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Republican Party at War with Itself; Republican Joining Lincoln Project and Voting Against Trump; Michael Steele, Former Chair, Republican National Committee, is Interviewed About Trump; Mental Health Issues Skyrockets on University Campuses Because of COVID-19; Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology, Yale University, is Interviewed About Mental Health Issues of College Students; Interview With Nobel Prize Winner Andrea Ghez; Election Disinformation. Aired 2-3p ET
Aired October 7, 2020 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Amanpour." Here's what's coming up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I agree with many so of the things he's doing like in trade and, you know, taxes, but he scares me, and I can't vote for him.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: The Republican Party at war with itself. Michael Steele, the former chair of the RNC, on what Trump's chaos means for the GOP and the
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's definitely pretty upsetting to know it can happen to people our age.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: The mental health fallout of COVID on campus. Yale psychology professor and Happiness Lab podcaster, Dr. Laurie Santos joins us.
Plus, is the media being played in Trump's campaign to stoke fear and distrust around mail-in ballots?
And finally, black holes. Unveiling the darkest secrets of the universe. The Andrea Ghez joins me, only the fourth woman to win a Nobel in physics.
Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
In a week that feels like the American presidency has entered a twilight zone, the chaos surrounding Donald Trump's illness continues and the circle
of infection around him widens. And as he pushed to bust out of self- isolation, these corona busters have been disinfecting parts of the west wing in preparation for him to reclaim the Oval Office.
His personal doctor reports the president has been symptom-free for the past 24 hours, but we still do not know whether there will be another
presidential debate. So, perhaps the vice-presidential face-off between Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will be remembered as more
consequential than any in recent memory.
Twenty-seven days away from the election, Donald Trump continues to trail Joe Biden in the polls. The latest, putting him 16 points behind. And his
decision to hit vulnerable Americans where it hurts most in the pocketbook surely is a stunner. Why would he pull the plug on more significant
bailouts for families who are struggling to put food on the table and stay in their places, their houses? Let's ask Michael Steele. He's the former
chair of the Republican National Committee and he's the first African- American to hold that role.
Michael Steele, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining uses from Washington.
Can I first ask you, because I think you have now moved from having been, you know, chairman of the RNC to actually wanting to vote against President
Trump and joining the Lincoln Project, which is basically calling on Republicans to vote for Joe Biden. Why would you do that?
MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER CHAIR, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Well, there's more to the presidency than a policy or Supreme Court nomination. You know,
for many conservatives like myself, Republicans, across the spectrum, you know, we've also valued the quality of the men, unfortunately, just been
men but the quality of individuals who have been in that Oval Office who served behind the resolute desk.
So, we look at the character. The character -- I mean, we were a party that always argued about the character of an individual mattering in how they
lead and the direction in which they take the country. So, with this president we've seen his character. He's shown it to us time and time
again. It's not just, you know, I love a good tax cut can. I know both of the -- his recent appointments to the Supreme Court and I don't know,
unfortunately, his latest appointment, but they are good jurisprudence and jurists and doing well, I'm sure, but there's more to it than that and I
think the country right now is sort of evaluating what kind of leadership it needs to move it into the future.
So, we think that at this point the individual who brings the character to the table, who is willing to take the risk on behalf of the American
people, and, look, I'll disagree with Joe Biden all day on public policy, but right now, the country is not concerned so much about that as it is,
can you help us re-establish the relationship with our foreign leaders and partners around the globe, can you help re-establish our faith in
institutions and how they help govern the country, and I think that matters a lot more than people realize.
AMANPOUR: So, can I ask you what you make of, you know, we broadcast these polls. Everybody, as always, is looking at the horse race. Obviously,
everybody got a big sort of surprise the last time around because it didn't turn out the way the polls said it would. What do you see -- I mean, and
you really are an insider who knows how to track these things and knows what to look out for. What do you feel the landscape looks like right now
in terms of the election, you know, 27 days from now?
STEELE: That's an excellent question, and I think the one thing that really separates 2020 from 2016 in terms of how people looked at the polls
and how the polls were so wrong in 2016 relative to the outcome is what we've seen since July of last year, July of 2019 is a consistency in the
lead that Biden has had over Donald Trump going back over a year. We did not see that in 2020. There was a tightening at times, a little bit of a
spread between Clinton and Trump.
But in this cycle, I think for a lot of reasons and in many ways, voters started making up their minds about where they wanted to be in this
election long before COVID. And what COVID-19 along with the flat-lining of the economy and the civil unrest has done has locked in voters a lot
sooner. There is very little margin of error here in terms of undecided voters. That number right now is about 3 percent relative to the 7 percent
or 8 percent that we saw four years ago and certainly in past elections. So, voters have come around, Christiane, in a lot of ways on who they would
like to have as president.
And, again, tax cuts, all of those good things, you know, the unemployment rate, all of those economic indices, and remember, Trump had led over Biden
in the economic category by 10 points up until mid-summer, but even now, that number has changed and tightened to where Biden has a 2 percentage
lead on how to handle the economy post-COVID, and COVID is the big driver here.
AMANPOUR: Right. Well, let me ask you about that, because obviously tax cuts are adored by corporations and the very wealthy and they are not so
liked by the ordinary people who are suffering, and, boy, are they suffering under COVID and with this tanking of the economy. Can you fathom
why the president with the kind of numbers that you're talking about would pull out of the only stimulus talks, in other words, the only bailout talks
for ordinary people suddenly like that? I mean, he tried to walk it back, but nonetheless why?
STEELE: Well, I think a lot of it his own interpretation of the political landscape as he sees it in his head. In his head, this race is a lot closer
if he's not actually leading by the numbers that he sees particularly in battleground states. Some battleground states like, you know, North
Carolina or a Texas are close, but they shouldn't be, and that's the underlying truth here that the president doesn't recognize.
So, his pushback against the one thing that, you know -- well, on several actually, that could open up an avenue, a lane with voters, he's now shut
down. And now, he's basically said to the American people, yes, blame me for the resources you're not going to get until after the election.
STEELE: Keep in mind that foreclosures are starting to happen. Folks are being evicted from their apartments, from their rental properties because
all of that -- all of those safety net measures are now in expire. And so, you've got the crunch resetting on an economic front for a lot of home
owners, a lot of rent remembers, a lot of job seekers and a lot of employers and people who rent to families around the country, and Trump is
now sort of put himself in opposition to them by not sitting down with Nancy Pelosi and cutting the deal in the next three weeks.
AMANPOUR: It does actually seem really weird because those are the people, the forgotten, the hurting that he claims to be standing for and how he won
the first time around. But I want to ask you this, and look, it's not fair because you're not a doctor, but, I mean, it's unusual behavior and some
are pointing to this unusual, you know, set of behaviors that began with the revelation that he had COVID practically after midnight on Friday, and
he's coming back and he's done the rip-off of the mask and he's done these videos and now the circle around him has widened and he wants to come back
to the Oval Office.
How -- he's been pumped full of all sorts of, obviously, you know, the most advanced therapeutics available. What do you think is going on? What are
you hearing about his mood, about his actions?
STEELE: Yes, there is concern inside the White House for the medical treatment of the president. It has been there for a while since this
narrative began. And certainly, the fact that the White House has not come forward to say when the president affirmatively tested positive for COVID-
19, the fact that the White House has not come forward to detail any heart or breathing episodes that the president may have had and the fact that the
White House has not come forth in detail the ongoing care that the president is getting aligned with taking the necessary precautions inside
the White House is further and more cases of COVID-19 are breaking out creates a great deal of concern more broadly for the public.
As you said, I'm not a doctor. Don't know what his scripts are, don't know what the treatment regimen is. That's incumbent on the White House to share
that with the American people. Absent that sharing, we are left to speculate, as you are and as folks and friends around the globe are left to
speculate as to exactly what's going on. So, when you see this sudden pushback against, you know, the idea of doing a stimulus bill, when you see
the president insisting that I, you know, take mask off and go back to work inside the Oval Office, it leads to speculation about the overall mental
capacity and treatment and care that the president is receiving right now that may have some effect on these decisions that seem irrational certainly
outside of the normal protocols for someone of his age with his level of comorbidities and suffering from COVID-19.
AMANPOUR: So, can I just point out you are the former chairman of the RNC, the Republican National Committee, and you're using words like irrational
and mental issues and all the rest. It's quite staggering, I have to say. I want to ask you do you think, again, from what you know about the debate
process, that there will be the remaining two debates between the presidential candidates?
STEELE: Excellent question. I say it's still up in the air. I think they are going to evaluate how the vice-presidential debate goes off tonight.
They have put up at the insistence of the Democratic team screens, you know, clear screens between the two candidates. I personally do not believe
a second or third debate should be held. I don't know how you have -- because the second debate, a week from tomorrow, is a town hall debate with
real people, citizens who get to ask the questions. You know, do they now do that via, you know, technology and media or do they actually have people
in the room?
The president is actively carrying the COVID-19 virus. I don't know how you do it. Does he do the whole thing in a mask? He's not going to want to do
that. I think this presents more challenges than the commission on presidential debates need to handle.
Look, we've seen from the first debate the character and the nature of Trump's approach to this. We've seen Joe Biden, same thing. I think a lot
of Americans have made up their mind. And as I said on the night of that debate, we don't need to do this again. I don't think the president's
behavior is going to change much from the last debate. Certainly, if there are real people, meaning, you know, live citizens in the room asking
questions that may temper it a little bit, but the third debate between him and Biden, I think there's too much at stake and the president, you know,
whether he's further down in the polls or even have turned the corner, I think his behavior is going to respond accordingly, and I just think it's a
greater risk than anyone needs to take from putting it on to actually being there in the room.
AMANPOUR: And a quick question about --
STEELE: But they will likely do it. Christiane, they will likely do it. They will likely hold it, but I don't think they should. I don't think it's
AMANPOUR: OK. Some public health officials suggested to me that they should hold the rest of them outdoors because outdoors is much, much safer
than indoors in any event. Let me ask you this. Generally, the vice- presidential debate does not move dials or needles, some of them are kind of, you know, fun to watch. I'm just going to play a very famous clip that
was between Lloyd Bentsen, the veteran of the Democratic Party against this sort of young Dan Quayle who was running for George H.W. bush in terms of
being his vice president. Let's just play this very famous clip.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FMR. SEN. LLOYD BENTSEN (D-TX): Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Well, I should have pre-ambled that by saying, you know, Quayle kind of compared himself to Jack Kennedy in youth and the rest of it. But
it was a zinger heard around the world from Lloyd Bentsen. There haven't been very many of those in the vice-presidential debates. But do you think
given the circumstances that this one will be more consequential and will be looked at more closely than previously?
STEELE: It certainly will be probably and most simply because of what I just said, there may not be a second or third presidential debate. So, this
will be the last public display of, you know, political combatants going at each other. And so, that raises the stakes a little bit more in this round
for the vice-presidential candidates to represent their presidential candidates, the presidential nominees.
The vice president has a particularly tall order since he was the one in charge of COVID-19 efforts by the administration. Usurped, I daresay, by
the president himself who took over those press conferences and changed the narrative around what the administration was doing with promoting
hydroxychloroquine and other -- you know, other treatments.
So, -- and as does Kamala Harris have. Again, she has to, you know, forgot that she herself was a presidential candidate and now be the one who is
carrying the stakes for Joe Biden, and that means, you know, his voting record in the Senate. That means, you know, comments that he may have made
that, you know, taken in or out of context that raised eyebrows. So, both of these vice-presidential candidates have a charge in front of them made
even more difficult by the setup for this -- of this gathering and the overarching narrative around COVID-19.
AMANPOUR: Michael Steele, as we said, you are the first African-American chairman of the RNC. There are precious few African-Americans elected to
top office around the country and in Congress in terms of national politics. President Trump has claimed over and again that he is the best
president for African-Americans. This is what he said at the virtual convention, or the convention in August.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: And I say very modestly that I have done more for the African-American community than any president since Abraham
Lincoln, our first Republican president.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: He says modestly, does he have much to be modest about or has he been the great president for the African-American community? And, remember,
we're in the post-George Floyd moment of racial reckoning as you know better than I do.
STEELE: Yes. So, let's just say that the president was utilizing a little hyperbole there. No, he's not done more for African-Americans than any
other president in history other than Abraham Lincoln. Sorry, that's water that's just not going to get collected by African-Americans who are still
living with red-lining in their neighborhoods. Certainly, we know the tensions between the police and the black community, the educational system
which disproportionately disadvantages the educational opportunities, certainly what we see in health care.
The president right now has his administration before the Supreme Court looking to get rid of pre-existing conditions coverage under the Affordable
Care Act, which is very important to the black community, which is disproportionately, again, disadvantaged under our health care system, none
of those issues have been addressed.
Yes, the president has put more money into HBCU funding, Historically Black Colleges and Universities funding, so did George Bush. The president has,
you know, certainly put together working through the administration and with folks from Capitol Hill a criminal justice reform package, but, again,
there are still important elements of criminal justice reform that are not addressed appropriately.
Opportunity zones, again, another good package, but as the evidence has shown that the results have been mixed. It has not reached all four corners
of the black community. And in some cases, the largest beneficiaries tend to be white businesses and not black businesses. So, it's a mixed record on
a good day. And I though, it speaks to a broader narrative and problem that the party still has with the African-American community. They think by
putting up a program here, look, what we're doing, right, that that's enough.
You've got to take the time and actually go in the community and take the shots upside the head when they come back with -- to you with how they
perceive your party's appreciation or lack thereof of their issues.
STEELE: How they understand, you know, the way they look at you and what they think about you. This break between the party and the African-American
community goes back to the 1960s. So, this is a long time in the making by our own actions as Republicans, by our own decisions as Republicans, not
anything the black community has done or said. So, I think there's a lot more work to be done here. I get the hyperbole in a political cycle, but
the truth belies all of that.
AMANPOUR: Michael Steele, thank you so much for joining us tonight.
STEELE: My pleasure.
AMANPOUR: Now, mental health issues have skyrocketed around the world and the WHO says COVID has disrupted services in over 90 percent of countries.
Of particular concern are young people. Here in the U.K., around 90 universities are reporting coronavirus cases and many students living in
quarantine report feeling completely abandoned. And in the United States, thousands of cases are continuing to merge on campuses around the country,
not to mention the stress for those taking the entire semester online.
Laurie Santos is a professor of psychology at Yale and she's host of the hit podcast "The Happiness Lab," and she's joining me now from New Haven.
Dr. Santos, welcome back to the program.
So, just let me start by asking you, I mean, those figures are out there. What are you hearing from your students about the stresses and whether the
mental health, you know, help is there for them?
LAURIE SANTOS, PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY, YALE UNIVERSITY: Yes. I mean, I think, you know, all of the things you were talking about are totally
accurate. You know, COVID-19 is a stressful time for all of us, and I think it's hitting our young people, our college students disproportionately in
certain ways. You know, their routines are messed up. The main way that they connect with other individuals, which is like live in classes or like
live during extracurriculars they are not able to do that in the same way anymore.
And that's not really a change in routine, that's really a change in how these students cop, right. It's really hard to get social connection these
days. And, you know, as you're expecting, you're seeing things like increases and rises of depression and anxiety, you know, many more students
trying to go to services, to get mental health services professionally. So, I think it's an incredibly challenging time.
AMANPOUR: Well, let me just play sort of a mash-up of student, little soundbites that CNN got a month ago as college started to open. Let's just
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was hoping this was like the worst-case scenario, but at least like I'm glad they are taking steps even though it was very --
everything escalated very quickly. But I mean, they are taking steps like to be safe and to keep everyone safe and try to minimize as many cases as
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's been crazy and it just really panic-inducing knowing you're not going to get fresh air for two weeks and just wondering
how you're going to get like stuff that you need, like medications and stuff like that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, these are students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who are having to prepare for, as you heard, a two-week quarantine. And we
know that there is a big spike in young people, kind of the ages of 18 to 22 or so, who are getting infected. Maybe not as seriously as older people,
but there is a big spike in young people, college age kids getting infected. You are the head of a residential college at Yale. What are you
seeing there? How are those students being treated, being cared for? What are their stress levels?
SANTOS: Yes. Well, I think one great thing about being at Yale is that Yale as a university has done it really responsibly. Our students are
getting tested twice a week. There's really clear public health compact that all students have to follow and I think, you know, it's borne out and
the fact that Yale has been doing really well. We only have about 20 cases on campus, which is much lower than you see in other U.S. universities.
But I think it's really stressful. I mean, following the compact is really important for public health but it's hard, you know, it's hard not to meet
up with friends for parties, you know, it's hard not to form study groups in person, you know, to like deal with your economics problem set. So, so
many of the way students interact on campus has to change around. They are doing an incredible job with it, getting really creative about using
technology but, you know, it's tough to change our routines and that manifests in feeling anxious, uncertain and just kind of (INAUDIBLE).
AMANPOUR: You know, one of the narratives has been, particularly September, is freshest (ph) week here in the U.K., freshman week in the
United States, you know, there were parties reported, there were big gatherings reported. You know, the general narrative has been that these
kids, these young adults are not being responsible. Is that fair?
SANTOS: Yes. I think -- I mean, again, I can always speak to what I see on Yale's campus where we haven't had any of those kinds of things. I think
it's tricky, you know, we sometimes like to see in the news these cases of students acting irresponsibly, and it's hard not to the react strongly to
those individual cases. But what's surprising is that by and large many students on many campuses are doing quite well.
When you think of the amount that they have to sacrifice and the kind of pain that it takes to sort of follow some of these health conditions,
especially when you're so connected on a college campus, I think so far, we've been doing really well.
AMANPOUR: So, kind of counterintuitively, and I say this as the, you know, "Happiness Lab" podcaster and that came out of a study course that you had
that was so oversubscribed that you sort of tapped into something, happiness and unhappiness. You have said that it's not just about stress,
post-traumatic stress but also post-traumatic opportunity, talking about the way of dealing with COVID. What do you mean by that?
SANTOS: Yes. Well, there's lots of work on this phenomenal called post- traumatic growth. You know, we've heard about post-traumatic stress, this idea that, you know, you're going to get stressed out and messed up after
experiencing a challenging or a really tough event, but we don't often talk about the flip side, which is actually quite common called post-traumatic
We grow when we face horrible events, right. We come out stronger on the other side. And that's just what researchers see. Individuals report
feeling more socially connected after going through tough times. Individuals report feeling more resilience, you know, like the thing you're
going through now is nothing like you've been through before kind of thing and individuals also report finding more meaning in their life. You know,
you want to like, you know, do what real matters. And I think we're seeing seeds of this post-traumatic growth even in our students.
I've watched this in my own residential college where, you know, the first- year students were on campus for the first time during this strange moment are incredibly tightly connected. You know, they form these really strong
friendships. And I think going through something together can build that social connection, it can build resilience.
AMANPOUR: And you've also talked about, you know, the gift that can be given at a time like this beyond the growth that you're talking about and
the evaluation of their situation. What do you tell them about why this moment can be a gift despite, you know, the illnesses, despite the deaths,
despite the worries and the fears and, you know the -- you know, we don't know when this is going to end? What's the gift?
SANTOS: Yes. I think the gift is that this strange time causes us to feel some incredible gratitude for stuff that we took for granted before. You
know, the simple ability to go to a restaurant or a coffee shop, you know, the simple ability to see our family members with no mask, without worrying
about what was going to happen. You know, those were things we took for grant.
And the idea is that when you live through a time like this, it causes you to think about the other things you may be taking for granted, right. What
were the blessings that you're experiencing now than you're not even realizing and how much more will you enjoy these things when you go back to
them? And this is something that I see in my college students right now, as I said, you know, my first years are socially distancing, you know, many of
their extracurriculars can't happen in the same way, but the hope is that we will go back to college as we know it, you know, once we get a vaccine,
once we're through this crisis. And I can imagine students appreciating those aspects of college life so much more once they get them back.
AMANPOUR: So, you have the podcast and you've got a special season out right now, and I was fascinated because I listened to some of the wisdom
from the ancients. You've looked at ancient Greek philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, and what they talked about in terms of a fulfilling life and how
to be happy.
I was -- I loved the Aristotle instructions. Tell us what you have learned about Aristotle and what you pass on in your podcast about happiness.
SANTOS: Yes. Well, it's been fun going back to the ancients in the current time to remember, you know, this is not the only moment that we've
experienced political strife, this is not the only moment that we've seen pandemics. You know, we -- if you look at the long history, we've been
through it before and I think that's partly where the wisdom of someone like Aristotle comes from. Aristotle talked a lot about this concept of
eudaimonia, this idea of having a spiritual health, like being happy not just because you're hedonistically finding your pleasures, but being happy
because you are living a good moral life.
And part of living that good moral life is to reach out to other people, to become a little other oriented, to worry about someone else for a change.
And I feel like if nothing out this pandemic has helped us to do that, like we've become really careful about paying attention to how others are
feeling and to kind of reaching out and making sure our connections are cared for and healthy and happy.
AMANPOUR: You also talk about his lessons about baby steps. In other words, maybe you can't be happy all in one step from unhappiness, but there
are baby steps to measuring your state of mind.
SANTOS: Yes. And I think this is really incredible. You know, Aristotle recognize that had happiness in some ways was a journey, right. We're
always on this spiritual journey, always on this spiritual path, and we don't necessarily have to worry about getting there to the final thing. As
long as we're taking tiny steps in the direction of, you know, being more grateful say or living more positively say, feeling more optimist, all of
those baby steps matter a lot. And I love that advice in the time of COVID- 19.
You know, so many of us have a hard time with self-compassion. We want to beat ourselves up for not being happy enough or not doing enough. Aristotle
reminds us, you know, one baby step in the right direction is good, and that's the first step that will lead to more steps down the line.
AMANPOUR: So, tell me lastly about touch. I ask you -- I don't know whether you've thought about this in terms of happiness, but here there's
been a big national study -- well, there's been a big study called the touch test, kind of started before COVID, and it was really dramatic and
interesting to hear how so many different types of people missed touch and how that is so vital in so many cases to a sense of well-being. Have you
thought about that?
SANTOS: Yes. I mean, I think, you know, there's many aspects of not being able to connect in real life that we're missing out on right now. But I
feel like touch is a big one that we often forget. You know, getting that hug, you know, from my mom who I can't see, you know, because she has COPD,
she has lots of conditions that make it hard for us to connect right now for health reasons. You know, that's a big one, right. We really miss out
And I think that came out of wanting to have a companion, but also wanting to have some kind of touch that you can be there with somebody you could
And so I think what's -- and what's amazing is that, even in the face of a challenge that makes it hard to really physically connect with other
people, we're good at finding other ways to make do.
AMANPOUR: Well, Laurie Santos, it is great to talk to you.
Saturday is, in fact, World Mental Health Day. So, it's good to get a jump on happiness and how to get mental health in order to. Thank you so much.
Now, mail-in voting has been tried and tested as part of America's electoral system for decades. Yet, in recent months, it's been the target
of a -- quote -- "coordinated disinformation campaign propagated not by Russia, but by the president of the United States and his Republican
allies," this from a new Harvard University report, which studied how President Trump is using both traditional and social media to create a fake
story about mail-in voting.
Yochai Benkler has led the study. And he is the Berkman professor of entrepreneurial legal studies at Harvard Law School.
And here he is talking to our Hari Sreenivasan about the report.
HARI SREENIVASAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christiane, thanks.
Professor Benkler, thanks so much for joining us.
What were your findings when you looked at all the data, when you looked at this as a campaign? What did you find?
YOCHAI BENKLER, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: We analyzed tens of thousands of stories, tens of thousands of Facebook posts, millions of tweets.
And, repeatedly, what we found was that whenever there was a spike in attention to voter fraud, every few weeks, the precipitating event was
almost always a statement by President Trump, sometimes on TV interviews on FOX, sometimes in the press briefings, and often on Twitter, and that these
were closely related with statements by the RNC, with lawsuits brought by state Republican committees, and that this action by political elites,
essentially the president and his party, were what drove the coverage, whereas social media coverage was really quite secondary.
It just took what was already out there and recirculated it. So, this made us think that the basic model we have, where you have these distributed
Facebook trolls or Russians, just isn't what's operating on this campaign, and it's not what's important for the most important disinformation
campaign of the 2020 election.
SREENIVASAN: When you talk about the president making statements. I mean, he was making statements about voter fraud after he won the election in
2016, set up a commission to study it.
So what was so different this summer?
BENKLER: We saw a significant spike in the number of times and the set-off events that started right after the signing of the first coronavirus
stimulus bill, and which included mail-in ballots.
So, you see a level of reference to voter fraud. And then, suddenly, beginning in early April, it becomes a major issue. And one of the things
you see in the paper, when you look at the data, is that the attention to the topic becomes much larger, the number of statements is high, and the
set of actions associated with them is also high.
And you just look one issue after the other, one spike after the other, and you see a tremendous change. And, in truth, the president responds to the
stimulus bill by saying, Democrats want this; if they get what they want, Republicans will never be elected again.
And right after that, you begin to see a series of waves of attention driven primarily by statements of political elites recirculated on FOX, on
talk radio, on right-wing media, and obviously grabbing the attention of major mainstream professional journalists, because the president is saying
And what the president is saying is often intentionally outrageous and norms-breaking in a way that forces itself into the headlines.
SREENIVASAN: So, give me an example for people who don't study media. How does -- how is that frame set?
Is it about the way that the headline is written? Is it about the way that the reporter is asking for a comment?
So, let me just give you one example. On May 1, the president tweets out a study that comes out of a conservative think tank, saying that 28 million
ballots have disappeared between 2012 and 2018, a very specific statement.
The day after, ProPublica comes out with a fact-check and says, this is bunk. But a couple of days later, the Associated Press comes out with a
story of partisan bickering over mail-in voter fraud, where the lead says mail-in voting in the pandemic leads to partisan -- to disinformation
But it's not social media. It's actually the president. So that's the kind of thing that happens. You have a headline that says mail-in voters in some
neutral -- mail-in voting in some neutral sense is contested. You have a lead that says, Republicans or the president said this, Democrats have long
And then in the next paragraph, it says there has been no -- historically, there's been no evidence of voter fraud.
By contrast, by August, we saw more statements where the same -- the AP again will come back and say, on Thursday, the president continued his
unsubstantiated claims aimed to undermine mail-in voting or some -- that wasn't quite as extreme as that, but will use much more of the techniques
we know are important when dealing with propaganda or disinformation or even just fake news, which is, right up front, calling them unsubstantiated
claims, calling them false, in order to make it easy for readers to understand that these are not normal statements, that these are not
SREENIVASAN: You mentioned the Associated Press. And most people are unaware of how the wire service works, how syndication works.
What was the role there, when the AP puts out a story, and it shows up where? In lots of local papers, local TV sites?
So, this was, again, one of those things where the nice things when you work with data is it sometimes teaches you something new. And as we looked
at each of these peaks, suddenly, it turned out that a lot of the peaks in the stories that were associated also with the peaks in everything else, in
Facebook and Twitter, a lot were just the same story over and over again duplicated on local TV stations, on city papers, on regional news sites.
And so, when we analyzed it with text analysis, it became very clear that there were these communities of sites that were using syndication, most
important in this regard, really, AP, local TV, online stations, also included a variety of stories from CNN and other stories.
But, again, these are syndicated duplicated stories. And what's really important about this is that the -- when we look at survey evidence, not
from our research, but, say, Pew, on where people say they get their news, there's a large segment of the American population that gets its news from
local TV, from the traditional broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC.
And, interestingly, it's these people -- and more people say that that's where they get their news, their primary source of news, than people who
say from all social media put together.
And what's interesting about the demographics of those people is that they are the least politically pre-committed. They're not watching FOX News or
MSNBC all day. They're not interested in the 24-hour news cycle. They want to get a little bit of news, if that.
And they're really focused on these sites that we pay almost no attention to. And those are the persuadables, right? The people who really might
still change their minds about whether the election was legitimate or not, about whether it's safe to vote by mail or not, these are the people who
are not paying so much attention.
And what the survey evidence tells us is that they're also the ones who are most confused about whether mail-in voting really does or doesn't involve a
lot of fraud.
And so it's those outlets and those professional journalism who reach out to these people in the places where they are, in the local TV that they say
always in surveys they trust the most, they're the ones who can help people say, no, actually, there's no evidence that there's voter fraud.
SREENIVASAN: What role do Facebook and Twitter have in trying to tamp down this sort of disinformation?
BENKLER: So, I think, first of all, remember, our study is focused on this one major issue. It's focused on this issue because we think it's
We're not saying there aren't narrower, more discreet disinformation or -- campaigns or just fake news, false nonsense, circulating on social media.
The implication is not social media doesn't matter at all or they should stop trying to stop nonsense.
The implication is much more specific, which is that on this, the most important issue, that's not where things came. At the same time, the study
we did here also fits what we saw in the 2016 election and the first year of the Trump presidency, which is work we have done in the past and
published on, which is that Facebook and Twitter capture our imagination, because we're at a moment at which we imagine that technology is changing
everything, but it turns out society is more complex.
There are multiple scientific studies in the -- from the last three years who look specifically at fake news. And, repeatedly, what they find is that
the people who are most exposed to the kind of fake news we think about, really completely fake sites, circulating on Facebook or being tweeted out
by trolls, are a tiny proportion of the population, overwhelmingly represented by over 65-year-old, primarily conservatives.
So, you have got a narrow segment of people who are already persuaded of a certain viewpoint looking for stories to feed their outrage. That's the
But if you're actually trying to see what shapes the views of tens of millions of Americans, it turns out to be less about Facebook and Twitter,
and more about a combination of the 24-hour news channels, the broadcast networks, local TV, radio. These turn out to still be much more important
than we give them credit when we think about the media ecosystem.
SREENIVASAN: So, what does a local TV news station do or what should they do? Or what does a headline writer at the Associated Press do? How do the
press stop contributing to the disinformation campaign?
BENKLER: I think what a headline writer needs to do is overcome deeply entrenched professional commitment to appear balanced and do the fact-
checking first and the headline-writing later.
Today, mostly, what we have are headlines that are neutral to make sure the media outlet, the local television station doesn't -- it doesn't appear to
be taken a side. And then, at most, you have a fact-checking column or a fact-checking section separately.
Instead, you need to say, is this true, is this false? If it's false, the headline itself needs to be saying, in this case, something like, President
Trump once again trumps the false claims -- or trumpets the false claims of mail-in voter fraud, or, without basis, or, unsubstantiated claims, right
in the headline.
Then the lead needs to be again, on Tuesday, the president repeated unsubstantiated claims that he had been trying to make against voter fraud
since the spring, so that, as the audience first encounters the news that the president has said this, or the RNC has issued a statement at that,
that that's a statement that is inconsistent with the consensus research view of what actually has happened.
And the method we see repeated again and again is that a story happens. Now, it's a real story. They're not made-up stories. Some stories are made
up. But, sometimes, there's a real story.
A mail carrier in West Virginia changes a few mail-in ballot requests for the primaries from Democrat to Republican, and then he's interviewed and
said, himself, he thought it was funny.
What happens is, that becomes evidence, and it gets picked up by the right- wing media ecosystem, sometimes by FOX, sometimes by online sites like Breitbart, sometimes by "The New York Post" or RealClearPolitics, and gets
And when you listen to the president, often, he will string together a set of such anecdotes from Paterson, New Jersey, West Virginia, Detroit. The
core of the story is often true, but the significance is massively inflated.
So that requires real education of the audience about the difference between, here, let me tell you a story, which is very powerful, and the
actual statistical evidence, which is much harder for people to understand, and so requires careful attention and careful explanation to say, look,
yes, there's a story here, there's a story there, but if you look at the overall picture, it's barely a handful of votes over years, over hundreds
of millions of votes cast over years.
And that needs to be said right out there, because anecdotes are very powerful and very vivid. And statistics are sometimes very difficult for
people to understand.
But when you look at voting of hundreds of millions of people, the anecdotes don't matter. They're a sideshow.
SREENIVASAN: You're also asking for news to change its way of operation, especially in the context of what is considered breaking, right, to take
more caution about that headline, to take more caution about that lead paragraph, especially in a culture where we think, oh, my gosh, I have to
publish this right away to be either first or most relevant or win the social media algorithm game.
BENKLER: I don't think there's a choice.
I think the reality and recognizing the reality that, if you don't discipline yourself, as a professional journalist, to take the time to be a
little more careful, you become complicit in a disinformation campaign that could disenfranchise millions, and, at least as dangerous, severely damage
the perception of legitimacy of the outcome in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans.
And if you become the instrument of propaganda, if you become the instrument of disinformation by being careless, how are you fulfilling your
goal as the fourth estate? If your goal at the end of the state -- yes, of course, in the day to day, you're trying to get the headline, you're trying
to be relevant, you're trying to be there ahead.
But if you're faced with evidence that, in effect, these practices are making you complicit in a disinformation campaign, then I think it really
is a matter of professional responsibility for journalists to stop and say, take the next 15 minutes. It's not take five hours. Take the next 15
minutes, be really careful about how true this is, or how much this is part of the disinformation campaign.
Get used to shaping things that are part of the disinformation campaign so that you already have the habit of, how do you write such a headline? How
do you write such a lead? How do you speak it? And learn how to do that.
Otherwise, you really do become an instrument of a campaign that could undermine participation and could undermine the legitimacy of the election.
SREENIVASAN: Yochai Benkler from the Berkman Klein Center For Internet & Society at Harvard University, thanks so much for joining us.
BENKLER: Pleasure to be with you.
AMANPOUR: And, finally, this year's Nobel Prize for Physics has been sucked into a black hole.
The astronomer and UCLA professor Andrea Ghez shares the prize with colleague Reinhard Genzel from Berkeley University and Sir Roger Penrose of
She's only the fourth woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics ever.
And she's joining us now from Los Angeles.
Welcome to the program, Professor, and congratulations.
And you won for discovering a supermassive black hole. Can you just briefly, for the layperson, explain what -- why you won and what for?
ANDREA GHEZ, NOBEL PRIZE WINNER: Well, I -- thanks so much. It's a pleasure to be here.
And this work is being recognized for the discovery of a supermassive black hole. So, black holes are regions of space where the pull of gravity is so
intense that nothing can escape it, not even light.
But they are also objects that push the frontier of our knowledge of physics. So, they represent the breakdown of our knowledge of the physical
world. We don't know how to actually describe the physics of black holes. So, it's very important to prove that these things actually exist.
What we have demonstrated is that there are black holes that are a million times the mass of the sun, really, in the universe. And we have done this
by looking at the center of the galaxy. These things seem -- we think, reside at the center of galaxies, and our galaxy is the closest example of
a galactic center that we will ever have to work with.
So, we have been able to create a laboratory right in our backyard.
AMANPOUR: Well, look, it's obviously something that inspires you, and it's your passion.
But what did inspire you as a very young girl to want to take up physics? It's not -- I mean, as we said, you're the fourth woman ever to win for
physics in 119 years of the Nobel. What drew you, as a girl, to physics and science?
GHEZ: Well, hindsight is 20/20.
So my path wasn't a linear one to where I am today. I had a lot of passions, including, when I was young, wanting to be a ballerina.
GHEZ: But, at the same time, I also saw the early moon landings. And I think that was the first time I was really captivated by the magic of
thinking about the universe, the enormity.
And I think I find it really humbling to realize that there's this universe that is so much bigger, and has lasted for so much longer than we have ever
been here as human beings.
AMANPOUR: And, apparently, your parents bought you a telescope after the moon landings that you were hooked on. And that really changed the
landscape for you.
And there are balloons in the background there. You obviously have been getting a lot of congratulations.
Just how did you get the news? I mean, you're way away from Europe, where they would have, I guess, called the winners. What time was it?
GHEZ: It was 2:00 a.m. when the house phone call -- phone rang. And the house usually -- phone doesn't usually ring in the middle of the night. So
I was fast asleep.
And at first, you think you're dreaming. And then you realize, this is not a dream. You're really being informed that you just won the Nobel Prize.
And it is -- it is breathtaking.
AMANPOUR: Yes, so, tell me, because, look, it's an amazing honor, obviously.
And I just wonder what you think is going to come with this prize, because I heard Sir. Roger Penrose say that -- I mean, and he's 90 -- that he's
glad he didn't win it when he was much younger, because I think it's -- his was for his paper written in the '60s on black holes, because there's so
much other stuff that you have to do when you're a Nobel Prize winner.
Are you worried about being deflected from your work by all the attention? Or how do you plan to navigate being a Nobel physicist?
GHEZ: That's such an interesting question. And, of course, I haven't spent too much time yet grappling with it.
I think it's a tremendous opportunity, because with it comes an ability to draw attention to one's scientific aspirations. But I think it is also true
that it comes with great responsibilities. And I take that very seriously.
GHEZ: Pardon me. Yes.
AMANPOUR: No, no, no, sorry. Go ahead.
GHEZ: In particular about urging young women into the sciences, it's something I have always been quite passionate about.
And I think this -- I'm really delighted to be part of that opening the doors to the next generation of scientists.
AMANPOUR: And, look, that was going to be my next question, because there are precious few women in science and awarded for their scientific work.
We have heard -- and we don't need to go into it now -- that it's very difficult for women, in sort of a very male-dominated world, and many of
them get pushed off the career ladder for all sorts of reasons.
Do you do anything specific? I mean, do you talk to your classes, particularly girls and young women in your classes at UCLA, about getting
stuck into this field?
GHEZ: I think my belief is that being a role model is the most important thing that you can do, because I think if you see people that look like you
or that are different than the majority, it encourages you to believe that you -- that this field is open to you.
So, I do my best to be very open and do a lot of talking about my work just to share that passion.
AMANPOUR: And is this it? I mean, now that you have all won for black holes, is that it? Is that all we need to know about black holes, or is
GHEZ: Oh, gosh no. I think we're just in the beginning. And that's what's so exciting right now.
The work has just demonstrated that we have so much more to learn. And, in fact, there are many aspects of this work that have, in fact, opened more
questions than answers. And, for me, this is like being a kid in the candy shop. There's a lot more to do.
And I'm excited to continue this project.
AMANPOUR: Well, congratulations. Thank you so much for joining us.
And, as well, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to two female scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and also to Jennifer Doudna, who we have
had on this show. Both have won for developing the gene editing technology called CRISPR. It's a breakthrough that can literally snip diseases out of
And that is it for now. You can always catch us online, on our podcast and across social media.
Thanks for watching, and goodbye from London.