September 26, 2020

Interview: Rob Tokanel and Malick Mercier

Christian Carrion talks with the director/lead producer and host of GBH’s new online game show, Internet Expert.

According to a recent study, 1 in 10 eligible voters in America are part of Generation Z, the demographic preceding the millennial generation and consisting of people born in the mid-to-late 90s. This year, a game show is aiming to empower those young voters with the skills and tools they need to vote with confidence in November’s presidential election.

This summer, GBH in Boston, Massachusetts began production of Internet Expert, an online game show that tests contestant’s skills in internet fact-checking, as well as in identifying misinformation on the web. Each episode of the show, which is hosted by student journalist Malick Mercier, features two players competing in various challenges designed to test their knowledge of effective information-vetting tactics in the age of widespread digital journalism.

In the spirit of educational game shows like Where In The World is Carmen Sandiego? and Square One, the program seeks to further embody GBH’s mission to create programs that inspire a joy of learning and foster an informed citizenry.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Malick, as well as Internet Expert director and lead producer Rob Tokanel, about the inspiration behind the show, the effort that goes into its production, and the pitfalls of producing a digital series amidst the work-from-home reality brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m curious to know how the idea for the show came about.

RT: The genesis of the whole project, I’d say, from the beginning, is GBH News, which is our sort of local news team in Massachusetts, was connecting with the Poynter Institute on a project that’s called VidSpark. VidSpark is a sort of video storytelling lab for local newsrooms, and it’s funded by the Google News division. The idea was “Okay, how are we going to work together to let local newsrooms leverage short-form video and specifically reach new audiences with it?” So that was kind of, like, the initial thing. We want to reach millennial and gen-Z audiences and we want to do short-form video, but it was very wide open from there as far as what we would do. To us, we just thought, especially around elections, that it’s the kind of thing where a lot of the explainer content that you see can be very, just, trying to push information at the viewer, especially coming from news organizations. We wanted to do something that gave young people a little more agency within it, to demonstrate their own skill and show the ways that they can access resources on their own, learn information on their own, so that we weren’t just throwing information and saying “You have to memorize this.”

We came up with this game show concept that was built around media literacy to some degree. Like, how can you go and use resources on the internet to learn how to engage In the democratic process? Initially, we wanted that to be more of a game show set, like something that you would see on television, or a smaller scale version of it, but before the pandemic, we really thought “Okay, we’re going to make a fun little set, we’re going to have two contestants on set, they’ll both have laptops,” and go from there. Then obviously things had to change when we all went to working remotely, so we said, “Okay let’s make the game more of a remote setup.” From there it was like “how do we structure this into a game that doesn’t feel so much like you’re just doing homework on the internet, but has a real objective, has questions that are asked that you can go find an answer to and maybe use the tools that you got out of finding that answer to apply to other aspects of trying to learn about elections.

Right. And I think that the show succeeds because it is fun to watch, and it’s fun to play along with. One of the things I found value in is the knowledge that the contestants have in terms of the tools that they know. I’m learning about websites I’ve never heard of. I watched the episode on misinformation this morning, and one of the contestants knew about a tool that you could use to find deleted tweets form politicians. I had no idea that existed. So in that way I think the show has huge value. How are the contestants selected? What is that process like?

RT: Well, we try to think about what would be fun in terms of, like, setting up something that feels like a natural rivalry story to some degree. The first episode, we has a high school civics teacher and principal and his student who was the class president of the graduating class from the year before. We have one coming up that pits a TikTok journalist versus an Instagram journalist. We’re thinking about who would be fun for a younger audience to watch going through these things, but someone that they would hopefully relate to. If it’s an inter-generational thing, somebody younger and somebody older as contestants, the younger person would be more easily identifiable. But we kinda figured what was nice about this game is that you could take people from different qualification levels, in terms of what you might assume they would know about the topic, but we weren’t asking them for pre-existing knowledge necessarily, but to just be able to parse information on the internet. So you could take a younger contestant who’s maybe not a teacher, but when you put them out onto the internet they’re on equal footing.

Malick, being a game show host has been my lifelong dream, so I’m jealous of you in that respect. (laughs) How did you personally prepare to be a host?

MM: It’s so interesting! I’ve done so many news reports leading up to this, especially on IGTV and social media, hosting Instagram’s coverage of the March For Our Lives, and creating my own show on social media called This News, focusing on stories that impact the younger generation like gaming disorder and things that are super us, and so I think coming into this show I initially thought of it like reporting. Like hosting but still bringing in, because it’s the election, that, like, intelligent side, not to say anything anyone else does is not smart…but I very quickly learned that this is totally different. This is a totally different realm.

It’s almost more challenging, I think to be a game show host. I’m thinking about things like the score, in addition to all of those facts about council members and senators and the election and misinformation and disinformation and so much of it, especially in that episode you brought up, is like…they’re trying to trick you. We want to really make sure we’re delivering accurate information. There’s a lot of deception out there, and it’s hard for anyone to go through. For me, it’s just been a lot of reading, looking at the script beforehand, highlighting those key things that I know I want to point out, and also having background for the specifics of each topic that came come up throughout the show, so thatI’m able to think of something that relates to it that’s happening in the real world.

From the few experiences I’ve had with this type of production, I know that a lot of it comes down to the fact that you’re working with people who may have never been on TV or in the spotlight before, so it’s about calming them down, taking their nerves away, making them feel comfortable. I wonder if you’ve had that experience—where you’ve had to guide the contestants through this new experience.

MM: Yeah, I definitely think of that, especially during the intros when we’re first introducing them. I think that’s the time when they can shine, show off who they are…and sort of the reason why they’re on the show, right? Whether they’re doing stuff with Poynter, or they’re a council member and they’re young. I think the people we’ve had on the show are really excited about those things, even if they are a little shy, so it’s been great to allow them to use that to bring themselves into the limelight, if you will. I think it also helps that we’re not in a studio, which is very interesting. They’re doing it from their bedroom, or a place where they’re comfortable. I think if we were in a studio, it might be more challenging. And I’m always, like, falling apart two minutes before the show, so I think me falling part, being a high maintenance host all alone, helps them to know that it’s okay to kinda fall apart.

I’m sure there’s a different dynamic there when you’re playing the game with people who are in their bedroom or their dorm, verus under the lights in a studio. I think the show benefits from that extra level of comfort. They’re parsing information and fact-checking at home, the way you would want your viewers to do.

MM: I think, too, that having that rivalry that Rob mentioned, having those stakes be so high, where they’ll have to do something that might put them more in their not-comfort zone…they’re almost, like, thinking about wanting to win. You can see in between that moment when we talk about the stakes and we ask the first question, it’s like, “Oh, wow, I need to win this because I don’t want to eat sriracha or post an embarrassing TikTok.”

As far as educational entertainment, especially as far asgame shows are concerned…when I was younger, Carmen Sandiego was the pinnacle of that type of thing—geographical awareness. Be able to find where you live on a map. How does the frame of a game show similarly assist you in conveying the importance of fact-checking?

RT: One of the things that’s nice about having the frame of a game show around this stuff for us is that you get to see people, when you’re watching the show, kind of navigate these things. If it was a hosted show where we wanted to just about about these issues, I don’t think it hits in as quite as relatable a way. I think people feel when they watch the show is that our attitude isn’t necessarily saying “You have to know how to do all of these things or you won’t be able to participate in the process.” Everybody struggles with this stuff in the same way, and some of this stuff is kind of hard to wrap your head around, especially stuff like campaign finance that just sounds complicated…and in some ways, it is. But there are tools out there that are very useful to look at. The FEC has this great website where you can go and look at all this stuff, and it’s pretty user-friendly. It helps us to kind of think through, like, “Where are the tools that are fun to play around with on the internet?” and then watch the contestants try to use them. We don’t know how they’re going to use them before the show, so it’s always really interesting. We learn a lot in the process. From the first one up until now, we’ve learned a lot about how to present an internet research problem that somebody can find the answer to, but it’s not just going to be, like, Command-F. There is some sort of process built into that. I think we’ve learned a lot about how to map pieces of information into a game format.

On that note, how surprised have you been at the contestants’ skill level in terms of fact-checking, and in terms of all the tools that they use?

MM: I’ve been really impressed. I definitely would not underestimate our contestants; I think they’re all doing pretty awesome things. I do feel like it’s a hard show! Sometimes I try to do the challenges beforehand, and even though I have the answers and I know what we’re doing and we’ve discussed it, it can still be very challenging. Sometimes it’s like “Oh my gosh, these websites.” I think that’s something that come up all the time—the government websites are super boring, and the user interfaces aren’t at all beautiful in that way that makes you want to go on there, the way that Asos and the other clothing websites’ interfaces are beautiful. It’s just hard sometimes to find the information. I feel like (the contestants) have done a really good job doing that and being really fast. I will say, going off what Rob said about making the show more fun, that the GBH team is so amazing in terms of actually making maps and really understanding. I feel like part of our edge is that other shows don’t always have the ability to put graphics on the screen and be really interactive. It’s never about me talking at the viewer. It’s more like a conversation, and I think that’s what really allows for the special fun-ness that’s in the show.

Making TV on Zoom is hard. I wonder if either of you could speak to the difficulties that you may have encountered making a game show remotely.

RT: It’s a pretty big ask of the contestants. It’s nice to have them in their homes and have them feel comfortable in that way. The preparation that has to go into making sure their internet connection works is one thing, but we also have them showing us what they’re doing on the screen, so (we’re) teaching them how to record their own computer screens as they go through this process. If we have a guest on the show, then there’s four different video feeds coming from all over. Then there’s me, and another technician and producer, and we’re all in different places. I think it’s kind of fitting that we’re doing it that way, being that this is a show about how navigating the internet and having to figure these things out. I think, ultimately, it ends up working in a fun way visually because you get to move all of these elements around in a way that you couldn’t if you were shooting it on a set. It becomes more dynamic. We’ve definitely had some spotty internet connectivity issues here and there.

I think for Malick it’s probably me trying to direct the show (that’s) a lot. When we’re recording it, I’m not there and the contestants can;t hear me, but Malick is the only one who can hear me. Most of the time, he probably can’t hear me either; he’s pretty much running the show on his own once we’re recording it. It’s a lot of preparation that maybe we wouldn’t have to do if we were in a more traditional environment. Especially because it’s a game, you don’t necessarily get to say “Let’s do that over”; you can’t re-do it once they know what the answer is. We really try to make sure we’re as prepared as we can going into it, and also ready to pivot in case we make a mistake in the way we’ve written a challenge. Sometimes (the contestants) end up in a totally different place than we expected, and we just have to say “Oh, well, I guess it makes sense that they would have interpreted it that way.”

Right, you have to make that call on the fly. Malick, how about you?

MM: Rob went into really thoughtful things there. I was just going to say that my makeup doesn’t get done by an artist. (laughs) If I were in studio, I would be ten times more high maintenance than I am now, so thank God for the GBH people not having to deal with me in that way. I would also require hot tea on set. (laughs)

You don’t want to see Malick when he’s angry. (laughs)

MM: Exactly. (laughs) That’s been a highlight for sure. It will go into the history books that I’ve done my makeup for this whole show. Also, not necessarily having a teleprompter near me, looking at a Google Doc mid-show, everything being on one device…I feel like in the people that I’ve watched in years of learning journalism, they have multiple things and are able to look all around, but I need to be looking at the camera. It’s challenging to think about all of these things at once. I guess the hardest thing is trying to learn all the information and make sure I’m as prepared as possible for the show. The election is not the simplest thing in the world to get across. We’ve uncovered that there’s so much more to it.

Internet Expert releases new episodes every other Wednesday on YouTube and IGTV until Election Day, November 3. Check out the show’s page on the GBH website for more information.