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In Reality

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“In Reality” debunks fake news and elevates the innovative researchers, entrepreneurs, journalists and policymakers who are fighting back against toxic misinformation. Co-hosts Joan Donovan, research director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media and Public Policy, and Eric Schurenberg, an award-winning journalist and former CEO of Fast Company, engage guests in enlightening conversations about solutions to this scourge and the path back to a shared reality. 

31 Episodes
Welcome to In Reality, the podcast about truth, disinformation and the media. I’m Eric Schurenberg, a longtime journalist, now executive director of the Alliance for Trust in Media.One of my long-held assumptions is that everyone seeks the truth. They may be derailed in that quest by false information, but the ultimate goal is factuality. Today’s guest begs to differ. Dannagal Goldthwaite Young is Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Delaware, a frequent voice in the poplar press, the author of scores of academic articles and two books, most recently Wrong: How Media, Politics and Identity Drive our Appetite for Misinformation, available for pre-order on Amazon. Professor Young, who also goes by Danna, argues that people’s goal in consuming media isn’t understanding exactly, rather, it’s feeling like we understand feeling like we are part of a like-minded community. We’ll discuss that distinction, along with why our political and media institutions highlight outrage and division, about why Republicans are more susceptible to empirically inaccurate information, about the virtue of intellectual honesty, the role of trust, and what media and everyone else should do differently to get along in a diverse democracy. This episode was produced by Tom Platts
When I talk to people about the mission of In Reality, I frequently am told, “Media is so corrupt. Why do you bother.” In some circles, it seems that hating professional media is just a reflex, like saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Nothing personal.Today’s guest is one of the best living rebuttals I can think of to this kind of blanket condemnation of the media.  He is Nick Thompson, the CEO of The Atlantic and one of journalism’s most distinguished practitioners. Before The Atlantic, he was the editor-in-chief of Wired, a writer and editor at The New Yorker, and co-founder of The Atavist, a digital magazine that told long-form stories in graphic formats. Publications under his leadership have won numerous National Magazine Awards and Pulitzer Prizes, and one Wired story that he edited was the basis for the movie Argo, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2012. Nick is now co-founder of a Saas company, Speakeasy AI, formerly Narwhal, a software platform designed to foster constructive online conversations about the world’s most pressing problems.  Nick and I talk about truth and objectivity as a journalistic goal, about the gulf in background and worldview between journalists and some audiences, about how The Atlantic does its best to make sure its stories are fair, and about how Nick curates his own news feed and his own writing to minimize bias.  And now, here’s Nick ThompsonThis episode was produced by Tom Platts
In politics, you can understand why some voters align themselves with claims that don’t bear up under scrutiny. In politics, there are other forces at work than factuality, like tribal identity and moral narratives. But science is different—or ought to be. And yet trust in science has stumbled, along with media and government. So… why? And what’s the fix? Today, I’ll take that up with two eminent advocates of scientific truth: Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Vidar Helgesen, Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation. We cover the role of anti-vax dogma and climate denialism; whether science has oversold its ability to deliver answers; the fraught relationship between scientists and journalists; why Europeans trust science more than Americans do; and the reasons for hope. We spoke on the eve of a Nobel Summit on Truth, Trust and Hope, and I hope you’ll enjoy it. If you share our concern for truth and democracy, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. It will help spread the message. And please give me feedback at I’d love to hear from you, in truth. And in reality. This episode was produced by Tom Platts
We in the media tend to be pretty good at admiring the problem of disinformation, not so good at countering it.  So a plan for countering falsehoods in the public sphere is one of the things that makes today’s guest, Sander van der Linden, so intriguing. Van der Linden is a professor of Social Psychology in Society at the University of Cambridge and the author of Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects our Minds and How to Build Immunity. The analogy of infection and its remedy through immunity recurs a lot in his research, and more important, it points a way towards making you and me and audiences resistant to manipulation. Sander and I talk about deconstructing conspiracy thinking; about recognizing the tools of information manipulation; about the power of pre-bunking vs. debunking; about how to talk with people of different political beliefs, and much more. If you enjoy the episode, please leave a review and a rating. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Eric.Foolproof: Why We Fall for Misinformation and How to Build Immunity (Hardback)This episode was produced by Tom Platts
In this special episode, recorded at this years Dublin Tech Summit, Eric is joined by Sean O hEigeartaigh, acting director of the Centre for the study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University. For a dozen years, his research has focused on AI and other emerging technologies. Sean and Eric discuss what generative AI means for the information landscape; how to react to the deep reservations that AI developers have expressed; the lessons we should take from the debacle of social media; and what life will be like in a future of ever more capable AI. 
When too many people believe in things that aren’t true, democracy suffers. Democracy also suffers when people refuse to believe what is true, just because it appeared in the mainstream media. For all its failings—the unacknowledged biases, the inevitable errors, the pandering—professional journalism serves a key role in a democracy, and so the reflexive mistrust in the fourth estate is worrisome. Getting at the root cause of that mistrust has occupied today’s guest, Benjamin Toff, for the better part of the past three years. Ben heads up the Trust in News Project, a global research effort funded by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The project’s reports have examined the issue from many different angles, most recently delving into the highly fragile relationship that marginalized communities around the world have with mainstream media. It is, let’s just say, a complicated problem, but we unpack for you in this conversation. 
You don’t have to go too deep on the topic of disinformation before you stumble into a question that philosophers have wrestled with for centuries: How do we know what we know?  That’s when it’s good to have a philosopher in the room, and we are lucky today to welcome Åsa Wikforss, a professor of theoretical philosophy at Stockholm University and the leader of a multi-pronged international research effort called the Knowledge Resistance project. Åsa will be speaking in Washington from May 24th through to the 26th at a conference called Truth, Trust and Hope, put on by the Nobel Prize Summit series. It’ll be live-streamed, so check it out in the link below. In today’s conversation, Asa and I will explore why some people are more likely than others to resist available knowledge; we’ll cover the essential role of trust in how humans trade information; and we’ll discuss the difference between reality check dynamics and feedback loop dynamics as journalism models. Nobel Prize Summit 2023: Truth, Trust and HopeKnowledge ResistanceSign up to receive updates by email when a new episode drops at: Follow on Twitter: @notyourusualDrCreated & produced by Podcast Partners:
Social media platforms know a ton about who you are from your online behavior, but there’s one thing they can’t yet know: what you’re thinking at any given moment. That is the last stronghold of privacy in the digital age, except our next guest believes that could be about to fall, too. Nita Farahany is a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University and a leading scholar on the social implications of new technologies. Her new book, The Battle for Your Brain, discusses rapid advances in neurotechnology, the marriage of brain science and AI and what it means for us all. In our conversation, Nita and I cover what exactly science can infer about your thoughts from brain data, about the risk that poses to mental privacy, and how we can avoid with this new technology the kinds of errors we made with social media.
It’s received wisdom today that tribalism, confirmation bias and other mentalerrors are deeply embedded in human nature. And once social media began exploiting these forces, truth didn’t stand a chance. Well, not so fast. Today’sguest is David Rand, professor of management and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. To cite a very incomplete list of his accolades, he has been recognized by the Arthur Greer Memorial Prize for Outstanding Scholarship; the Poynter Institute, which named him fact-checking researcher of the year,and just this past fall by the Thinkers 50 Radar List. His research bridges cognitive science, behavioral economics and social psychology, and from that vantage, he argues that consumers of media have more free will than you might think and that there are ways out of our information dystopia. Dave and I will cover the role of distraction in the spread of misinformation, how fact-checking might actually scale, and why Americans are actually receptiveto other points of view, if you just give them a chance.
The first casualty of polarization is not truth, perhaps, but rather empathy. Your opponent is not just wrong, but contemptible, their behavior not just troubling to you but beyond comprehension. These are earmarks of what today’s guest calls high conflict, and it characterizes much public discourse today. Amanda Ripley is a journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic, among other places, and is the author of the book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Can Get Out. She’s also the co-founder of Good Conflict, a non-profit that trains organizations to keep normal disagreement from turning toxic. Amanda and I talk about the difference between good conflict and high conflict, why anger is fine but contempt is not, why the apparent cause of high conflict is rarely the real story, and why journalists need help not just covering conflict but managing it in their own newsrooms. 
At one point in the post-truth era, fact-checking seemed like the way back to a shared reality. Just get evidence-based truth out there, and disinformation would slink away in disgrace. Snopes, Kinzen, Meedan and others are built on that belief. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Falsehood still seems to have the drop on truth. So, today’s guest joins me to help us understand why. Angie Drobnic Holan is a journalist and long-time editor-in-chief of Poltifact, one of the world’s premier fact-checkers. She was also recently named a Nieman Fellow at Harvard to examine the role of journalism in democracy. Angie and I will cover the role of fact-checking in social media today; the case for and limits of objective truth; and the practice of fact-checking when evidence is evolving, as in the case of the origins of Covid-19.
Outside the friendly confines of this podcast, it’s hard to talk about truth and media without the discussion turning emotional. These are incendiary topics, which is why it’s especially useful to be able to draw on cool analysis. This is how many people characterize the work of this episode’s guest, Michael Rich, president emeritus of the think tank RAND Corporation and co-author of one of the seminal books on facts and media in American public discourse, written with fellow RAND analyst Jennifer Kavanaugh, Truth Decay. Truth Decay was published in 2019, and the analytical framework that it proposed still holds true four years later. In this episode, Michael and Eric discuss the four forces that he believes caused truth to decay in public life; why the current period of misinformation started much earlier than you think; and how media endured several earlier periods of mistrust and how it recovered each time.
You can’t get more than a few minutes into any conversation about trust in media today before Walter Cronkite makes an appearance. People say they long for those days when everyone believed TV news, their hometown daily gave facts without slant, and CBS news reader Cronkite was the most trusted person in America. Well, to paraphrase Cronkite’s signature signoff, that’s not the way it was. He was never the most trusted man, just the facts news was almost never the profession’s default setting, and when it was, it made for pretty thin journalism. This episode’s guest, Professor Michael Schudson of Columbia Journalism School, has written or co-authored 15 books about the history and sociology of the American media landscape and he brings a historical lens to the question of what news was, is, and ought to aspire to be. In this episode, Eric and Michael cover the myth of news media’s golden age, the thorny question of objectivity, journalism as a check on tyranny, and what an informed citizen in a liberal democracy really needs to know.
One of the goals of In Reality is to introduce our listeners to people who are on the front lines of the battle against disinformation. But battles have casualties, and Nina Jankowicz is one of them. Nina is a highly respected expert on Russian disinformation strategies and the author of two books, How to Lose the Information War and How to Be a Woman Online. In the spring of 2022, the Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of what it called the Disinformation Governance Board to coordinate the department’s defenses against networked propaganda, and named Nina as director. Disinformation forces attacked instantly. Social media was swamped by figures inside and outside of government  who deliberately mischaracterized the role of the board and Nina’s qualifications to run it. After two weeks of unrelenting attacks, the D.H.S. dissolved the board, and Nina resigned. In this episode, Eric and Nina talk about how it felt to go through that, why the D.H.S. was so helpless in the face of a homegrown disinformation attack, and about the personal attacks that besiege Nina to this day. They also cover the failures of the social media giants to police their own sites, the true meaning of free speech, and what the U.S. can learn from European democracies about countering disinformation.
Polarization has reached such a fever pitch in the United States that each side of the political divide sees the other as an existential threat to democracy. Partisans use the same pejoratives to describe the other’s beliefs: arrogant, uninformed, incomprehensible. But what if people are wrong about what the other side thinks? What if we’ve actually got more in common? This idea has come up before on In Reality with the survey firm Populace, but its best-known support derives from work done by the global research firm, More in Common. Today, host Eric Schurenberg joins the co-founder and CEO of More in Common, Mathieu Lefevre, to discuss the gaps in perception between what people think the other side thinks and what they really do, why those gaps persist, whether More in Common is subject to its own confirmation bias, and why content moderation is a losing game.
If social media platforms don’t directly cause polarization, they do, at least, give oxygen to smoldering divisions that can erupt into tragedies like the Myanmar genocide, Brexit, and January 6th. Why is social media so effective at unleashing the worst in us, and how do we break its hold? This episode’s guest, Christopher Bail, pursues those questions as the director of Duke University’s Polarization Lab. He’s also the author of Breaking the Social Media Prism, which was named one of the top five non-fiction books of 2021. Chris and host Eric Schurenberg discuss the role of status-seeking on social media, the personality types most susceptible to online radicalization, and an intriguing experimental platform his team designed that actually encouraged civil discourse.
At some point in conversations about the media, somebody inevitably says, “I just want a single source of true, instantaneous, and uplifting information so that I don't have to think about it.” The longing is understandable—but let's get real. In this era of unlimited and ungoverned information, you have to construct your own trusted news environment and weed out what is unreliable. Helping people do that is the mission of today’s guest, Alan Miller, the founder of The News Literacy Project. This 14-year-old non-partisan organization trains students and adults on how to tell fact from fiction in media. Together, Eric and Alan talk about standing up for factuality in a world of alternate realities, remaining non-partisan while defending truth, and how to have constructive conversations with those who disagree with you.
How to Market Chaos

How to Market Chaos


A lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots. Everyone has heard that chestnut, but Sinan Aral has actually proved it. He was one of the first to warn about the corrosive effects of social media with a celebrated Science Magazine cover story, a seminal book, The Hype Machine, and a vast study showing that fake news spreads faster and farther than the truth. Sinan is a marketing, IT, and data science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so he sees disinformation through the lens of marketing. In this episode, we will also discuss what Sinan calls “the end of reality” in political discourse, the role of professional media in its own demise, and the strategies democracies need to take to defend the truth.
It’s a feature of our polarized world today that each side of the political spectrum refers to the extremists on the other side as members of a cult. Those are fightin’ words, sure, but you can understand the feeling. People are going down rabbit holes of bizarre, sometimes apocalyptic beliefs; they are alienating themselves from family and from every source of information but other true believers. Today’s guest Steven Hassan, founder of the Freedom of Mind institute knows destructive cults when he sees them because he’s a cult survivor himself. He’s the author of several books on the topic, including his latest, called the Cult of Trump—just in case you wanted the reassurance of the relevance to today’s political scene. Dr. Hassan and I will talk about how cults recruit, why he believes Trump is an instinctive cult leader; the many sub-cults that he believes make up today’s political landscape, whether there are cults on the left as well, and how you can tell whether you are perhaps being subject to undue influence yourself.
If you are a Democrat, have you ever espoused the slogan “Defund the Police?” If you’re a Republican, do you agree with politicians who claim that 2020 presidential election was stolen? If you said yes, you may well be operating under a “collective illusion,” a widespread mental phenomenon in which people take positions in public they privately don’t actually believe, because they think that everyone else in their group does believe it. The implications for the spread of disinformation these days are obvious. In this episode of In Reality, host Eric Schurenberg talks with Todd Rose, co-founder of the think tank Populace and the author of a fascinating book called ‘Collective Illusions.’ The conversation covers a mind-boggling range of common public beliefs that almost no one privately believes (who knew?). Todd also explains why it’s so important for your own mental health and the health of democracy to speak your own authentic truth – and how to do that without getting yourself shunned by your in-group.
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