Digital Wasteland

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 10

Conspiracy theories, confusion, fear and hatred — these work like pollutants that contaminate and destroy our information ecosystems. But can we clean the dump simply with more reform of the digital infrastructure and regulation of social media platforms? Not according to our guest on this episode. She says we have to address the roots of the problem with a more holistic vision for social change in the real world, not just the virtual one.

Illustration by Tithi Luadthong via

The toxic waste that seeps into rivers taints everything downstream, spoiling lakes and oceans, killing flora and fauna, altering the air we breathe and raining back down. Information works the same way, media scholar Whitney Phillips says. Fueled by human passions, falsehoods permeate the mainstream media, undermine trust and hurt vulnerable people most. To untangle this trash, she argues, we need to think ecologically, too: looking not only to coders but faith leaders, teachers, even healthcare workers.

This is why Phillips makes a plea on the show this week for shifting the focus of the debate away from negative freedoms and simplistic notions of free speech to a celebration of positive freedoms that foster healthy digital spaces. And besides tweaking media systems themselves, she tells Will and Siva, we need a real-world shift toward a culture of care rather than distrust.

About our guest

Whitney Phillips is an assistant professor in communications and rhetoric at Syracuse University. She teaches on media literacy, disinformation, political speech and digital ethics. While contributing regularly to Wired, Phillips has written three books, most recently You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speed, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape (MIT Press, 2021), coauthored with Ryan M. Milner. Follow Phillips on Twitter @wphillips49.

This interview was recorded in February and posted on April 13, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

You Are Here offers strategies for navigating media pollution and deploys ecological metaphors to make sense of ever-shifting information networks.

In her first book, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (MIT Press, 2015), Phillips argues that internet trolling is fueled by the same culturally sanctioned impulses motivating sensationalism in the corporate media.

In their 2017 book The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Wiley, 2017), Phillips and co-author Ryan M. Milner show how the proliferation of the weird, the absurd and the malign in the digital world relies on the particulars of the infrastructure.

Phillips has written for Wired about QAnon, election misinformation, falsehoods surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and deplatforming.

Drawing on in-depth interviews, she also published a 2018 report for Data & Society that makes recommendations for the news media on how to refrain from amplifying hate speech.

From around the web

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2020 book Braiding Sweetgrass draws connections between ecological science and indigenous philosophies of nature. Phillips tells us it has been an enormous inspiration in her own work.

Recent disinformation campaigns sought to discourage minority voters from participating in last year’s elections, a clear example of the way media contamination, much like environmental degradation, hits minority communities hardest.

The First Amendment guarantees free speech in America, but should there be limits when it comes to harassment online? Julia Edinger outlines the ins and outs of this question for the magazine Government Technology, summarizing how the debate played out during a recent conference. And if you missed it, check out last week’s episode with 2019 MacArthur Fellow Danielle Citron, “The Wild Web.”

Many critics said YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki didn’t do enough to stop the spread of videos denying the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. And following the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this year, YouTube took further steps to shut down conspiracy theories on its platform.


A transcript of this episode is available here.

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