A kicker in the tale

Aleks Krotoski on the podcast 'Reply all'.

One of the most delightful things about being in the midst of a new communication format is the conviviality that inflates the community before the sharks start to patrol. For all intents and purposes, Reply All, the technology podcast from US company Gimlet Media, should be in direct competition with Digital Human, the programme I present on BBC Radio 4, but in the current second golden age of audio, I’m more than happy to view the world of tech culture and society through the eyes of Alex Goldman and his colleague PJ Vogt. Neither of them is a psychologist, but their topics tend towards the psychological and often cross over into the territory we look at, including a fascinating examination of a recent online community built on conspiracy that tipped into the real world.

In Episode 83: Voyage into Pizzagate, Alex and PJ guide their boss through the occasionally nasty world of confirmation bias, in the myopic bubble of the online forum Reddit.  

The story starts with the tranche of leaked emails that blighted the Clinton campaign and continues via artist Marina Abramovic’s ‘spirit cooking’, through the occult, into a ping pong and pizza place in Washington, DC, peeking into the machinations of the dark web and, finally, unearthing an (unsubstantiated) child pornography conspiracy. It is a captivating breakdown of how conjecture and pluralistic ignorance can turn a molehill into a mountain – leaving the uninvolved observer to shout ‘Why?’ loudly and incredulously in a public place. But the kicker in the tale reminds us what the real-world implications are for promoting circumstantial information, and for creating an uncertain certainty, when the audience is unknown and potentially vulnerable.

The story was perfectly paced. It unfolded in a masterly way – capturing attentions early and consistently delivering increasingly raised stakes. That Alex and PJ had no idea they were describing psychological phenomena was to their benefit: they were able to carry the listener through this very psychological tale in a sensitive, revealing and non-sensationalist way – pulling apart the motivations for attitudes and behaviours through the beats and movements of the narrative.

In the US post-Election 2016, much of the media spent months dissecting itself, trying to understand why they didn’t predict a Trump victory. This episode of Reply All provides the most well-crafted, case-study-driven and unintentional analysis of this introspection that I’ve heard. A lesson to programme makers, and to the public understanding of science.

- Reviewed by Dr Aleks Krotoski, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Digital Human. 

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