In The Age Of Fake News And Alternative Facts, Al Gore Remains Optimistic
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Hackers, fake news, conspiracy theories tweeted and retweeted. One takeaway from the election is that the internet isn't living up to the promise that it would revitalize the marketplace of ideas.
AL GORE: There are some bright spots, to be sure, but the internet is still in a Wild West phase, as was the case during the early age of the printing press as well.
SHAPIRO: Few recognize those shortcomings better than former Vice President Al Gore. Ten years ago, he wrote a book about how governments use and abuse information. It's called "The Assault On Reason." Back then, Gore thought the internet would have a self-healing quality that would allow truth and journalism to counteract falsehoods and abuse. Now he's updated his book for the Trump era. Our co-host Audie Cornish talked with him about how he thinks about all that now.
GORE: We've seen the bankruptcy of many newspapers. We've seen a further erosion of the line between news and entertainment. But I do believe that there is reason to hope that over time we will see the higher-quality journalism rise to the surface.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Have you become more sensitive to this issue of, like, facts and misinformation because in part, you know, one of your key issues, climate science, has become the subject of political fighting - right? - where people cast doubts all the time on data and the scientists involved?
GORE: Yes, of course. And in some ways, it's not at all new for wealthy and powerful interests to try to hide the ball and ignore independent analyses of relevant facts. But we see a prime example of this now with the new head of the EPA (laughter) brazenly declaring that CO2 has nothing to do with the climate crisis when even...
CORNISH: And this is Scott Pruitt, the EPA's chief.
GORE: Yes. And he took a softer line in his confirmation hearings, but now he's reverted to the views that he had expressed in his previous job in Oklahoma.
CORNISH: You know, you're chuckling a little as you describe this, but you've been in the halls of power, right? You've been in the White House. What is your real reaction, your feeling when you hear a Cabinet-level person spread this kind of information?
GORE: Well, I think it's extremely unfortunate. It's not a complete surprise because his background was well known when he was named. And again, in this book, "The Assault On Reason," this new edition, the focus is not really on the personalities of climate deniers or those who obfuscate the facts about health care or the budget or tax policy. It's really about the nature of the public discourse and how it now makes our country more vulnerable to the kind of disinformation and propaganda that is being substituted for the kind of dialogue that our founders hoped we would have.
CORNISH: So what is different today? I mean, what could you say about today that you couldn't say back then?
GORE: Well, others have noted a free press is the immune system of representative democracy. And as I wrote 10 years ago, American democracy is in grave danger from the changes in the environment in which ideas either live and spread or wither and die. I think that the trends that I wrote about 10 years ago have continued and worsened, and the hoped-for remedies that can come from online discourse have been slow to mature. I remain optimistic that ultimately free speech and a free press where individuals have access to the dialogue will have a self-correcting quality.
CORNISH: I shouldn't be shocked at this given your background, but your faith in the internet is stupendous. And I don't know if I'm just being cynical because I have to read it every day (laughter) and...
GORE: (Laughter) Yeah, good point.
CORNISH: You know, the rise of social media news and media literacy, you know, can be quite difficult in this environment. And they have the same profit motive as broadcasters. I mean, why would you think this would be different?
GORE: Well, because of the architecture of the internet. You know, the same complaints were made in the early decades of the printing press revolution. It was chaotic. But the...
CORNISH: But you couldn't get your pamphlet to everybody, right? Like, today, if you plant the seed of something outrageous and not true, there's a chance the president would retweet it.
GORE: Well, yes, but now you see 60 percent of the people saying, enough already with these tweets. And I think that, you know, it's easy to forget we're only less than two months into this new administration. And it's too early to predict how that is going to go. But just to make the point about the architecture of the public forum - in the age of the internet, with all of its problems, over time, the very fact that individuals can join the conversation creates the opportunity for the emergence of - for the re-emergence of a genuine conversation of democracy. In fact, you already see this beginning to happen. And I understand that being optimistic in this age is challenging, but I am optimistic nonetheless.
CORNISH: Vice President Al Gore. A new edition of his book, "The Assault On Reason," is out now. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
GORE: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.