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tv   This Is Life With Lisa Ling  CNN  October 23, 2021 9:00pm-10:00pm PDT

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i'm in my bedroom on january 6th watching thousands of people at the united states capitol on the day that the presidential election was supposed to be certified. >> like most of us, last winter, i watched live as people stormed the united states capitol, fueled by the baseless claims
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the election was stolen. >> make no mistake this election was stolen from you, from me. >> this is the consequence of conspiracy theories running amuck. accusations of lies, treason and even pedophilia flew from all directions. it begs the question, how did we end up here? americans have always been fascinated with alternate versions of the truth. >> the clues are all there that it had the potential to get as huge as it's become. >> in the last decade, conspiracy thinking has gone main stream. it may not be entirely our fault. >> if are you a democrat, i'm a republican, the algorithm is incentivized to push us apart. >> tonight we look at a system designed to stoke paranoia and play off our fears.
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>> it's psychological warfare with us as children. >> to meet someone who dove head first into a conspiracy theory. >> i couldn't stop thinking about it and it broke me. >> and someone who is still very much in it. >> you can't stop what's coming. >> and what do you think is coming? >> justice. >> we like to think we're immune from misinformation, but the truth is far more complicated and these days harder than ever to discern. ♪
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last year our world changed overnight. stores emptied. stadiums went silent. and all of us learned the meaning of social distance. at the same time that we isolated from each other -- >> we have the biggest one day death toll so far. >> the volume of our news feed went to full blast. >> we are in debt. >> americans are dying. >> the coronavirus. >> we tried our best to keep up appearances but then as weeks and months went by under lock down, it got harder and harder. >> we are five month into this world wide pandemic. >> reporter: people who looked leak they had it together were silently coming apart. >> i'm not playing a [ bleep ]
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game. this [ bleep ] is over. this is all [ bleep ] over. >> at the height of the pandemic, a video started spreading on twitter showing a woman knocking over a display of masks in a target store. she live streamed the entire event. >> yay! whew! >> reporter: the video became a viral sensation and garnered the meme target karen. for the person that posted it, it was the end of a rapid downward spiral. >> at the beginning of the pandemic, i was just spinning trying to learn as much as i possibly could so i could be informed not only to make decisions for my health and my family's health, but to advise clients. >> melissa rain lively is well-versed in appearances. she runs a small public relations firm catering to luxury and lifestyle. but her business was upended when the pandemic devastated arizona's hospitality industry. how did the pandemic start to
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affect you personally? >> i didn't know what to do with myself. >> it was just this dead zone of time where i had just nothing to do other than panic. >> melissa had been recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was prone to extreme anxiety. and like many of us she was faced with an information overload. >> my issue with dr. fauci right out the gate was initially he said masks were unnecessary. then he dialed it back and said masks are necessary. i think that the juxtaposition of information that was so polar opposite was really what caused me to crack. i began to question what was happening. >> reporter: as she dug deeper into the internet trying to make sense of it all, she discovered a new theory. the pandemic was a coverup for something far worse. what were some of the things
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specifically that you saw that really affected you after going down that rabbit hole? >> i saw clips of videos that were floating around on twitter. it was people in positions of power abusing children with proof, that's their voice that's their house. i had never seen anything like that. >> melissa had stumbled into america's fastest growing conspiracy theory, qanon. >> the information seemed very real and very credible and horrifying. >> but did you ever think that all could be contrived? >> i considered that. but i was deeply affected by the save the children messaging and the claims about widespread pedophilia. i just wanted to see justice and the truth come forward and i just couldn't let it go. >> by now most of us have heard of the qanon conspiracy theory,
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a global trafficking ring, thousands of pedophiles and one man who will vanquish this evil, now former president donald trump. it sounds ridiculous, but some studying qanon say there are reasons why so many people are drawn to it. >> we all have a desire to fight for what is right and feel like we are part of something, something big and heroic. >> our leaders are using the blood of children for everything. >> conspiracy theories tap into peoples desire forfection, for people who might have been feeling isolated or they had a ton of purpose. this is incredibly productive. >> i am speaking with anna merlin, an investigative journalist who tracked how conspiracy movements like this one have listen to the surface. what is qanon and where did it
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come from? >> qanon is the conspiracy that took hold early on in donald trump's presidency. it is the idea he is secretly fighting a cabal and evil-doers and we are told what he is doing through mysterious clues dropped by someone calling themselves q who has implied they're a high level operative in the trump administration. >> how has that become something that people have found themselves wanting to partake in? >> qanon has become a massive online role playing game. and it's very addictive because it gives people a sense of participating in something really big. like if you put these clues together correctly, you will vanquish an unthinkable evil. >> ana tells me qanon is more than just memes and viral clips. it's part of a much older, darker story. >> the idea of a secret group of sexually abusive evil doers is literally a medieval conspiracy
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theory. it is an anti-semitic idea which holds that jews specifically were meeting in secret late at night to slaughter christian children and use their blood in rituals. but it has spread beyond that. you can see elements of it in qanon, which claims that evil doers are meeting in secret to abuse children. >> the ancient lie has been weaponized again and again throughout global history but still didn't deter melissa who herself was raised jewish and descended from holocaust survivors. even though there is a lot of anti-semitism that goes along with what qanon is about, that still didn't dissuade you? >> i picked and choose what i ascribe to, and the rest of it i was like i don't like that, i'm going to ignore that. and the more detached from reality i got, the more of a
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rift that it had in my relationship with my husband. finally, things got so heated here that he was like either you cut this qanon out or we're done. so i was like fine, i'll go stay in a hotel. i was filled with rage. i was thinking about everything that i had learned about qanon, and it's like they're doing this to us. and when i saw the masks i just lost it. >> i can't do this because i'm a blonde white woman? >> the target video was just one of several posted by melissa when she was following qanon. in them she bragged about connections to "q," loyalty to donald trump and used a torrent of racist language. overnight melissa lost clients, friends and nearly her marriage
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after her husband filed for divorce. >> do i have his phone number? i'm on the phone with him all the time. >> when you look at that video what do you think about? >> never in a millen years would i think that i would have been the type of person to join a cult, but that's exactly what i did. it's very easy to get swept up. >> based on a poll conducted in 2021 an estimated 15% of the american public still believed a secret group of pedophiles were controlling the government. that's millions of people. >> so now i'm looking at this reddit page called qanon casualties, stories of people who have gone down this qanon rabbit hole. here's one that says lost my mom to this qanon bull [ bleep ]. today she finally talked about celebrities killing small children and drinking their blood. the saddest thing about all of
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this is how grounded in fear people are. we're all afraid. we're all unsure of what's going to happen tomorrow. where is it going to end? i have no idea. that's also really scary. qanon is a digital age phenomenon, but nothing exists in a vacuum. as it turns out the paranoia that fuels "q" is as american as apple pie.
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it's easy to think of conspiracy theories as something new, a by-product of the digital age. but journalist ana merlin points out this has happened over and over again. >> social change, confusion about major world events, all of those things can lead to an environment where peoples imaginations really can run wild. >> in the mid-20th century most conspiracy theories spread by word of mouth. like today it was a time of rapid social change. while an escalating cold war bred fear of communist and the civil rights movement threatened to upend a system of white supremacy, a group on the far right sought to capitalize the
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resistance to change. >> a the anti-communist john birch society were committed to spreading pretty virulent conspiracy theories. they accused their opponents of being communists, that the government was riddled with secret communists who were working to sort of undermine the workings of the government. and this was an existential threat. >> the civil rights movements as we know it today is simply part of a worldwide movement organized and directed by communists to enslave all man kind. >> it's something that we have seen subsequently that people who don't believe what you believe ideologically are actually a danger to the united states. and that idea has recurred quite a lot. >> these ideas can also take root when people have lost trust in their leaders. >> conspiracy theorists they don't have to do very much work to make people believe that the government is capable of real atrocities because they have
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perpetrated them in the past. >> whether we're old or young we can probably remember a time in our lives when something we thought was true was exposed as a lie. >> peace will be necessary for our final success. we will do this because our own security is at stake. >> let me just say this. i have never obstructed justice. >> we did not, repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages. >> the erosion of trust took its toll. by the end of the 20th century studies showed over 50% of americans believed in at least one conspiracy theory. >> the first time i noticed the conspiracy culture was really popular in america when i was going to go on show. it was probably more people crowded around the conspiracy table than the ar-15 table.
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the clues were all there, actually. it had the potential to get as huge as it's become. >> john raunsen is no stranger to bizarre stories. an author and filmmaker he's covered secret military programs, psychopaths and mind control. but two decades ago it was a story about extremism that led him to the world of conspiracy thinking. >> when i first heard of these extremists groups i thought they would have nothing in common, but they all believed there was a shadowy cabal secretly ruling the world from inside a secret room. it's a very clear hoax that of course influenced the nazis, influenced white supremacists right up until today. >> john wanted to learn more about how these ideas were spreading in fringe groups on the right and discovered a devoted fan base determined to expose the threat of a new world order. >> victory is ours against the
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new world order, again the communists and the socialists and the bankers that run the shows. >> one obscure man from texas, his name was alex jones. >> are you going to let them? >> what was your relationship with alex jones? >> alex jones where he was completely unknown broadcasting out of a child's bedroom in his house. >> no longer is the new world order some foggy apparition over the next hill, it talk of extremists. >> but raunsen discovered he and jones shared a common fascination. there actually were powerful groups meeting in secret, vips who gathered on weekend outings in remote locations. >> this weird campsite in california where people are
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rumored to attend a ritual that ends in a human effigy being burned in front of a giant stone owl. >> the bohemian club was exactly what john was looking for, a secretive mens retreat whose attendees have included power brokers, celebrities and even former presidents. for 150 years the gatherings had been a lightening rod for conspiracy theorists alleging this was where plots were hatched to build a new world order. >> when i heard that i thought i must try and sneak in and find out if it's true. >> we're going to blow the party and get the information out to people. >> and i remember that guy alex jones, and i called him up and asked him do you want to come. >> i'm completely nonviolent when it comes to going out there and get information. that's what i'm trying to do. >> what did you see when you got there? >> well, whole thing was amazing. we watched this ceremony which
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alex managed to film from the camera in his bag. >> the owl is in his temple. >> the footage was shaky and dark but captured what was clearly a ritual. >> they pick up the human effigy, throw it in the burning fire. and they all play when the saints go marching in and this big firework display. >> it turned out what john and alex witnessed was a bohemian clubs annual summer kick off called the cremation of care. creepy looking, yes, but more of a summer play put on by rich men. okay, so it was a weird event but probably not particularly nefarious. >> it was odd but not nefarious. a video called dark secrets in bohemian grove spinning it until
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we had possibly witness a human sacrifice. >> if we kind of dissect this for a moment what you observed was something that actually happened, and this video is an example of how something can be spun into something that riles a lot of people up and instills fear. >> what we actually saw was extraordinary how high society people would do this on summer vacations and yet alex wanted to turn it into something crazier, an actual human sacrifice. >> would you say that was one of the events that kind of gained alex jones some legitimacy in certain circles? >> yes. it was alex jones first hit, but then came 9/11 and that was the thing that really sent him flying. >> that is the world trade center and we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers.
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>> 9/11 was an incredibly shocking and violent and sudden event. people immediately started wondering if there was a political benefit to allowing the 9/11 attacks to happen. >> 9/11 happened right around the time that blogging and youtube started to take off. all of a sudden people who had alternate theories about 9/11 were able to share them in ways they couldn't have before. >> therefore it is scientifically impossible that 12 tons of steel and titanium was vaporized by kerosene. >> loose change was a documentary about the 9/11 attacks that was put out in 2005. it was from top to bottom just a collection of 9/11 conspiracy theories. >> starting as a cult fascination when it hit the internet, "loose change" quickly soared in popularity. followers who called themselves
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truthers shared the videos with millions of viewers in a year. >> anybody's ideas could go viral. >> seems like a perfect storm now with the evolution of all those sites really expedited the ability of that information to start spreading. >> nothing was ever the same. the promotion of conspiracy theories was never the same, and 9/11 was really the first one where we saw how that was going to work. >> waiting in the wings to co-opt a growing movement was alex jones. where he once sold videotapes one by one, alex jones now had a main line straight into american households. a new website called info wars, which he used to amplify the 9/11 truth movement. >> alex very quickly became the world's leading 9/11 truther, promoting the idea it was an inside job. it was always these elitists, the new world order, the fbi. they're all trying to destroy
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our freedoms. >> but after the 2000s drew to a close, jones turned to his megaphone to start promoting an even more outlandish theory. and his egregious accusations would target the most vulnerable. acelerar. no paro de acelerar.
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my life was relatively mundane. i guess you could say i was a normal high school student. i was considering going into broadcast journalism to tell other peoples stories and was just getting ready to apply to school and everything and the shooting happened. >> three years ago when david hogg was 17, his high school became a hunting ground. >> i got a horrific piece of news. i am sorry to have to report we are talking about a high school. shots have been fired. >> you see chaos, terrified students, their hands on their heads, running to safety, frightened parents rushing to the school, waiting for word on their children. are they dead or alive? >> 14 of david's classmates, three staff members were killed. he had just experienced the deadliest school shooting in american history.
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you mentioned one of your first thoughts was your sister who was in school with you. from the time that you started to feel that to the time you found out she was okay, what was that like for you? >> it was horrifying, getting home and not knowing how to console my sister after she lost what we initially thought was three friends but we found out was eventually four. how do you help someone that's 14 years old cope with that? you can't. >> devastated by the shooting in his community and eager to voice his anger david returned to the high school on his bike where national media had converged on the scene. >> i found a camera crew who was reporting for laura engram's show and said, hey, i was there. >> and now onto an eyewitness a student an stoneman douglas as this horrific event unfolded. >> i was just talking to anyone who wanted to talk me and got up the next morning after getting three hours of sleep and went straight back to doing more interviews. >> collectively david and his
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classmates participated in over 70 interviews following the shooting. and soon after they found themselves on a collision with alex jones who was using his info wars web cast to spread mass lies about the shootings. >> this was staged. >> the theory was popularized after the sandy hook shootings, and it was basically a claim that mass shootings are not real, that they're staged by the government with the use of what are called crisis actors. >> by spinning this horrific lie info wars had seized on fears the federal government was planning a massive seizure of privately owned guns. >> they are going to try to physically ban all semiautomatic handguns and rifles and make you turn them in. >> of all the things alex jones has promoted, it is one of the
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worst, the idea they're not real people who died but actors playing a role. >> around 2:30 we heard gunshots and we initially thought it was a drill. >> i just thought i couldn't handle it anymore. he's saying in the videos the time line this is when it's beginning in the closet. but when it's beginning he's at his house riding 3 miles on his bike. >> not true at all. tay take videos of me that say i went to school on my pike and edit that to say i wasn't in the school in the first place. i was. i was there. >> the fact you'd even have to try to prove you were there during a mass shooting is ludicrous. >> yeah, it is. it is absolutely ludicrous. >> fueled by info wars and conspiracy forums, accusations began ramping up. and when someone posted a video on youtube claiming davidwise an actor, it skyrocketed to number one on the platform overnight. what was that like when you
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first found out about and it to be the subject of all of that? >> youtube absolutely has control over what goes on their trending page. the fact they made money through that is disgusting. but i realize the entire point of those things is to stop me from speaking. it's psychological warfare on us as children to stop us from advocating what we believe in. >> the adactivism of parkland students did attract attention, a lot of it. and what started as small protests snowballed into a national youth led movement for gun reform. how soon did you start to get death threats after you started speaking out? >> basically immediately. there were people that sent letters that said "f" with the nra and you'll be doa. there were photos sent of me having my head cut off by isis. there were people that showed up with guns at our protests.
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they would follow us to our hotel with their gun in their hand. >> what did all of this do to your family? how did it affect them? >> it's been ineccredibly traumatizing for them. i got a call from some random sheriff's office like is someone holding a gun to your head demanding $100,000 right now, and i was like no. and they were like well we got a call about it and the entire s.w.a.t. team is on your front lawn with snipers down the street. >> local camera clues flock to the scene and the incident was broadcast nationwide. you ever get concerned the more you speak out the more you invite conspiracy theories to spew information about you? >> yeah, but the reality is i can't let that stop me. this conspiracy theories exist because there's a vacuum of truth. and the easy thing about that to combat that side of it is just
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tell the damn truth. i love youtube as a platform and i use it all the time. we have seen great things come from them, but they also have the power to do just as much damage. >> misinformation packaged into youtube content has caused real harm, and social media companies are facing questions about how conspiracy theories spread on their platforms. as it turns out it's baked into the very dna of how they were created and how they turn a profit. with hyaluronic acid plus caffeine. apply with the triple bead roller. it visibly replumps eye wrinkles and brightens dark circles. new revitalift eye serum by l'oreal paris.
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we can probably remember a time when social media stuck to the basics, friends, picture, likes and interests, so how did these platforms become a hotbed of misinformation and conspiracy theories? amidst growing public pressure, the united states congress went to social media giants for answers. >> it's not possible to catch every piece of harmful content without infringing on peoples freedoms in a way that i don't think we'd be comfortable with as a society. >> simply put your company's bottom line compel you to amplify extremists and dangerous concept. you're not bystanders. you're encouraging this stuff. >> among those testifying are former executives who now harbor doubts about the design of their business. >> i wanted to improve the world
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we all lived in. instead social media services that i and others have built have torn people apart with alarming speed and intensity. i fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of civil war. >> when tim kendall was hired by facebook in 2006 to be the head of monetization, it was his job to determine how the platform could make profits. how do social media companies make money? >> they sell ads. the way they grow is to extract more attention tomorrow than they do today. lisa signs up for the service and it takes in all these inputs about her and her behavior. >> it's collecting my data. >> collecting your data. we have this content and have this notion of who influences you. and then we have this all knowing algorithm that knows sort of what your weaknesses are, your inclinations are.
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and the algorithm is given a clear instruction. >> so if you and i have different habits and we consume different kinds of news and information, would you receive different information than i would receive based on -- >> absolutely. >> -- on the data that's been collected? >> yes. you and i could get very different results depending on prior data about ourselves, prior data about the people around us and even where we're located in the country. we've seen this play out with covid and the divergence of facts and opinions on that. like what is true? >> let's huge hydroxychlorquine as an example. if i'm someone who thinks there is a grain of possibility that it is the answer to our covid woes and i'm seeking that information out, will i continue to receive information that validates -- >> yes. >> -- what i've been looking
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for? >> yes. >> and if you on the other hand discount it entirely, will you receive information that continues to discount it? >> yes. >> so how do you know what's real? how would anyone know what's real? >> that's the essence why i'm so concerned. ten years ago it was pictures of our friends and that was enough. but now it's conspiracy theories, incendiary content, violence, tribalism. the algorithm has figured out that driving wedges between people on these controversial issues is just wonderful business. >> do you think there is this concerted effort to incite this kind of tribalism? >> my view is they don't have malicious intent. i think they're negligent. >> these algorithms, can they be built to work differently to stop spreading information that is not true? >> you have to agree on a source of truth, and then you'd have to feed that truth into the
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algorithm. and then you'd have to tell the algorithm, create engagement, meet the profit numbers but do it without lying. the reason that's not happening in my view is the incentives aren't there. even though i believe it is within their capability. >> you mean that facebook wouldn't make money. >> they wouldn't make as much money. >> in your congressional testimony you expressed fear that the consequence of all this could be civil war. why do aiobyou believe that? >> i was thinking about civil war because i believe it's the natural extrapolation from an all knowing algorithm that has the financial incentive to pull us apart. >> studies have shown it only takes a few minutes of exposure to a conspiracy theory to alter your perspective. imagine the ripple effect magnified by millions when conspiracy theories are created, posted and reposted by the leader of the free world.
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from me. after donald trump's baseless conspiracy theory that the election was stolen ended in violence, his twitter account was suspended permanently. and after he left office many qanon followers left the online movement and disavowed it as a hoax. but a hard core group of believers still identify with their message, and i'm trying to find out why. so facebook, twitter and instagram have really been cracking down on people who are posting anything qanon related. so many people have moved to this other site that has no content controls and claims to be the world's premier free speech platform. the site is called parler, one of a handful of forums that has virtually no restrictions on hate speech or misinformation. i'm going to setup a page.
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i want to engage in some conversation. a few days later someone connected with us. he remains committed to "q" and agrees to chat on camera if we conseal his identity. how are you? >> i'm good. how are you? >> i'm doing well. thanks for talking to us. he calls himself d.c. and tells me, he, too, was banned from facebook but only after a group he created grew to over 90,000 followers. >> the name of the group was qanon great awakening. the main purpose of that facebook page was to, quote-unquote make normies of "q." when "q" posted we would amplify the post on facebook. >> what role does donald trump play in your world view? >> he showed us what a real president can do. it's that simple. he was unbought. we all know that if it wasn't for covid trump would have probably had the best economy in history in his term. and i believe 100% the goal of
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it was to squash the economic boom. >> so you think that covid was something generated today defea donald trump? >> not just donald trump but america in general. >> in all due respect your world view seems pretty dark. where do you think we're headed? >> i think a lot of people are going to die. >> and how do you think people are going to die? >> if vaccinations become mandatory, that's a pretty good way to kill a bunch of people. >> and do the people in your world, your friends, do they believe what you believe? >> no. i've mentioned it to them but i do not push it around them. i've lost too many friends from it already. my end goal is simply to expose everything. people need to know. >> so now that donald trump is no longer president, what do you think is going to happen to the
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movement? >> maybe it is time for the people to take what they've learned and put it into action. >> how far are you willing to take this? you obviously feel very strongly about your beliefs. >> one thing i take more issue with than anything if you want to quiet me down, you'd crack down pedophilia. if that was the only thing that would go away i would be happy. >> but, d.c., what if it's not true? like what if it's not true? >> we don't know if it's not true if we can't bring it into the light. all i'm doing is asking questions. all i have is a parler account with more 30, 40,000 followers, and i'm just trying to warn everybody. i believe that the best is yet to come. and i believe you can't stop what's coming. >> and what do you think is coming? >> justice.
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as we emerge from the pandemic and rely on research and facts to guide us forward, one thing is clear. the truth is more important than ever but becoming harder and harder to pin down. >> i always thought rationality and reason would be the thing it
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saves us, but thus far it hasn't. the reason has been surprisingly ineffective. >> what do we want? >> some lies never go away. these are not fringe ideas being promoted by people who don't have an audience. these are fringe ideas being promoted by people very much in the main stream. what i worry about is people will start to believe there are no good sources of information and that they have no way of knowing what is true and not true. >> pressure continues to build on social media giants to intervene and play a more active role in fighting disinformation. and in response ceos from twitter, google and facebook have pointed to changes including fact checking measures and deplatforming users who spread conspiracy theories. >> some of you will say we're doing too much and removing free speech rights. some of you will say we're not doing enough and end up causing more harm. both points of view are
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reasonable and worth exploring. >> on youtube videos that violate our incitement to violence policies. >> if something is false and we have warning labels. the system isn't perfect but the best approach we've found to address misinformation in line with our country's values. >> quite a number of social media companies have deplatformed people who have been spewing misinformation and conspiracy theories. is that enough? >> my concern over the deplatforming we've seen to date is it doesn't appear to be particularly consistent. i think there need to be more transparent policies about what people can do and say on these platforms. and these companies have to exercise judgment around applying their policy so that society doesn't unwind. >> until we get to a time and place where social media companies take full responsibility for misinformation on their platforms, we can listen to the
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people who have fallen down the rabbit hole and learn from their experience. >> when i really started to understand as i had come out of qanon what it really was and how deep that hatred and racism was sowed i was absolutely horrified that i was involved in it in any way. i am deeply sorry and i will spend the rest of my life trying to make it right. >> we are starting to see what it looks like when our sense of reality is incredibly fractured and divided. >> so what's the end result if we continue along on this path? where do we go from here? what happens? >> if we can't come to a shared sense of what we want this country to look like or even the basic facts of what we're fighting about, we very literally can't get anywhere. we are just mired in an even more heightened version of the partisan divides we've been dealing with for the last 50 years. >> no one wants to think we've
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given up on shared truths. if there is a way forward, it won't be found within the comfort of our own virtual bubbles but in the open, transparent and sometimes uncomfortable exchange of ideas. i've spent my career traveling the world to tell other people stories. now i am focusing on one that hits close to home. >> hate crimes against asian-americans are on the rise. >> nearly 3,000 incidents reported. >> victim after victim of asian descent attacked in recent months, weeks and days in the bay area

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