Sportswashing's Global Rise, with Sarath Ganji

Jun 21, 2023 36 min listen

With the proposed merger of the United States' PGA Tour with Saudi Arabia's LIV Golf, and the world's wealthiest athletes according to Forbes funded via Middle East entities, questions about the role of "sportswashing" are on the rise. Sarath Ganji, founding director of the Autocracy and Global Sports Initiative, joins Doorstep co-hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nikolas Gvosdev, to explain what sportswashing entails and why autocratic regimes are betting on the practice to lift their global brands.

How does money flow to change sporting industries? What role do sports influencers play? How can ethical questions raised by sportswashing stay at the forefront?

Sportswashing Global Rise Doorstep Spotify podcast link Sportwashing Doorstep Apple podcast link

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a Senior Fellow here at Carnegie Council, tackling a really important issue, sportswashing, what it means, why it is rising in importance, and what we need to know here at the doorstep as we start with summer sports and talk more about the sports world.

We are going to be joined in a moment by Sarath Ganji, who is the founding director of Autocracy and Global Sports Initiative. He is also the 2023 Next Gen National Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and he is going to explain to us and give us some frameworks to talk about this important issue.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Sarath, on a topic that is going to be very interesting as we enter the summer season of sports. I think we need to talk about this more, the idea and definition of "sportswashing." Your recent piece is what connected me to you, "The Rise of Sportswashing," in Journal of Democracy.

I want to start out with the definition because I think it is important that we define it. Sometimes in the media we grab a term and run with it without explaining it, and I think this is very different than whitewashing and greenwashing. It is new. In your piece you point out that a couple of years ago if you searched for "sportswashing," you would not find any terms, and there has been almost a tenfold increase in the use of the term in articles and in discussions.

If we can start out with defining it and then looking at how we can apply the lens to what countries are doing and apply it to both Western and non-Western countries because I do not want it to seem like we are focusing or pointing fingers at only one country or another. I think this is a bigger, broader issue, it is an ethical issue, and it is an issue that we need to talk about at our doorstep. So let's start with the definition, and thank you again for joining us.

SARATH GANJI: Of course. Tatiana and Nick, it is so great to be with you. Thank you for the invitation to speak about such an important and timely topic, especially with a connection to a podcast like The Doorstep, which I am excited to help advance.

I grew up in Central Louisiana, and you cannot go through Central Louisiana or the South in general without being a sports fan. I played multiple sports growing up. I eventually lost all those skills to much better athletes around me, but I still follow it and am still a huge sports fan. So my own personal lens as I am going through any number of articles in the sports media informs that from the vantage of being a fan.

Every time I see the term "sportswashing"—as you rightly pointed out—it is hard to figure out what people are talking about. Is there a "there" at all? I think a lot of folks end up getting turned off from the term. It is almost a charged, politicized one because there is so little definition in the way of it.

What I have noticed is that to the extent there is a shorthand being used in sports media or broader academic articles it tends to be one- or two-word terms. If you are a critic or a detractor from the term "sportswashing," the practice of sportswashing, then you end up referring to it as propaganda or maybe "reputation laundering." On the other hand, if you do not think a "there" is actually there, if you think it is a big "nothingburger," then you are probably dismissing it as nothing more than either "image management" or maybe even "nation branding." All those terms are interesting because reputation seems to be a central node within that lens, within that conceptual frame.

Here is how I would look at it. Laying all my cards on the table, I am a critic of sportswashing in practice, so I absolutely see it from the vantage of reputation laundering with a view toward the global sports sector. As you mentioned in the introduction, there is the term "greenwashing," which is reputation laundering in the context of the global environmental sector, and a newer term, "artwashing," which is another form of reputation laundering in the context of the global culture and arts sectors.

All of that said, here are two quick cuts that I can offer of what I have come to see sportswashing as. Cut number one: Sportswashing is a trendy tool in the autocratic toolkit, whereby autocrats use sports-related content to manipulate the information environments of audiences whose opinions and perceptions they care deeply about. I am happy to go into the details of the mechanics of how that works, but just pausing for a moment, part number two: Sportswashing is implemented through a two-stage process.

Step one is to spend big in the global sports sector. Bury your money and get a stake in the machinery of the sector, meaning the fans, players, franchises, and broader media and sponsorship contracts that link all of those stakeholders together, get a stake in it, and then, step two, use that stake as leverage to exercise influence beyond one's borders in service of your own national interest. Just to put a button on those two pieces, sportswashing is information manipulation on the basis of malign finance.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It is a fascinating point about reaching the fan base, investing not just simply to have a team or to sponsor a few events, but that this is an active way to reach out and to manage, as you said, public opinion in countries that matter by reaching out to the fan base and by having trusted and respected athletic figures being able to play this role.

This I think brings us to the doorstep question. Many people are not going to read The Wall Street Journal, they are not going to watch Washington Week in Review, but they are going to pay attention what is on ESPN, they are going to pay attention to a statement or comments from their favorite basketball players, golfers, swimmers, and so on, so it seems an interesting way to bring people who otherwise might be unconnected from foreign policy or from international news into this.

Is there a sense too that it is not simply that you are sponsoring but that there is almost a transactional relationship, particularly with the athletes and owners, that if you do not say what is expected of you or you do not play the role that is expected of you, this is going to impact your career negatively if you are a sports figure. If you are a team or a league not going along with the playbook, it is going to therefore have immediate impacts. Is there something different than what we saw in the past, where there is perhaps more of this: "We really want you, here is the script, here are the red lines, here are the things you are not allowed to say, here are the things we would like you to say, in order to reach this fan base, but if you don't there will be immediate negative career repercussions"?

SARATH GANJI: Your question touches on some important threads within the malign finance bucket. To situate listeners, "malign finance" is a term that The German Marshall Fund of the United States has used quite a bit in its own work, but you will see corollaries to this in the context of the National Endowment for Democracy and their group of organizations—they call it "corrosive capital." Elsewhere, Philip Zelikow in Foreign Affairs has written about it as "strategic corruption." Fundamentally we are talking about the same thing, which is the role of autocrats using intermediaries to exert influence in open societies.

They are able to do so because the space of civil society in autocratic, closed societies is so much less that your nongovernmental organizations are not just independent nonprofit organizations, they are GONGOs, government-organized nongovernmental organizations. Your private-sector enterprises are not just free-enterprise-loving entities that cross borders, they are state-owned enterprises or government-related enterprises. With that in mind there is quite a bit of influence from autocrats within this malign finance world.

To your point, Nick, there is what I would call a "ramping up" of a maturity model that comes to play when it comes to investments in the global sports sector. I spent a lot of 2021 and early 2022 diving into the decades-old investments of the Gulf monarchies within the global sports sector, and what I found is that there is a four-step process to how they invest in global sports. Broadly you can see it as hosting events and then broadcasting the events, and from there we move into sponsoring sports properties and then fully staking or owning sports properties.

When it comes to hosting sports events, here we are of course thinking about mega events like the Summer and Winter Olympics or the World Cup, but autocratic regimes also host much smaller events, either a hallmark event, which can be an annual competition—Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have both hosted annual golf and tennis tournaments that have brought in the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams.

There are also major sporting events. That can be a World Cup for rugby, a major Formula One race, or a cricket championship, but fundamentally those events take place on your own shores, so you are trying to bring in audiences from abroad to come experience what it means to be within your country and hopefully see a good side to it. I would argue that is the least lift in terms of organizing and influencing particular audiences.

From there we move on to broadcasting those events. At this point it is not only about bringing people to your shores, but it is about showing people beyond your shores what is taking place. One of the best examples of this would be an Al Jazeera sport spinoff that is known as beIN Media Group. It is a Qatar-linked broadcasting company that began in sports and then expanded to much broader media content. I believe at one point they had a big stake in Miramax in fact, but beIN holds the sports contracts to tons of content, not just soccer but also basketball and other entertainment and media properties, across the Middle East and North Africa, so those are a few dozen markets right there.

On top of that they hold key broadcasting contracts in places like France, which includes multiple spaces like Monaco. At one point in time they held other licenses and contracts for sports content in North America, so we could get through subscription beIN channels here in the United States. New Zealand and Australia are also a part of that, so they are able to touch viewers in other countries directly through that broadcasting set of investments. These contracts tend to be nine-figure contracts and they tend to beam Qatari-related and Qatari-interested content into the households of people in other countries, so now we are seeing a bigger lift in terms of the financial piece and organization piece but also more direct influence over those targeted audiences overseas.

Once we get past the hosting and the broadcasting piece we get to sponsoring, where you are actually partnering with, via a commercial relationship, a foreign entity, in this case having, for example, the Emiratis being able to sponsor Etihad Stadium. Having that brand there is prominent because you have individuals, fans, and players who are now seeing a direct connection between the Etihad Stadium and the team that is housed in it, Manchester City. Again, huge nine-figure contracts here, and you are touching the fans very directly within the live sporting arena, so even more of a connection.

Finally and most importantly you have owning sports properties. This is where you have Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund making a huge splash in the global sports game with their takeover of Newcastle United, a Premier League team in Northeast England, at the end of 2021 and around that same time launching the LIV Golf tour, which also is an ownership piece and takes place in multiple countries. There we are talking about potentially billion-dollar investments. For example, Manchester United, which is for sale, is projected to sell for maybe $6 billion, and the key investor at the top of the pecking order right now is a Qatari royal, a former crown prince. We are talking about huge figures there, but also you are able to influence the very lifeblood of corporate governance for these organizations in ways that change potentially the norms involved.

All of that is to say, Nick, that based on that sort of maturity model of investment and therefore leverage and influence, your field of athletes end up feeling this unconscious if not more direct pressure to toe the autocratic line in public spaces like Phil Mickelson famously and awfully did a couple of years ago, because they are the ones giving you your nine-figure paydays, and without it Phil Mickelson would not have had that huge signing bonus. More recently Cameron Smith, who won the Open Championship at St Andrew's last year—he is the number seven-ranked golfer in the world—also received reported a $100 million signing bonus. He is not necessarily a geopolitical hack of the Joe Nye or Graham Allison kind, but he does end up being able to speak for the apparent Saudi tradition of bettering women's rights and being more progressive under Mohammad bin Salman's reign because he does not have context for more broadly what is happening; he just knows what is being told to him in the informal conversations he is having with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the head of the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, and the Saudis he comes into contact with by way of their communications teams.

That is the nature of the influence game when it comes to sports. The more you move along that maturity model the more the intermediaries, the informal spokespersons in the guise of athletes and fans, end up feeling a little more of that pressure.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is really interesting. I love the maturity model as a way to discuss this and as a way to make our audience understand why it is important and impactful to them.

Down that line, as Nick said and you write, influencers are important in this game. It is an influence game. Speaking with people before this podcast, everybody talks about Cristiano Ronaldo, the football—in America soccer—player who is currently on the Forbes list of the world's highest-paid athletes, working for Saudi Arabia. Then you go down the list, and the next two athletes who are the world's richest—and we are talking, as you mentioned, about people with $100 million-plus contracts, work for Paris Saint-Germain, the Qatar Sports Investment vehicle. These people have influence online and on social media. I just saw Ronaldo's girlfriend, who may also have a big influence, saying how much she loves Saudi Arabia and living there.

My context here is that we are calling him a sellout. How has the digital space changed? Are people a little more savvy, or does buying the influence of these athletes really work?

SARATH GANJI: It is such an important question, and unfortunately I guess I am a little too cynical on the world of information flowing and consumption within open societies. Your question touches on a few threads within the information-manipulation toolkit that I was speaking to.

Let's flash back a century. The journalist and critic-commentator Walter Lippman wrote the book, Public Opinion, and he too was pretty cynical about how complicated our world had become in terms of the informational space. In an environment that is hazy and complex, in a post-ChatGPT world, one in which we do not know what is necessarily real or authentic or not, we need people to help us mediate that space, what Lippman called "intermediaries" and what his contemporary Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud and the father of modern public relations, called "public agents" or "spokespersons." These intermediaries end up being the ones we rely on to help us make sense of the world.

We buy into their credibility. You named all of the great stats that Cristiano Ronaldo lays claim to. On top of that I believe he has the largest social media following across all of his platforms. The Obamas of the world cannot quite compete there. So when he lends his name to a particular product, for example, if there are a lot of stationary bikes out there and he endorses one of them, instead of us doing the research we go to his recommendation because he looks the way he looks, he plays the way he plays, he makes the kind of money he makes, and so maybe we can get a taste of that based on his endorsement of a product.

I would take that same logic and apply it to his association with people he might play for or who he might sponsor or endorse. That is why his playing in the Saudi Pro League now is so instrumental. It is almost an implicit endorsement that all of the things we might have thought about Saudi Arabia in the past—it is not a tourism center; it is a strict, religious, closed-off community; there is nothing to do because movie theaters do not exist; women are oppressed—well, hey, if Cristiano Ronaldo is there along with his partner and his children and if they are able to get by, then maybe empirically, even if we do not hear the stories, we see the pictures telling us that Saudi Arabia is not such a bad place to live, and more generally if you are a Western state it is not such a bad place to do business with and to become a commercial partner and a diplomatic ally to.

The other point I would raise here is that within that information-manipulation toolkit, because the goal of an autocrat in this space is to alter the information environment of key audiences—and character references by way of Cristiano is one of them—really what is taking place here is a kind of epistemological question that precedes a metaphysical one. We have all heard the comment, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it ever actually fall?" The reality is affected by whether we even know this thing to have taken place empirically—could we sense it, perceive it, smell it, and touch it?

What is intriguing to me is that buried in the word "sportswashing" is the word "washing," which seems to imply that something dirty took place and that a cleaning job needs to happen in order to scrub away the stains that are now impairing a reputation, a brand, an image, or a record.

The metaphysical reality is that Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, ordered a hit team to detain, kill, and dismember a Saudi journalist who had said critical things about him and the regime. That reality cannot be wiped away, but to what extent do audiences know about the assassination and dismemberment at all, to what extent audiences know about it but are on the fence about whether there is a cost-benefit in the context of protecting the nation's security or advancing the Saudi national interest, and then, three, to the extent that there are people out there who absolutely know about what happened and detest, find morally contemptible, what happened but might be persuaded if you barrage them with a bunch of kinds of information, those are the things that sportswashers are trying to work on, that information space.

What is unique is a person like Cristiano Ronaldo can, through his words, through his social media platform, photographs, and just by the fact of playing in Saudi Arabia, be that character reference who shows any number of audiences out there who are not aware of Khashoggi's assassination and dismemberment, can either distract them from learning about it to begin with—in effect "see no evil"—or maybe they are aware of the situation but are on the fence about it, so Cristiano ends up giving them a kind of cost-benefit analysis that says, "This was a net beneficial assessment, as terrible as that is to say," so "hear no evil."

I think most difficult to understand is the ability of people's emotions to power them into changing their opinions of something they thought they knew full well. This goes back to French sociologist Émile Durkheim, the notion of collective effervescence and how when we are all together in spaces like a concert or a rally the emotional overload, the revelry, and excitement of the moment can reshape and recharge the way we think about and associate negative things with positive things, so being in the scene with a Cristiano Ronaldo or a Phil Mickelson as they are doing what they do, say, on the 18th hole Phil Mickelson making a huge comeback, and you think, Oh, hey, I thought the Saudis were terrible because of this assassination, but Phil Mickelson is tied to them, and I'm really excited about this moment and I am seeing the LIV branding in the background, and this makes me wonder if maybe I got this all wrong. You can think of that as "feel no evil," your feelings about the situation change. That is where these intermediaries, these character references, end up becoming powerful if unconscious and unwitting accomplices to sportswashers.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That analogy or term of a "character reference" is fascinating. I think this is a key thing we have to focus on, basically being certified as "good people" or at least not as "bad people," that, "Well, mistakes were made, regrettable things happened, but we can move forward."

It is interesting to watch the trajectory of the Western business community and political figures vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. When Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated there was this massive drop. Suddenly Western business figures were unavailable to go to the Investment Forum in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia was on the blacklist. We had that dramatic image from the G20 with bin Salman and Putin high-fiving each other before they sat down in Buenos Aires, and then five years later it is kind of, "Yes, it was regrettable but, you know, a bump in the road," and this idea as you said of the "character reference": "This isn't a bad place. Don't boycott. Come. They are making progress. Look at all the change that has happened."

That would then seem to be in the end for the sportswashing side that these have been good investments. This has changed the trajectory that five years ago Saudi Arabia, at least the Western media influencers were not going there, it was a negative trend, and now it is, "Hey, this is up and coming, change is happening, you want to be part of it," so that would seem to be a good investment.

You were talking about character references and involvement, as you have seen the sportswashing capacity and you walked us through the stages of sponsorship, broadcasting, and owning properties—all of that makes it harder for teams and athletes to then decide, for example, as we have seen in the U.S. context, particularly at times in collegiate athletics—and you were talking about growing up in Louisiana, and you see this in Texas and elsewhere—in recent years we have seen where sports teams will say we are not going to a particular place or venue because we are protesting a local policy, whether it's LGBTQ, or, "Hey, you still have the Confederate flag flying in front of the arena, we are not going to play there."

That can be a tool of pressure, but is there any case, for example, with any of the sportswashing cases that we have seen over the last several years, where a major athlete or major figure has said, "Hey, I'm going to take the economic hit and I'm not going to go there, I'm not going to be a part of this tournament, I'm not going to race in the Grand Prix, I'm not going to the tennis tournament, because it is taking place in a location where I have objections to the human rights policies," or is this a case—as we have seen for years in the entertainment world, that entertainers are happy to book the fees, whether it is a Beyoncé or anyone else, to perform in places as long as it is a big enough check and they will overlook the human rights thing? Is this corrosive capital in the sports world reaching a point where the checks are so big that we are not seeing boycotts, that we are not going to see someone saying, "I'm not going to Saudi Arabia to play, I'm not going to be on a team that is owned by the Qatari's sports fund," or is it still unclear how this is going to play out?

SARATH GANJI: There seems to be, from what we have seen over the last five to ten years, maybe a middle path between those two outcomes you rightly point out. Ironically it is a middle path that if you are a prominent athlete with a huge platform who has a good public relations (PR) team around you and they are advising you to do this, and a lot of those PR teams are also lobbyists for some of these Gulf monarchies. On the one hand, if the paycheck is big, yes, we will absolutely take that paycheck, but we will also issue a statement, my team will also issue a statement, saying, "I believe in human rights, I don't agree with all the decisions of the government, but I appreciate some of the reforms they have made and hope for more to come about." There is an understanding that a theory of change in this space may come about not by boycotting, isolating, or shunning autocrats and their corrosive capital investments but by engaging them, and that way you are in the room at the table and able to have these private conversations where you can flag issues.

We on the outside often do not hear about what exactly those conversations entail. In the lead-up to least year's World Cup in Qatar we heard about how the English team under its manager did do a tour of their hotel and the stadiums before competition play, and as part of that they had conversations about the state of LGBTQ rights within the country as well as migrant rights, women's rights, and those conversations, according to the manager, Gareth Southgate, may well have been productive and moved the needle with the Qataris.

I found it interesting that there were boycotts by some national teams of the World Cup, but those were teams that did not make it to the final stage anyway. That tree fell in the forest and no one heard it, so we are no better off for it.

For others, like the English team, they had a whole menu of things that they wanted to advocate for, the Germans as well, and we found that over the course of the year, first women's rights dropped off the radar, then migrant rights dropped off the radar, and fundamentally their platforms focused on just LGBTQ rights, the Germans prominently taking a picture with a pride flag, and then after an early exit from the World Cup you saw a Saudi television talk show where folks said really derisive homophobic things directed at the English team and burned a pride flag in the context of the German team.

It seems like that theory of change—"As long as I am in the room I have a chance to help egg on reforms"—does not really pan out. Certainly with the 1978 World Cup in Argentina there was a much larger voice in France, where the team itself did not boycott the tournament, but a lot of the French public refused to have community gatherings to project the games. Again, it was a moment that most folks remember for Argentina winning its first World Cup as opposed to one in which it was necessarily mired in controversy during the period of the Dirty War, so its unfortunate that the legacy memory piece that matters most has the most sway.

Tatiana brought up an important and instructive point earlier, that sportswashing is not just the domain of great powers, not just the domain of autocrats, and not just the domain of advanced industrialized economies. Anyone can be a sportswasher, but we often see this default of distrust that is tagged to autocrats, and I think it is an important thing to think about why that is and whether it is even fair.

I would argue it is for this reason: The default exists because authoritarian regimes tend to be absolutist, meaning that they can make all the mistakes they want and will never be held accountable by way of free and fair elections. They tend to be clientelist, meaning they are able to take a public's resources and appropriate them toward their own ends. In the case of Qatar or Saudi Arabia, they take their sovereign wealth funds or their country's coffers and invest them in nine- to ten-figure projects overseas and no one can tell them otherwise.

They also tend to be paternalistic, meaning they have these huge security states. We have heard terms like "digital authoritarianism," "panoptic surveillance," and "surveillance state" to characterize these systems. I used to work for the State Department in Dubai, and one of the things we were told is, "From the moment you leave your diplomatic residence until the moment you go to work and then once you leave work to the moment you come back to your residence there is probably a camera on you, and the Emerati government"—in that case, the local Dubai government—"police forces can follow your every move across that day and pinpoint exactly where you were and what you did." That was back in 2013. Flash-forward ten years and you can image just how much more advanced those surveillance apparatuses are.

It is that paternalistic vehicle that ends up preventing civil society advocates, lawyers, and journalists from being able to report what is happening in the country, whether these conversations that the English team is having on the ground are actually moving the needle in terms of reforms to Qatar's LGBTQ situation, its migrant rights and worker welfare statutes, and its approach to women.

The way I think about it is two-factor authentication. It is one thing for a Gulf autocrat to tell you, "Look, we're progressive, we've opened up movie theaters, we are letting women drive," but that is not good enough and their own state-funded press agents are not good enough. We need other entities that are independent to come in there and tell us the second authentication, that "They are telling the truth" or "No, they're not." Instead what we saw in the lead-up to the World Cup were Norwegian journalists being detained for having conversations with migrants.

I was in Qatar doing field work about a decade ago, shortly after the labor rights situation exploded in the pages of The Guardian. I was able to get through to these labor camps, but it was because I am South Asian, the way most people in the Gulf end up being South Asian, so no one questioned me walking into a labor camp. I could easily befriend the Malayalam-speaking cab driver, call him "Uncle," and he would take me to the labor camps to do interviews, take pictures, and get a sense of the scene on the ground, but at the time Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both of whom I was in touch with, were not able to enter the country and do that kind of work. If you do not have groups being able to report independently, then how can you ever trust what an autocrat is telling you?

Even if sportswashing and reputation laundering more generally can apply to the full range of political regimes, it is autocrats who end up having that well they have to dig out of. Unfortunately because of malign finance and information manipulation it is a really deep well.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is a deep well, and I am looking forward to this two-factor authentication. Let's continue this conversation. We are going to keep in touch. I read your work.

Please send your questions to @doorsteppodcast on Twitter, email us, and engage with us. We want to hear from you, our audience, about what you think about sportswashing.

Thank you so much for joining us, Sarath.

SARATH GANJI: Thank you for having me.

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Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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