Meet the Press - December 29, 2019

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CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, Alternative Facts, the assault on truth.

KELLYANNE CONWAY:

Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains --

CHUCK TODD:

Wait a minute. Alternative facts?

KELLYANNE CONWAY:

-- that there’s --

CHUCK TODD:

Look, alternative facts are not facts, they're falsehoods.

CHUCK TODD:

We’re living in an era where we can't even agree on what the facts are, --

REP. MIKE JOHNSON:

Ukraine was not aware of the aid.

REP. STEVEN COHEN:

They knew it on July the 25th.

CHUCK TODD:

-- on what truth is, --

CHUCK TODD:

Truth is truth. I don't mean to go like --

RUDY GULIANI:

No, it isn't truth. Truth isn't truth.

CHUCK TODD:

-- who the truth tellers are --

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

Just remember: what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening.

CHUCK TODD:

-- or even the meaning of the simplest idea.

PRES. BILL CLINTON:

It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.

CHUCK TODD:

This morning, Meet the Press takes an in-depth look at our post-truth society, and how a changing media landscape has created chaos out of order. I'll talk to Dean Baquet, and Martin Baron, the top editors at The New York Times and The Washington Post, about the assault on truth from social media, Russian actors and government officials. We'll look at the anatomy of a lie: how a story with just a kernel of truth can metastasize into a politically potent conspiracy theory. We'll examine the "fog of unknowability,” Russian techniques for confusing the public with countless versions of the truth. And we'll discuss all of these issues with a panel of experts on media, journalism and technology. Welcome to Sunday and Alternative Facts, a special edition of Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

The longest running show in television history, this is a special edition of Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.

CHUCK TODD:

Good Sunday morning. I hope you're having a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah and are enjoying this holiday week. You've probably never heard of a town in Macedonia called Veles. This is the town where Buzzfeed discovered what was essentially a fake news farm. Some 140 websites pushing out made-up pro-Trump, quote "news" stories, written for Americans, not to help to elect Trump the candidate, but simply to make money on Facebook. Well since then, the idea of "fake news" has become a growth industry, morphing from simply a get-rich-quick scheme in a former Yugoslav Republic to a political weapon in our nationalized politics. The terms "alternative facts" and "truth isn't truth" debuted here on "Meet the Press" over the last couple of years, but these ideas are not new. Russia's government, for instance, now disorients its populace with so many versions of "the truth" it creates what one former Russian TV producer called "the fog of unknowability." Well, this morning we'll hear from top players in journalism, diplomacy and technology about combating truth manipulation and how Russian tactics have migrated right here to the United States. Citizens, of course, are complicit in the spread of alternative facts. We seek out information sources that affirm our worldviews, succumb to confirmation bias too often and reject news we simply don't like. The danger is if we become lost in that "fog of unknowability”, if truth is pushed into a woodchipper leaving us to say "I don't know what to believe," then alternative facts have just -- haven't just fought truth to a draw, alternative facts may have already won:

KELLYANNE CONWAY:

Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that. But the point remains --

CHUCK TODD:

Wait a minute. Alternative facts?

KELLYANNE CONWAY:

-- that there’s --

CHUCK TODD:

Look, alternative facts are not facts, they're falsehoods.

CHUCK TODD:

On the first full day of the Trump administration, the president directed his aides to insist on an easily disprovable lie about his inaugural crowd size -- a touch point in an era when facts are under attack. Of course, twisting the facts is nothing new in politics.

PRES. BILL CLINTON:

It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.

CHUCK TODD:

That sounds a lot like this:

CHUCK TODD:

Truth is truth. I don’t mean to go like --

RUDY GIULIANI:

No, it isn’t truth. Truth isn’t truth.

CHUCK TODD:

But the scale is new. As of December 10th, the president had made 15,413 false or misleading claims in office, that according to The Washington Post. What's also new -- the scale of the campaign against the press.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

Just remember: what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.

CHUCK TODD:

In a Pew survey this year, just 30% of Republicans had a great deal or fair amount of confidence that journalists will act in the best interests of the public -- compared with 76% of Democrats, a 46-point gap.

NEW HAMPSHIRE RESIDENT:

If you just listen to the mainstream media, it's pretty much slanted left.

CHUCK TODD:

Facebook remains the number one social network for disinformation. Organized propaganda campaigns were found on the platform in 56 countries this year. In the U.S., Facebook users shared the top 100 false political stories over 2.3 million times in the first ten months of this year. Among them, Trump's grandfather was a pimp and tax evader, his father a member of the KKK. And Nancy Pelosi was diverting Social Security money for the impeachment inquiry. Clearly, both false.

MARK ZUCKERBERG:

We don’t stop people from posting on their page something that’s wrong.

CHUCK TODD:

Mr. Trump is leveraging the polarized political climate.

BEN NIMMO:

There are four things that disinformation actors do if they want to attack their enemies or defend themselves against criticism, and you can think of them as the “four D’s’.”

CHUCK TODD:

Number one, dismiss. Attack critics to erode their credibility and invalidate the facts.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

The fake news. Fake news. Fake news. Fake news. I think one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with is “fake.”

CHUCK TODD:

Mr. Trump has used the word “fake” on Twitter more than 800 times. Number two, distort: If the facts are against you, make up your own facts.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

In many places, like California, the same person votes many times. Not a conspiracy theory, folks. Millions and millions of people.

CHUCK TODD:

Number three, distract. Whataboutism, or the "I'm rubber, you're glue" defense. If you’re accused of something, accuse someone else of the same thing.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

The phone call was perfect. The call that wasn’t perfect and the words that weren’t perfect were Joe Biden with respect to his son.

CHUCK TODD:

Number four, dismay -- threats and intimidation.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws

CHUCK TODD:

One real fear -- if both sides normalize disinformation as a political tactic. In the 2017 Alabama Senate race, a group of Democrats used online disinformation in the campaign against Roy Moore, circulating false evidence that Russian Twitter bots were working to elect Moore.

BEN NIMMO:

My big concern when it comes to disinformation is that we’re going to see more and more people trying to do the same thing that the Russians did in 2016.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is the executive editor of the Washington Post, Martin Baron, and the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet. Gentlemen, welcome to Meet the Press.

DEAN BAQUET:

Thanks. Thanks for having us.

CHUCK TODD:

Dean, let me start with this. This is what your chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker, wrote very recently. "There are days in Washington lately, when it feels like the truth itself is on trial." Well, help us make sense of, of that.

DEAN BAQUET:

I mean, it's true. Of course, it's ridiculous to say that, that truth isn't truth. Of course, that's a ridiculous construct. I mean, our job, and it's a hard job, but our job, and I think our newsrooms have been sort of rebuilt to do this, is to very aggressively sort out fact from fiction and to very aggressively work to make sure that people trust us and understand that that's our job. I mean, Marty has a, has a very extensive fact-checking operation, as do we.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes, he does.

DEAN BAQUET:

And those things didn't exist three or four years ago. And they're an acknowledgement that one of the jobs of the news media is to sort through all of the BS, if I can say that -- and come to some, and come -- do the kind of deep reporting that we all grew up doing, to come to some sort of understanding of what's actually happening in the world. And I think that's one of our largest new jobs.

CHUCK TODD:

Marty, you actually tweeted a quote from a column with a question that I actually think crystallizes the challenge. And you did this tweet about a year ago. And the column said this: "How do you address beliefs, when they're not rooted in reality? How do you tell someone, 'I'm trying to treat your fears seriously. But your facts don't exist?' How, as individuals, and how, as a country?" Like, this is a challenge. Like, this reminded me of Sharia law, right? There would be all these, "Sharia law's coming." And you're like, "It's not." And you would try to reassure -- there's nothing like that. And yet, you're like, "There's no facts here to support it."

MARTY BARON:

Well, look. We live in an environment where people are able to spread crazy conspiracy theories and absolute falsehoods and lies. And that's made possible by the internet and social, social media. And people are drawn to sources of information, so-called information, that confirms their preexisting points of view. And you know, that's what's contributing to this environment that we have today.

CHUCK TODD:

You -- Dean pointed this out about the increasing in fact checking that both of you, as news organizations, we've been doing more of it, but you've chronicled over 15,000 false or misleading claims just by the president. Why do you believe that's important? And are you concerned, at some point, at 15,000, aren't people numb to it?

MARTY BARON:

Well, they might be numb to it. And that's concerning. But we still have the responsibility for, for determining what's, what’s true and what's false and, in particular, holding our government officials accountable for what they say and telling people whether they're telling the truth, or they're not telling the truth. That's fundamental to the responsibilities that we have as a journalistic institution.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, but here's a challenge for both of you, Marty first, to you, and then Dean. I want to put up this poll number. When, when folks were asked, in a CBS poll, where do they go for trusted information, among Trump supporters, they cited the president himself. 91% of Trump supporters said he, he’s -- that's where they go for accurate information, fact checks be damned here.

MARTY BARON:

Well, that's true. And I think that's the way the president would like to have it. He has described us as the opposition party. That goes all the way back to the presidential campaign. He wants us to be perceived as the opposition party, and so that people will dismiss anything that we, anything that we have to say. He wants to disqualify the mainstream media as an arbiter of, as an arbiter of facts and of truth. And he wants to disqualify others. He wants to disqualify the courts. He wants to disqualify historians. He wants to disqualify scientists, any independent source of information.

CHUCK TODD:

Dean, do we have to market the truth? And what I mean by this is, you know, he's out there a lot, essentially, delegitimizing our professions. We don't fight back like a candidate. We don't fight back like a campaign. Do we need to start campaigning, around the country, to say, "No, no, no. Here's how facts work. Here's, here’s what reporting is. Here's what journalists are. Oh, by the way, if I utter a fact on TV, on purpose, I get fired"?

DEAN BAQUET:

You know, we -- journalists took for granted and believed that people believed everything we said. They believed that, if I, if I filed a story from Afghanistan, that we were there. They believed -- we believed that everybody thought we were in warzones. And we believed that people trusted us. And we went through generations of just assuming everybody believed us. What I think we're going to have to get very aggressive at is to be really transparent, to assume nothing, and to make sure people know where we are, how we do our work, to show our work more aggressively. That's a different muscle for us.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes, it is.

DEAN BAQUET:

To my mind, that's a, that’s a form of marketing our journalism. When, when, when the Post did their great project, I guess, last week, about the buildup to the war in Afghanistan and the lies, they put their documents online. They put them online, so that I could read them, readers could read them, and could see that it wasn't just three reporters or, I guess, in this case, one reporter, sitting in a room, making stuff up.The stuff was there. That is not something that we knew how to do ten years ago. We did the same thing when we broke the story of Trump's taxes a year ago. We show you the stuff. And I think that that's a form of marketing our journalism. I think that's a form, as well as what doing what we're doing now, which is to be out, for Marty and I and others to be out in the world, talking about what we do and very aggressively defending our institutions, defending the truth and defending our important role in democracy.

CHUCK TODD:

Marty, you go out of your way -- I believe, you, anytime one of your journalists are namechecked publicly, in a demeaning way, you always publicly go out there and defend them. And it seems as if you don't want to miss anybody that that happens to. Why? Why is that important?

MARTY BARON:

Well, I think we have a responsibility to stand up for our journalists when they're right. If we're wrong, we should acknowledge that as well. But when they're unfairly attacked, particularly when a very powerful individual, including the president, uses, frankly, vile language to describe our journalists, I think it's something that we have to, we have to fight against, and I want to do that.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to read you guys a letter to the editor that we found in the Lexington Herald Leader. It was a fascinating attempt at trying to explain why some people support President Trump. Here's what he says. "Why do good people support Trump? It's because people have been trained, from childhood, to believe in fairytales. This set their minds up to accept things that make them feel good. The more fairytales and lies he tells, the better they feel. Show me a person who believes in Noah's Ark, and I will show you a Trump voter." Look, this gets at something, Dean, that my executive producer likes to say, is "Hey, voters want to be lied to, sometimes. They don't, they don’t always love being told hard truths."

DEAN BAQUET

You know, I'm not, I’m not quite sure I buy that. I mean, politicians, historically, have lied to people. I mean, I don't want to keep flogging Marty's terrific Afghanistan story, but that was about, that was about a generation of political leaders who lied in the most egregious way, which was to say, a war that was failing and leading to American deaths was actually succeeding. I don’t, I don’t -- I'm not convinced that people want to be lied to. I think people want to be comforted. And I think bad politicians sometimes say comforting things to them. And our job is to jump into the breach and to jump into those conversations, to do the deep reporting, to say, "Look, I'm sorry. What I have to say may be uncomfortable. But that thing you just heard that made you feel good is a lie." And I think that's our job.

CHUCK TODD:

Coal jobs is what comes into my head. "Oh, we're going to bring coal jobs back." And you're like, "That's not going to happen," right, Marty?

MARTY BARON:

Yeah. Look, I mean, I, I think we have to be careful. I don't want to be dismissive of people who support the president.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

MARTY BARON:

I think they're owed our respect, and they certainly have mine. But you know, they’ve, they feel that the so-called elites in Washington have not paid attention to them, that they don't understand their lives. They don't understand their concerns, that they -- and they're not being heard. And they feel that the president is actually listening to them and addressing their concerns, and so they tend to believe him. And they're deeply suspicious of so-called elites, like us, at least people who are described as elites. And, and so they turn to him.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, Dean, this is something, frankly, my late father was one of those folks. "Those New Yorkers, they think they're better than us. They -- " He was, he would say that every once in a while. Do you feel that, at the New York Times, because a lot of people don't listen to the New York Times reporting, simply because they say, "Well, you don't understand my life. So why should I believe what you report?" Do you think you have to culturally get the New York Times as in touch with Manhattan and Brooklyn as they are with Rolla, Missouri?

DEAN BAQUET:

I will have to say, it's always odd for me to be called a member of the elite. I grew up in a poor neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana, and had never been outside of Louisiana or Mississippi until I was about 17 years old. So it’s -- whenever I go home, and my family teases me that I'm now considered one of the great leaders of the elite. I do think, however, that we have to do a much better job, I agree with what Marty said, understanding some of the forces that drive people in parts of America that maybe are not as powerful in New York or Los Angeles. We have to do a better job covering religion. We have to do a better job understanding why some people support Donald Trump. I agree with Marty. We can't dismiss everybody who supports Donald Trump. I think we have to get out in America much more than we do and talk to people and sort of figure out ways, other than the traditional diner story, where people just --

Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes.

DEAN BAQUET:

I think we need to go deeper, and I think both of our institutions --

CHUCK TODD:

No more diner stories.

DEAN BAQUET:

No more diners. I think both of our institutions have gotten better at this, just to stew in and let people talk. I, I often talk about religion. Because I grew up in a religious, a very religious family. And I think, look, people in New York and Los Angeles, the places I've lived in, not everybody, but, but people in the worlds we travel don't always see religion as the powerful force that it is. And I think we have to do a better job understanding that. I think we, I think we cannot dismiss everybody who supported Donald Trump. And everybody -- And we just cannot dismiss them. First off, that's not journalistically moral. It's journalistically moral to reach out, understand the world and to be read. That's our job.

CHUCK TODD:

Marty, what's the correct frame, when we describe what our journalism is at these mainstream news organizations? Is it objective? Is it fair? You hear the word “balanced” thrown out there. What's the term you prefer? What do you think is the correct framing to describe what our journalism is, I guess, in these mainstream news organizations?

MARTY BARON:

I think we should be fair. I think we should be open-minded when we approach any story. We should be listeners, more than talkers. And we should be willing to listen to everyone. And I also think that we need to be fair to the public, which means that, when we've done our reporting, when we've done our jobs, when we've been thorough, then we need to tell people what we've actually found. We can't disguise it. We can't muddy it up. We can’t -- you know, we need to be direct and straightforward and tell people what we've actually learned. And so I believe in being fair in the sense of being open-minded, going into a story, but being fair with the public at the end, once we've done our jobs, telling them what we've found.

CHUCK TODD: The phrase I like to use these days is simply -- Go ahead.

DEAN BAQUET:

I’ll add -- I was going to add my two. I agree with all those, of course. But empathetic, I think great journalists are empathetic, which means they listen, and they try to understand. That's not pandering. And then, I think the most-powerful word, for me, is independent, independent, which means independent of everybody, by the way, except, except our principles and our readers.

CHUCK TODD:

All, all good words, there. I use a phrase these days, around here -- “Don't round the edges. Simply. say what you see.” Marty Baron, Dean Baquet, thank you both. Much appreciated. Have a great New Year.

MARTY BARON:

Thank you.

DEAN BAQUET:

Thank you. Thanks to both of you.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, the anatomy of a lie, how a made-up story can quickly gain currency in our new media landscape.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. When President Trump spoke to Ukraine's President Zelenskiy in that infamous July 25th phone call, one of the favors he requested involved a cybersecurity firm called CrowdStrike. CrowdStrike was hired in 2016 to look into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's computer server and determined that Russia was responsible. Mr. Trump has since suggested that CrowdStrike is a Ukrainian-owned company that has spirited this server to Ukraine, all in the service of claiming that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election. The claim, itself, has no basis in fact. Clint Watts is a security analyst and the author of “Messing with the Enemy,” and he's going to help us understand how unfounded allegations like this spread. Clint, good to see you, sir.

CLINT WATTS:

Thanks for having me.

CHUCK TODD:

So we're calling this, the anatomy of a lie. All successful lies begin with a kernel of truth. And here's kernel of truth number one, simply, CrowdStrike hired to investigate DNC server hack. Very quickly, why, why CrowdStrike and not the FBI in something like this?

CLINT WATTS:

CrowdStrike is a cybersecurity company, one of the best in the world, and one of the best for America. And they routinely work for groups like the DNC and many large, United States companies and even international companies. And they have great cyber forensics and the ability to investigate and determine attribution. They're also a resource for our defense. Our U.S. intelligence community, Department of Defense, they would all rely on a company like this.

CHUCK TODD:

And for about six months, this was taken as stated fact. Oh, okay CrowdStrike, got it, Russian hack. Let's move onto the next one, though. By the spring of '17, this is the first time that the president started to question CrowdStrike. He had tweeted something. An AP reporter asked, "CrowdStrike? Why'd you bring up CrowdStrike?" And he goes, "It's what I've heard. I heard it's owned by a very rich Ukrainian." This is not true. But how do we get to the seed of doubt, here?

CLINT WATTS:

What we saw in the first part, was you take a fact and use the fact to propel the lie. This is, essentially, how you make that falsehood move to where you want it to be. The answer, the story that they want out there, is that Ukraine meddled in the election. There's also other entities that want that story, too, places like Russia, where CrowdStrike is one of the biggest defensive measures that we have around the world against Russian cyberattacks and aggression.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Take a look at this date. This is April of 2017. Now, let's go to the next slide that we have here. This is President Trump last month, in November, on Fox and Friends, where, essentially, he starts to put it all together. "The Democrats, National Committee, they gave the server to CrowdStrike. It's a very wealthy Ukrainian. It's a Ukrainian company. That's what the word is." 2 1/2 years later, he's still perpetuating this. And they even asked, "You know, there's not a lot of truth to this." But he says it, anyway.

CLINT WATTS:

Yeah. So if you want to propel your lie, just keep issuing falsehoods. The truth has one voice. But lies are infinite. You can continue to make more and more lies, which then wears out anybody trying to rebut them.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. The president says these things, and it gets covered. Donald Trump, ten years ago, this doesn't get covered.

CLINT WATTS:

That's right. And so you can do all of this in social media. You can write 1,000 stories. But the thing that powers all of these narratives the most is when a very influential, real human being uses those narratives and advances them.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. And it's not just human beings. It's news organizations, or we can put news in quotes, here. I want to single out two in particular, RT and Sputnik. They seem to be the launching pad for this specific conspiracy.

CLINT WATTS:

That's right. There, there are four attributes you look for, in terms of spreading some sort of propaganda. One, be there first. Two, repeat it over and over and over again. The human mind actually can't resist repetition. Three, it's got to come from a trusted source. These are trusted sources for certain audiences.

CHUCK TODD:

For some people, yep.

CLINT WATTS:

And then block out all rebuttals. And so if you can narrow people in, if you can say, "These are fake news, and these are not," you can put people in an information cocoon that they can't escape from.

CHUCK TODD:

And then, of course, if you do push back, and you don't have the facts, then you can do this. Let's go to the next slide. Just simply ask questions. "Oh, what is going on? We're not really sure what the deal is. Well, maybe - where are those servers, Clint, you know? I've never seen them. You know, why, why aren't they looking at that? You know what, why didn't the FBI go into the DNC offices?" And here we are.

CLINT WATTS:

You can make lies faster than you can refute them. And so if you're a propagandist, you know that. Just continue to ask questions. Question more, aso, the motto of a certain Russian, state-sponsored outlet, is exhaust the audience with so many possibilities, you can't know the truth. And the audience will walk away.

CHUCK TODD:

Two facts I want to make sure we get out, here. Fact number one, as of November of this year, the NRCC, which is the Republican campaign arm for House races, used CrowdStrike to protect a constant contract. And you said this is a Russian effort to get, to sort of smear CrowdStrike specifically. Why?

CLINT WATTS:

If Russia can disable CrowdStrike, if they can take away their customer base, or if they can continue to make people say, "You don't believe what CrowdStrike is doing and saying or providing evidence for," they are actually taking away one of their opponents. And they're using the American target audience to do that.

CHUCK TODD:

Clint Watts, this is amazing, what the world that we have to live in now and have to figure out. Thanks for helping us sort it out.

CLINT WATTS:

Thanks for having me today.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, the art of spreading disinformation in Putin's Russia and its echoes right here, in the good, old U.S.A.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. We've just seen how a Russian propaganda technique can be used to get an untruth into the media bloodstream. It's just one of many models from Putin's Russia that have found their way into the American political system. Recently, I sat down with two experts on Russian propaganda. Masha Gessen is a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of "The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia". And former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is the author of "From Cold War to Hot Peace: A U.S. Ambassador in Putin's Russia." He's currently a professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. I began by asking them about one particular Russian technique.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me put up something here that the Rand Corporation, sort of the – one of the uber defense think tanks in America wrote about the Russia propaganda model. And Masha, I want you to sort of explain how this is implemented. This is how they describe it. "They just disseminate an interpretation of emergent events that appears to best favor their themes and objectives. If one falsehood or misrepresentation is exposed or is not well received, the propagandists will discard it and move on to a new explanation. The combination of high volume, multichannel and continuous messaging makes Russian themes more likely to be familiar to their audiences” – that it's almost, like, done in real time. Give us, give us an example of how you experienced it.

MASHA GESSEN:

I think that the biggest thing to understand about it is that it's not – it’s less about what you would expect, which is pushing some, some sort of one interpretation, one line. It's more about creating a cacophony. It’s – you are supposed to come out the other end feeling like there is no such thing as truth.

CHUCK TODD:

And that is the point.

MASHA GESSEN:

That is the point.

CHUCK TODD:

That's kind of the way I feel here, sometimes.

MASHA GESSEN:

Well, I think that’s – we're starting to experience it firsthand here, because that, you know and that’s – I mean, Trump has a very good instinctual feel for it. Sometimes, he just says things that are the opposite of the facts in front of us. And sometimes, he kind of goes, "Yeah, whatever." And sometimes, he says, "Well, maybe that, or maybe this," right? And then in the end, we feel like, you know, all of these versions of, I hesitate to call it reality, are equal, equidistant from the truth, you know – and there's no, there’s nothing to latch onto. Everything is mush.

CHUCK TODD:

Mike, I know that -– I want to bring up two examples of, just within Russia, and I think it was when you were there, both of these, when soldiers without insignia on their green uniforms seized control of Crimea in 2014. At the time, Vladimir Putin repeatedly denied they were Russian. And then a year later, he started to boast that they were there. And then of course, there was the Malaysian Airlines flight 17 that was shot down over Ukraine and all the various explanations, in country, that the Russian government did. Explain how effective it was, internally.

MICHAEL McFAUL:

Well, internally, I think they've done very well, in terms of mastering disinformation. And I agree completely with what Masha just said, the goal is not necessarily to present one argument versus the other all the time. It's just to say, "There are no truths. There are no facts. It's all relative." I've heard Vladimir Putin say that directly, when he met with Barack Obama, President Obama, one time. Secondly, however, when there are facts, it's to, to put out arguments that say, "Those are the wrong facts." And so the two examples you just used –

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

MICHAEL McFAUL:

– are an illustration of that second tactic. And I would call that, also, related to that, another tactic, whataboutism, to change the channel, to say, "Well, you did that there. Well, what about this, over here?" And that is another tactic that they use to confuse the terrain and to make people – you know, to be confused about the facts, that there are no facts, and that there are no truths in the world.

MASHA GESSEN:

I want to add something, though, to the Crimea story because I think it's a really great example. So, when he said, after a year, when he started boasting that yes, there are Russians on the ground, he wasn't admitting something that everybody knew. He was saying, "I assert my right to say whatever I want, whenever I want to. Sometimes, it will be true. Sometimes, it won't be. But I'm king of reality, right? And what are you going to do about it?" It's a power move when he lies, and it's a power move when he tells the truth because only he chooses when he does what, right? As for the media, yes, he – Russia had a – not, you know, not an incredibly healthy –

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

MASHA GESSEN:

– independent media, but had some independent media when he became president. And the first thing he did was he moved to take control of broadcast television. And then he moved on, national broadcast television, and then local television, and then newspapers. And now, 20 years later, we have no independent media left.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. And Mike, you know this a lot about Putin. Here's a, here’s a quote that was attributed to him, that he thinks, that said the following. When he was asked about how he thinks the press works, Putin said, "Here's an owner. They have their own politics. And for them, it's an instrument. The government also is an owner. And the media that belong to the government must carry out our instructions. And media that belong to a private businessman, they follow their orders."

MICHAEL McFAUL:

Well, that's his view. That's most certainly his view. And that's why one of the first things he did in the year 2000, was to seize control of two of the national television networks so that they were completely controlled by the government. He understands the power of media. He has begun to export his ideas through multiple channels, both digital, media and television.

CHUCK TODD:

There's a phrase that I was reading in this research that really struck out -– struck me, and it's called “toxic cynicism,” that that is, that that is what is in Russia right now. And that is what he hopes to export to the west.

MASHA GESSEN:

And I think we have a lot of it here, native born. I mean, we have it in the White House.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, we didn't need help. I mean, well, now, he just added an accelerant, right? A steroid.

MASHA GESSEN:

I think that's exactly it. It's an accelerant or an amplifier. But I think that, you know, he and Trump share a basic sense of the world. And their sense of the world is that nothing matters. Nothing is true.

CHUCK TODD:

Nothing's on the level.

MASHA GESSEN:

Everything is for sale.

CHUCK TODD:

Right? Nothing is on the level.

MASHA GESSEN:

Nothing is on the level, yes. Everything is for sale. And that, that – you know, money equals power, and power equals money, and it's unitary. There can be no checks and balances.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

MASHA GESSEN:

There can be no systems. Any kind of formal relationship is always a lie.

CHUCK TODD:

Mike McFaul, what – you were involved, you've met with a lot of dissidents that are actively trying to deal with Putin in Russia. What breaks him, if he breaks?

MICHAEL McFAUL:

Well, I think an effective thing is just to keep revealing facts, especially about corruption. People want to know about the facts. And I would say the same thing about our country, too. I think, sometimes, there is a kind of, “on the one hand, on the other hand” that we present with various political debates in the United States. And here, now, I want to put on my professorial hat, all hypotheses are not equal. And to treat, to treat them as equal is actually distorting to the truth. And so, if you have one set of hypotheses that has evidence to support it and another hypotheses which has no evidence to support it, reporting on those two hypotheses in and of itself, is a distortion of the facts. And I think Russians have learned that. And they, they keep going back to the facts as their best weapon. And I think we, as a society, need to do that, itself. You don't get your own facts. You can have your own arguments. You can have your own opinions. But two plus two needs to equal four for Democrats and Republicans every day, not just Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

CHUCK TODD:

By the way, you can see my entire conversation with Masha Gessen and Mike McFaul on our website, Meet the Press dot com. Coming up: choosing the news you use depending on your political beliefs.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. As the country has become more divided, politically, it's also become more divided in its sources of news. 63% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters say they believe journalists have high ethical standards, while 36% of Democrats say the opposite. But 79% of Republicans say they think journalists have low ethical standards. Voters are choosing news from sources that reflect their own political views. In 2004, 48% of Democrats identified themselves as CNN viewers. By 2018, that number had gone up to 56%. Meanwhile, fewer Republicans watch CNN. And viewership has actually dropped in that timespan by six points. 46% of Democrats called themselves MSNBC viewers, in 2004. That has now risen to 55% last year. Republican MSNBC viewership, meanwhile, has dropped 14 points, all of which brings us to Fox News. Less than a quarter of Democrats identified themselves as Fox News viewers last year. But viewership for the network went up 14 points among Republicans to 58%. This siloing of news sources helps explain why Democrats and Republicans have become so divided. All politics is no longer local. It's not only been nationalized, it's also been Balkanized. And that goes for news, too. When we come back, we're going to try to digest all of what we've heard this morning with a tremendous panel of experts.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Our panel is here. Joshua Johnson, he's former host, now, of 1A, on NPR, also an NBC News contributor, and actually, soon to be a bigger part of the NBC News family; Kara Swisher is cofounder and editor at large of Recode, tech news and analysis website, also the author of a growingly popular column in the New York Times: Susan Glasser, a staff writer at the New Yorker; and Matthew Continetti, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Good to have you all. Kara, I want to start in your world of tech. The one thing we haven't touched on, as much, is sort of social media. We talked about it on the sides, but sort of the role social media is playing in this misinformation campaign. Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are kind of having a debate. First let me play a clip from Mark Zuckerberg at Georgetown a couple months ago.

[BEGIN TAPE]

MARK ZUCKERBERG:

While I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I don't think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100% true.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Jack Dorsey, head of Twitter, actually seemed to disagree with him. "This isn't about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today's democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle."

KARA SWISHER:

Yes. Well, that's the two sides of it. And then Google sits in the middle and is trying to figure out a way between them. You know, Mark's idea is he's conflating free speech with paid speech. And it's purposely confusing to people. Anybody can say anything on their platforms. On Twitter, for example, Donald Trump continues to tweet, as you noticed this week, perhaps. But he doesn’t -- his campaign doesn't get to do paid advertising. And that's a very different thing. What's really interesting is that Balkanization has been around forever. You know, you look at George Washington, and all those days, that was very partisan crowds on every bit of media. The issue is, when you get it into the social media space, it becomes three things. It becomes weaponized. It becomes amplified. And it becomes anonymous. And then you can repeat lies. And then they take a virality and create engagement that leads to enragement. And then, you know, do it again. Lather, rinse, repeat. And that's what goes on.

CHUCK TODD:

This, to me, look, this is not new. I mean, Lyndon Johnson is always credited with saying, "I don't know if it's true or not. Just say it and make them deny it." So the idea of disinformation, but social media just makes it where the space between what's first reported and the fake part almost has gotten reversed.

KARA SWISHER:

It's faster. It's amplified. You have to think of amplified and weaponization of it. Because it repeats and repeats itself. And it's not controllable, in a different way.

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

I do think, though, that social media, what you just described about engagement and enragement, which is very true, exposes part of the problem and, maybe, part of the solution for those of us who consider ourselves journalists. I think one of the issues that I have with the way we're fighting back against this is we're trying to fight back with information. But journalists are not in the information business. We are in the trust business. Trust is an emotion. You compete, head to head. You connect, heart to heart. And the enragement speaks to the fact that people are seeing information that provokes an emotional response. Well, trust is emotional, too. It's like love. You don't remember when you fell in love, necessarily. You don't remember when you decided to trust journalism, necessarily. But that emotion is broken. And I think part of what we have to do is acknowledge that there is a heart piece of this, that people are trusting these lies and this misinformation. And a lot of them are just damn lies. But they work. They give you comfort. They make you feel like the world hasn't changed in ways you don't understand. And it doesn't mean we affirm the lie. It doesn't mean we don't speak the truth. But if we're ignoring the human part of this, none of what we're doing is going to work.

CHUCK TODD:

Matthew, he's getting at what I wanted you to tease out here, which is almost -- it's the cultural connection that the right has decided it doesn't have with mainstream media. So it doesn't matter what we report. "Well, you don't understand my life. So why should I care?"

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

Right. And that cultural disconnect is decades old.

CHUCK TODD:

Sure.

MATTHEW CNTINETTU:

What gives us this perfect storm of alt-truth is a few things. One is you have the technological change, which Kara mentioned. Another is you have the institutional breakdown, which I think you showed earlier in the program. Confidence in these big institutions has just totally failed.

CHUCK TODD:

Thank god for Congress, or we'd be the bottom.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

And then what makes it -- then you have President Trump, right, who kind of plugs into -- benefits from both of those changes but also uses it to amplify his message. And so what you end up with is this place where no one can really agree on the very basic material governing our democracy.

SUSAN GLASSER:

I think the important thing, though, is to recognize that this just didn't organically happen. You know, this also comes in the context of a war on the institution of independent journalism, a war on the notion of truth that has served the political interests of, you know, institutions in the country. I mean, I think Fox News has waged a purposeful campaign, over decades, to convince people that other people's news wasn't the correct news, in fact, that they were the only purveyor of the correct information.

CHUCK TODD:

This goes back to Alexander Hamilton, though, sort of discrediting publishers.

SUSAN GLASSER:

Yeah, but you know, look, we have the President of the United States, who says that, the media is the enemy of the people. I'm not familiar with any president who's ever spoken in this way. Who has waged, as Marty pointed out, in your first interview, I think, importantly so, this was a political strategy. There is a calculated campaign going on, the result of which is here. Now, there's also new tools and, you know, a whole human-nature element of this. But it's very important not to let people off the hook. Partially, we're seeing Russian propaganda make its way into American politics, because Russia has paid money and has made that a focus of its efforts.

KARA SWISHER:

But here's the thing. They lost the Cold War. They've won this one. I get the emotion part --

CHUCK TODD:

You're in past tense. They've won. How do you -- I mean -- it’s a battle.

KARA SWISHER:

Well, because they continue to do it. It's not a battle. We're not fighting against it in the proper ways, by just the Ukraine thing. It's ridiculous. It's very clear, this is a lie. CrowdStrike is in California. I've been there. Trust me. They're Americans, who are running it.

SUSAN GLASSER:

Right. And now, you have the President of the United States amplifying that.

KARA SWISHER:

Yes, but it's a lie. But what it is, it's algorithmic. I get the heart part. But you're being targeted. But this paid advertising is targeted, it’s exactly right, so they can whisper a thousand different lies in a million different ears. And so that's what the difference is. And so it isn't heart. You can't get to the heart. Because they amplify and algorithmically, technically, get it so that you can't find the truth.

CHUCK TODD:

Matthew, I wanted you to address what I think is an ecosystem problem, at least on the right. I want to put up something that my colleague, Ben Collins, put here. It's a bit of an ecosystem here. It'll say, something starts on 4Chan. There's the subreddit of Trump. Infowars might pick it up. Then it starts inching into the mainstream. Gateway Pundit might just say, "Oh, what's this about?" Then it gets to Drudge, might have a provocative headline link. Rush might say it in his fun, little way. Then it does make its way into Fox News and then, of course, your Facebook feed. How do you create more accountability in the conservative ecosystem for, basically, dealing with propaganda?

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

Well, it's hard work. And I think it begins by trying to instruct young conservatives in the canons of journalism, mainly, empirical verification, right? And this, I think, the distrusted institutions, that’s long standing among conservatives, has led many of them to no longer believe in the idea that you need, kind of, evidence, in order to forward a fact. Or they don't believe in certain verified sources, credentialed sources, of evidence or information. They don't trust any of it. One other change that I think makes all of this more difficult is it used to be, you could go to the supermarket. And you'd see the tabloids. And you'd see the Weekly World News. And the alien has predicted who's going to be the president this year. And you moved past it. Maybe some people get a chuckle. Maybe some people believe it. But it's a minority of the population. Today, you can't ignore it because it's everywhere. And the second you go on one of these platforms, social media, in particular, you're confronted by it.

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

I still think thought, I hear you, in terms of the distrust, amongst conservatives, of institutions. You're right about that. I do, however, know a lot of conservatives who are God-fearing people and who remember that the Bible says that, "It's better to tie a millstone around your neck than to lead one of my little ones astray." They know that Bible verse that says, "And ye shall know the truth. And the truth shall set you free." They've read the Book of Proverbs. They know the first two chapters are all about the value of truth and wisdom. So I think that there is a part, in conservatism, that speaks to the value of truth and the necessity of personal responsibility. I think it is crazy that there are people who say, "Oh, it's just too hard. There's so much going on out there. There's so much information." We won a world war against the Nazis, where we invented a new bomb and planted victory gardens and put women in factories. And you mean to tell me, you won't subscribe to your local paper? Really? Is this too hard?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, it goes to, what is the responsibility of the citizen, here?

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

Don't be gullible. Don't make room for gullibility anymore.

KARA SWISHER:

But you are wrong. It's impossible to fight it. It's addictive. It's repetitive. It is propaganda. And it is, in ways, they don’t even have to --

CHUCK TODD:

I feel like I'm watching the head and the heart debate here, by the way.

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

I don't buy that. I don’t buy that it is impossible to fight.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, but the algorithm is strong.

KARA SWISHER:

It's absolutely strong. You’re getting -- It is doing things in ways that has never been possible by a newspaper. By the way, nobody is reading newspapers and shouldn't be. This is great, to be able to get this information on your phone. And with conservatives, you know, there's a great book, by Andrew Marantz, called Antisocial, that showed this chain. You don't even need the chain anymore. It's just Rudy Giuliani saying I’ve -- you know, they actually lie like -- or Kennedy, on your thing last -- It's just a lie now.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, there's no penalty.

KARA SWISHER:

There's no bother.

CHUCK TODD:

That's the issue. There's no penalty.

KARA SWISHER:

They move straight to it. And then it gets repeated.

SUSAN GLASSER:

But it’s beyond no penalty, there's actually an incentive. I mean, this ecosystem is so well embedded now, in how one party is communicating with its core people, that it's a chain that works. And I agree with Kara. I think not only can you not break it, but their design, their goal, is to get people to say, "I don't care," not even, necessarily, to say, "I believe this lie." They may -- their goal is not necessarily to persuade the unpersuadable, that Ukraine intervened in the 2016 election. Their goal is to get people to say, "I don't know. I can't figure it out." And I think, when you think about the 2020 election, and we are talking, you know, at the very end of 2019, this is going to be the major driver, really, in politics, when you think about persuading people who -- who tilted this last election in 2016? A handful of people, arguably, who might've voted for Barack Obama, and then, somehow, also for Donald Trump, people who aren't necessarily living in the information world that we are. And I fear that group of voters is the group of voters who are saying, "I can't possibly think of objective truth."

CHUCK TODD:

But this is also a political tactic, Matthew. I mean, we are now aware that there are some politicians who want to come on this show, because they're hoping to get a viral moment to use for fundraising. And the minute we caught wind of that, we won't put those folks on. And it's sort of like, yeah, it's fun to get chastised by the mainstream media. I mean this is the --

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

Well, this has a lot to do in the change of the nature of our institutions. You know, you used to join an institution to be molded by it, to be a part of it, to be part of this kind of history that preceded you and will anitidate you, or will rather go after you. Now, institutions are platforms for the individuals. And this is what makes -- this is the reason why the platforms are now the locus of so much attention, whether it's media attention, cultural attention, or government attention, right? They're the new sites of political and regulatory battles. Because they are the guardrails. Social media knocked down all the other guardrails, right? Now, the platforms, themselves, are the guardrails. And now, they are going to be the heart of our politics for the next decade.

KARA SWISHER:

And they're unregulated.

CHUCK TODD:

A purist libertarian society is -- we're seeing the perils of it, Joshua?

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

I will say, though, there are a few things that give me hope. One is young people. I think young people are increasingly savvy to the very things you're talking about. They've decided that there are certain social media they can trust more than others. And the other is just the fact that, I've got to say, in three years of hosting 1A, the one thing that's never failed is telling our audience, "If you let this conversation devolve into stupidity, the nation will turn you off. And there's nothing I can do to bring them back."

CHUCK TODD:

Well, there you go.

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

Personal responsibility does work.

CHUCK TODD:

There's nothing wrong with that. That is all we have for today's special broadcast. Thank you for watching. Thank you for watching all year. All of us here, at Meet the Press, wish you a happy and a safe New Year. Don't forget, we're going to be back next week, which is also next year, 2020. Because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.