The Q&A: Michael Hobbes from the "You're Wrong About" podcast

"To me, political correctness is just the same thing as cancel culture with a couple of the particulars swapped out."

Happy Friday, everyone! As promised in Wednesday’s update, here’s the full transcript of my conversation with Michael Hobbes of the You’re Wrong About and Maintenance Phase podcasts. We had a great discussion about moral panics, cancel culture, and what kind of stories You’re Wrong About could be covering a decade from now. The below transcript has been edited for a bit of clarity.

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Parker Molloy: There are only so many times I can shout into the void about a bad segment on Fox News or something like that. I ended up in this sort of place where as I write stories for Media Matters, I find myself writing the same stories that I’ve written before. I’d rather just share an old link than rewrite this whole story and just change a few of the details, but every day it’s some new and stupid outrage on Fox. This morning they were like, “Penn State is no longer saying ‘freshmen!’ They’ve caved to the ‘woke mob.’ They’re saying ‘first years!’” But that’s not a new controversy.

Michael Hobbes: Yeah! That’s literally from the 90s!

They’re digging around looking for these local stories they can blow up into these national monstrosities. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you. I’ve been a fan of You’re Wrong About for a year or two now. I come away from each episode feeling better informed, but also depressed by how easily false and distorted narratives can take hold and effectively become the accepted, collective truth.

People are always saying, “History will remember!” as a way to calm themselves about injustice, but what history remembers isn’t necessarily accurate. That’s why I really both enjoy the podcast, but also why I find it more relevant than ever before. We’re kind of in this moment where we’re all hoping that history remembers what’s happening now. Between that and all of the episodes you guys have done about various moral panics — human trafficking, clowns, “stranger danger,” that sort of stuff — I’m really just fascinated by the way that moral panics get whipped up. Right now we’re seeing it with this stuff about cancel culture and trans athletes and every day it’s a new panic.

So how does the political correctness, moral panic, of the '90s compare to today's cancel culture debates?

Well, I mean, as you said, the most frustrating thing is that oftentimes it's just one story and we get sort of little, I guess, milestones or little roadsigns along that one story. But ultimately it's the one story. The one story that I think is ... I think we're around the same age? I'm 39.

I'm 35, so yeah, close.

I feel the one story for both of our lifetimes is the … gradual transformation of the Republican party into a radicalized political party that is mainly interested in white grievance. And they're figuring out how effective that is for them. They're figuring out different methodology, they're testing out different messages, they're exploring different tactics and different policies. The 30-year trajectory, really, since Reagan, has been the radicalization — asymmetric polarization is the academic term for it. All of these moral panics are, in some ways, offshoots of that. Where it's a political party that becoming slowly unmoored from reality, its own electorate is becoming less diverse, ideologically, racially, on every dimension they're becoming less diverse.

And so as you have this coalition that's forming. What you do for an aging, anxious, misinformed electorate, is you just give them more of the catnip that they want. And that is just cultural grievance. To me, political correctness is just the same thing as cancel culture with a couple of the particulars swapped out. It was in a pre-social media moment, so there weren't the outrage mobs, there wasn't the online harassment, and the Justine Sacco-type element that has now been folded into cancel culture. Like, "No it's about people being fired for their views on social media."

That wasn't really a thing, because there wasn't social media. But ultimately it was the same thing, where it was a backlash to changing social mores. American society was becoming more ideologically progressive, and it was a backlash to that. You read the old articles and you're like, "Oh right. It's the same, not even the same themes, but literally the same arguments."

Like you mentioned, "Should we say freshmen anymore?" That was literally a thing in the '90s. We were fighting over whether we were going to say freshmen or freshperson in these absurd, low stakes controversies over a private college uses a different word on a form, which doesn't affect anybody. Even if you think it's asinine, don't send your kids to that school and you're safe. But it's the same thing now. So I mean, that's a very boring answer.

But the more of this moral panic you look into, you're like, "Oh, it's just the one moral panic." It is society becoming more progressive, and conservatives expanding the danger of that shift and making it seem like there's some sort of creeping fascism, or some sort of slippery slope that we're on, when it's like, "No, man, it's just society tends to become more progressive over time." It's just history marching forward.

Yeah, and that's, it's interesting to think about it as a single panic, but that I think is a pretty accurate way of saying it.

Well, I mean, do you agree with that?

I totally do.

I was just going to say that any of these things, the reason that there's been a big shift from targeting gay rights to targeting trans rights, is because it's seen as an easier target for the people who are fueling these things, but nothing about their views has changed. It's still the same thing, and the same people are going after abortion, and those same people are going after anything that is not white and Christian and all of that stuff that they view as representing "American values," or whatever.

There's so much overlap there, that it really is almost impossible to divide it out. The coalition seems to be people who don't want anything to change, or they want things to change in a way that makes things work more conservative and to roll things back. But right now, it's obnoxious. I hate turning on the TV and seeing whatever ridiculous story is coming up, where they're like, "Mr. Potato Head now is gender-neutral," which wasn't even real. ... Or they're calling the Muppet show being on Disney+ cancel culture because they put a few second notice before a couple of the episodes because there were outdated views or whatever on there. It's just exhausting because these aren't battles that you can — you can't win these battles of ideas, because there aren't any actual ideas behind them.

No one actually cares about Mr. Potato Head, or Dr. Seuss, or any of that stuff. But it's what we get drilled into our heads. And I recently wrote this article about the five week-campaign to yell about Dr. Seuss on Fox News, it went on for five weeks. At which point I stopped paying attention, but I'm sure it kept popping up. It's just exhausting. I keep finding it, seeing stuff like that, and thinking, "I don't know how to deal, how to interact with people who do that." They'll never admit that they're wrong. They'll never admit that they, I can't convince them otherwise. So that's where there's this hope that history will remember how things actually were. So much of your work is, "History doesn't remember how things actually were," which is depressing as hell to me.

Yeah. I mean, one of the biggest finds, in doing the show, is how easy it is to debunk these things. You don't have to go back and re-interview Tonya Harding or Anna Nicole Smith to figure out what the real story was. The real story was there all along. I mean, oftentimes it's there in the Rolling Stone interviews that they gave, it's there in the TV interviews that they gave. They were telling us the story the whole time, but it's just that part of the story got ignored. So it's, I mean, I think I went into this with some assumption that more information will save us. So if only we knew then, it was like, "No, no, we knew, but we just ignored it."

At the time we knew that Amy Fisher was a 15-year-old girl, who had a "relationship" with a 35-year-old guy. And somehow she was the villain in that story. Those facts weren't hidden from us. It's not like we only found out she was 15 much later in the court trial. No, we knew that from day one, and it was very easy for us to believe like, "Oh, she's this nympho, Lolita, enchantress, seductress-thing." That's just totally absurd.

We were fully capable of learning the actual story and telling the story in a different way, but we just didn't. Nobody wanted to at the time.

Yeah. And one of the reasons that stuff like that sticks with me, is that there's obviously a societal cost to not remembering the way things, to accepting these meta-narratives of how things were, based on what we were essentially told through repetition. But there are also these personal ... I can't imagine being Tonya Harding, or Monica Lewinsky, or anyone who had these sort of stories built around them, where you take something that's a mistake, or it's bad, and no one will really argue against that. But at the same time, it's just blown so far out of proportion by mainstream media, mainstream press. That whole idea of that is scary.

Now with the internet and social media, that could happen to any of us. Where everyone just, suddenly, collectively decides, "This person is bad and we will crush them, or we will create this narrative about them that isn't accurate." The funny thing about that to me is that the impulse is to go, "No, we can't judge people too fast," and it's to adopt this anti-cancel culture mentality. But at the same time, you're like, "No, I see how that plays out as well." And so, I try to look at it on a more personal level, rather than trying to influence the masses, I guess, on individual issues. But yeah.

Well, I mean, I think one of the interesting shifts is, I don't think that social media has made this problem worse, and I don't think it made it better. I think it's just changed it. So one of the things I think is so interesting, as you imagine, what if Monica Lewinsky had had Instagram? Or what if Tonya Harding could make a clap-back video on YouTube, where she showed receipts of, "Actually I have a restraining order against my husband," This is something that me and Sarah, this is a point that I'm stealing from Sarah, but it's something we've talked about on the show a lot. That there wasn't really a way for people like that to speak back at the time if it wasn't mediated. You go give the Barbara Walters interview, but you're ultimately leaving it up to ABC to edit yourself, edit your one-hour-long interview into eight minutes.

So if they want you to look silly and promiscuous and kind of dumb, they can do that. You have no power in that situation. One of the things that's actually, I think, an improvement now, is that it is so much easier for people to respond to these things. You can post something on Instagram, you can post a TikTok if you're on the receiving end of these online mobs, or the media is telling a particular story about you. But then on the other hand, of course, we have the internet, social media has also made it so much easier to be targeted by these online vocal groups. I think to me, one of the central problems with, "Cancel culture," as a societal issue, is that it's not clear that anything has actually changed in society.

I don't think that Americans are more punitive, or less capable of nuance, or we want everybody to lose their jobs. I don't think that we've become more comfortable with random people being fired for one random thing that they tweeted. If you look at public opinion polling, most people are actually very uncomfortable with that kind of thing. We all feel very weird about stories like Justine Sacco, and these random people being fired. But what the internet has done, is the internet has made it really easy for small groups to make themselves visible. So, I mean, a lot of these "cancellations" aren't really society at large hating people. Oftentimes it's actually a relatively small group of people operating like a fandom. It's an actual thing, like an anti-fandom. People who bond over disliking a particular celebrity, or a political figure. Even if it's only 1,000 people online, that's not that many people, but if it's on Twitter, they can make themselves seem like they're representing some sort of consensus just below the surface.

One thing that I've found so frustrating for years, has been this the way that a lot of these stories will ... There are a lot of stories that pop up in newspapers or in news reports, that are based on something that three people on Twitter said. It doesn't even have to be 1,000 people. A lot of the time it seems to be, there are less than a dozen people or maybe five people, and it's presented as this giant crisis. It makes it impossible to have actual discussions about whatever the issue may be.

One thing that I was wondering about, so the episode of You're Wrong About, that you did about human trafficking. Now that one thing I find really, because it was a really interesting episode, and I just find it really interesting, because it's something that people, no one wants to come off as being pro-human trafficking, obviously. Is that something you worried about when making that? That people are going to see that and just not get the nuance involved in saying that like, "No, this just isn't the ..." Yeah.

Yeah, and I mean, we've definitely gotten, it's not that many, but we've definitely gotten, I noted in there that this statistic of 40 million victims of human trafficking every year, that includes 15 million people who are victims of forced marriages. I have complicated feelings on that, but forced marriages are not what most people think of when they hear trafficking. They're imagining kids being kidnapped, they're not imagining kids in South Asia being married against their will, as part of this longstanding cultural tradition. That's just not what people think of. So I was trying to delineate those two things. Both of those things are bad, but it doesn't actually make sense to group children being kidnapped and arranged marriages in South Asia together. As if that's one problem, those have different causes and solutions.

Then of course I got the emails, like, "Wow, I was really disappointed to hear you say that forced marriages are good." I'm like, "Well, that's not my view, but some people are determined to take that meaning and whatever." But that's also, I mean, I do think that one of the things that's so interesting about public figure-dom, on the internet now, is just the sheer scale of the internet. We have a couple of episodes that have gotten more than a million downloads. And if 1% of our audience hates them, and thinks that we're pieces of shit, and we suck ass, and they want to email us, and flood our mentions or whatever, that's 10,000.

So if I got 10,000 emails saying like, "You're a piece of shit for this episode," I would probably assume that represented a huge portion of our audience. I would assume that like, "Oh my God, everybody who listened to the show, is really mad at me," when in fact that might actually just be 1% of the audience who was extremely vocal. And it doesn't actually represent the other 99% of people, but there's no way to tell. It doesn't feel like it's only 1% of your audience if you're getting 10,000 emails.

And so I think there's also a really interesting, one of the factors of cancel culture that I want to explore more, is the way that it's also radicalized public figures. Where part of being a public figure now, and this is totally new in human history, is this two way-communication between yourself and your audience. So if you're an Instagram influencer or a YouTuber, people can DM you, people can leave comments on your videos, people can be in your Twitter mentions. We've never had people who were famous as like PewDiePie or somebody, who can actually speak both ways with their audience, and can get feedback of everything that they do. Everyone is going to have a piece of feedback for you. It's so easy to get in touch with these kinds of public figures.

A lot of public figures get very limited negative feedback, but that also starts to radicalize them. It makes them feel like, "Oh, why can't people stop complaining?" One of the things about being a public figure, you do, I'm sure you get these emails too, but you get these emails that are completely wild. That's like, "You shouldn't say this word." Or I got an email the other day saying that I shouldn't use the word, "Ecosystem," anymore because ... I literally don't even know what the thing is, but you get these emails.

But they don't represent anything. If you have a large audience, some percentage of emails you get, are going to be wacky or in bad faith, or they haven't really listened all that closely to your work, so they're just making accusations against you that are just straight-up incorrect. But I think for public figures that can have a radicalizing effect, that you start to hate the ether out there. Every time you put anything out into the world, you get this bile back at you, and it starts to make you feel like, "Oh, fuck these people." And then this is where you get these YouTubers and other internet celebrities that spend a lot of their time responding to bad faith criticism online. Which, it's understandable to me that people would do that because it's frustrating. But it's also just, I don't think humans are designed to get this much feedback on our work.

Right. Yeah, I definitely get those emails as well from people. The funniest ones are the ones that are from people who are, who see something that I say about trans issues, and they'll tweet at me, or send me an email, accusing me of being transphobic. And I'm just like, "I don't even know how to respond to this."

I'm just like, "I assure you that I am not, but thank you for your input." But yeah, there'll be a lot of these, yeah, a lot of just sometimes incoherent, sometimes well-meaning, sometimes totally bad faith-things. The hard thing is to figure out which is which, because obviously if someone means well, I don't want to respond in a rude way or to just ignore them, but I get it.

Although, to be fair, the email written by the ecosystem person was actually very thoughtful. This was somebody who's a scientist, who didn't want us to use that word because we were, I don't know exactly what the argument was, but, we were promoting an idea of an ecosystem, as a closed system, and not as something that changes over time. Which is like, "Fair enough, this is a person with genuine expertise." I get it. I don't mind getting those kinds of emails, but I also think that just — ... It is very telling to me that the, "Cancel culture is an epidemic," discussion, or the framing of cancel culture as a moral panic that we all need to be worried about, that conversation, by definition, is being led by public figures.

It's being led by political columnists and actors and Youtubers, and people who get far more feedback, and are far more exposed on the internet than the average person. So it's always very weird to me when we get something like James Bennet who loses his job as the opinion editor of the New York Times. We have people saying like, "Oh, Americans are losing their jobs just for having bad opinions." And it's like, "Well, his job is to have a good opinion." He's an extremely public figure. Waitresses are not losing their jobs for having bad opinions, because writing political opinions isn't their job. Does that make sense?

We have these people, I think, that there is a radicalizing effect on a lot ... It is notable that the people that scream the loudest about cancel culture, are people who receive a lot of criticism online. I think that there's a real, a very normal human thing to think like, "Okay, because people are constantly shouting at me online, and I could lose my job if the criticism of me online reaches too high of a pitch, to try to extrapolate that to the rest of the country." So, pretty soon, it's not just like, "This is an occupational hazard that I have or an irritation that I have, that I'm constantly getting bad faith criticism." You start to cast that as, "Well anybody could lose their job. Everybody's getting criticized online." I just don't think that people, a lot of people don't necessarily think of themselves as public figures, even though they are.

There's also the fact that for a lot of people, myself included, you go from -- what was it back eight, nine years ago, I think -- I had a blog that 200 people read per month, and that was it. Then suddenly it's like, "Oh cool. I have a few hundred thousand people who read things I put out." I think that there's this idea, that people build in their minds and act off of that, "Oh, this person, this rich, wealthy person who doesn't want to interact." Meanwhile, I'm sitting here, scraping together quarters to try to pay rent. But yeah, no, that's all super important, great points.

This, to me, is my primary debunking thing with the public figures aspect, or with cancel culture, is that I think we all need to be very clear that normal people, who are not public figures, are not losing their jobs due to things they say on social media, to any large extent. From everything I've been able to read — I've interviewed labor lawyers about this — that does not even appear to be in the top 10 reasons why people lose their jobs in America. So what frustrates me about the cancel culture thing, is that you have a lot of public figures, who are subject to online criticism, who are then trying to backfill this as a national crisis onto, "Well, anybody could get fired at any time for their social media posts."

If you look at the numbers, only one 10th of the population is even on Twitter, and over those, the median Twitter user sends two tweets a month. So most Americans aren't on Twitter, and even among those who are, they have 150 followers. If somebody with 150 followers tweets some extremely stupid shit or some extremely problematic shit, they're not going to get fired. It's not, this is not something that employers are doing on any kind of regular basis. So I think, as with human trafficking, there's aspects of it that are problems, that probably shouldn't be called trafficking, but they actually are problems. Then there's the straight-up fake shit, like kids being kidnapped and taken through airports. And I feel like the fake shit about cancel culture is that ordinary Americans are being fired en masse for expressing political opinions on social media.

It's just not happening. And none of the people who are constantly highlighting these fucking anecdotes and writing these abysmal 4,000-word articles about the rapping librarian who was forced to quit from Smith's or whatever, none of those people have tried to investigate to what extent this is an actual issue of national concern. If you are a public figure, it's definitely an issue for you. I think it's, in some ways, a lot harder to be a public figure than it used to be. But if you're a private individual, this is not something that you need to be concerned about.

It is really interestingly self-serving of the people who complain the most about cancel culture. They're the ones who are at risk of "canceling," not the everyday people they pretend to be concerned about protecting.

On a slightly different note, one thing I was wondering: so in 10 years, so in 2031, what do you think would be, what story from right now would make for a good episode of You're Wrong About? What are people going to misunderstand?

Ooh. It's hard to know in the moment. I mean, this is one of the main things of the show, it's oftentimes hidden from you at the moment because when we have news events happening, we oftentimes learn information in the wrong order. There's a school shooting or whatever, you learn the information in order of importance. You're like, "There was a school shooting today. The shooter is this person. There's this many victims." It's not given to you the way that you would tell it if you were telling a story.

And it's only 10 years later that we can be like, "Okay, Bob Smith was a really sad teenager, and he started buying guns when he was 13." And then you can actually get to what really happened here, but you have to tell a story chronologically to tell it correctly, to get all of the context and everybody's motivation. Whereas when anything is happening, it's just event, event, event, event. It's all in this wrong Memento-ass order. And you can't figure out what's actually going on. I don't know how to solve that, from a hard news perspective. I think you need that structure, but also it's like you just get these blips of information, and then it's up to you to sew them together into a narrative. You're not actually getting the narrative at the time.

That's an interesting way of thinking about it. So often the narratives that people do tie together, basically, end up being ridiculous at times. Like with school shootings, where you end up with people trying to blame it on video games or music, or all of these things. Where it's just really, it's a hypothesis that someone will throw out there, but then at some point along the line becomes the accepted truth for a certain population of people. That's what the internet has in a lot of ways, people talk about how it's democratized news and newsgathering and information sharing, but it's also democratized disinformation. That's something that, I think, in the next 10, 20 years is going to be very scary to deal with.

Because right now it's people making bad memes and Photoshops that don't make sense or editing videos slightly out of context. 10 years from now, it might be full-on deep fakes that you can't tell are fake. There's nothing that people have to cling to, to try to save their own credibility. I mean, if you're someone even at Fox or OAN or these far-right news places, you don't want to say something that's so blatantly false, that it ends up staining your career. But if you're some anonymous person on the internet, you don't care, and your only goal is to hurt someone politically, there's no incentive for you to tell the truth. Which I think is a lot of the issues that we're going to have to battle in years to come.

I do think that one of the You're Wrong About's that we will be talking about in 10 years, is something about disinformation. But I think that it, right now, is being cast as sort of, "What can we do?" It's an octopus with 1,000 tentacles, and how do you even crack down on this stuff? I looked into this for a couple of stories at various points, and it feels like what the researchers are finding is that there are actually very powerful nodes of misinformation and there are institutions that spread misinformation. If you actually trace all of these societal misunderstandings, that are just straight-up bullshit, like the elections stealing stuff, back to their source, it's actually not a 1,000 tentacles. It's actually like 10 people.

It's a right-wing tabloid, and an influencer on Facebook, and a couple of people on Twitter. They are the ones who are seeding this information, and then it goes through these mediators, and then it spreads out. But I really think that it's kind of a myth that we can't crack down on this stuff. My understanding is when you start looking into QAnon, or the stealing the election-thing, or any of the other, anti-vax, whatever the other conspiracy theories are. A lot of the actual lies and memes and bad information are actually originating with a relatively small number of people. The tech platforms are afraid to crack down on those people because they're afraid of the precedent that it would set. If we shut down this one anti-vax site, then we have to shut down all the anti-vax sites.

But they're not doing any tiering. ... An anti-vax site with 5 million followers is obviously much more dangerous than an anti-vax site with 500 followers. So they're acting as if they have to apply the same standards to both of those sites. They have to make a principle and apply it to the big fish and the small fish, when actually what they should be doing, is looking for the big influential accounts that are constantly lying, and shutting them down. There should be a sliding scale of like, "Okay, you get three strikes. If you have more than a million followers on Facebook, you get three strikes. Three lies, you lose your account, sorry. Under a million followers, you get as many strikes as you want -- or whatever, 20 strikes.”

So however they would do it, but do it in this way that acknowledges the fact that a lot of the misinformation is coming from the same sewage pipes. And the platforms know exactly where these people are, but they're refusing to do anything about it because they think that they have to have some sort of free speech standard for everybody. Personally, I think that you should have much higher obligations to free speech when you're a prominent public figure than if you're just some random dude.

That was always the thing with when Trump would go and attack someone on Twitter. It would be like, "Well, he's the president." People go, "Well, he's a counter puncher, he fights back." He's the president, he needs to hold himself to a higher standard."

Yeah, the most depressing fucking cancel culture discourse all year was the fretting over Donald Trump losing his fucking Twitter account. And that people were making a slippery slope-argument from a head of state losing a communications platform. Are you kidding me? That does not in any way restrict his freedom of speech. He can put out a press release, and it will be in all the newspapers the next day. In no meaningful way is his speech restricted, and yet you still had people making these absurd arguments about like, "Well, what next?" What's next on the slippery slope after the fucking president? No, we should be able to hold the president to the highest standard, and then people one rung down to a slightly lower, but still high standard, and so on. It's actually not a double standard to expect different things for people with different levels of power in society.

And social media companies had it completely reversed. They had it where everyone else was held to a higher standard than his account because, “Well, everything he says is newsworthy, so we have to leave it up.” It was such a weird reverse incentive situation, and I think it led to some of the chaos that unfolded.

I wrote in the run-up to the election about how Trump’s account and his campaign’s account would spread these horrible pieces of misinformation. One time his campaign just edited something Biden said to make it seem like he said, “You won’t be safe in Biden’s America” when he was actually quoting Trump. They just cut it so it looked like he said that. They posted that, and Twitter put a little, “Hey, this is manipulated media” label on it, but there was no incentive for the campaign to take it down or not do it again. When people called them on it, the campaign just responded like, “Oh, can’t you even take a joke?” It wasn’t a joke! This is the campaign’s account!

This is why I’ve been excited to work on this newsletter because it allows me to step outside of the “this is what’s happening in conservative media” framework to instead acknowledging that this is just the world we live in.