The role of social media in the spread of hate speech

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Remembering the victims in New Zealand. (Wikipedia photo by “Natecull”)

Following the murder of 50 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a white supremacist from Australis, China Radio International devoted its weekly news round-up on March 22 to issues raised by the massacre of Muslims during services at two mosques. The discussion focused on the role of social media in the spread of hate speech and the power of the internet to radicalize the disaffected around the world.

Here are my answers to a series of questions posed by the hosts:

Q: Lots of tough questions are being asked about the role of social media in the wake of the horrific shooting at two New Zealand mosques. First of all, do you think this is an attack made by and for the internet?

A: Yes, this is a modern terrorist attack using the true definition of terror. It is designed to create fear and anxiety in the global public by making people think such mass murder and mayhem can happen anywhere. If it happened in New Zealand, is my own city safe?

The gunman was introduced to white supremacy hate material on the internet and was radicalized via the internet and social media. He chose New Zealand because it was a soft target and because he thought an attack there would have maximum impact.

Q: As the gunman decided he was going to use his camera as he began this terrible massacre, was there anything in social media to stop him?

A: Facebook live and other live-streaming sites cannot be blocked in advance. The only way it could have been stopped in advance is if his account had been suspended. After the attack was underway, police called Facebook and the live-streaming was stopped. But millions of video clips of the massacre had been shared. Such reactive measures don’t solve the problem.

Q: We know that underneath it all is white nationalism or white supremacy, a kind of racism that has always existed. What’s so special about the social media’s role in this?

A: Social media makes it easy for haters or all political ideologies to meet like-minded people and to reinforce their worst tendencies. Radicalization, whether it is Islamic extremism, Hindu extremism or white Christian supremacists, is easier on the internet. While government around the world, from the U.S. to Russia to China, have focused on potential Islamic terrorist threats, there has been little attention from governments on white supremacists in the U.S., Europe and the European colonial diaspora.

Q: What role is social media playing in the spread of extremism in today’s world?

A: Social media makes it easier to target fellow haters and share material with them. The problem is exacerbated by the algorithms of such platforms as Facebook and YouTube that suggest posts similar to the ones you are reading. Facebook and YouTube make money from the advertising, so they have little incentive to act as responsible corporate citizens. As a result, white supremacists can view one hate-inspiring video on YouTube, and YouTube abets their radicalization by suggesting other videos. I did research on anti-Jewish videos on YouTube and discovered how the YouTube algorithm opens door after door with Russian anti-Semitic videos and Middle Eastern and North African anti-Jewish diatribes.

Q: Association of New Zealand Advertisers and Commercial Communications Council said in a statement, quote “The event in Christchurch raise the question, if the site owners can target consumers with advertising in microseconds, why can’t the same technology be applied to prevent this kind of content being streamed live?” How do social media platforms like Facebook take down videos? Is it that they could not stop this or did not stop it?

A: This sharing of hate can be combatted. It requires two things. Social media platforms must spend more money and hire more humans to monitor hate speech and take down posts and videos that foment radicalization. And the platforms must be more aggressive at fighting white supremacists. Thus far, they are not nearly as committed to fight Christian extremists as they are Muslim extremists. Both are deadly and anti-social.

Q: Critics of the companies say that Facebook and YouTube have not done enough to address the white supremacist groups on their platforms. There was a time when ISIS videos and ISIS content and propaganda were proliferating on all of these platforms. They have been quite successful at tamping down on that content and making it far less a problem. Critics cite this as proof that the problem is well within the power of the companies. It’s just that they haven’t prioritized the problem of white supremacist content. Do you think that’s really the case? And why is that?

A: White nationalists in the U.S. have launched a public relations campaign, aided and abetted by Donald Trump, accusing Facebook, Twitter and YouTube of being liberal, anti-conservative and anti-Christian. One far-right American congressman recently sued Twitter for $250 million and accused it of anti-Republican and anti-conservative bias. The platforms must ignore these critics and their misdirection attempts and be as aggressive in combatting white supremacists as they are Islamic radicals. White nationalists have been responsible for far more deaths in the U.S. — of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, both white and black — than Islamic terrorists are. As you noted, it can be done. They are just not doing it effectively so far.

Q: These companies are American companies, and Islamophobia is somehow widespread in the US right now. Should we buy the argument that the business model will inevitably lead to this type of content no matter what?

A: I disagree that Islamophobia is widespread. It is contained within a narrow group. But it is encouraged by the hate tweets of Donald Trump and the irresponsible television propaganda of most Fox News shows.

Q: Do you think media, especially social media, has demonized the image of Muslims since 911?

A: No. Not most media. Remember that then-President George W. Bush went to a Mosque in Washington shortly after the September 11th attacks and called for brotherhood and understanding. There’s no doubt that anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. increased after 9/11, directed mostly at Saddam Hussein, who was not responsible for the attacks, and Saudi Arabia, which was home to most of the attackers and finances a radical brand of Islam. And, yes, there were sporadic attacks against Southwestern and South Asians, including a number of Hindus and Sikhs from India. It’s always bad to think of individuals as members of a group, whether they are Palestinians from Gaza or Uighurs from Xinjiang. That thinking, demonizing groups because of the misbehavior of a few, creates a risk of overreaction.

Q: Do these social media platforms see their responsibility as stopping this kind of material from being spread? Do they have an incentive to let extremist content remain on their platform as long as it’s profitable for them? (There’s a growing concern that the algorithms that determine what people are likely to see have become tilted toward promoting extremist content.)

A: Social media platforms must remember that they are corporate citizens and citizens of their nations and the world. Yes, they want to make money, and they have a human right to make money. But they also have a responsibility to the society at large. At this time, the scales are unbalanced and favor profits over social responsibility. That must change through persuasion and, if necessary, government regulation. That’s a dangerous road to go down, but it can’t be ruled out if self-regulation doesn’t work.

Q: New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, had some strong words for the social media companies that enabled the shooter to broadcast his massacre. She said: “They are the publisher, not just the postman.” That’s a challenge to the American view on social media. The Communication Decency Act originally passed in 1996 designates internet forums as carriers like a telephone company or postal worker rather than a publisher. What do you see as the role of social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter? Should they be held responsible for the speech that occurs on their platforms?

A: American laws are outdated. I covered that 1996 debate for Business Week, and the 1996 law was outdated almost as soon as it was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Telecommunications companies wanted, and received, protection against lawsuits. As the proliferation of internet and social media hate speech has shown, Google and Facebook and Twitter and Weibo and WeChat are publishers and not just mail deliverers. Facebook has replaced local newspapers, taking their readers, and even more, their advertisers. At a minimum, people who suffer damage as a result of their posts should be allowed to recover damages. The economic threat of damages might prompt the companies to enact reforms that they have not yet adopted because they face little economic risk for allowing hateful content to thrive on their platforms.

Q: There’s similar debate in the US. Republican Devin Nunes is suing Twitter and three users of the platform for defamation, claiming the users smeared him and the platform allowed it to happen because of its political agenda. He’s challenging the Communications Decency Act which protects internet service providers from defamation claims. How do you look at this lawsuit?

A: The suit is absurd on its face. It is not illegal to make fun of politicians and to criticize them sarcastically. This meets the definition of a frivolous lawsuit. That doesn’t mean that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 shouldn’t be changed to remove the protections written into it by a previous generation of internet giants, when there were no Facebooks, Twitters, YouTubes or even Googles.

Q: Some see the responsibility of social media companies as providing a platform for free speech. Do they have an obligation to remove the extremism content? Should there be a balance between the protecting the right to freedom of speech and preventing harm it can cause?

A: They have a moral responsibility to remove extremist hate speech. Most of the world, including the United States, protects freedom of speech. But the freedom of speech is not unlimited. You can’t threaten the life of a president or conspire to violate laws. What’s harder is to find these haters in the dark recesses of the internet and snuff out their dark conspiracies.

Q: Will it be a problem if social media platforms are given too much power over speech and thought online?

A: Yes, too much power in private hands is dangerous, as is too much power in government hands. But there’s a difference between controversial speech, like advocated Communism in the U.S. or feminism in China, and hate speech. There can be near-universal agreement that plotting violence, sharing information on building bombs or creating guns with 3D printers, or advocating violence against non-whites or non-Muslims, crosses the line into impermissible speech. Social media platforms have a moral duty to self-regulate when it comes to hate speech and violence.

Q: What do you make of the phenomenon of online radicalization? Should social media bear all the blame, or do you feel there are some deeper social problems behind this that’s perhaps too large for tech companies to fix on their own?

A: There are deep social problems. Radicals, include white supremacists in the U.S., have been emboldened by the statements of politicians like Donald Trump and Congressman Steve King. The tech companies can’t fix the problem on their own. Congress must act. But that doesn’t mean that social media platforms shouldn’t do their part and shouldn’t be leaders in encouraging a new era of civility.

Q: People used to conceive of “online radicalization” as distinct from the extremism that took form in the physical world. But do you feels that nowadays more extremists are getting radicalized online? If we look at how ISIS used social media to spread their propaganda, and how the “Yellow Vest” movement in France flourished on the social network.

A: As I tell my multimedia journalism students, digital platforms are merely a means to deliver your message. The root of hate speech is the same, whether it is shared in terrorist training camps in Pakistan or Somalia, in troll factories in Russia, or in basements and garages in rural America.

Q: Have Extremist groups in recent years been using social media as a recruitment tool? Who are their targets?

A: Their targets are alienated people, many of them young, who feel that they’ve been left behind by society, and they blamed others. Most of these people are less educated and many are struggling financially. Social media is an easy way to find a community of like-minded thinkers who make you feel better about yourself and point you toward groups to blame for your problems.

Q: An Op-Ed on Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan said: “Social media is full of swarming political and ideological mobs. In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence.” Do you think that’s a fair judgement of the online environment today?

A: Yes, Peggy Noonan makes a good point. These haters are not trying to convert people, they are trying to convince converts to act on their worst impulses.

Q: Do you agree with government intervention in preventing online extremism or hate speech on social media?

A: It’s always dangerous for governments to become involved in free speech, but hate speech is not protected anywhere, so a combination of government action and self-regulation by tech companies is needed.

Q: What do you make of the role of social media in today’s politics? Take Donald Trump, the twitter president, for example, some say he has weaponized the social media, using it not just to reach the masses but to control the news agenda through bluster and distraction. What’s your thought?

A: Trump has weaponized social media. I strongly believe that there is not more prejudice in America today than when Trump became president, but the haters and provocateurs who were there before have been emboldened and empowered by Trump’s words and actions. When he defends Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, by saying there are good and bad people on both sides of the white supremacy debate, that sends a message not only to neo-Nazis but to far-right Christians. When he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, something the American courts would not allow because it is an illegal religious test, he is sending a message to white supremacists. When he calls Mexicans rapists and drug-dealers, he is sending a message. Some of this is bluster. Some of it is an attempt to dominate each day’s news cycle. But the overall message is that white supremacists have a safe space to operate in corners of Trump’s America.

Q: President Trump claimed on Tuesday that social media companies are biased against Republicans. Is that really the case? Why is he saying that?

A: Every time a far-right media personality is sanctioned by social media authorities, Trump repeats this claim. It’s specious. But he has his right to free speech. Lying is not against the law, unless you do it to the Congress or the FBI or other law enforcement agencies.

Q: How do you see the social media’s impact on how politicians raise money and communicate with voters?

A: One of the good things about social media is that it helps you build communities of like-minded people. It has been a very effective tool for a few politicians, led by Donald Trump. On the Democratic side, social media has allowed Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman now running for president, to raise more campaign money in one day than all of the better-known candidates such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It has made freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to become the most-followed member of the U.S. Congress and to give voice to her brand of Democratic socialism. And it has allowed a humorous parody site called Devin Nunes’ Cow to have more followers than the California congressman it is skewering with its humor.

Q: There are of course positive aspects of social media, say, transparency, respect for individual rights and rejection of power imbalances. If we look at the bigger picture, how is social media transforming the use and misuse of power?

A: Like all forms of media, social media has good and bad. Think of the power of previous media such as radio and television. Radio brought entertainment to the masses in their own homes, and it allowed American president Franklin Roosevelt to reassure Americans at the depth of the Great Depression of the 1930s. But it also helped bring Hitler to power and to maintain his power. Television was hailed for its potential as an educational tool, but later become known as “the idiot box” for stupid programming. And the internet made research and communication easier than they had ever been, but it also monetized pornography and enabled terrorist groups to organize and thrive. Social media builds communities, but it also tears at society’s social fabric. All forms of media are a reflection of human beings, in their glory and their capacity for evil.


Election Analysis: Trump sacrifices House Republicans to strengthen GOP Senate majority

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A busy week of explaining the U.S. election to Chinese audiences.

China Radio International asked me to analyze the November 6 U.S. midterm elections. Instead of staying up all night watching the results in Washington, as I used to do during my 35 years of covering politics, I spent a day of my midterm (exam) week at Tsinghua University monitoring the returns, taking advantage of the 13-hour time difference to avoid sleep deprivation.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of my CRI Q&A:

Q: What’s your reaction to the election result?

A: It was exactly the result I expected. Donald Trump’s decision to divide the country along class and racial lines helped Republicans make gains in the Senate but it doomed them in the House. And I think Trump made a rational political decision: sacrifice the House to keep the Senate, where his nominees for executive office and the courts must be confirmed. This split verdict of the voters strengthens Trump as far as nominations are concerned, but it will make it hard for him to pass any legislation unless it is truly bipartisan. It also will subject him to aggressive oversight by the new Democratic committee chairmen in the newly Democratic House.

Q: To what extent do you think this is going to reshape the political landscape of America?

A: It confirms that 2016 was not a fluke and that Trump has realigned American politics. On the one hand, some suburban voters are switching to the Democratic Party, and women and younger voters are becoming more and more Democratic. But Trump has consolidated the realignment of white working-class voters and has managed to maintain the support of many educated white men in the suburbs. I think it means at least two more years of deeply divided politics and a focus by both parties on a few states that will determine the 2020 election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arizona and probably Florida.

Q: Donald Trump said two days before the elections that he planned to focus on the Senate. He declared the election results a “tremendous success” for Republicans. In what ways could this be a victory for Donald Trump?

A: Well, it’s a victory because he kept control of the Senate, and even strengthened the Republican majority. He is directly responsible for that with his highly charged rhetoric and his aggressive campaigning. Five new senators owe Trump their jobs. It means that Trump will have virtual carte blanche on nominations for administration positions and federal judgeships for the next two years.

Q: Do you think Donald Trump should be given the credit for Republicans keeping the Senate red?

A: Yes, he deserves credit. And so does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump figured out a way to motivate his base. Democrats were enthusiastic about going to the polls to vote against Republicans. They figured out a way, with the Supreme Court nomination fight over Brett Kavanaugh, to charge up Republican base voters. Trump understands the Trump voters better than the American media does.

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The Magic of MAGA? Trump charges up his troops … again.

Q: With divided leadership in Congress and a president who has taken an expansive view of executive power, is Washington going to see even deeper political polarization and legislative gridlock?

A: Because the Democrats control the House, there will either be bipartisanship or gridlock. Judging by Trump’s track record, I would bet on gridlock. Unless Trump completely changes his persona and suddenly becomes a statesman, Washington will devolve into gridlock and recriminations. The House will investigate Trump. The Senate will support Trump. The most likely compromises will come when Congress debates spending bills, because they have to figure out a way to agree to pay for government operations.

Q: The 2018 midterms are viewed by many as a national referendum on President Trump. Why is that? Is that what usually happens in the U.S.?

A: Midterms are rarely a referendum on the president. The 2010 midterms were a referendum on Obamacare and government spending to counteract the Great Recession. The 2006 midterms were not a referendum on George W. Bush but a rejection of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a saying in Washington that in Congress, all politics is local. In Donald Trump’s Washington, all politics is all Trump, all the time.

It was a referendum on Trump because he made it a referendum on himself. He could have made it a referendum on a strong economy, but he decided that dividing voters over issues such as immigration and judges would help Republicans keep the Senate. He was right about that, although Democratic Senate candidates got millions more votes than Republican candidates, and House Democratic candidates received a bigger majority of the two-party vote than either party has received since 2008. So the public spoke: Trump and Republicans are unpopular, but the American system, which gives each state two senators, benefits the smaller, more conservative states where Trump is popular.

Q: A survey released on the eve of the election shows that a quarter of Americans have lost friends over political disagreements and are less likely to attend social functions because of politics. What does it tell about the political environment in today’s American society?

A: It is toxic. I stayed off Twitter for much of the past week because there were too many angry people spending their time insulting each other. Social discourse in America is making people angry, depressed and divided. I hope that changes, but I’m not sure where the change will start.

Q: Why are we seeing more far-right activists using violence to express their political views, from the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democratic figures to the shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people?

A: Far-right activists feel empowered and emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and his successes. Trump is not responsible for crazed people who commit violent acts, but he does bear some responsibility for the lack of civility in public discourse and a failure to repudiate racial and religious hatred.

Q: Will the election result in any way influence the Trump administration’s trade policies?

A: I am an eternal optimist, and I think there’s a chance that Trump will try to cool down the rhetoric and try to find a negotiated settlement to the trade dispute with China. Election Day polling of voters found that only 25 percent of them believe that Trump’s trade policies are good for the American economy.

But it is also possible that, having declared victory, he will feel emboldened to continue to challenge traditional allies such as the EU and NATO, and get tough with China and even Russia, as we saw recently when he pulled out of the nuclear arms treaty.


Trump’s NAFTA gamble: A quick cost-benefit analysis

Here’s my quick take on Donald Trump’s hard-line negotiating style with Canada and Mexico over the future of the North America Free Trade Agreement. Trump thinks that he can wring concessions out of America’s two neighbors that would bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. It’s a very big gamble: The automakers might just build the cars elsewhere.

Here’s the video clip from CGTN’s World Insight with Tian Wei. Just click on the embedded link:

 


Best practices in multimedia journalism: NY Times video on ‘Dreamers’

As a professor of multimedia journalism, I tell my students about the importance of clear, concise storytelling — in whatever medium they choose. The New York Times has been leading the news industry in its use of multimedia platforms, from data visualization to videos that complement text stories.

This September 5, 2017, video was posted in the immediate aftermath of the Trump administration’s decision to end the so-called “DACA” program that protected children brought illegally into the United States from the threat of immediate deportation. Look at its production qualities. People speaking into the camera, stating their personal stories. The camera is the storyteller. There is a minimum of text on the screens. The storytelling is spare. And powerful.

Take a look.

https://static01.nyt.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000005403642


A Fourth of July analysis of Donald Trump’s first six months in power

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What is America’s place in the world on the first July 4 of the Trump administration?

As a regular analyst of American politics, policy and economics, I am often asked to explain Donald Trump to global audiences. Here is my Fourth of July segment on World Insight with Tian Wei:


Truth matters: A commencement address to Global Business Journalism Program graduates

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Here is the text of my address to the 2017 graduating class of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University on June 28, 2017.

大家好。Добрый день. Benvenuti. Welcome.

I am honored, on behalf of the International Center for Journalists and the international faculty of the Global Business Journalism Program, to congratulate all of you on your successful completion of your graduate studies.

You are a special group – the best young business journalism minds in China, along with a unique mixture of nations: Iran, Israel, Italy, Vietnam, Thailand, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Slovakia, Turkey, Russia, Canada, and the United States. Some of you already have made a mark on the world of business journalism during your Tsinghua years. I have great confidence that many more of you will have an impact in the years to come, in journalism systems as disparate as Iran, the United States and China.

All of us in this room have our differences – cultural, geographical, even political – but one thing that unites us is the search for truth. As Jim Asher, a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for his role in the Panama Papers investigation, said recently: “A world without facts can’t function.”

We live in an unsettling era when the concept of “truth” can be a matter of dispute. Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Donald Trump, has declared that the White House is entitled to its own “alternative facts.” Whatever that means.

To the graduating class of 2017 and your proud professors, that’s just plain nonsense. We owe it to the public, whether we operate in the United States, China, or anywhere around the world, to share the truth, as best as we can tell it, and to explain what the truth means to our audience. As the 2017 National Press Club president, Jeffrey Ballou, said to fellow American journalists in Akron, Ohio: “Truth is not a game at all.”

The esteemed Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, in Братья Карамазовы, The Brothers Karamazov, summed up the predicament of the perpetual prevaricator. “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie,” he wrote, “comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”

We must respect knowledge, respect truth, and respect ourselves. We owe it to the global public to use the knowledge we have gained about China and about global economics to provide our audiences with intelligent, insightful and factual reports. With your newfound expertise on the Chinese economy, globalization, corporate strategies and much more, you can communicate clearly and comprehensively, on any multimedia platform, about issues ranging from the Paris climate change accords to the Belt and Road Initiative.

One of my favorite philosophers, Nelson Mandela, said that “a good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

You have something very special – tools that you can use to make the world a more informed and a more just place. Because, as our dean, Liu Binjie, said in his speech welcoming many of you to the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication in September 2016, “Justice is the soul of the news.”

Barbara Cochran, my successor as president of the National Press Club Journalism Institute in Washington, reminds us that truth is an imperfect pursuit, and journalists are imperfect people. “All news organizations make mistakes from time to time,” she said recently, “but they are trying to tell the truth and generally do it well.”

Truth and justice. The Global Business Journalism program has been trying to live up to the highest international standards for the past 10 years. Since 2007, the GBJ program has combined rigorous academics with practical journalism training in a cross-cultural setting at one of the world’s great universities.

Thanks to the vision of brilliant minds such as Professor Li Xiguang, ICFJ president Joyce Barnathan, and ICFJ vice president Vjollca Shtylla, the GBJ program was created. Thanks to the financial and journalistic support of Bloomberg News, ICFJ, the Knight Foundation and Bank of America, it has grown and prospered. Thanks to the commitment of Tsinghua leaders like Dr. Hang Min, Dean Shi, Dean Chen, Dean Hu, Professor Lee Miller, Professor Dai Jia, and many more, it has a bright future. Thanks to dedicated and high-achieving alumni from some 60 countries, GBJ is improving the quality of journalism – and public understanding of economic issues — in China and around the world.

I close by quoting my favorite philosopher, my grandfather, Barrows Dunham. In his 1947 book Man Against Myth, he concluded that understanding the truth was necessary to overcome society’s myths. “With words, as with knowledge generally,” my grandfather wrote, “there can be no substitute for constant analysis of fact.”

Truth. Justice. Words. Knowledge. Tsinghua. That pretty much sums it up. Congratulations on your achievements in the Global Business Journalism Program. I look forward to your truth-telling in the years to come.

谢谢。Thank you.


Trump, Putin and journalism in the post-truth world: A philosophical dialogue

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My conversation with Matti Virtanen, as it appeared online in Finnish.

During my latest speaking tour of Finland, I’ve been discussing the policy implications of the Trump presidency with business leaders, university students and business school alumni. But I’ve also had the chance to talk to some of the top editors in Finland about the ethical and journalistic challenges facing American reporters trying to cover a very different kind of president.Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 1.20.05 PM

Here is my conversation with Matti Virtanen, a veteran journalist with Talouselämä. Click here to read his article in Finnish.

Q: If you look at Trump’s communications as a whole, what do you think is the main difference between his and a professional politician’s rhetoric?

A: Trump’s rhetoric is more colorful and less “politically correct” than an average politician. He seems to enjoy being incendiary and provocative. He never fears the consequences of his own words.

Q: Much of political discourse is full of exaggerations and embellishments, and statements that are meaningless or “not even wrong.” Where do you draw the line that differentiates all this from lying?

A: Lying is intentionally or knowingly saying something that is untrue. It is the same as the distinction between a killing and a murder. Murder is killing with malicious intent. Lying is telling falsehoods or untruths with malicious intent. Saying that 3 million “illegal aliens” voted — and all voted for Hillary Clinton — is untrue. Once you are told it’s not true and you keep saying it, it’s a lie. (Or if you knew it was untrue when you first said it, it’s a lie.) The difference between Trump and typical politicians is that Trump’s supporters do not hold him accountable for not telling the truth. Average supporters and his advisers will lecture the press, saying you are “taking him too literally.” It’s dangerous territory for the media and for politicians when the truth is a philosophical concept and not an objective reality.

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Talking Trump in Finland.

Q: What are the most obvious lies that Trump has expressed in office? (Three examples will do, let’s forget the campaign lies for now.)

He falsely stated, over and over, that he had the biggest Electoral College landslide with Ronald Reagan, when, in reality, Barack Obama (twice), Bill Clinton (twice) and George H.W. Bush all had more. He stated without evidence that Obama tapped his phones in Trump Tower, something flatly denied by the FBI and the former Director of National Intelligence. He claimed, without offering evidence, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote only because 3 million illegal immigrants voted for her. He said she won New Hampshire because of “massive” voter fraud. Elections officials in the states he mentioned all denied his claims, which he has repeated over and over since then. Also, he said more than 100 former Guantanamo Bay prisoners were released by Obama and have returned to the battlefield. (All but nine were released by Bush.)

Q: How is the system equipped to counter lies from the White House?

A: The media ecosystem is not set up to deal with serial lies from public officials, or, as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called them, “alternative facts.” Trump’s strange relationship with the truth has left reporters in an uncomfortable position: report his claims factually, as you would with most public officials, and become part of a disinformation or propaganda campaign — or state that the president of the United States did not tell the truth, which makes many Americans believe that you are taking political sides and are part of “the opposition” to Trump, as Trump aide Steve Bannon puts it.

Q: Why is he getting away with lies better than his predecessors, who were also not quite immune to the syndrome?

A: Many of Trump’s supporters say it is just “Trump being Trump.” They think it is refreshing to have a “politically incorrect” president. Some find it entertaining to see the establishment ridiculed. Thus far, none of the falsehoods seem to have harmed Trump’s public standing. His approval rate has changed relatively little since it dipped during his first week in office, despite a barrage of reporting on false statements from the president.

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Speaking at an AmCham Finland “Brief on the Go” in Helsinki.

Q: What is the threshold that would trigger a formal, legal investigation of the president’s lying?

A: Either a Democratic-controlled Congress (in two years at the earliest) or a lie on a sensitive national security subject, such as his relationship with the Kremlin or possible blackmailing of him by Vladimir Putin or Russian intelligence.

Q: How long can the Republican Party remain united in defense of presidential lying?

A: Party leaders are following their followers. As long as Trump’s support among rank-and-file Republicans remains above 80 percent, as it has been since he assumed office, Republican elected officials will be cautious in they criticism. Some Republican elected officials have dismissed some of Trump’s statements as incorrect (such as his allegations of voter fraud or his claims about wiretapping), but they have not broken with Trump politically. As long as Republican voters do not abandon Trump, he will maintain a base of power in Congress.

Q: How likely is it that we are going to see an impeachment process against Trump?

A: It won’t happen as long as the Republicans control Congress — unless there is evidence that he sold out the United States to Russia for business purposes or under threat of blackmail. There is no evidence of that now. Short of that, it won’t happen in the next two years. I think it would be a mistake for Democrats, should they take control of Congress in 2019, to immediately initiate impeachment proceedings. It would look like crass politics. It would be smarter to have oversight hearings and see where the evidence leads.

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Q&A in Helsinki

Q: What if the Department of Justice refuses to appoint a special prosecutor? Does the Congress have any way around that?

A: Excellent question. Congress can’t appoint a special prosecutor, but it can create a bipartisan investigating committee or empower an independent, bipartisan commission. I think the commission approach is the most likely. It will be less inflammatory and more likely to get at the truth, quietly and over a longer period of time.

Q: How would you rate Trump’s lying if you compare it with the untruths from Russian and Chinese governments?

A: Trump’s relationship to the truth is similar to Putin’s. They both say things that are demonstrably untrue. With the Chinese government, there is a lot of “partisan spin,” but rarely does the government say things that can be easily contradicted. One way or another, an American president doesn’t want to be compared to Putin or other authoritarian regimes when it comes to credibility.

Q: What about the personal level: how do you feel about the situation?

A: I feel that it’s a tough time to be a reporter. You must have a thick skin and be willing to be bullied and threatened. Thus far, no harm has come to an American reporter, but many of my former colleagues have been subjected to online harassment and even phone calls at their homes. The old rules of fairness apply to our reporting, even if the norms of truthfulness are shifting. Reporters have to adjust if they want to maintain their integrity and shed light on the words and deeds of public officials.

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Pay no attention to the man behind the podium.