Lee Rainie 

On breaches, bots and “The Future of Truth”

click to enlarge Lee Rainie

Pew Research Center

Lee Rainie

The title of Lee Rainie’s lecture at the Boise State University Special Events Center on Monday, April 2, is heady stuff: “The Future of Truth.” Rainie was a veteran journalist before he joined the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan think tank, in 2000. Director of its Internet and Technology research division, Rainie is one of the first to get a look at sought-after polling and analysis on hot-button issues.

“I have the best job in the world,” said Rainie. “I’ve studied the most interesting and important stories of our age, including the rise of the internet.”

President Donald Trump’s insistence that any report that challenges him is “fake news” has had a major impact on Rainie’s job, and he now spends an increasing amount of time drilling into the public view of facts and trust.

Prior to Rainie’s appearance at BSU on April 2 and the related BSU Media Literacy Symposium on Wednesday, April 11, he chatted with Boise Weekly about the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, the future of Facebook and sampling what he calls “big data.”

How might you describe what you do for a living to a stranger?

When I first started doing this, there was a lot of interest in what the internet was going to mean to people, so we were given this marvelous assignment to figure that out. This mission of our organization is non-advocacy, so we do very strong social science. We’re not going to be a cheerleader or detractor of the internet, or even tell people how to use it. We’re increasingly using big data techniques, and our mandate has evolved over the years as the digital landscape has changed.

When you say, “big data,” does that still include surveying people’s opinions over the phone?

Phone call records are a part of the big data story, but increasingly it’s social media analytics.

Let’s talk about “The Future of Truth.”

Just after the 2016 [presidential] election, we did a survey about how people were feeling about fake news, and 64 percent of Americans said fake news makes it hard for the public to figure out what’s going on in public life. There’s a personal dimension to this, because 26 percent of Americans have had false information about them posted online. It’s not just a fact of policy or politics; it’s a fact of life at a very intimate level.

That said, it’s still my understanding that more Americans than ever are spending a good amount of time online, and some of them are online constantly.

Yes, we just put those numbers out. It’s a paradox in some sense. Even if people express concern, they remain very active on the internet.

So if I’m Joe Average I’m inclined to think that I’m not the problem, because I think I’m immune to fake news, but I’m very worried about everyone else who isn’t?

That’s exactly what we found in our research. There’s a near-universal concern about this, but people think they’re immune. In other words, “Yes, I can figure out the truth, but it’s all those other knuckleheads who are susceptible.”

Can you speak to the recent Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal? Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has publicly apologized for his company’s involvement in the scandal, but I don’t see people deleting Facebook from their smartphones or using it any less.

That shouldn’t be a big surprise. We didn’t see substantial changes to the number of people using social media after Edward Snowden’s revelations of global surveillance programs in 2013, and we haven’t seen a lot of changed behavior since the string of major data breaches began with the Target breach in 2013. There’s a very push-me, pull-you dimension to people’s relationship with these tools.

Speaking of push-me, pull-you, your job by definition is not to advocate. Do a lot of people still ask you how we might solve this dilemma?

I don’t give personal recommendations. I would be fired for doing that. But it’s important to note that this is not the first time in human history that big disruptions [have] occurred in cultures because of changing information environments. One of the classic examples of an information revolution that deeply disrupted the world was the rise of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century. There was a lot of fake news when the printing press came into being. People who believed in witchcraft or the occult, things like that, found new ways to use those tools to promote their ideas.

Didn’t the rise of a better-educated public curb that particular chapter of fake news in our history?

Exactly. In the 17th century, particularly in Europe and North America, there was a greater emphasis on children going to school to become good citizens and get smart about navigating the world, because the world was getting more complicated.

Can you speak to the paradox that a good number of Pew Research studies become big news and are reported by major news organizations, yet some people spin your results in one direction or another to serve their own purposes?

We want people to pay attention to our work; and yes, we get a lot of coverage in the news media. It’s a challenge for us, in the same way it’s a challenge for you, to break through all the noise to get good, rock-solid material in front of people. My life is in many ways parallel to yours. We’re in a very competitive marketplace of ideas and news, and we’re still learning about when people want their information and how they digest it.

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