first amendment but I'd like to think I'm realistic as well, is that the marketplace of ideas can handle this. But that only applies if there's a competitive marketplace. How do the platforms we're talking about, let's start with Facebook, undermine the marketplace of ideas? How do they manipulate human psychology to amplify disinformation?

Esosa Osa:

I think that's a great question. And I think one of the statistics that kind of shows this is Facebook's own data, their own research has shown that 64% of the people that joined a militia group on Facebook did so because of Facebook's recommendation systems that led them there. So more than well over half of the people that were led to, that are joining extraordinarily problematic and violent groups on this platform are, Facebook themselves have said, are only doing so because we have led them there.

And it is not an equal marketplace, it's not a free marketplace of ideas, if people don't have access to the full marketplace or that marketplace is not reflective of society. These platforms are not reflective of what's going on in society. It is not like going to a public square in your community where there would be people of all types of backgrounds or ideas, where people with all types of voices could speak. They are pushing people into tribes, and amplifying the most emotional of the types of messages that are pushed. And they are changing behavior to prey on fears and stoke grievances that lead those that are most susceptible to this type of manipulation and down a very dangerous path. That is not what happens in the public square at all.

Ken Harbaugh:

And they're doing it for profit. You could ascribe mal intent to some of the execs and operators, but what's behind it is the market pressure to keep eyeballs on the platform, to generate clicks. And these kinds of algorithms do that, right? It's about money.

Esosa Osa:

It's about money, and it's about, and to your point, what brings that profit is increasing levels of engagement. And we know, and Facebook knows, and all these platforms know that the way to engage people, that those types of emotions that are going to lead people to stay on your platform, to not move to another platform… a lot of that is fear, is anger, is outrage. Some, and an unfortunate smaller percentage of that, is like, oh, this makes me really happy. And so I made an effort on my own Facebook page too constantly like. Like I'm talking baby pictures, I'm talking community stuff, I'm talking pictures of cats and dogs.

Ken Harbaugh:

I've noticed.

Esosa Osa:

Yes. It is like an actual effort to tell Facebook that these are the posts that I like. And what was so surprising was to see, during I would say the peak of the COVID vaccine versus not vaccine debate that was being had, to see Facebook actually start sending me notifications of when the people that were Facebook friends that were anti-vac, not only whenever they posted, but whenever they replied to a post. And I found it incredibly disturbing that Facebook not only… was actively trying to send me to the Facebook friends I had that would make me most angry, or make me most upset. I'm not going to engage with this content. I'm not going to try to have a battle with a Facebook friend on whether or not on why I disagree with their vaccine views. But it wasn't even that they were showing it to me in my feed, they were literally sending me notifications- “We want you to click on this, we want you to see this, we think this is better, this is the type of content that you want.” And I just found that to be both fascinating and disturbing, because if that's what they're showing me, what are they showing my friends, my family, my community?

Ken Harbaugh:

So if the marketplace of ideas isn't sufficient any longer to allow the truth to bubble up to the top, to over time put down the disinformation campaigns because bad info is punished. Well no longer, but that's how the marketplace of ideas used to work. What do we do about it? We're getting to regulation here, right? This is not a free marketplace anymore, they don't function in the presence of monopolies. What's the alternative?

Esosa Osa:

So there is obviously a need to hold social media platforms accountable in a way that we are fundamentally, we seem to be unwilling to do. That means holding them to the same standards as we hold news organizations. That means, in many cases, breaking them up. I think all of the remedies are known and have been known for a while. It requires a will, and it also requires us to not let these platforms off the hook. When we see people that are committing atrocities with guns in our society are using these platforms to spread that type of content, making it very... Not letting those platforms off the hook when those types of things happen, demanding accountability when those types of things happen, when we see hate spreading on these platforms. Holding them accountable when we see ads, when we see Facebook allowing the worst of the worst of society to advertise inside private groups, to make sure we're holding them accountable.

So we need to be very serious and consistently pressure these platforms, and have regulation around these platforms, absolutely. But there is a broader societal problem here that has become worse from what the platforms have done, from what individuals have done, from the propaganda that has spread in society. And this is why spreading disinformation in a democracy is so dangerous, because the solution for that is to broadly raise the level of skepticism in a community, in a society. To increase the level of the likelihood that someone probes the information that they see, that double checks to increase, to not believe the first thing that they see. And the problem with fundamentally raising or increasing the level of skepticism of an entire community, of an entire society, is you have to increase that level of skepticism for everything, including our institutions, including our leaders, including what we consider to be our very kind of foundation as a country. And so there's a reason that bad actors, anti-democratic actors, push propaganda, push disinformation into democracies, because the consequence of the fix for it is to lessen people's belief that democracy is actually the answer, lessen people's trust in institutions at large. And that's what you see in a lot of the countries that have, the few that have successfully kind of pushed this back. That's what we're likely to see here.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'd like you to offer some on the ground perspectives on the stakes of that loss of faith in institutions. I mean, you alluded to it in terms of vaccine skepticism, and that's a life and death thing. We've lost over a million Americans because of a lot of these disinformation campaigns. But your frontline work is on democracy protection. And what are you seeing in places like Georgia when people not only lose faith in democracy, but think that the institution itself is undermining their franchise? What is happening in Georgia at polling places when this disinformation hits the streets?

Esosa Osa:

So what we are seeing in Georgia, and I think what we're seeing across the country, is like the next step problem of disinformation. The amplification of disinformation was really like a first step problem. We're now seeing a second step here, which is the saturation of disinformation into our communities, and what that means and what that looks like. And when that disinformation has been saturated into individuals, into communities and it moves offline, it moves into people that believe these conspiracies meeting, wanting to take matters into their own hands, what we're seeing is grassroots efforts across the country and in Georgia of people that believe the election conspiracies trying to challenge voters in mass. Trying to become, or not trying, becoming poll watchers, becoming poll workers, finding ways to disrupt the democratic process. We're seeing them want to, demanding, replacing conservatives on boards of elections with conspiracy theorists who have no interest in certifying elections. That we're going to see the impact of what it looks like when we've saturated this faction of our society with disinformation. And it's going to look like a significant disruption of our democratic process. And it's going to look like individual vigilantes taking these matters into their own hands in a lot of different places. So we have to massively expand what it means to protect voters in this type of system, in this current.

Ken Harbaugh:

So Esosa, you recently posted on Twitter about these vigilante voter purges. Can you tell us what's going on there?

Esosa Osa:

Yes, yes I can, absolutely. What we're seeing in Georgia, what we've seen is the consequences of these lies. We saw post 2020 and into 2021 the passing of SB 202 in Georgia, one of the most restrictive voting bills passed in the country. One of the components of that, of this new law in Georgia, is making it far easier for any individual to challenge the ability to vote of an unlimited number of voters. So a single individual in Georgia can challenge the ability of thousands of people to remain on the rolls. And that's despite this process already, a process of voterless maintenance already being executed by the Secretary of State in Georgia every single year. These vigilante efforts to purge voters from the roles are fundamentally unnecessary. But what the law in Georgia allows is for a single person to go into their board of elections and challenge thousands of voters. And we know that it is risking the ability of voters to remain on the rolls, because we're seeing individuals have to show up at board of election meetings with two days' notice. We're seeing unhoused people have to pause their lives within 48 hours to show up at a board of election meeting and plead for their right to vote. And these folks are incredibly distressed as to how a single person that they've never met, never heard of, never interacted with, can challenge their fundamental right to make their voice heard in our society. It's an incredibly intimidating and harassing tool that this law has given these vigilante voter purgers in Georgia, and we have to do everything in our power to fight back against it.

Ken Harbaugh:

So Esosa, I want to transition to what we actually do about it. You've painted a pretty grim picture, but it's not like we lack agency here. We are players in this drama, and I think we can, well, I hope we can do more than just click on cat pics and baby pictures on Facebook. Although I love that idea, I'm going to follow your lead. What are the guidelines? I have a couple in front of me from Fair Fight Action, but there are some pretty simple ground rules for not amplifying disinformation. Can you give us the primer?

Esosa Osa:

Yes, absolutely. I think that we need to be much more studious about what we share on our platforms and what we allow to spread. So never amplifying bad information, never amplifying disinformation. Not sharing these videos of violent rhetoric, of lies. Not even to debunk it, not even to condemn it, because we know that the amplification itself is far more dangerous. And what we don't want to do is allow, is spread that type of content into our own communities, which is what we end up doing when we spread these things widely. So we are not retweeting, we're not quote tweeting, we're not amplifying in any way these things into our network.

The second is making sure that we are always highlighting not just what these lies are, but why people are telling these lies. What are the motivations behind what we're seeing? That's a far more effective way to push back than trying to debunk someone, is saying that, hey, they're doing this because they think they're going to lose the election. Or, hey, we're only seeing this because they're trying to raise money off of you, or what have you. Those types of responses are far more successful. We want to make sure that we are uplifting positive democratic norms in our society.

At the end of the day, we are talking about a very small faction of folks that are pushing so much of this, and making sure that folks know that that is not the norm in a democracy. That is not the norm in our democracy. That the overwhelming number of people reject these claims, reject these ideas. We don't want to make it seem that they are just as large as the other side, because at the end of the day that is fundamentally untrue. But the more we amplify, as I said earlier, the more likely people are going to believe that it's true. And second, that people are going to believe other believe it's true at a very, very high level.

And so making sure that we are reinforcing democratic norms whenever we can, that we are not amplifying disinformation, that we are, in our own communities, that we are not allowing the fact that someone may believe these lies, that we're not completely cutting them out of our society, that we're leaving them some type of off ramp to rejoin the broader community. Because without that type of off ramp, folks will be pushed deeper and deeper and deeper into these bad spaces. And so we have to treat this like a public health problem, and not just push truth, but push reconciliation as a cure. To make sure we're lowering the temperature, make sure we're not amplifying what we're seeing, and making sure that we are providing off ramps to the folks that do believe this.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think those are great guidelines, and I love the analogy to a public health crisis. But it's really, really difficult. And I am totally guilty here, because sometimes you see something from the extreme right, you see a post, and your immediate reaction is to call it out. Because the assumption is that everyone is going to see it the way you do, and they'll be as appalled as you are. And so you tag the video, and you say, "Look at this, isn't this outrageous? We have to call this out." I hope you have some sympathy with that reaction. And you've said it already, it's not the right reaction, but gosh, how do we train the good guys to not respond so reflexively or emotionally to the stuff that's out there?

Esosa Osa:

Absolutely. Again, it's propaganda, disinformation, these are what we push in democratic societies because as long as people are free to spread them they're going to have the intended effect. And so we can make a lot of progress by making sure that our news organizations, that are legitimate news organizations, are following best practices as it relates to disinformation or not. Are being judicious in the headlines that they're using, are choosing to not amplify content that is meant to manipulate media into spreading that content, and being judicious ourselves.

We have all retweeted, pushed out information that we were trying to condemn. And it is going to take a level of education and of responsibility, not just ourselves but from these platforms, to understand that that is a far more dangerous response then making sure that those posts can come down, then making sure, then reporting that tweet or that image or that video is being against the guidelines of the platforms in our communities. So I'm not saying it's an easy fix, we have all been guilty of it. But we can actually have an impact in what our own community sees by making an effort not to spread that type of content.

Ken Harbaugh:

One of the bullets in your list of guidelines says the momentum is on your side. How are you feeling going into '22, beyond that into '24, and longer term? I put a lot of hope in your generation to fix what our generation messed up, but where is your sense of optimism?

Esosa Osa:

Ooh, Lord have mercy. What still gives me hope, what is still true today, is that the anti-democratic efforts we are seeing across the board are because we have actually won the war of ideas. We've won the culture. So many of these fights can no longer be fought on a simple policy to policy perspective, because the overwhelming amount of this country, the momentum is on our side. They believe in a progressive future. And so the only response is to deny that majority its ability to exercise its voice. And so we see this attack on our institutions, on voting, on what we see gerrymandering. We see them use the courts, we see them using incredibly undemocratic ways to push what they are pushing. And when you combine those anti-democratic efforts with disinformation propaganda, it is in many ways the last gasp of fascism, it is when they have their backs to the wall, when they have no other choice.



I say all the time that disinformation is a tool for fools and anarchists. When it is your only tool left in the toolbox, when you have lost the war of ideas, you are risking eroding your own support, your own base, your own society, because you have no other choice. And so I think that if we can push through, both in 2022 and 2024, I think we will be in a position to make sure the voices of the overwhelming majority of this country win out for a very long time. And that's the only reason that they are pushing so hard right now, their backs are against the wall and they have lost the war of ideas.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I share your optimism and we just have to execute in '22, '24, and beyond. Esosa, it's been great having you on.

Esosa Osa:

Thank you so much, Ken. I really appreciate it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Esosa for joining me. You can find her on Twitter at @Esosa_Osa

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected] We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter @team_harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

View Less

Recent Episodes

View All

LTC Alexander Vindman: Fighting Authoritarianism

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:86
In 2019, Alex provided testimony that led to Donald Trump’s first impeachment, and foreshadowed Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine....
Listen to LTC Alexander Vindman: Fighting Authoritarianism

Representative Pat Ryan: The Backlash after Dobbs

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:85
Pat Ryan discusses his successful special election campaign, and the nationwide surge in support Democrats have seen in response to the Dobbs deci...
Listen to Representative Pat Ryan: The Backlash after Dobbs

Jason Kander: Getting Help Saved My Life

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:83
Jason Kander discusses his new Memoir, Invisible Storm...
Listen to Jason Kander: Getting Help Saved My Life

Jim Obergefell: The Battle for Marriage Equality

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:82
Jim was the lead plaintiff in the 2015 Supreme Court that ruled same-sex couples are guaranteed the right to marry. Now he’s running for the Ohio ...
Listen to Jim Obergefell: The Battle for Marriage Equality