The Panelist Perspective: Digital Threats to Democracy

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By Jaylin R. Smith and Xander Norris

About Andy Kroll:
Andy Kroll is an investigative reporter for ProPublica, a news organization that exposes abuses of power and publishes journalism in the public interest. He is the author of the new book A DEATH ON W STREET: THE MURDER OF SETH RICH AND THE AGE OF CONSPIRACY. The novel delves deep into the death of DNC staffer Seth Rich, the explosion of conspiracy theories about his life and murder, and how his family battled the most powerful media organization in the world to defend the truth and seek justice.

Q&A:

To start, could you please talk a little bit about your career as an investigative journalist in Washington, D.C.?

It’s been a fascinating, perplexing, never dull for a single moment, 12 or 13 years to live in Washington D.C.; I feel like being here in the time I’ve been here has been like living through history in real-time. If you look at the Tea Party, the response to the financial crash, you look at Donald Trump’s election, January 6th, obviously the racial protests in the summer of 2020. I couldn’t have been put in a better place to not just witness but write about all these historical events than where I am. I’m very lucky for that. Yeah, there are certain days where I can’t believe that someone pays me to do what I get to do because I love to do it anyway, and it’s such a privilege and opportunity to make a living writing about all the stuff we live through every single day.

What inspired you to write “A Death on W Street”?

Eventually, a point came where I thought to myself, you know, the story of all this stuff happening, with Seth and his family, and politics is its own story. There’s something larger going on here. I haven’t figured out what it is, but I need to because that’s what we do when we are investigative reporters. So I set out on a five-year journey basically to figure out how this guy, who I kinda knew on a personal level, became a national and international news story, conspiracy theory, and Fox News talking point.

This is a story that went all the way into the White House, the CIA, and the campaign trail. It reached the highest heights of American politics. That’s what the book is about. It’s about how Seth’s life and death became this completely other, different, strange, enormous thing. And then what that says about American politics, social media, and our democracy on a much larger scale.

Can you touch on the conspiracy theory culture in America and why Seth’s death gave way to a lot of conspiracies?

A lot of people in this country were primed to believe certain things about both of the political candidates who were running in 2016. There was 20 or 30 years of conspiracy theorizing about Hillary Clinton, who was the democratic nominee, going back to Bill Clinton who was the Governor of Arkansas and the President for two terms. There was a whole cottage industry of people and self proclaimed experts and other odd ball characters who had this very strange and fantastical set of beliefs about the Clintons and the same about Democrats and Liberals about Donald Trump; that he was somehow a covert Russian agent and that he has ties to the mob and all kinds of other theories.

When people are primed to believe these things, when some real event comes along that isn’t neatly tied up with a bow like Seth Rich’s murder because people who pulled the trigger weren’t found immediately and still haven’t been found, that opened the door for all those people primed to believe that the Clintons were somehow killing their political opponents, that they were somehow behind Seth’s killing. Something for which there is no evidence. But, there is a human psychological element to this when people are already predisposed to hold these fantastical conspiracy theories they see something real happen in the world and their mind jumps to the more elaborate theory that they want to believe versus the more obvious or common sense explanation that holds less appeal to them.

In the book, you write about the grief that Seth’s family goes through after the death of their son. They are looking for any answers to help solve this murder. Talk about who the family put their trust in and what the outcome was of that?

The Rich family was not a family of political insiders. They did not work in politics. Seth’s parents – Joel and Mary Rich, live in Omaha. They thought it was great that their son was so involved in politics and really thought that was his passion, but it wasn’t necessarily their passion. After Seth is killed, they want, nothing more than to find out who did it. So they could get some kind of closure for this horrible, tragedy that has befallen them.

They were like any other set of parents in that regard; they wanted clarity, to find who killed Seth, and to be able to grieve in peace and then move on. They weren’t able to do that because, of all the things we’ve been talking about, because Seth’s story became this massive viral conspiracy theory. They did not know who to trust and who not to trust in the beginning because they were not deep in the world of media or politics.

They put their trust in several people who ultimately came to use that trust against Joel and Mary or at least in contradiction to their wishes to find answers to who killed Seth. In one case, there was a D.C. lobbyist that they trusted and who took that trust and exploited it. In another case, a Fox News commentator used that trust to try and promote a bogus story about Seth and the 2016 election. They tried to bring the conspiracy theory to full fruition via the big megaphone of Fox News.  

Can you talk about the connection that you built with the Rich family during the course of writing this book?

The Richs were extremely skeptical when I first approached them about writing about Seth’s story and their story. And when I mentioned that, I thought, that this entire saga could possibly be a book. They, on the one hand didn’t disagree because they had lived through it.  They start firsthand how complicated, this story was and all the disparate players that were brought together. But on the other hand, they just couldn’t fathom, the amount of cooperation that it would take to work with a reporter on an entire book, let alone a story. That would require a level of trust that I don’t think they were prepared to give anyone at the time that I first reached out to them. But what I’ve found as a journalist is that you can’t force that trust building process.

You can’t walk in the door, introduce yourself, tell someone what you’re working on and ask for their trust then and there. That is just not how it works, as anyone with a basic understanding of human psychology can understand. I knew that going in, I knew that there was a good chance they would say no and even in the off chance they said yes it would take a long time and I would have to really show them that I was not another one of these people to come along and exploit their grief, their story, and their experiences.

So I covered Joel and Mary’s lawsuits for a couple of years, I was just writing about them and I think through the publication of those stories, they saw that I was a journalist who had ethics and standards and just wanted to get the story right. And also cared about the story. And after a few years of conversations with them with their spokes person, with people who knew them as friends, old friends of Seths, those kind of, you know, one degree contacts, they eventually agreed to participate. They saw the usefulness of it and I think they put their trust in me and that I could do justice to Seth’s story, and also who he was. Tell a true accurate, empathetic version of who this young man was and not what the internet was claiming that he was.

How has writing this book changed you personally?

I think it’s made me more guarded about what I put on the Internet and how I’ve used social media platforms, and what I put on those social media platforms. Honestly, I have pulled back my use of Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. I’m not even on Instagram anymore, out of honestly just a weariness of my work, my name, my life being twisted into something that it’s not on those platforms because I saw exactly how that happened writing this book. I don’t think you can go through the reporting experience that I did, let alone the lived experience that the Rich’s did, without coming out on the other end quite a bit more cautious and a bit more wary of putting your whole life on the Internet.


About Andrea Hickerson:
Andrea Hickerson, PhD is the dean of the School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. A well-educated journalist, Hickerson has elevated to the highest level of higher learning by receiving degrees from Syracuse, University of Texas, and University of Washington, Seattle where she received her PhD in communication. Hickerson is internationally known for her research in Deep Fakes in the media where she presented her findings in Taiwan. Her work in journalism and technological practices has made her an impactful faculty member at both the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of South Carolina. As she continues her work at the University of Mississippi, her expertise makes her the ideal panelist for the Digital Threat to Democracy, an event hosted by the Overby Center of Southern Journalism and Politics on February 8, 2023.

Q&A:

So, what brought you to the University of Mississippi?

I was looking for an exciting place to work that was really open to growing. And that would be a kind of a good match for me. What’s been great about coming to the University of Mississippi is I feel like journalism is really important to the profile of the entire university. So here, we [have a] higher proportion of students on campus, which makes it really cool because I feel like we’re more integral to the flagship itself. So there’s that. And then also, I mean, Mississippi has an awesome history of journalism and narrative. And so that was very appealing to me to be going to this place with this great history and all this creativity potential.

Okay. So on a personal level what interests you about journalism itself?

I think it’s just an innate curiosity. I like to get to know people. I like to understand things or read about things I don’t know. So that was really it. I mean, journalism was a great reason to go ask somebody questions to figure out what’s going on. It started that way and I think it very much continued that way.

If you could, talk more about deep fakes and how they have been impactful in your studies.

So deep fakes are artificially generated videos. It’s both the visual part of the video and the audio part of the video. The problem with deep fakes is that if there is a really good deep fake, we wouldn’t be able to tell that it was faked. It looks like a video that looks real that’s not created by a computer. The concern about that is what happens if that’s passed off as something actually true. And what could be misled can manipulate our emotions, our attitudes about things, or maybe even our actions. So I’m interested in it from the journalism side of things. As you know, we’re a business of truth and explication. It’s very important for us to get stories right. My colleagues and computer scientists are interested in the technical problem about how do you actually detect if something has been faked or not? And so it’s been really neat to think about this collaboration as a tool that we’re building specifically for journalists. Because we have agreement that journalists are so key in establishing truth in the public, that we’re more at risk when they fall prey to misinformation.

During the time of social media, what are the risks of deep fakes?

I think there’s several risks because what are they being used for? It manipulates audiences a little bit. Social media can rapidly expand and amplify deep fakes. So they have an audience very quickly. A journalist, we would hope, would take some time to see if something is true or not before they publish it. But on social media, we don’t have those rules to do that. And one of the challenges is that, in fact, checking the correction doesn’t always get the circulation that the original misinformation does. And that would be true for deep fakes, too. People are going to remember that visual, and they’re not going to see a correction like this was manufactured, you know, this is actually not true.

Have you experienced misogyny as a woman in technology?

That’s a really great question. So the history of deep fakes comes out of misogyny, right. The earliest deep fakes are from pornography, where people were taking women and manipulating them or putting their, you know, different heads on bodies. Some of it was consensual, some of it wasn’t consensual, but the history of deep fakes comes out of that realm. I personally have not felt that however, I think when you look at who works in tech, it still is mostly men that work in tech. They’re not thinking about all the uses of technology, particularly as it relates to women. Some of that is very gendered, because the language when people turn on journalist intimidation for women is often sexual language. So that is a problem. And I think also, you know, there’s just not as many developers, people working in tech that are female. There are efforts to grow more in there. But there’s a lot that have had very bad experiences there. I think it’s important to have women in tech and actually part of the National Science Foundation grant that we have studying deep fakes.