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Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Robby Soave on Free Speech in the Digital Era


Join Roger Ream ’76 in this week’s Liberty + Leadership Podcast as he speaks with Robby Soave, Novak ’17, senior editor at Reason and host of Rising on Hill TV. In this week’s episode, they explore the importance of free speech, the dangers of censorship, and the relentless march of social media. Roger and Robby also discuss the harsh reality of media deception and the need for fact-checking, concerns over the monopolistic dominance of tech giants like Amazon and Google, and the wave of campus activism and its ramifications on free speech, a topic Robby explores intricately in his book, “Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.”

Robby also serves on the D.C. Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and is the author of two books, “Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump” and “Tech Panic: Why We Shouldn’t Fear Facebook and the Future.” As a journalist, Robby won widespread recognition for setting the record straight in two infamous cases of media malpractice: the 2014 Rolling Stone hoax article about sexual assault at the University of Virginia, and the 2019 incident involving Catholic high school students at the Lincoln Memorial. Robby is a graduate of the University of Michigan and a 2017 TFAS Novak Fellow.

Episode Transcript

The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.

Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni, supporters, faculty and friends who are making a real impact in public policy, business, philanthropy, law and journalism. Today I’m joined by Robby Soave, senior editor at Reason and host of Rising on Hill TV. Robby was a recipient of TFAS’s 2017-2018 Novak Fellowship and has since written two books, one covering the rise of campus activism, the other discussing the shifting opinions about tech and social media. Robby has also written several award-winning pieces about media malpractice, demonstrating the high integrity he instills into his work as a journalist. Robby, thanks so much for joining me today. It’s great to be with you.

Robby Soave [00:00:56] Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure.

Roger Ream [00:00:58] Well, you were 2017-2018 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow, and like many fellows, but not all, you turned your writing project into a book. The book is “Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.” I think you may have coined the word Zillennials.

Robby Soave [00:01:16] Did I? I don’t remember.

Roger Ream [00:01:17] To describe the millennials and Gen Z, and it’s a much-used phrase now, but it’s a fascinating analysis of both right-wing populism on campus and the woke progressivism that exists and how they, in a way play off each other. What inspired you to make that your project and write the book?

Robby Soave [00:01:35] Sure. I am so grateful to TFAS and The Novak Fellowship for making it possible for me to do that work. So, I was a student at the University of Michigan from 2006-2010. My Wolverines are having a great season, I’m happy about it.

Roger Ream [00:01:52] Congratulations on the victory.

Robby Soave [00:01:53] The funny thing is the liberals, the left activists I knew on campus back then, we had so many disagreements, but I really appreciated how in favor of free speech they were, how important it was to not allow censorship to support the First Amendment, even for clearly hateful views. What I noticed after I graduated from covering campus activism at Michigan and elsewhere from the like 2010-2015, is we started seeing a lot of intolerance of different viewpoints coming from that same ideological group that used to be so good on free speech. You remember the Nicholas Christakis encounter at Yale? A Charles Murray attacked at Middlebury. What went on at Mizzou? There was a series of events where I said: “Wow, something is really changing with young activists that they value free speech in the same way.” That’s what prompted the book. I wanted to interview them, and I want to understand where that came from.

Roger Ream [00:02:54] Could you just briefly summarize your findings in the book?

Robby Soave [00:02:57] Sure. What I found is, I believe there was a confluence of factors, and Jonathan Hide and Greg Lukyanov talk about this, too, but there arose a kind of power in feeling victimized, frankly, in feeling traumatized and using that to delegitimize speech coming from the other side.

Roger Ream [00:03:18] So, that’s a reaction to Trump, I take it?

Robby Soave [00:03:21] It was a huge reaction to Trump. Trump elected in 2016. I think I covered in my book, there were campuses that didn’t close classes after 911. They closed classes after Trump was elected. So, this was a similarly psychologically scarring phenomenon. But that was the idea that your discomfort, you had a right to weaponize that against speech. What’s happened on campuses for the last 30 years or more is that a tremendous bureaucracy has grown to accommodate that feeling of weaponization. We’re not talking about the faculty, and I tried to disabuse, I think, people on the right of that notion that the problem is a leftist faculty is indoctrinating our students. The activists I talked with, they formed those views well outside the classroom, usually from other social associations. The problem was not the faculty. In fact, many of the leftist faculty were terrified of their students. They were afraid of saying something triggering. It was a minority of students using the administrative powers of the campus to enact vengeance against people they thought had wronged them or said something that made them uncomfortable.

Roger Ream [00:04:22] So, it’s a version of the administrative state, but here it’s the administration of the university.  New departments, new offices that have been set up to protect students.

Robby Soave [00:04:32] If you’re a vice president of student life and sustainable diversity, what else is your job but to investigate complaints of hateful speech and bias? Hundreds of campuses set up these bias reporting systems where if somebody says something you don’t like, you’re literally supposed to do the equivalent of calling 911. Of course, that was going to lead to an environment where free speech was being stifled and where people had to watch what they say, people on all sides of the ideological spectrum. Again, it’s just as many left people being canceled for talking about an older version of leftism that’s out-of-step, sometimes on even gender and race issues, in addition to the conservative professors and speakers who are facing like explicit threats of violence, that kind of thing.

Roger Ream [00:05:15] It’s obvious that faculty, there’s been a change there, I think, with many faculty who in the past were liberals who at least were old fashioned liberals who believed in free speech and maybe less of a commitment from some of the, perhaps it’s the newer hires in some of these more obscure departments that have been created in the last 25 years. But faculty, that’s pushback on free speech as well.

Robby Soave [00:05:41] Certainly, and again, I think the activism in the social aspect and the administrative aspect I’m describing is the most important piece of the puzzle. It is true that in more of this kind of trendy grievance studies-based discipline, there are faculty who I think come out of this new tradition of activism that holds free speech suspect, that are more likely to align with that as you’re describing the on older leftist kind of, people who came who were active on Berkeley in the sixties. Well, they were fighting for free speech. Their whole thing was no one gets to tell the students where to organize and what to say, and that really endured for a long time, and it’s being it’s being lost. I mean, you can see it in, the direction of organizations like the ACLU stepping back on some of their historical commitments, even to violence speech, even the Nazi speech. Would they make that same decision again? I think it’s dicey. You’ve had organizations like FIRE, The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, formerly just concentrating on campus stuff, now addressing free speech more broadly because there’s a vacuum, there isn’t as much defense of it on the left.

Roger Ream [00:06:45] Well, your book was published in 2019. Do you think subsequently well, or bring it up to today, given the October 7th terrorist attack and the support we’ve seen on campus for Hamas, how is that impacting this and this campus environment? We’ve seen, strong demonstrations in support of certainly the Palestinians, but even in some cases, people speaking out in favor of in favor of the attacks or Hamas, opposition to Israel’s response. Is that going to change this environment in any significant way, you think? We’re even seeing, of course, you’ve written about an effort to penalize a professor, I forgotten where who said something about, we need to destroy Hamas. There are Conservative donors who are by right withdrawing their money from university, which may be a healthy thing, but efforts to, you know, get groups off campus. I don’t follow who those groups are exactly, and maybe they don’t deserve to be on campus, but I don’t know if it’s speech that’s driving the opposition to them or the cause they support. Where are we today?

Robby Soave [00:07:59] Sure. There’s a lot I could say on this subject, and it is worth pointing out that is, the Israel-Palestine issue has always been one of the most bitter and acrimonious feuds on college campuses. That was true when I was in Michigan. It’s true everywhere. It brings out a lot of unpleasant debate. It is an issue of great importance to the left, the Palestinian cause. I think it’s fine and healthy to have pro-Palestinian activism given what’s going on. I agree with you that some of the activism certainly crosses the line into, I mean, you can read the manifestos from the Students for Justice in Palestine, I think it’s the largest activist group on campuses on behalf of Palestinians, and you read the toolkit they put out in response to October 7. It is very clear to me it endorses the terrorist activity. I think that’s contemptible and should be condemned. At the same time, I think they have the right to engage in that speech, and I think some conservatives who ought to be a little bit more careful here, obviously, you have a right to say they should be canceled, they should be unemployable. I’m not taking issue with that, although even there we ought to be a little bit careful. I would certainly be against banning them from campus. I think you can see it in how the candidates have reacted to this. Vivek Ramaswamy sounded very different on this issue from DeSantis and Nikki Haley. He’s younger, I think he’s more in step with where younger conservatives are. It is a big issue for young people on the right, fearing that they’re going to become unemployable or lose opportunities because their social media history is being searched and surveilled and things, they said that were controversial were punished. I think he pointed out that Thomas Sole always said: “If you canceled me for the views I had as a teenager, I would have never become this famous conservative economist.” So, I would make a warning to people who want to assemble lists of all the crazy radicals and people who want to not give their money to the universities anymore. Well, I’m all for that, but I was for that like for a long. Now you’re waking up to this. Just now you realize that there’s hostile values classical liberalism being inculcated here. You’ve been asleep at the wheel, my friends. Is that fair?

Roger Ream [00:10:11] That’s right. That’s fair. It’s important, it’s a distinction that many people have trouble making, the distinction between speech as hateful as it might be, and what I would say is harassment or violence or even pulling down posters that are put up properly about the hostages being held by Hamas. I think some people don’t make the distinctions. The groups that advocate, that block Jewish students from getting out of the library at Columbia.

Robby Soave [00:10:44] At George Washington University, they projected these hateful messages onto the buildings. I would say there’s certainly hypocrisy here because university administrations took very seriously, that they used claims of harassment against free speech a lot in the past, which makes me a little reticent now. I want to hear what the actual criticisms are, but certainly we don’t want campuses or anywhere in the country to become hostile places for people just because they’re Jewish or just because they’re Palestinian.

Roger Ream [00:11:14] Or because they’re conservative or libertarian. I recall your book sold very well and was favorably reviewed in many places. Were you surprised by all the attention your book generated when it was published? I think it moved up high on the Amazon lists.

Robby Soave [00:11:30] I was very happy about the reception it got. It got a lot of favorable reviews. Obviously, I’m hardly the first person to notice that those campuses do have some funny stuff going on. I tried to distinguish my book by talking to activist, and there are a lot of interviews with them to try to understand where their ideas come from and what their theory of social change is. I think other books in this space, they make it all it’s all ideological. It’s all about the indoctrination. Well, I think a lot of these kids are just leveraging using the systems in ways that are obvious and easy for them to do so. If you give power, if you say the person who has authority to address this issue, the person we after all take our cues from in any in a social setting, is the person who has the most trauma, who is the most oppressed, who has the most things they can cite. You create dangerous incentives, especially because it’s not all just gender, race, all that stuff. What a lot of activists who are not minority or don’t have a different sexual preference or something. How can I be listened to if I’m just a straight white male? Well, there’s mental trauma. You can say you have mental unwellness. I can’t think of anything worse forces in society than reinforcing and rewarding people to self-identify as mentally unwell, which is not to say that mental wellness absolutely exists, and I’m glad it’s been destigmatize and people who genuinely suffer from it can get the help they need, but we’re talking about the most privileged people in all of America and all of the world, elite university campus students with all the all the power and authority and financial prospects they’ll have when they leave Harvard and Princeton and other places, saying that they are deeply unwell for a power status reason in their social activist circles. I think I explain that more than a lot of other reporters who look at the issue.

Roger Ream [00:13:32] Well, you took a minute to recognize the value of the Novak Fellowship. Part of the program is intended to identify promising young journalists with not a lot of experience yet, and by giving you the fellowship, help you write something, preferably a book that would help advance your career. Is that something that is very important as a journalist to have your first book published?

Robby Soave [00:13:59] Oh, yes. Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to publish a book. I was so happy to get it published. Before, I’ve gotten the fellowship, I’ve gotten a publisher to agree to publish it. But what Novak was able to do for me was to supply me with editorial guidance through the expertise of the people involved, and then also because of the very generous might money of the fellowship, I was able to travel to the campuses in order to do those interviews. I was there for activist events on campuses and the publisher wasn’t going to pay me to do those things. So, I was able to take time away from my normal duties, and that was all because of the fellowship. It really made it a stronger book. It separated it from books of just people opining on the wackiness of what they hear is going on the campuses. I was able to go there.

Roger Ream [00:14:46] That’s what we like that you could do reporting for your book. Let’s move forward to your next book. This one will probably stir the interest of conservatives who tend to fear Facebook and social media. It’s called “Tech Panic: Why we Shouldn’t Fear Facebook in the Future.” I heard you speak on it recently. I’ve had a chance to look at the book itself and it is fascinating. What was your motivation, first, for writing it? Was it that you realized so many people were ready to shutdown media, digital media and social media because they were so concerned about its impact on our culture?

Robby Soave [00:15:32] Yes, I wanted to push back on the push for regulation for social media companies that’s coming, of course, from the progressive left, from the Elizabeth Warren’s and Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden’s, but also, frankly, it was increasingly coming from conservative Republicans, from Josh Hawley’s and J.D. Vance’s and Donald Trump himself and Ted Cruz. I thought these arguments were unpersuasive and I wanted to look at some of them. I, like other people in libertarian contrarian, the right, I understand how social media has made moderation decisions that have harmed us. I’ve spoken out against them, I’ve written against them, I’ve dealt with them personally. Reason has been impacted by it, my YouTube show at The Hill has been impacted by it. So, this is not an apologist for big tech perspective. There’s been a lot of stuff they’ve done that’s not good, but two things. One is, we must recognize that social media has been good for non-liberal perspectives, for contrarians, for independent thinkers, for conservatives. Think of all the media organizations, your Daily Wire’s, your Daily Callers, your Breitbart’s, your Federalists, Reason, etc., that have thrived because of Facebook, frankly, and because of Twitter and because of YouTube. So, if we broke those companies up, it’d be shooting ourselves in the foot. I suspect Elizabeth Warren knows that which is why this is such an appealing idea to her. And then the second piece of it is that as time goes on, the more we see of the bad things that social media has done, the more we learn that government bureaucrats told them to do it. So, there is a certainly a problem, but it’s not a problem of Twitter and Facebook freely choosing to do things I think are bad. They were dictated to them by the CDC and the State Department. It sounds conspiratorial, but it’s all been verified and publicized. We all know it’s true. So, I’m mad about that and we got to work on that problem, but the companies are the last link in this chain of censorship. They didn’t want to do a lot of this stuff. They fought it, frankly. And then they got caved eventually, but we need to fight that.

Roger Ream [00:17:33] I’m not alone in worrying about the impact of social media on my grandchildren. I’m an old fogy here of another generation, and I see my kids on their phones all day, or my grandkids, rather. It makes you worry. Or young people in general, not so much my grandkids, they aren’t on it that much. I’ve got to clear the record, so my daughter doesn’t get upset at me. In your book, you offer a very balanced and thoughtful analysis of this and perhaps would make the case that the impact of social media isn’t as strong as some people fear, that kids involved everything from gaming to being on social media, it’s not going to turn them into subservient citizens who just follow the dictates of the state or something. Should we worry about this or not? Obviously, the government shouldn’t be playing a role, even if we are worried.

Robby Soave [00:18:32] Yes, that’s the main thing. I mean, we don’t want to turn government into the parent of everyone because kids are different. I certainly think there are some young people for which social media has been a bad influence, particularly too much social media. I absolutely support empowering individual parents to make better choices for their family members. Keep the phones out away during the dinner table, bedtime, etc. Maybe they shouldn’t be in classrooms. I’m so open to all of those arguments that Jonathan Hite will make, but the problem is that every kid is different, and every family is different. A lot of young people are using social media and healthy ways, for example, to communicate with their friends, to learn news. I mean, my YouTube show, it’s on YouTube. You can see clips of it on TikTok and Instagram. Reason makes videos that are on those platforms. I want young people to be consuming that content. I think it’s fresher and more diverse, more ideologically diverse than what they would be getting if they just had to watch like CNN all day or FOX or whatever the cable news is. That speaks to the fact that all these same criticisms of social media were made of video games before that, the TV before that, the radio before that, the written word in the time of Socrates. It didn’t work out for him, but people have fretted about the impacts of new communications, technology on society for a long time. That doesn’t mean all the concerns are unfounded, but I think the downsides are overemphasis. You better have very persuasive evidence that social media is massively harmful, before I want to hear any arguments that the government should be doing something about it. Arguments that will certainly run up against the First Amendment right. I mean, the Supreme Court under Scalia said the state of California couldn’t restrict sales of violent video games to minors. That was a conservative authored decision, and I fundamentally don’t see what’s different about social media.

Roger Ream [00:20:28] So, you don’t worry that, Amazon and Google are going to take over the world and run our lives in the future?

Robby Soave [00:20:34] Mean, I don’t want anyone to run my life, but Amazon understands me and what I want a lot better than U.S. Congress does.

Roger Ream [00:20:43] No, but you hear, of course, concerns by many on the right who think we need to bring antitrust enforcement against some of these big companies. I’ve argued with them that if take a snapshot of the Fortune 500, 25 years ago, 50 years ago, the year it was first put out, the companies that were in the top 100, then, barely make it 25, much less 50 years. They’re merged, they’re out of business. So, I went out on a limb in one discussion with some people and said: “I don’t think Google even be around in 50 years.”

Robby Soave [00:21:20] You’re probably right. The change in the tech space is even more dramatic than normal company. People talk about the dominance of Facebook. It’s in the subhead of my book but even that feels a little stale now because it’s a year and a half later, and I don’t think people are as worried about Facebook as they as they were then because it’s not appealing to young people anymore. It’s ephemeral. New things take off. When I was a young person, it was a while ago, it wasn’t that long ago, it was all Myspace and AOL Instant Messenger. I couldn’t imagine as a teenager living without those services. They are deader than dead, there don’t exist. Then it was Facebook and now it’s something else. By the time they get around to, if they were crafting some anti-TikTok legislation, there’ll be a new thing. It is a self-correcting problem.

Roger Ream [00:22:16] When these technologies first arrive, we’re so excited about it. I mean, I remember when Amazon came along, you may even mention that in your book, you can get something shipped, you buy it online, it’s shipped to you in a few days or in 24 hours. Now, even the same day. It opens the whole world to you. Every book you want to find is on there. It was this thing that we were all celebrating.

Robby Soave [00:22:37] They have perfected the art of meeting human need and progressives want to destroy them. I understand why progressives want to destroy them. I don’t, for the life of me understand why substantial numbers of conservatives are motivated by this or are going along with this. These are institutions that are doing better for humanity than any others, and their issues, but like let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.

Roger Ream [00:23:03] In addition to your work on these books, you work at Reason, you host Rising on Hill TV. How’s that been? Doing television versus kind of the traditional reporting you’ve done?

Robby Soave [00:23:15] It’s enjoyable. Writing is always my first love and I’ve worked at Reason for ten years now, and over time I’ve done more and more video including for Reason in part because, I mean, this speaks to the conversation we were just having, but the changes in social media, Facebook has pivoted away from news in recent years. It used to be very easy to go viral for a written piece on Facebook. That has died off for all media institutions, not specifically for the ones I’m involved in. That’s across the board. So, YouTube is a more reliable generator of traffic. It’s easier to get people to pay attention to a video you make. So, I started doing more of that for a Reason, and for this show that I host for The Hill, which is a debate show with a right and left perspective. right leaning libertarian or libertarian from right wing media, and my co-host is a far-left Bernie Sanders, former press secretary, and it’s a debate show. We have arguments on Israel-Palestine. We have some angry arguments, we yell at each other, but I think why it’s successful and people watch it is there’s very little of that anywhere else in media. I mean, these so-called debate shows, they don’t feature debates. Cable news is dying in part because it doesn’t feature real argument. It’s just somebody telling the audience exactly what they want to hear. That’s true of right, center, left, etc.., and what both Rising, and I think Reason do is try to feature provocative, interesting content that there’s a massive online audience for that your traditional publishers have not tapped into.

Roger Ream [00:24:52] So, if people listening want to watch that, they just put Rising into their YouTube channel, their browser, and they can subscribe or listen to some episodes.

Robby Soave [00:25:00] Yep, it’s for the publication The Hill, and if you search it, you’ll find it.

Roger Ream [00:25:03] Good. That’s great. Now, you’ve had at least two, I’m sure more, but two very noteworthy experiences exposing media malpractice, I’ll call it. One involving the Rolling Stone and the story they did about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, on the campus there. Can you talk about that and what led you to kind of expose the truth about that?

Robby Soave [00:25:29] Sure, I’m happy to. That was my first major success story. I got a lot of attention for it. It was written here at Reason in 2014 or 2015. This massive report, a piece in Rolling Stone, about a horrific described gang sexual assault at the University of Virginia. I read it and I thought about it for a while, and I identified, based on the reporting I’ve been doing on campuses and on sexual misconduct, there were a lot of problems with the reporting on it. What was described was so awful. It was ripped from like a horror movie. Specifically, the detail was the victim did not describe being drugged or intoxicated. I was thinking: “I’ve never seen a single one of these cases where you have a fully conscious victim attacked by a group of people.” What if she went straight to the police? She knew who they were, according to the story, it was her date who led her into this. She knew his name. His name wasn’t reported in the story. According to it, it wasn’t hazy: It 3 a.m., I was drunk. I don’t remember. She knew who did it. So, then the question became: Well, why isn’t there a statement from this person? Was he not asked about it? Why was he not referred to the police? It turned out she made him up and the reporter did not verify. There were so many ways the reporter in question for Rolling Stone could have verified that this was entirely made up. She described in the story, the reaction her friends had had, but later the friend said none of this ever happened. The victim, Jackie, that was her pseudonym, went to elaborate lengths to deceive Rolling Stone, and they fell for it hook, line and sinker. So, initially I got a lot of criticism for saying that I think there’s something suspicious about the story because it was like: you’re not supposed to question when people say those things, but it very swiftly, it fell apart utterly, and then Rolling Stone ended up getting sued by the fraternity, by one of the deans on the campus who was portrayed. She was sued successfully. Number of successful lawsuits, and that reporter has never written anything since.

Roger Ream [00:27:26] You’ve had other examples where you’ve at least been working to hold reporters accountable, right?

Robby Soave [00:27:34] Yes. I’ve done a lot of media criticism that was part of my next big one, which was the Covington kids, the Lincoln Memorial. Everybody has kind of heard of that one by now. I got lucky in that case because at the time I sat down to write something about that story, about the kids being supposedly they had harassed this Native American man and they were conservative kids with MAGA hats. They were there for a pro-life rally. Supposedly, they were racially insensitive to this Native American man. At the time I sat down to write something about it, and it was based on a short video clip on Twitter, the longer video footage had just been published by some random account, and I happened to see it, and I watched the whole video footage. As you’re watching it, you just have your eyes open wide. There was so much else going on, including this other group of crazy activists, black Hebrew Israelites. You live in D.C. you’ve probably run into them in Gallery Place or Chinatown every now. They shout deranged things at women and Jewish people and gay people and white people. It’s a crazy group. They were had been harassing the conservative boys for like the better part of an hour. And then the Native American man entered this fray for reasons that don’t really are not understandable, but the boys certainly did not harass him. The main alleged culprit, this Nick Sandmann kid who was stared him down and got in his way, is just crystal clear it didn’t happen that way whatsoever. It’s textbook example of don’t believe an out-of-context short video clip. Maybe wait for more for more feedback. I was glad I did it. It became the defining article of my career and did lead to even the mainstream media admitting in several cases that they jumped the gun on that. CNN admitted that.

Roger Ream [00:29:24] The Washington Post, I think, settled, right?

Robby Soave [00:29:27] There were several lawsuits. I mean, that was a that was a different case than the Rolling Stone case. In the Rolling Stone case, they could have known if they had done better reporting. This case, I do feel a little bit bad for media companies. They were straightforwardly deceived by that Native American man. He gave quotes. He mischaracterized the situation to these media outlets and then they had to pay for it. I don’t know how you feel about libel laws, I think he should have had to pay for it. He’s the one who said something that was untrue. They said he said this. So, got to be very aware of the harm of the false witness.

Roger Ream [00:29:58] Now, recently, you exposed an organization called the Global Disinformation Index, which was fascinating when I heard you talk about it. It’s been written about recently. Could you talk about that entity which is funded by our State Department?

Robby Soave [00:30:15] Yes. Isn’t that nice? Our government funding all these organizations that are hostile to us. This is part of this kind of misinformation fighting network of groups that have a lot of bearing on the situation in social media, because what we found out is that social media companies face tremendous pressure to take down provocative content, to take down content about COVID that I think is perfectly defensible and reasonable to discuss, having to do with lab leak origins, vaccine policies, masks, those kinds of things, election stuff. It turns out there’s a bunch of groups that are, in some cases government funded, and the Global Disinformation Index was one of them, a British group that was pressuring advertisers to stop working with media companies that have content that is conservative or is that it was COVID contrarian or a bunch of other things. Among the groups listed as most dangerous on their on their handout was Reason. The reasons they gave for us being a dangerous site were that they took issue with our commenting policy, which it wasn’t clear. I think they just thought that we had a commenters policy. They claimed we don’t have authorship information, but all our articles are authored. They said we didn’t have a corrections policy, even though Katherine Mangu-Ward, our editor-in- chief, is one of the most militant corrections enforcers I’ve ever worked with, it’s downright annoying. The most minor things need to be publicized. Error, this has been fixed. Other media institutions, I’ve caught them stealth editing repeatedly. When they change something in the article without telling you it’s been changed. That is a routine practice in The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Atlantic. We don’t do it because Katherine doesn’t allow it. You say we’re a dangerous news media outlet for not having better policies on this, how dare you.

Roger Ream [00:32:02] Katherine, by the way, is a former Robert Novak Journalism Fellow as well.

Robby Soave [00:32:05] Exactly. We are grateful at Reason to have many former Novak Fellows among our midst.

Roger Ream [00:32:10] So, you investigated this organization.

Robby Soave [00:32:12] So, I tried to get in contact with them and they didn’t answer. And then what I did was I got in contact with a journalist named Anne Applebaum, who was listed on their board of advisors, and she’s a principal journalist, I don’t agree with all of her foreign policy. Has written very eloquently about the evils of communism. She’s great. So, I asked, given especially that what this group has said about the lab leak theory being despicable, and if you’re talking about this, your racist and it’s conspiracy theory, given what we’ve now learned, the Energy Department has just said this is the more credible theory, would you counsel this group that you’re the advisor for to say they shouldn’t do that anymore, advertisers should not refuse to work with media outlets to talk about it? She responded to me: “What are you talking about? I’m not an adviser to this group.” So, they had listed her name as she said she had one conversation with them ever. They had listed her name as an adviser. That kind of sounds the disinformation people are doing disinformation. Immediately after that, they took her name off their website. So, the point is, a lot of these gatekeeping organizations that say we’re identifying misinformation, which is always being used now as a pretext for censorship are no better at fact checking than anyone else. And they ought not to be engaged in this sort of work. Every time I hear the word misinformation, a red flag goes off for me. Now, what are you really saying? Are you saying someone had an opinion that you don’t like? More times than not, that’s what it is.

Roger Ream [00:33:46] Yeah. Have you tried contacting other members of their so-called advisory board?

Robby Soave [00:33:53] I think they took the whole page down. Just by the way, they’re not the only organization doing this. The media matters are put a lot of pressure on X now and so on. There are some suspect practices that takes good independent reporting to do. Gabe Kaminsky at the Washington Examiner has done a lot of great work on it. There are other people writing about it, but it’s a fertile ground for uncovering some un-good work.

Roger Ream [00:34:22] Well, tell me what a typical day is like for you in your workday.

Robby Soave [00:34:27] It’s busy. So, I get up at 6:30 a.m., I hit the gym, I have breakfast, I review the topics I’m going to discuss on my YouTube show “Rising,” I go there about 9 a.m. We tape rising from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Thursday. So, it takes up a chunk of time.

Roger Ream [00:34:46] The prep plus 3 hours of taping.

Robby Soave [00:34:47] Yeah, it’s a full-time job. We make a lot of content. And then after 1:00 p.m., I come here to Reason, I catch up on work I must do here, which involves writing, I do a little bit of editing. I edit Lenore Skenazy, who does the free-range kids’ stuff. I’m now the editor of Reasons Crossword, which runs on Friday.

Roger Ream [00:35:07] Oh, yes, I saw that in a recent issue.

Robby Soave [00:35:09] Yes. We’re very happy to have added that feature.

Roger Ream [00:35:11] It’s a great feature.

Robby Soave [00:35:12] And then I once, once or twice a week, I make a video for a Reason as well.

Roger Ream [00:35:18] Well, I got the latest issue today in the mail, and I saw the cover, Florida.

Robby Soave [00:35:22] All about Florida and has a Florida crossword in it.

Roger Ream [00:35:25] Okay, good. I look forward to reading it. Want to give us a sneak preview of what the piece in Florida is about?

Robby Soave [00:35:32] The main piece on Florida. Is that the one by Eric, I believe?

Roger Ream [00:35:37] Well, I saw it on my mail stack when I left to come to the studio.

Robby Soave [00:35:40] There’s a lot of reporting about the economic situation in Florida, and if it matches what the narrative is about Florida. Obviously, Ron DeSantis, Republican candidate, very associated with Florida and has been a very successful Republican and is known for a lot of things that we applaud. Some of the COVID mandate resistance, the economic situation, but then also, you know, we want to be fair, and we want to hold him accountable in areas where we think he’s been less good. But well, certainly, I think Florida is a better model for the country than California.

Roger Ream [00:36:19] Yes. Him and Governor Newsom recently locked horns over that issue. I don’t know if you caught any of that. It wasn’t fun to watch, but it was interesting.

Robby Soave [00:36:28] It was. Although, it almost felt like it was ganging up on Newsom. You want independent moderator. You want a moderator on each side like we do my YouTube show. So, if they want to reprise that debate, Reason or Rising would be Forum’s welcome to have them.

Roger Ream [00:36:46] Well, have you started thinking about another book? It’s not been that long.

Robby Soave [00:36:52] It’s not been that long. I have thought about another book. I would like to write a book specifically about the misinformation stuff I was just talking about. I think there’s a lot more to dive into there, how that’s being used as a pretext to violate free speech rights, where the concept even comes from because honestly, it’s like a military term about disinformation, trying to deceive, make them think the Normandy landing is occurring over here. It was a military term that is now being used by the mainstream media to describe just everything they disagree with. I’m interested in digging into that more. If that doesn’t work out, I have some fantasy novels, some sword and sorcery I would always love to publish. I don’t know if Novak Fellowship has a specific fantasy.

Roger Ream [00:37:38] No, but you could fund one, though.

Robby Soave [00:37:41] With my profits from my fantasy book. I would love to do that.

Roger Ream [00:37:47] The disinformation, I’ve seen that, we’ve all seen that, I think, even with the newspapers that they started fact checking. The fact checking is often skewed in a direction where it’s used not to really check facts, unfortunately.

Robby Soave [00:38:06] The best fact checking, it’s funny to compare X and Facebook, on the fact checking. Facebook basically outsourced fact checking to third party activist groups that are terrible, that are very low quality and routinely actually introduce errors when they try to fact check things. This has happened at Reason, this happened to John Stossel, it’s happened to me where they’ll flag an article, they’ll blur it. They’ll say this article is false because it makes X claim, and they’ll say what the claim is. I’m like: “That claim does not appear anywhere in this article. You are misinforming. Again, you, who say you have expertise in this are doing the misinforming.”

Roger Ream [00:38:41] Are you trying to push back when that happens? They ignore it, they don’t respond, probably.

Robby Soave [00:38:45] To me, they respond, because I wrote a book about it, I have contacts there. I can go to high up people. This is not an avenue for regular people out there when you’re censored, but I was able to do it. Compare that to a function I love on Twitter, now called X, the community notes button is very useful. It’s more like Wikipedia. It’s allowing the users to do fact checking and have it be curated. And then if you don’t like that fact check, you can fact check that fact check. There can be a whole discussion where people are kind of like what happens on Wikipedia, which is people complain about it and it is certainly capable of being an accurate and unbiased. But it is more trustworthy than if you think of it as social media than a lot of social media in general. It tends to with a lot of community involvement, user involvement, it’s almost a market procedure. The truth has a greater chance to rise to the surface. So, that’s what’s going on X right now, and it’s very useful. You’ll see claims that are bad, or images coming out of Israel-Palestine. I see a lot of claims that this this is a victim that just got bombed in Gaza and you’ll see computer notes will say, this is an image from an earthquake in Syria five years ago. And then you know that’s true because then people are responding to that, saying it is true, and if it’s wrong, people call it out and it gets deprioritized. Letting the users have this power, in a sort of market or even democratic way works. Deputizing ideological so-called experts to decide what’s true or not does not work.

Roger Ream [00:40:16] Oh, that’s outstanding comment. Well, I think on that note, I think we’ve running out of time, but this has been very interesting. Your books are both great. I think our listeners should look at both. I’m partial to “Panic Attack,” because we help fund your work on that, but “Tech Panic” is a timely book just out earlier this year, I think. And they should watch Rising and Follow You with Reason magazine. In fact, I want to say thank you to you and your colleagues. We’re here at The Reason Studio recording this podcast today. They’ve been very generous in letting us use their studio, which is a few blocks from the TFAS headquarters, and a great place to record these podcasts. So, Robby Soave is my guest today. Thanks so much for being with me.

Robby Soave [00:40:57] My pleasure. Thank you.

Roger Ream [00:40:59] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host, Roger Ream, and until next time, show courage in things large and small.

About the Podcast

TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.

Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.

If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.

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