Season 1
From the Travel Journal: 5 Ways Podcasting Can Save the World

The positive power of Pod.

by DOMINIQUE FERRARI

This month, our podcast Passport launched a batch of episodes we are calling “The Conspiracy Series”. For it, our team infiltrated the world of international spies, explored a series of multimillion dollar art heists, and uncovered the real life X-Files in Peru. When we first conceived this batch of episodes months ago, we never imagined they would end up airing as a world-wide pandemic, the anniversary of 9/11, poisoned spies, and unprecedented election interference in the US all reached a fever pitch. But here we are. Today, we’re at a place where conspiracy theories are literally costing lives – and promise to cost many more – unless we figure out how to combat them. The more we learned about conspiracy theories and what causes them, the more we realized that podcasts sit at a critical juncture in the equation. 

As podcasters, we can either go the route of social media and be part of the problem, or we can be part of the solution. And we happen to believe that podcasts possess several unique elements that can make us a great antidote to conspiracy thinking. So this week, The Ticket presents 5 ways podcasting can save the world. NBD.

“We are living in the age of the conspiracy”. 

That’s a phrase that has been bandied about at least once a decade ever since the dawn of mass media. Conspiracy theories aren’t new, nor is the kind of thinking that creates them. But it’s hard to shake the feeling — as cities burn, polarization hits record highs, trust in institutions and authority hits record lows, and our entire civilization is paralyzed by a pandemic — that perhaps the time of crying wolf has indeed passed and, in fact, the real wolf is actually, finally, staring us in the face, its mouth watering…

In 2020, we are living in a time when at least half of Americans believe at least one conspiracy theory — from 9/11 truthers to pizzagate. 29% of Americans believe the “deep state” is working against President Trump. A quarter of U.S. adults see “at least some truth” to the idea that “powerful people intentionally planned the coronavirus outbreak.” And then there’s QAnon, for which… there really aren’t words. But that’s just because it’s so strange that it is, in fact, hard to find words to describe it. 

While in the past, conspiratorial thinking might have seemed like a mostly harmless — and even humorous — oddity of the human condition, today, the costs of conspiratorial thinking are real. In fact, they are very likely costing lives right now when it comes to COVID-19 and climate change denial. So finding ways to combat them is critical. It’s time for every industry to take a look at itself and see the ways in which it is contributing to the breakdown of critical thinking and to find the ways in which it can contribute to being a meaningful part of the antidote.

But before we can understand what role podcasts can play in reducing conspiratorial thinking, we have to first understand what the underlying patterns of thinking are that lead to conspiratorial thinking in the first place. 

And while it’s easy to focus on the conspiracy theorists that live on the opposite side of wherever you happen to fall on the political spectrum, the hard truth is that conspiracy theories aren’t bound by any racial, socio-economic, geographic, or political confines. The Left sees the Right’s New World Order and raises them a good New Age conspiracy. 

Conspiracy theories are all over the map and that’s because believing in a conspiracy theory has less to do with what the actual conspiracy theory itself is and much more to do with an overall pattern of thinking and way of looking at the world. The specific theory a person buys into probably will have something to do with who they are and where they’re from. But the factors that lead a certain swath of society to fall prey to one in the first place are equal opportunity. 

So, what are those factors? 

In the Conspiracy Theory Handbook, researchers Stephen Lewandowsky and John Cook identified 7 traits of conspiratorial thinking and describe them using the following CONSPIR acronym:

    1. Contradictory – Conspiracy theorists often hold ideas that are mutually contradictory, e.g. believing Princess Diana was murdered but also that she faked her own death. You see it, right?
    2. Overriding suspicion – Conspiratorial thinkers approach the world with a “nihilistic degree of skepticism towards the official account”.   
    3. Nefarious intent – Institutions, authorities, and groups are presumed nefarious until proven benign (which they almost never are because…)
    4. Immune to evidence – No evidence to support your theory? Must be because the powers that be covered it up so well. This results in a hermetically-sealed belief system that’s almost impossible to breach.
    5. Persecuted victim – The more people, family members, or society at large try to breach that self-sealed system, the more it leaves believers feeling attacked and like victims, which only exacerbates their need to isolate themselves from the mainstream and dive deeper into the ‘safe’ arms of their fellow believers.
    6. Re-interpreting randomness – The idea that sometimes terrible things just happen is terrifying. Humans love patterns, as we established in one of our earlier blogs. It’s a self-soothing tic deeply baked into our DNA. Why accept that life is sometimes horrifyingly random and chaotic when you can instead find hidden patterns and underlying systems that can explain the unexplainable?
    7. Something must be wrong – And when all else fails, and believers finally reach the end of the conspiracy theory line on a particular belief, they rarely abandon the overall idea that ‘something must still be wrong’, even if they can’t explain exactly what it is.  

There you have it. A roadmap to dystopia in just 7 easy steps!

So with the problem laid out, how can podcasts and podcasters stem the spread of conspiracy theories?

If we’re being honest, podcasts have played a role in proliferating plenty of this conspiratorial thinking. Our medium is mostly free to consume, relatively cheap to produce, and has very little regulation or gate-keeping — a perfect storm for the spread of misinformation. In fact, we’re operating under a very similar set of conditions as early social media was. Our medium is (in theory) democratized, the bar to entry is very low, and many of us function on an advertiser-supported model – factors that lend themselves to a race to the bottom. As podcasts compete for earballs and advertisers and platforms get better at targeting audiences, there is absolutely a world in which listeners will become as siloed off from each other as we have become in social media – where alternate virtual walls have led to alternate actual realities.


But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Podcasts have several unique qualities that also give us as creators the power to combat this problem from the bottom up – if we choose to. 

Here are 5 ways we podcasters can combat conspiratorial thinking and promote a healthier, smarter, happier, and more functional society in the equally easy to remember acronym, DFENC:

#1 Deeply trusted messengers

Ok, full disclosure: I had to stretch to make the D for this acronym work. But, that aside, as the handbook covers, one of the most effective ways to combat conspiracy theories is to hear from experts as well as from people who used to believe in conspiracies and have since come out of the other side of them – AKA, “the trusted messenger”. And of course, one of the most engaging and successful aspects of podcasts has always been the relationship that develops between host and listener. When you truly love a podcast, you develop an intimate relationship with the host. As trusted messengers, podcast hosts can often deliver information to their audiences that can help ‘prebunk’ conspiracy theories before they take hold. By holding ourselves accountable as an industry and presenting content of the highest quality and accuracy, we can combat conspiracy theories. 

 

#2 FACTS

Facts and truth are under assault. And though there are plenty of podcasts that peddle in alternative ones – the majority of popular podcasts are still centered on education. When podcasts first came out, I remember feeling the way Will felt about libraries in Good, Will Hunting. I can get a Harvard education for free?!  Yes, you sort of can. For the last decade plus, podcasts have built an incredible cache of valuable knowledge on politics, civics, history, science, psychology, culture and so much more. And that’s what we need more of. Expert interviews, in depth explorations, investigative journeys – and facts, facts, facts everywhere you turn.  Podcasts are an incredibly engaging way to deliver knowledge to people, and real knowledge – even when it confronts our preconceived ideas or blows up our comfort zones – is power in the fight against conspiracies. 

#3 EMPATHY

Research shows that listening to an immersive podcast activates the same centers in the brain as a visual experience. When you hear a detective walking through the woods – your brain actually visualizes the experience. When we listen to podcasts, we are transported into the shoes of the person we are hearing a story about. And through that experience, we build empathy. Conspiracy theories thrive on a system that divides people into ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’, or more to the point, ‘sheeple’ and ‘lizard people’. The path out of the mess we’re in will require empathy. It’s literally in the handbook. People might not have honest beliefs and yet may still have come to them honestly. The conspiracy theory is bunk, but the pain, fear, and powerlessness that gave it a foothold in a person’s mind is very real. By telling rich, captivating, and nuanced stories about real people and events – we can foster the empathy critical to building bridges with each other and connecting with each other. 

#4 NUANCE

Because there is no traditional ‘time limit’ on most podcasts, creators have the freedom to produce shows that allow for longer and more nuanced treatment of material. In contrast to cable news, where an expert may only be allotted 2 minutes or even 30 seconds to sum up their thoughts on a matter — podcasts have room to breath, to explore. And, in contrast to much of social media — which is designed to shorten our attention spans to keep us moving, scrolling, and clicking — there is plenty of reason to believe that most people want longer and more complex material. In fact, some of the most popular podcasts in the world regularly present episodes that are longer than an hour. Some of them are longer than 2 hours. Dan Carlin’s critically-acclaimed series, Hardcore History is a perfect example. His episodes clock in at a whopping 4 hours apiece. And because people often listen to podcasts while doing other things — commuting (once upon a time), walking dogs, performing monotonous tasks, etc — they also aren’t subject to the same demands that visual consumption is. So how does this combat conspiracy thinking? Conspiracy theories thrive on simplistic ideas designed to appeal to people who feel out of control of their lives and environment. Conspiracy theories present a simplified explanation for what are often troubling, chaotic, or scary things. So the ability to present long-form, thought-provoking conversations, analysis, and stories about complex subject matter is absolutely integral to overcoming them. Embracing complexity is one of the greatest ways to defang conspiracy thinking. By presenting a longer and more critical approach to stories, ideas, and current events — we have the power to inoculate people against the idea that there is a ‘single story’ that explains everything.

#5 CRITICAL THINKING 

The podcast realm is chock-full of series and shows that promote skeptical thinking, scientific inquiry, and critical thinking. I myself credit a podcast called “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe” – which was the first podcast I ever listened to – with changing forever how I think about and view science and science communication. Living in a city like Los Angeles and being surrounded by a fairly liberal cohort — I’ve watched plenty of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues fall in with the more left-wing centered conspiracy theories — anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, etc. Now, to be certain, as the handbook points out at the very top, there ARE real conspiracies. I am absolutely concerned about the actions of companies like Monsanto and as a result have become much more aware and critical of where and how the food myself and my family eat is produced. And yet, I also am equally skeptical of any overarching, broad theories about the dangers of genetically modified foods. For instance, every apple you’ve ever eaten is genetically modified. Humans selectively bred them thousands of years ago to make them edible (and delicious!) to eat. Therefore, I’ve come to understand that genetically modifying food is not in itself an inherently dangerous or evil practice. It’s all about the details. In a world that’s exploding with information at a pace no human can keep up with, it’s critical that we learn to interrogate our beliefs and show a healthy skepticism towards information we are fed. And there are plenty of science-based and skeptical podcasts out there that can help you hone your skills in that department. The problems we face as a species and world aren’t simple — and the answers can’t be either.

 

Podcasts are in many ways still the “wild west”. There are as of now still no centralized, all-powerful algorithms shaping our audio realities… yet. But that is the road we’re on as advertisers pour money into the medium, large startups vie to crack the “discoverability problem” with the perfect algorithms, and larger mainstream players enter the fray often bringing with them the pressure to turn a profit at all costs. 

So right here, right now, at this critical juncture in podcasting, the decisions we make as hosts, creators, producers, and studios will have a meaningful impact on what role our medium ends up playing in the larger landscape. And I for one – as a creator, co-founder, and listener – am determined to make better ones.

Image Credits:

Late Night, Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplashsh
You are what you listen to, Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash
Remember, Remember, photo by Tarik Haiga on Unsplash
Q, photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash
Tin Foil Hat, Photo by Tom Radetzki on Unsplash
Conspiracy Bar, photo by Dustin Belt on Unsplash
Headphones, Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.