Popaganda Episode: Be An Expert


In all kinds of ways, race and gender impact the way we present ourselves as knowledgable. You see it everywhere: from the way boys are more likely to speak up in classrooms to the way men are way more likely to be quoted as “experts” in print media or asked to be voices of authority on TV. A recent analysis of Sunday morning TV news shows by Media Matters showed that 61 percent of expert guests were white men.

So on today’s show, we have three stories about women who are screwing around with the idea of what’s an expert. The women on this show are all putting themselves forward as experts—sometimes requiring actual imposter situations. We talk with Laura Nix, the co-director of the new documentary The Yes Men Are Revolting about how she captures the activist group's media stunts on camera. Then, comedians Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin discuss being fake advice experts to dish out genuine comedy. The show ends with journalist Violet Blue, author of The Smart Girls' Guide to Privacy, about how to be an expert on your internet privacy. 





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A transcript of this podcast is below. Cheryl Green of Story Minders transcribed this episode. We're proud to make Popaganda accessible to people with auditory disabilities.  


SARAH: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I'm Sarah Mirk.


I have this problem, OK? I go and speak at schools and conferences about media and feminism. Bitch runs a whole program for colleges, and I’m one of the speakers. And let me just say that I am good at this, okay? I think I have some valuable skills and ideas to share, and I love meeting the super inspiring, brilliant, awesome activist students. But always, before I get in front of a group of people, no matter what I’m talking about, there’s this nagging voice in the back of my head, a dark, kind of nauseous feeling that’s just lurking there. And it says, “you don’t know what you’re doing. You suck at this. They are going to find you out, and they are going to know that you're a fake.”


Years ago, I learned that it’s not just me that feels this way. And it’s not just stage-fright nerves, either. This underestimating of your own abilities and feeling like a fake despite totally not being a fake is called “imposter syndrome.” A lot of people have trouble thinking of themselves as successful and competent, and gender plays a big role in that.

Kirsty Walker, the founder of a British database for media outlets seeking “female experts” called HerSay, summed up imposter syndrome in a TedX talk:

KRISTY: It is a condition that leads women to believe that despite external evidence of their competence, they are false and do not deserve success they have achieved. Any proof of success is dismissed simply as timing, luck, or even a believe that they have conned everyone around them [audience laughs] into believing that they are more talented, more intelligent, and more competent than they actually are.


SARAH: Researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first named imposter syndrome in 1978, but we still don’t know a lot about the science behind it. There are so many things that play into how you feel about yourself and your work. But part of the issue here is certainly cultural—the ways girls learn to distrust their own opinions and question their own competence while boys are often taught to speak up, to lead, to swagger.

In all kinds of ways, race and gender impacts the way we put ourselves out there as knowledgeable. You can see it everywhere: from the way that boys and men are more likely to speak up in classrooms and business meetings to the way men are more likely to be quoted as “experts” in print media or asked to be the voices of authority on TV. A recent analysis of Sunday morning TV news shows by Media Matters showed that 61% of expert guests on TV morning news were white men.

So on today’s show, we have three stories about women who are screwing around with the idea of what an expert is. They’re all putting themselves forward as experts—sometimes requiring actual imposter situations. Stay tuned.

[music: “Bad Girls” by M.I.A.]

“Live fast, die young

Bad girls do it well

Live fast, die young

Bad girls do it well [repeated three times]

My chain hits my chest

When I’m banging on the dashboard

My chain hits my chest

When I’m banging on the radio

Get back, get down

Pull me closer if you think you can hang

Hands up, hands tied” 

SARAH: The Yes Men is a group of activist tricksters. It's mostly two white, middle-class looking dudes—Andy and Mike and hundreds of behind-the-scenes helpers who pretend to be spokespeople for major companies and then do things that the companies should do but never would. Like, for example, pretending to be representing Dow Chemical and get on the BBC claiming responsibility for the world’s worst industrial disaster: a gas explosion that killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India in 1984.

Here’s a clip of from the BBC

MALE REPORTER: A day of commemoration in Bhopal. Do you now accept responsibility for what happened?

MAN: Steve, yes. Today is a great day for all of us at Dow, and I think, for millions of people around the world as well. It's 20 years since the disaster, and today, I'm very, very happy to announce that for the first time, Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe.

SARAH: And sometimes in these pranks from the Yes Men, they impersonate companies to do actions that shame them. Like, this June, the Yes Men set up a snow cone stand in New York City with an accompanying fake website that targeted Shell’s plans to drill oil in the arctic. People wearing bright red Shell uniforms offered passerby a taste of snow cone made from what they said was the last iceberg on Earth.

[news theme music]

MAN: How can we eat the last piece of the North Pole? Well, otherwise, it's just gonna melt away. Are you into it?! Not at all. You wanna eat some iceberg? Arr-um!

SARAH:  One of those people behind the scenes of these stunts is Laura Nix, an artist and filmmaker who has helped document many of the Yes Men’s pranks. She is the co-director of the new documentary, The Yes Men are Revolting. Here's a clip from the trailer.

[MAN ON SKYPE]: So what's your name sir?

MAN 2: My name is Dick Impala. I'm with Environment Canada.

[ON SKYPE]: You don't really work for Environment Canada, do you?


REPORTER: War in Uganda. Here, a flooded route means people die. [sirens] Young people are aiming to overthrow the U.S. financial system.

SARAH: To record the stunts, Laura Nix often winds up having to impersonate someone herself, typically a conservative corporate news person. I talked with Laura Nix about what it’s like to pretend to be a filmmaker so that she can be an actual documentarian.

LAURA: Some of the actions are really elaborate, and it’s basically like staging a small play, like a small guerrilla theater. It's like a small piece of guerrilla theater. And there’s casting that's involved. There's costuming, there’s hair and make-up, there's some technical requirements occasionally, there’s issues about out how do you get access to a location, and, then there's this very difficult, at times, and very complicated scenario that involves the impersonations. Because what the Yes Men do is impersonate voices of authority in order to comment on voices of authority. So sometimes that process can go on for months, when they approach people under pseudonyms and carry on communication for a really long time. And then all of us who are involved in that also have to be impersonating other people. So we have fake names, fake email addresses, fake cell phone numbers, etcetera. So it can get pretty crazy, because you’re trying to check and stay on top of your email while you’re also trying to stay on top of your fake, pseudonym email [chuckles]. 

SARAH: So one of the reasons why the Yes Men can pull off impersonating corporate figure-heads as often as they can is so much about the way that they look. Like, they look like white, middle-class, corporate dudes, especially when they put on a suit and refuse to crack a smile. So how does that impersonation play into your role as director? When you’re out shooting them, do you try and look like a TV news person or something?

LAURA: I often get cast in the role of a corporate TV producer or some kind of corporate spokesperson. So we all end up dressing more conservatively than we normally do, and we wear our hair differently, we different shoes. I sometimes have to buy an outfit that looks more conservative than what I might normally wear because when we walk into a scenario where we're saying who we are, and it's not who we really are, it necessitates really looking like a different person. In my real life, I don’t look like a corporate producer for Halliburton, or I don't look like a spokesperson for some kind of defense contractor. So I have to kind of tweak my appearance and my presentation, and we all have to do that when we walk in. I’m always amazed by how crazy it is that the Yes Men are able to get away with what they're able to do. And so much of it has to do with the fact that they’re white guys in suits. It really does make you aware of how many white guys in suits are saying completely insane things, and we just kind of take that as kind of matter of course on any given day. If you turn on the news, there's just hundreds of white guys in suits [giggling] saying crazy stuff.

SARAH: [laughs]

LAURA: And they’re able to get away with it because they’re white guys in suits. So the Yes Men are playing off of that, and they're using their identity for another purpose. But I think it’s definitely the case that if they were women or people of color, they would not be able to get access to the places that they get access to as easily, nor would they be able to say, I think, some of the extreme statements that they make in public without being questioned much more quickly.

SARAH: When you were working on this movie, were you worried about government or corporate surveillance? I would think you’d be worried about the companies  who you were going after keeping tabs on you.

LAURA: I think if they are watching us or surveilling us, they’d also pretty quickly figure out that I’m not the one they need to be worried about [laughs]. Yeah, I don't really worry about that for me. There was a moment in making this film that was kind of an interesting time. We rented the office from Praxis Films. Praxis Films is the company that Laura Poitras started, and she’s of course the director of the movie CitizenFour, the Edward Snowden documentary. And because she had moved to Berlin because she could not continue to make her work in the United States, her office in New York was open, and she needed some people to rent it from her. And so we sublet her office from her. Her assistant told us, “You know, you guys need to be just aware of the fact that the office might have some surveillance, and you should be careful about using cell phones near windows. You should just be aware of kind of what you say in and around the space. We liked to make a lot of jokes about that while we were working in that office, and we just kind of assumed that maybe we were being watched. I don’t really know if we were being watched by the NSA, they might be kind of looking at us with amusement and like what do these guys think we're doing? Like, we might be considered kind of clowns in a way. But the Yes Men do have experiences of being surveilled of a more serious nature. There was a spy company called Stratfor that’s basically kind of like the Halliburton of the intelligence community. After the Yes Men did an action against Dow Chemical in the second film, which caused $2 billion of Dow’s stock price to be wiped out in a day, Dow hired Stratfor to kind of monitor the Yes Men's activities because they wanted to know what they were gonna be up to. They monitored the Yes Men, and they monitored a bunch of other activist organizations. The people who found out about it were actually, Wikileaks, because Wikileaks basically came into their knowledge, it came into their possession, a lot of emails about Stratfor's activities. And they were the ones that informed the Yes Men, “You guys are being spied on by this crazy spy company.”

SARAH: Do you see your voice come through in these films at all?

LAURA: I came on as a director because we wanted to tell a personal story this time around and not just focus on them as these kind of cartoon-like superhero activist guys running around the globe fighting corporate greed, but tell a deeper story about what it’s like to sustain a life of activism over a longer time. And I also wanted to tell the story of their friendship, which is very inspiring to me and moving to me, and I think, frustrating to them. But I think quite illuminating to many of us who've had friendships that last for a really long time and eventually change as you get older. And I wanted to make sure that this third film also had emotional content and wasn’t just funny all the time, but had spaces where it could be sad, or it could be wistful, or it could be melancholic. And I think that at times was hard for the Yes Men because they’re more used to making a film that’s just funny funny all the time, and they would get really worried that the film wasn't funny enough, wasn't fast enough. I think that’s where you feel my voice the most, is that the film, I think, has more emotional content this time around. And hopefully they come across as being more vulnerable human beings than they did before. I think that’s a more rewarding film experience, but I also think that there’s a political message to that, which is that as activists, we feel like we're failing a lot. And on any given day when you’re doing activism, you don’t get the satisfaction of thinking, “Oh, I’ve figured out women’s rights,” or “I ended racism,” or “We figured out climate change today.” You mostly feel like you’re just stuck or that you haven’t made any progress or impact at all. And that’s very normal and common for anybody who's doing any kind of activist political work. And rather than portray the Yes Men as being immune to those feelings, I wanted to have audiences see that they have those too, and watch the Yes Men decide to keep going as a way to remind us that we all can keep going. And we should keep going, because being a part of these social movements is actually really energizing and, by the way, the way we’re going to probably be able to actually have impact and change this world. 

SARAH: I really appreciate that message, and I do think that working on these kinds of issues can make you feel like you're banging your head against a wall seven days a week, right [chuckles]? I mean, the focus here is so much on the Yes Men having done this for 20 years, but you've also been doing this for 20 years. So how do you deal with feeling like you wish more had been done, or how do you deal with how shitty the world is despite your decades of work to try and make it better? Is that something that you–how do you grapple with that on a daily basis as a filmmaker?

LAURA: As a documentary filmmaker, it's a kind of ridiculous profession in a way. It's very hard to sustain this over a long period of time, and the older you get, the more aware you are of what that means that you made this decision to do this for your life. And you start to look back at that moment when you wondered, “Maybe I should have gone to law school or gotten a degree in Education or something” [laughs]. And you think, “Maybe that wasn't a bad idea.” So I love what I do, but it is really challenging to keep going. And it can be very difficult to also look at the world that we live in and look at these huge, enormous problems and feel like you can make a change or that  your documentary film can make a dent. And I don’t think that documentary films change the world, but I do think that we're a small part of changing people’s awareness. And I think that we're a small part of shifting people's perception and opinions. That’s huge, and that’s really all we can ask for, is to be a part of that dialogue that helps people move forward on any given issue. There's days when I feel incredibly hopeless, and this week was a really tough one looking at what happened in Charleston and looking at the kind of violence that's happening all over the country and all over the world. The news about climate change is never good. But then, I have to also be encouraged by what the Pope say this week. And I’m reading the paper thinking, “Did I just hear the Pope basically say that capitalism is ruining the planet? I think I just heard the Pope say that [laughs].” And then I get hope again. So I think that's kind of what any day is like, is it's very hard to look at what the bad thing was that happened and find the hope again. But then, we also have to look for the news that is really showing progress in any given area and believe in that too.


SARAH: That was Laura Nix, director of the new documentary The Yes Men Are Revolting. The film is out right now. You can watch it on Vimeo or iTunes or in select theaters around the country.


You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Just a brief break here to let you know that this show is produced by the team here at Bitch Media, an independent, feminist nonprofit that’s reader- and listener-supported. To help create this show and the important work we do, head over to Bitchmedia.org and donate. Every little bit really helps, I swear. If you like the show, share it with your friends. We all know that the best way to find out about podcasts is from people you know. OK. Back to the show.

At first glance, Just Between Us looks like any other YouTube channel with two chatty friends making videos and answering random viewer questions. But the advice show format is actually scripted, and it's really a guise for comedians Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn to feature their comedy. The two comedians play caricatures—or “worse versions”—of themselves, as they say: an odd couple -with uptight, straight-laced Allison in contrast to Gaby’s unapologetic militant feminism. While casually lounging on an overstuffed couch, they field relationshipy questions like “How do I get better at sex?” and “How do you date a bi girl?” But the pair have said that Just Between Us is more about showcasing two funny best friends than it is about answering viewer questions. But when useful

relationship advice happens, it is often on-point.

ALLISON: This week, we have a local question from Caitlyn in California! Hey, Caitlyn! Do you think he heard me? Do boys like it when girls are funny?

GABY: This question upsets me.

ALLISON: Ugh, every question upsets you. Maybe that's my whole problem. Maybe I'm too funny.

GABY: I think you're the funniest person I've ever met.

ALLISON: Really?

GABY: Yes!

ALLISON: I'm gonna be alone forever.

GABY: I would rather you be funny, and I would rather than be funny, than cater to some guy who doesn't like funny girls.

ALLISON: Yeah, I guess I get that on an intellectual level, but you know, how much fun is it saying knock knock jokes out loud to yourself?

GABY: Who cares what guys like? Are you gonna live your life by what some guy likes?

SARAH: Bitch Media associate editor Amy Lam sat down with Gaby and Allison to talk about being comedy partners, fake/real advice experts, and what happens when a joke fails terribly.

AMY: I wonder, where did it come from? Because it's just the two of you sitting on a couch in somebody's apartment. You guys don't live together, right?

ALLISON: No, no. In the origin of the show we do.

GABY: Yeah.

ALLISON: It came from a place of desperation. We were both frustrated with our careers and lives and wanted to be productive. And we thought, “How can we be productive with the lowest production value?”

AMY: [chuckles]

GABY: Yeah,  I had one friend with a camera, and I had done some YouTube  stuff, but nothing, like just vlogging stuff. We were sitting at a diner, and we just were like, “Let's come up with what can we do? We'll answer stupid questions, and we'll just make up the questions!”  So the first few episodes is just Allison making up the questions, and yeah. And then it kinda also came from because we became friends really quickly. And then we kinda got into it really quickly. Like, there was not really any small talk. So our conversations were already just like, I was like, “Someone should be recording this because this is insane.” And then it kinda grew from those two, the extremes of those two personalities.

AMY: But why give advice? Because you two can kind of hang out together and talk about anything. But why choose the route of giving advice, I guess?

ALLISON: Well, the show is not about giving advice. That's the big ruse is that we're horrible at giving advice. We wanted just a structure where we could really work on characters and have it with a format. In order to be successful on YouTube and with a web series, it's all about consistency. And so this was a format we knew we could do once a week religiously. But yeah, honestly, the advice is not at all what the show is about.

AMY: But you do give advice, and sometimes it's really good advice!

ALLISON: [laughing] Those are the episodes I hate the most.

GABY: Yeah, sometimes–Well, I think we wanted a way to showcase the two characters' total different personalities and their reaction to stuff and how it kind of started out with Allison as Gallant and me as Goofus. And then it became like two Goofusses. That's the trick that we pulled, is that everyone was supposed to be like, “Yeah, I agree with Allison. Gaby's out of her mind.” And then it kinda has slowly shifted to, “They're both out of their minds” [laughs]. Which is great. So I think I feel more of a pull to give actual advice just because our fans are so young. But a lot of times the episodes that are like sketches where we have a question and then we don't even answer the question, are the ones that turn out better.

ALLISON: Yeah, to me it's a comedy show, and it's an odd couple comedy show. And the questions are a way to highlight our differing opinions.

GABY: Mmhmm.

ALLISON: Obviously, we do some episodes—because we do have this wonderful audience—that are more meaningful. Like, we did one about my OCD and also about Gaby's bisexuality and coming out and all of that stuff. And so those are the times when we kind of, I think we can still do it in a funny way, but we're doing more than addressing the actual question. But other than that, we try to kind of keep it more like a character comedy show with this strange format of questions.

ALLISON: This week, we have an international question that people all over the world wanna know the answer to. So it's international in that it's both from another country, and people….Ahem. Marco from Indonesia! “How do you know if someone likes you?” Do you have a ring on your finger, Marco?

GABY: I think if you wanna know if someone likes you, just ask them if they like you, right?

ALLISON: Right. Like Gaby, do you like me [chuckles]?

GABY: A good way to tell if someone likes you is if they wanna spend a lot of time with you.


GABY: If they come up with an excuse to see you all the time, for example, a web show.

ALLISON: I don't know. I don't know if that's true because I've had many boyfriends who almost never wanna hang out with me.

GABY: Um…but then, in the end, they didn't like you.

AMY: Can you describe what your characters are for Just Between Us?

ALLISON: Yeah, my character is sort of like neurotic and anxious, and also kind of abides by old-school rules of what it means to be a woman:  that marriage is the most important thing in the world and is kind of afraid of sex. And then, Gaby is the exact opposite of that [chuckles].

GABY: Yeah, so it's like heightened versions of ourselves, like if we had no self-awareness, these are what these characters would be. So mine is also just insane, like very militant feminist, which I sort of am in real life. I'm more like my character than Allison is like her character. But yeah, like bisexual, sexually aggressive, very into, I don't know. I can't even say it's a character because this morning I opted out of the TSA screening, and she was like, “Was that some sort of political protest?” and I was like, “You bet!”

ALLISON: I'd say Gaby's pretty much Gaby, and I'm playing the worst version of myself five years ago.

GABY: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

AMY: So, OK, if Gaby's pretty much Gaby, but Allison, if you're sort of playing this caricature of yourself, and because you're using your name, and you are you on the show, do you worry people will think this is actually you?

ALLISON: All of the time.

AMY: And then, what will you do with that?

ALLISON: What I do is things like this where you clarify. I also have a Tumblr, and on my Tumblr I'm my actual self. On my Twitter I'm my actual self. I think that sometimes people think our show is a vlog. And I say that it's not a vlog; it's a scripted series. I think one of the hardest things about doing a show like this is sometimes people are like, “You and Gaby are funny together!” And it's like, we know. We're comedians.

GABY: [laughs]

ALLISON: So there's a level of misunderstanding, that we don't understand what we're doing. And we do understand what we're doing [laughing].

GABY: Yeah. The worst is condescension from men in the industry too, who are like, “You really got something.” And we're like, yeah, we fucking know!

ALLISON: Or we're just, we're traditional comedy partners, and people think that we kind of fell into this thing. But it's something that we've been working on and growing with and figuring it out and personalizing.

AMY: In that vein, I wanted to know more about how do you put a joke together? Like, I'm saying, when I watch your videos, it just seems like it just comes to you, you know? But if you're doing standup, and you have to construct a joke, how does that work? What's the process like?

ALLISON: Some jokes are handed to you like a beautifully-wrapped gift, and other jokes, you have to dig for them, and then they're never as good. So yeah, a lot of times, I'm like that crazy person who I'm talking to my friends, joking around, and if someone laughs a little harder than normal, I go, “Hmmmm….”  And I write it down in my phone or in my notebook, and you just keep a log of what's working and what's not.

GABY: And then I get, “Gaby, is this funny? Is this funny? Is this funny?” And I'm like, “Yes! It's funny!” “How is this? Is this funny?” “Yes, it's funny!” She also carefully constructs her tweets too. She'll spend as much time carefully constructing a tweet than anybody I've ever seen do it. Garrett does it too. My boyfriend will sit and construct tweets.

ALLISON: Who's got more followers?

GABY: It's you.


ALL: [laugh]

ALLISON: No, I mean, I think it comes from a lot of places. Honestly, I think there are some people, no offense, who are never gonna be funny. I think it's an innate thing. But I think it's the most similar to something like a musical ability. You have to have that spark, and then it's something you honestly have to harness and practice and get better and just keep doing. I'm a much better joke writer now than I was a couple years ago.

GABY: Me too.

ALLISON: Yean, and then it's gotta come from a place of truth and things that are funny, and then you save things. Wording is very important. Wording for written stuff is obviously. In Just Between Us, a lot of it is also just delivery and figuring out the best way to deliver it.

GABY: Delivery, using weird words, saying things in a weird way, pronouncing things weird. I think in Just Between Us, a lot of it is shocking the other person, saying something to surprise the other person.

ALLISON: I think also a lot of what works in Just Between Us is our pacing, and that we have very different pacing. Gaby–I yell at her a lot of the time–will just ramble and go on and talk forever. If we were both that, it wouldn't work. and if were both just one-liner, one-liner, one-liner, it wouldn't work. So it's a balancing act.

AMY: I'm talking a lot about your successful jokes and things that I love and that crack me up. But I'm wondering if there are–not just from Just Between Us, but in your stand up or other comedy things–if you had a joke that you did that you thought was going to be successful, but it totally bombed? And what happens when that happens? Or what was that joke?

GABY: Oh this is gonna be sho–Maybe not. This is a shocking–I'm so glad that there was no Twitter or anything when I was first starting because when I did stand up in college, my jokes were misogynist, like my jokes were very anti-feminist. I had this sort of what I call the Tina Fey brand of feminism, which is where I thought that because I had glasses and wore cardigans, I was better than other girls, but I would've called myself a feminist.

ALLISON: That is a real burn on Tina Fey!

GABY: It is. Well, she hates sex workers, and she's real backwards about her feminism. But anyway, so I felt that way too. And I thought that I had to be part of the boys in order to succeed instead of just being like, oh, they're not funny either. So a lot of my jokes were like, now I'm like oh gawd, these were very, I would never say that now. So I think you start out wanting to impress people, and then you're like, wait a minute. Let me do some critical thinking, and OK, this is what I really feel. Or this is more me, rather than just let me say the thing that boys will laugh at. So that is a dark period, and they did well with dudes. But oh boy. They were not good.

ALLISON: I bomb all the time.

GABY: [chuckles]

ALLISON: Like, I mean you do open mics, and you're writing new jokes every week. I'm not as active in stand up as I used to be, but yeah, I would bomb constantly. And then you have shows, and it bombs, and the next night you do the same jokes, and it does great. And you can't blame the audience. A lot of times it's like how committed I am to the joke, what mood I'm in, my delivery of that joke. Yeah, all of the time I bomb [giggles].

AMY: So what do you do? I mean, I can't even imagine standing there and being in a roomful of people, and you literally just put your work out. And then you're standing there, and nothing. How does that feel, I guess?

GABY: You just keep going! You kind of black out.

ALLISON: Yeah, it's terrible. I mean, it's awful. It's really terrible. I think one of the biggest things for me is if I can bomb on a joke, and then my next joke can do well is like a really big sign of getting better. It's not giving up in the middle of your set just because something didn't go over well. Yeah, it hardens you. You have to be hardened, and that's my journey that I'm actively working towards and failing out.

GABY: You have like a weird out of body experience, where a part of me, before every show, I go, “It's fine. It's ten minutes. It's ten minutes, and then after that, you can eat whatever you want.” You know what I mean? “And then after that, you can drink water and breathe, and you'll be fine.” I'm just like, “How hard is ten minutes? You sit on your couch and watch a show for an hour. Ten minutes is nothing. You're gonna be great.” That's what I say. “If it goes badly, you have a bad ten minutes in a 24-hour day.” And I have to talk myself out of thinking that it's a big deal. “Well, you're just gonna go out there, you're gonna talk to some people for ten minutes. Everybody could do that.” Just like weirdly therapizing yourself [laughing].


SARAH: That was Amy Lam talking with Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin, who’s show Just Between Us can be found on YouTube.


You are listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today, we're talking about ideas of what it means to be an expert. Violet Blue is a journalist who sniffs out interesting stories about technology, controversy, and identity. Her work has been especially important in recent years as it becomes clear how often women are harassed online and at risk of having their data exploited. Studies show that online privacy is, in a large part, a gendered issue: a whopping 26% of young women who use the Internet have been stalked online. That's compared with just 7% of men. Women are also more likely to be physically threatened online: 23% of women ages 18-24 have been threatened online with physical violence, compared to 8% of men.

For her new book, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy, Violet Blue worked with attorneys, psychologists, and tech employees to put together a practical guide to online privacy that doesn’t require a huge amount of background knowledge. Social media companies don’t really want you to be an expert on how to protect your data. I mean, of course, they’re not wishing stalking or harassment on anyone, but they want you to share as much as possible. That's good for business. So the book is an empowering one. It’s a straight-forward how-to guide for protecting your privacy and undermining the various social media settings that want you to share potentially intimate details with the world. Even as somebody who grew up on the Internet, there was plenty of basic info in The Smart Girl’s Guide that I didn’t know. I followed some of Blue’s steps in the book and was surprised to find that my home address could be found in about 30 seconds of Internet searching. (Luckily, it was a home I had moved out of a few years ago). With that in mind, I found the book alarmingly handy. I talked with Violet Blue about the changing the idea of digital privacy and how diversifying the tech industry is crucial for creating a safer Internet for all. 

So you start out your book by describing Internet privacy as a self-defense move, like a self-defense class that everyone should take in order to protect themselves. Can you tell me more about framing online privacy in terms of self-defense? 

VIOLET: It’s the same sort of protection that you take as you would when you go outside or when you do anything going about your sort of ordinary life. And I don't think that–people just don’t think about going on the Internet the same way. And I think that it's a consciousness shift in that direction will definitely be towards everyone's safety. So you need to be thinking about:  would you trust a man on the street? Would you trust the person who's got a clipboard and is asking you for your phone number and your address to sign you up for some interesting offers? You wouldn’t say yes to anything like that because it’s a privacy risk, and who is this person? But on the Internet, we've sort of been lulled into this false sense of security, a lot having to do with social networking sites that giving up our privacy and our identities and our information is sort of a necessary exchange in order to use these services or enjoy these services. And it's sort of a false question, because a lot of people just aren’t aware of what they’re getting into. But it’s time that we think about it in the same terms. Would you trust a strange company with your information? Would you trust a strange man on the street with a photograph of you? Once you start to think about it in those terms, you start to realize, oh, OK, I might need to shift the way that I'm approaching all of this stuff and just sort of tighten up security, tighten up your practices around what you do with your information.

SARAH: These days, there is such a low expectation of privacy online. We assume that Google and Facebook and basically every other company is gathering our data and mining it. So I think it’s interesting that in this book how you reframe Internet privacy from something that’s an impossible ideal to something that is possible and that we should defend.

VIOLET: Absolutely. Well, it’s interesting that you mention that because at the beginning of this month, a new report came out that really shattered the myths around the alleged trade-offs and the way that marketers are misrepresenting American consumers and opening them up to exploitation to themselves and to other companies. The study is called “The Trade-Off Fallacy.” What’s interesting about it is that it just completely blows open the idea that people need to trade privacy for security or that people are okay with trading privacy for services. And what they found was that a majority of Americans have been giving up their data simply because of two reasons. One: that they’re not aware they can do anything else; they simply believe they don’t have a choice. And the other reason that they've been giving up their data is because they’re resigned to it. In other words, they don't think that they can do anything else, that it's is already out there, they feel helpless about it. And this has been something that marketers and further extensions in social media networks have been putting forth this philosophy that this is something that people willingly do, or it's something that people might want to do in order to get better recommendations or in order to get served “better ads” and things like that. And so finally, something like this study is putting down some really firm ground that, no, people don’t want to be doing this. Now that they’re becoming aware of what’s happening, they’re getting pretty upset about it. This is not something that they would have consented to had they known. So it draws a really interesting line in the sand in this entire discussion.

SARAH: That’s a really good point. I think that part of it is how it often feels safer online than actually it is. Unless you’re being targeted by people who specifically want to hurt you—whether they’re stalkers or trolls or political groups—putting yourself out there online can feel pretty safe. Websites basically present a veneer of “we’re protecting you, don’t worry about it, don’t even look at those privacy settings.” So how do you talk to people who care about their privacy but feel resigned to having their data taken by companies?

VIOLET: Well, it's interesting. Just one of the pieces of what you're talking about there is that one of the things that this study found that I just was talking about is that over 60% of the people that they surveyed and that they used in the study actually thought that a company's–like Facebook or any privacy policy–that actually by the words “privacy policy” that that actually meant that the company was protecting their privacy as a policy, not that that policy actually was detailing the ways in which they’re giving up their privacy. So it's like there's a lot of sort of willful misdirection, I think, going on here with companies that are playing it to their advantages to keep people a little bit in the dark. And once people start learning about what’s going on here–and hopefully they're not learning about it because they're finding out the hard way, which unfortunately, increasingly people are–it can be pretty sobering. I’ve been talking to women who’ve read my book and they're like, “Oh my God, I had no idea. This is kinda scary.” But what’s been helpful about the book is that it’s giving them concrete tools to be able to go, “”Oh, I didn't know this was a risk. Here's exactly how we can address it.” In the same way that you wouldn’t ride in a car without a seatbelt, it's sort of the same philosophy, with okay: here are some things that you just sort of need to do. Put on the seatbelt, put the helmet on before you get on the motorcycle. These are the sort of things that we need to be doing before we get on the Internet or before we upload a photo for our profile and things like that. As scary as it is to find out what’s possible and what’s happening, it feels even better, I think, for people to be getting control over it at the same time, which is exactly what the book does. There’s nothing in the book that tells you about something scary that you can’t do something about.

SARAH: It’s funny, because this is an issue that I wish I didn’t have to do anything about. I wish that companies would protect my privacy if I used their services, but instead it falls on me as a consumer, basically, to be wary of companies and protect myself in many ways. There’s a quote I like that I talked about on a previous podcast from a technologist named Julia Angwin, who said, “If you’re getting something for free, you’re paying for it in some way.” 

VIOLET: I agree partially. I mean, I think that yes, absolutely, if something is free, if you're getting to use something for free, you are paying for it in some way. And just that realization is a huge consciousness shift for a lot of people. Because companies don’t get where they are by being nice [laughs]. But at the same time, I don’t think that it’s sort of an all-or-nothing when it comes to having to know every single thing about what's going on with your privacy. Part of the reason that I wanted this book to happen was that everything that I've been able to find on privacy that is helpful for consumers is extremely technical and requires a lot of acumen–like knowing tech jargon and knowing hacker terminology and things like that. And the goal with the book and the people that I worked with on the book was to make it as simple and as easy as possible, and to continue to simplify these processes into easy steps so that people don’t have to become experts.

SARAH: Your point out in your book that people who design technology are overwhelmingly male and don't often take into account that these issues will come up for half the people that use the technology. Can you speak to that and how gender has shaped the lack of privacy in our online technology?

VIOLET: Absolutely. I think the biggest thing that’s missing from today’s privacy conversations is the role of gender in privacy and privacy expectations. And the simple face of the matter is that straight men perceive privacy completely different than everyone who's not them [giggles]. And they have overwhelmingly been the people who have developed, shaped, and implemented the technologies that we use. That's not any sort of malice on their part, but it's a matter of a lack of understanding that the fact that over half the people who use their services–women, LGBTQ people–are going to be targeted and that this entirely huge percentage of the people that are gonna be using their services, their target status. And a lot of younger people don't realize that they bear target status until they get targeted and attacked. But understanding target status versus non-target status really completely changes the way anybody uses a system.

SARAH: So one point here is that if there was better gender diversity in the tech industry, we might see a shift in the way that these products and services are designed, to take into account gender-based harassment.

VIOLET: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that we're seeing systems trying to grapple with that now. I mean, look at the struggle that Twitter's having, as an established company that has all of its rules and everything in place. And then they’re getting hit with these huge incidences of targeting and stalking and harassment on a really large scale. And so they're having to take this system that was implemented one way and try to figure out how to shape it to be able to protect the people that use this system. They’re having an enormous struggle with it because these systems just aren't built with that in mind. And the fact that their structures and their rules and everything are going to be gamed and used against them, if it had been built with that in mind, I think that we'd be seeing a different situation all together. We would be seeing a much more established and a much more understanding and an abuse department with a lot of acumen around the ways that systems are used against people and the ways that they can be exploited in order to harass. The problems that they were having with sockpuppeting, with making fake accounts, that had already been something they had taken into consideration because that's a very typical tactic that's used in these systems.

SARAH: So I have to ask, do you miss the early days of the Internet, when it was more possible to be anonymous?

VIOLET: I never really thought it was possible anonymous to be online, but I think that that's because I understood how these things worked a little bit more than other people. I mean also, not a lot of people think about the world in terms of the fact that when you go to the DMV and they get all your information, and they take your thumb print, and they take your photograph, there are people working at the DMV that are creeps, I'm sure. Because everywhere there's gonna be somebody. It’s like that in every system, every execution, every business. So I've never thought that I'm going to be safe to give all my information to Facebook or that, even as strong and robust as the security of an online banking system is going to be, there’s always going to be a person behind there somewhere. I just have always proceeded through the Internet in the same way as with life: just very carefully and very cautiously. The only thing I miss about the older days of the Internet is the creativity and the feeling of freedom that we had. And that, I think, has a lot to do with the fact that we do feel less safe online. People are getting less and less comfortable with free expression online because they’re worried about the ways that companies are watching them. They're worried about what's being recorded and what might be saved later. There are less places where creating art and being able to create silly, goofy videos and put them up and not worry about it later, there are less and less places like that, which in its own way speaks to the popularity of things like Snapchat and What's Up and things like that, because it's a disappearing place.

SARAH: So clearly people should go and buy your book to get all the information to protect their security, but if someone is listening to this right now, what would you recommend they do to protect their privacy within the next 15 minutes?

VIOLET: In the next 15 minutes, well, definitely using quotes, Google your name and be sure to check the images tab. Google your phone number, Google your home address, Google your social security number. Get a piece of tape or a Post-It or go to something like privacystickers.org and get some stickers to put over your webcam, because software to hack webcams is really cheap and really easy to find on the black market. And when that's used, people can record you or take pictures of you without the little light going on. So just cover that up so no one can do anything like that. Activate the password lock on your phone, your laptop, and your tablet because if any of that got stolen or ended up in someone else's hands, and wasn’t locked, they might be able to get into your accounts, like if you kept yourself logged into Facebook or something like that. Also log out of Google, log out of Facebook, log out of LinkedIn, log out of Twitter, and view your profiles as an outsider, or view them as someone else. And take some notes, and then go back and adjust your privacy settings accordingly.


SARAH: Being an expert—whether you’re a real one or fakin’ it—isn’t just about knowing a bunch of stuff. It’s about claiming the title of knowledgeable person, about feeling empowered and supported in saying, “Yeah, actually, I know about this. I’m good at this. I have skills I want to share.” I try to keep that in mind, when I feel like an imposter. Be an expert; people want to learn from you.


Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Bitch is an independent nonprofit feminist media organization. We're entirely funded by our beehive members, subscribers, and like-minded sponsors. So if you liked today's episode of Popaganda, please become a member online at Bitchmedia.org today. Let us know you liked the show in your order comments. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward at the studios of XRAY FM, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon. Thanks for listening.

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by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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