Ben Collins

Dystopia Incorporated

Air Date: April 13, 2020

NBC News dystopia beat reporter Ben Collins discusses exposing viral deception and the companies that enable it.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today’s guest is a reporter on the dystopia beat for NBC News, Ben Collins, formerly of the Daily Beast. He covers the dark underbellies of the web, dis and misinformation, conspiracy theories and political vendettas, lies and corruption. Ben, I follow you on Twitter eagerly. What is the most pervasive disinformation right now related to the 2020 election that you just want to come out like from the get go and say we have to be watchful of this particular aspect of dis or misinformation right now?


COLLINS: I think the most important thing to realize is that the power structures from 2016 are still there. In fact, if they didn’t even change the people that they were using, the conduits they were using to push these things, you know, it’s the same websites. It’s the same like power brokers in that space. People who are remnants from like Pizzagate conspiracy theories; those people have built up followings because social media platforms refuse to do anything about it. Those people are larger than ever. They know how to game the system. They’re experts at it now. So unfortunately the playbook is out there. We know exactly what’s coming. We just can’t stop it because we don’t have the firepower. Democracy does not have the firepower to fight: people who are gaming the system for power and for money.


HEFFNER: So what you’re saying is most pervasive is that architecture or infrastructure that denies an opportunity for accountability here within the social sites, right? We’re playing by the same rules, the Wild West that we did in ’16 and are there ways to mitigate the risk of misinformation on the platforms and in effect entrap the lies?


COLLINS: People are a little bit more aware now, but the problem is the people who are more aware are already; they’re already to being a little more skeptical of lies and bad information. Hopefully that, you know, that base of people who are not going to fall down conspiracy traps, hopefully that’s a little bit wider now than it was four or five years ago now that we’ve, you know, we’ve had this national reckoning with how much our election got messed with last time, both by domestic actors trying to sell stuff and also from foreign governments trying to illegitimately keep one person specifically out of the White House. So, you know, I hope that we are a little bit basically this is, this is a civic engagement thing. And I hope that people go to their grandparents who are on Facebook all day, go to their kids who are on YouTube all day and say like, look, somebody is trying to sell you stuff. Somebody is trying to, you know, whether it’s get you to subscribe to something so they can literally sell you some pills, or whether it’s to vote for something that will allow them to be rich in the long run, that’s what we’re trying to, that’s the best defense right now. That’s what we try to do right now at NBC is like we can debunk every story that has lies in it and it won’t do anything. What we have to do is we have to uncover power structures and you know, how it works and how the pipeline moves to try to get people to, to be manipulated by these things.


HEFFNER: In the case of this political season, what has struck you as the approach of the conspiracy mongers?


COLLINS: I think we saw a dry run with the Joe Biden stuff that happened, you know, this is stuff that starts in the same places. This, that starts in literally start started on 4chan, which is like an extremist website, bubbles its way up to other spaces like it starts there, it starts in foreign media. It starts with, you know, with the Joe Biden stuff, it literally started with indicted people who are trying to fight back in Ukraine.


HEFFNER: Right? Right.


COLLINS: Those people go to soft targets that are journalists with, journalists with something to push. It was John Solomon from The Hill who has long had a grudge against this sort of thing and he’s, you know, trying to make a name for himself. And he pushed reporting under what was an opinion column. And then from there that got bubbled up through places like Breitbart and Fox news. Eventually he becomes a contributor at Fox News. And then all of these lies about Joe Biden start to surface, even though they are completely invented – like nonsense stuff. It mostly about, you know, they, they built in another conspiracy theory doesn’t make any sense about this thing called CrowdStrike, which is another company that just got defamed here. So look, we saw the same playbook as last time. It did not change the pipeline was the same. You start at 4chan and you start at these anonymous websites, you go to soft targets from places like Breitbart and you know, contributors at various websites and then eventually it starts to bubble up in the mainstream media. And that’s the problem. Once it gets to that point, it’s hard to rein all that stuff in and there’s really not a lot of people enlisted in doing that.


HEFFNER: How central do you anticipate Russia being to the narrative of disinformation with Russia?


COLLINS: They have to mix it up a little bit this time because last time they got caught too easily. They were not even, so there are ways to protect your trolling operations from getting caught and they really didn’t do it last time. You know, they, they use the same email addresses. They didn’t, it was a thing called a VPN, which sort of masks your location. They didn’t use that stuff. So there they very easily got caught and in the process because they got away with it for so long because social media companies did not care. You know, what they did was they created fake identities that look like American identities. They push these narratives; they built followings as if they were real American people. And then they, you know, when the election came around or when primaries came around did they, they rallied around Donald Trump and they rallied around defeating Hillary in a primary. So that is why it’s not that simple this time. There is, from what we can tell, they’re going to do a lot more subtle stuff. They’re going to amplify messages from actual Americans that they agree with. And you know, and from people who they call fellow travelers or useful idiots. They’re going to take, you know, not just botnets but you know, they’re going to take accounts and elevate those accounts both in actual propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik and just quietly on the side on social media networks where, you know, they can, they can still influence these things without getting caught in part because, you know, if Facebook or Twitter or these companies really cracked down on this stuff, it would be an enormous problem for their stock. It would cut down user growth. It would make it look like they lost all these users when they weren’t really users. At the end of the day, they were not even real people. So that’s their strategy is to take, you know, take this vulnerability in our information ecosystem and exploit it to the, you know, in 2016 they did it with these, with these fake characters. This time they’re going to do it in ways they’re a lot more invisible than we think.


HEFFNER: Right. And some of that invisible activity might center around the respective party conventions and amplification of messaging related to the reliability of the vote.




HEFFNER: How much of the QAnon, and conspiracy-centered environment do you think will latch on to this question of voting results and not believing in the integrity of the voting results?


COLLINS: I already see these seeds planted, you know, before Iowa, before Iowa was a mess basically, you know, both of Donald Trump’s sons, various surrogates for the President already came out and said like, look, it’s rigged against Bernie. It’s rigged generally. And they, you know, they planted this seed of distrust. They are in a situation because, you know, they, they are not bound by truth and they are, they live basically on innuendo where they can’t lose. Where if, you know, Bernie wins this nomination and they can just say, look, you didn’t, you didn’t vote for this. This guy has hijacked your party. What are you doing? He’s Crazy Bernie. And if he doesn’t win, it’s even better for them. They get to say, you know, you didn’t, you really did not vote for this. This is not a, you know, he’s getting shut out. You know, he won the popular vote in the States and when all this stuff, so they, they have created an incredible ecosystem for themselves where they literally, they, when I say they can’t lose, I mean they cannot lose, they, they will have a narrative no matter what. Right. And you know, with just, we saw a little bit of this as well with Judicial Watch, which is which is a known nonprofit on the right that on, on Iowa Caucus day and before New Hampshire repeatedly pushed this idea that, you know dead people were voting in these States that, you know, they were, that people who were not living in those States could go and vote because these people were not purged from the rolls or whatever. This is an old trope that is not true if, if people are voting illegally, you know, there’s like handfuls of cases of this. People get sent to jail for a long time when, you know, it’s one woman in Texas got sent to jail for, for years and years. So the wheels are in motion on this no matter what. And I would say you know, the left will be upset too if, if Donald Trump wins and it’s kind of a mess on Election Day. If it’s like an Iowa Caucus-style mess on Election Day, it’s going to be a problem.


HEFFNER: God help us if that kind of mess, it is one thing for it to be an electoral contest that’s decided between a few votes, you know, in 270-275 of course, you know, then that’s within what we understand. But I think you’re alluding to other messes.


COLLINS: Well, if you think about it, yeah, like you know, in 2000 we had, we had a very contested election where, you know, went down to the Supreme Court. And so if that happened now with these sort of conspiracy fervor that we have with the idea that everything’s being rigged or taken over by the deep state or a cabal or you know, run by a like a worldwide group of pedophiles or something, the outcome would be a lot different.


HEFFNER: So here’s the question. We hear this constant refrain, Ben, that Twitter is not the real world. Let’s not confuse the two. But they certainly influence each other. And the parasite of misinformation or disinformation can very much attack fact-based learning and peer-to-peer interactions outside of a Twitter or an Instagram or social media hub. So how do you deal with that refrain in the context of, you know, our human lives and the digital lives that are an analog to them. How much are they influencing each other right now?


COLLINS: I always say like, nobody reads, no normal person reads 4chan. No normal person is like in the depths of bad subreddits or terrible Facebook groups. But those narratives make their way out. They, they drip out. And like there’s, it causes this downstream effect of these terrible narratives to take hold in real life. And that’s what, Donald Trump was the master of this. He would take, like some people are, you know, that’s, he says that all the time, right? It doesn’t matter what people are saying this, it doesn’t matter if people are saying this, but he would take that innuendo. He would take that and like, that would create plausible deniability around an idea that he could use internal fear and then push that to a larger audience. And if Twitter’s not real life, I don’t understand how Donald Trump is President. This guy mastered this medium of getting people very worked up and very scared about whatever the issue was at the time. Like my, my favorite thing to do is go back and look at how he dealt with Ebola, which was bananas like he was talking about deporting people and deporting doctors for going to help people. Put every moment where there is an ability to drum up more fear, he would do it. And that’s what Twitter is great at. As social media thrives on, the algorithms cater themselves to more and more fear and more and more of just like, you know, get, get scared of your neighbor, get scared of the people down the street.


HEFFNER: Right. like if you were constantly watching Unsolved Mysteries,




HEFFNER: Just in a, in a fashion that is not hospitable to any kind of like normal human interaction. That’s what we’re dealing with. But how much of that is real America still? I, I hear what you’re saying. You and I are on Twitter. We follow it for news and also to understand what our neighbors are thinking and feeling sometimes. But how much of the dark underbelly has from the 4chans of the Internet become so prolific in mainstream digital media that that should constitute in our minds basically like a mirror. So that when we’re looking in Twitter, what percent of Twitter is a mirror of American society right now?


COLLINS: I think it’s, I think it’s an enormous extent. Charlie Warzel at the New York Times just wrote a story about how Twitter is real life. And I do think that this is, I think people are catching up to this premise. You know, in 2016 there was an article in the Guardian by an Amber Jamieson who wrote that she went down to Pennsylvania and she was following around people who were canvassing and just chatting with people who were transporters in the suburbs of Pennsylvania. And somebody, you know, she talked to this very well adjusted person, and she was like, look, I was, you know, I was going to vote for Hillary Clinton, but she’s going to jail. And she’s like, what do you mean she’s going to jail? She’s like, I’m not going to vote for somebody who can just going to go to jail, right when she’s in office, right? And that’s what people thought. It doesn’t matter what the crime was. It doesn’t matter. You know, if she thought she was in a pedophile ring or whatever, you know, just the very, just the, the aura of criminality that came from the premise of WikiLeaks, right? What was WikiLeaks really? It was somebody hacked a campaign manager’s emails and you know, you know what I’m saying though, there’s this, there is the down, there was a downstream effect of, of just the basic premise of you have to be afraid of this thing. And it’s a feeling and it’s not facts. And that’s the, that’s what Twitter is. Twitter is feelings, right?


HEFFNER: And at some point, as we were discussing the bottom line of these companies, Alphabet, certainly Facebook and Twitter, Alphabet, namely YouTube, which is often at the epicenter of the vitriol and the extremism and the conspiracies. But at some point, their bottom line became reduced to that unsolved mysteries on a loop or National Enquirer on a loop. And that is what is leading us to think increasingly that they are mirroring society negatively and taking over society in a very destructive fashion. But at what point did it change from reading those emails that were sent to relatives in 2008, really 2007 well, run up to president Obama’s first election that we’re denying his citizenship. The origin of birtherism wasn’t emails that circulated during this, the 7, ‘07-‘08 campaign years. And they were, they were ultimately just relegated to, you know, like that’s the Nigerian Prince emailing me for $100 million.




HEFFNER: And at some point, these worlds collided in this combustible politics we have today, right, so you’re saying that combustibility is, is pretty constant and our information culture is not prepared for an Election Day crisis or the emergence of coronavirus and all of these crises whereby Twitter and Facebook and Alphabet are ill-equipped for the American people to actually function in a civil society.


COLLINS: Right. I don’t, I think it’s a trick mirror. I think that’s, you know, that’s what Jia Toletino calls it, right. I do not think it’s reflective of what we actually want or what is good for us. I think it just feeds our id. And what is it?


HEFFNER: But is it a reflection of what we are today?


COLLINS: Yeah. I, I think it’s a reflection of what we’ve become by consuming just raw garbage. You know, if you eat nothing but fast food for 10 years, it’s going to have an impact in your health. And that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been, we’ve been taking in all of these like feel good, like a constant, everything’s a constant suspense, constant mystery. Life is, QAnon, as a premise is the idea that, you know, one day we’re going to, one day it’s just going to happen. We’re going to dispel all evil from the United States. If that doesn’t feel great to you, especially if you don’t have a lot of hope. And if you feel terrible about your life and you know, you can’t really leave the house anymore, maybe, there’s a lot of that going on. If you can look forward to a day where you know, the devil incarnate and all of her supporters are going to be literally marched down the street one by one in shackles to their death and then after that you’ll have power. Do you know how good that would feel? Do you know how nice that would be? So the identity-driven stuff behind this is, is shaping who we are as people. Even if it’s like we’re, you know, Brandy Zadrozny, is my colleague and I, we talk about this all time about how, you know, this is, everyone’s an extremist now in their own way. I’m ex, I’m like, I, I get deep dive into like basketball stuff on Twitter and I believe in the wildest basketball conspiracies imaginable, but we all are that; we all have that whatever hobby it is. And for a lot of people it’s politics and like the most basic thing, and we are, we glom onto the most fascicle explanations for elaborate injustices. So that’s what’s happening here. We’re going to have to like wean ourselves back off this because it’s a, it’s a drug and we are eventually going to realize this.


HEFFNER: So when the social media executives testified in the wake of the ‘16 election and did their mea culpas, it actually, in some instances admitted they broke the law with respect to transactions on their platforms and FEC regulations, you know, there was no consequence, long or short term. And I mention this probably more than any other piece of active legislation pending on, on this program, the Honest Ads Act, which was Mark Warner, John McCain, Amy Klobuchar’s attempt to rein in the platforms to provide a degree of accountability that’s not found there. But I’m always open and want to welcome on this program ideas for a better management of the system that is not going away anytime soon of how we read, learn, interact electronically digitally. Have you come to any conclusions as to what might be the appropriate steps to regulate social media?


COLLINS: It’s there, it’s hard because the more they get punished, the further down deep into inagreement hole they get into, right? You see this for social media and executives now a lot where they hate the press with the tenacity that the President does. So punishing them in that way might turn them, you know, may, you know, as they say, red pill them, it might turn them into people who go down darker pads of machines they’ve created themselves, right. And that’s the other thing. If you want to eliminate Mark Zuckerberg as the President and CEO of Facebook as the chair of that board, you know, two of the now seven people on that board otherwise are far right people. You know, Peter Thiel is on that board. Peter Thiel runs Palantier. He’s tied to the President. You know, he repeatedly tries to collect and harvest data with whatever operation he’s trying to do. So the idea that, you know, it would instantly be better if Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t in charge of this thing. I don’t really believe that.


HEFFNER: Why don’t they see what they’re doing as dystopian?


COLLINS: They’re not part of it. They’re above it. They don’t live in that reality. And you know, and I’m sure they visited


HEFFNER: It’s like the publisher of National Inquirer.


COLLINS: Exactly right. Yeah. They don’t have to deal with, you know, people on a day-to-day basis who consume this stuff in the middle of the country. You know, right after the 2016 election, you know, Mark Zuckerberg said, you know, this is, it’s disrespectful basically to claim that people in the middle of the country don’t know what they’re talking about, that 99 percent of the stuff on Facebook is true. He said that. He obviously changed course once he actually saw what was happening, once he actually heard from experts and academics in this stuff. And the truth is, I get it. I always, I always say this to people who try to get into the minds of executives. Imagine building something that you thought was going to be great and world changing and positive. And you know, at first it is, your first, like the Arab Spring, you have all these like people are connecting with people, roommates and you know, ex-girlfriends and stuff in the past. And it is pretty much a universally positive experience. Then bad actors come take advantage of it, make it really bad. You’re just, you know, saying lala don’t, you know, I’m not listening to this. And then five years later you kind of, you look back and you’re like, oh my God, this is some real bad stuff. Like the, like society has changed for the worse. Do you really think that, you know, I, we’ve all made like weird interpersonal mistakes in our lives. Do you think they’re going to come to the conclusion right away they’ve done a bad thing? No. Like in, do you think that their therapist or guru is going to be like, oh yeah, you messed up? It’s not going to happen. So they, this process is a five, 10 year process of getting executives who have autocratic control of these companies to realize like, actually it’s bad. You made the world worse. Maybe it was better at the start, but like the way you have been so hands-off about this has made it so the worst parts of your platform have taken over the platform. So we have, when we talk to executives about this in exactly, like academics, oh my God, academics talk to executives about this and they scream at them and they were like, please listen, listen to minority voices. Listen to people who have been personally impacted by this. And they’re like, okay, we’ll take it under consideration. They don’t do anything. It’s, it must be so hard being smart in this space and going to executives and telling them, turn it off because they’re never going to do it


HEFFNER: If they’re never going to turn it off. Do you need some repellents, in the final analysis, if it’s going to be those external forces outside of the boards that I mean I think are going to demand change. You say that Zuckerberg rightly has autocratic control over that board and that company. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true of other companies that,




HEFFNER: That you know, that potentially there’s some co-ownership that makes it more plausible that, you know, you could get a sensible voice in the board room to help make more mature decisions is, you know, which of those potential avenues for correction course is more likely internal division within boards or external factors: regulation?


COLLINS: I mean regulation works, GDPR works. It has massive loopholes in it that make it really hard to regulate, but it scared people into doing stuff and that’s, you know, you see the fight against like States doing stuff like this, California trying to crack down on, on just the expanse of data collection and the fight back from Facebook and Google was like pronounced and severe. And I think, you know, that works frankly. So I think that that is external stuff is always going to work that way. Twitter, for example, you know, we, when you talk to people who exist around that company or within that company, it’s autocratic control.

But Jack has, you know, listened more. Jack Dorsey, who runs, the CEO of Twitter. It used to be autocratic control by a guy who just did not listen to people and he’s recently brought in people who have, you know, changed his mind about some stuff and they are making some decisions. That’s great. That’s awesome. It’s still autocratic control of, you know, the pipes basically. It would be like if, you know, the FEC was run by a guy who is inject Dorsey’s case, like really into like holistic medicine. Like that is, that’s what’s happening.




COLLINS: So I, if you talk to experts, it’s always like regulate them, break them up. If you talk to people like academics at Harvard, like, like Joan Donovan, she has, who has spent her whole life covering this stuff, well before it was like an important thing that, you know, people wouldn’t laugh at her about, you know you know, there, there are plans to do to, to make it so these companies can still exist, still make an absolutely exorbitant amount of cash, and make it so the world isn’t quite such a nightmare disaster scenario.


HEFFNER: On that hopeful note, Ben, I appreciate your time today. Thanks for joining me.


COLLINS: Awesome. Thank you so much.


HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.