YPP Network Description

The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) formed out of recognition that youth are critical to the future of democracy and that the digital age is introducing technological changes that are impacting how youth develop into informed, engaged, and effective actors.

…My Heart’s in Accra
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Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003
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Who Filters Your News? Why we built gobo.social

November 16, 2017 - 10:35am

Roughly ten years ago, as phones became smartphones and Facebook and Twitter began their rise towards ubiquity, a fundamental social shift took place: the majority of people in the developed world became content creators. The bloggers of the early 2000s were joined by hundreds of millions of people posting videos to YouTube channels, pictures to Instagram, essays to Medium and countless status updates from 140 characters to Facebook wall posts. Before the internet, publishing had been a distinction, with a limited number of people lucky, talented or wealthy enough to share ideas or images with a wide audience. After the rise of social media, publishing became a default, with non-participation the exception.

There’s a problem with this rise in shared self-expression: we’ve all still got a constant and limited amount of attention available. For those creating content, this means the challenge now is not publishing your work, but finding an audience. The problem for those of us in the audience – i.e., all of us – is filtering through the information constantly coming at us.

Before the internet, we relied on newspapers and broadcasters to filter much of our information, choosing curators based on their styles, reputations and biases – did you want a Wall Street Journal or New York Times view of the world? Fox News or NPR? The rise of powerful search engines made it possible to filter information based on our own interests – if you’re interested in sumo wrestling, you can learn whatever Google will show you, even if professional curators don’t see the sport as a priority.

Social media has presented a new problem for filters. The theory behind social media is that we want to pay attention to what our friends and family think is important. In practice, paying attention to everything 500 or 1500 friends are interested in is overwhelming – Robin Dunbar theorizes that people have a hard limit to how many relationships we can cognitively maintain. Twitter solves this problem with a social hack: it’s okay to miss posts on your feed because so many are flowing by… though Twitter now tries to catch you up on important posts if you had the temerity to step away from the service for a few hours.

Facebook and other social media platforms solve the problem a different way: the algorithm. Facebook’s news feed usually differs sharply from a list of the most recent items posted by your friends and pages you follow – instead, it’s been personalized using thousands of factors, meaning you’ll see posts Facebook thinks you’ll want to see from hours or days ago, while you’ll miss some recent posts the algorithm thinks won’t interest you. Research from the labs of Christian Sandvig and Karrie Karahalios suggests that even heavy Facebook users aren’t aware that algorithms shape their use of the service, and that many have experienced anxiety about not receiving responses to posts the algorithm suppressed.

Many of the anxieties about Facebook and other social platforms are really anxieties about filtering. The filter bubble, posited by Eli Pariser, is the idea that our natural tendencies towards homophily get amplified by filters designed to give us what we want, not ideas that challenge us, leading to ideological isolation and polarization. Fake news designed to mislead audiences and garner ad views relies on the fact that Facebook’s algorithms have a difficult time determining whether information is true or not, but can easily see whether information is new and popular, sharing information that’s received strong reactions from previous audiences. When Congress demands action on fake news and Kremlin propaganda, they’re requesting another form of filtering, based on who’s creating content and on whether it’s factually accurate.

USERS: Hey, can you get rid of the Nazis?

TWITTER: circle profile pics?

USERS: No. The Nazis.

TWITTER: 280 characters?

USERS: Nazis. Naaaaziiiiis.

TWITTER: https://t.co/a4rLVchc9l

— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) November 10, 2017

Twitter’s problems with trolls, bots, extremists and harassment are filtering problems as well. Prominent users like Lindy West have left the system complaining that Twitter is unwilling to remove serial abusers from the platform, or to give people abused on the service stronger tools to filter out and report abuse. As questions arise about Russian influence on the platform, Twitter may need to aggressively identify and filter out automated accounts which are used to promote pro-Trump or pro-Kremlin hashtags – the Hamilton68 Project focuses on tracking these accounts and understanding their influence as Twitter since the service has not yet filtered them out, either banning them or allowing audiences to block them from their feed.

Why don’t social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter give users powerful tools to filter their own feeds? Right now, the algorithms control what we see, but we can’t control them. As the internet maxim goes, “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”. Both Twitter and Facebook offer powerful filtering tools that allow advertisers to target exactly who they want their ads to reach. You can pay money and advertise to women of color between 40-60 in Seattle, but you can’t choose to read perspectives from those women. While we’ve seen great innovation from projects like BlockTogether, which lets users who experience harassment share Twitter blocklists, we’ve seen surprisingly little innovation on user-controllable filters from the platforms themselves. And unless we see something like public-service social media platforms, it’s unlikely that we will see platforms give users much more control over what they see.

Algorithmic filters optimize platforms for user retention and engagement, keeping our eyes firmly on the site so that our attention can be sold to advertisers. We thought it was time that we all had a tool that let us filter social media the ways we choose. What if we could choose to challenge ourselves one day, encountering perspectives from outside our normal orbits, and relax another day, filtering for what’s funniest and most viral. So we built Gobo.

What’s Gobo?

Gobo is a social media aggregator with filters you control. You can use Gobo to control what’s edited out of your feed, or configure it to include news and points of view from outside your usual orbit. Gobo aims to be completely transparent, showing you why each post was included in your feed and inviting you to explore what was filtered out by your current filter settings.

To use Gobo, you link your Twitter and Facebook accounts to Gobo and choose a set of news publications that most closely resembles the news you follow online. Gobo retrieves recent posts from these social networks and lets you decide which ones you want to see. Want more posts from women? Adjust a slider to set the gender balance of your feed… or just click on the “mute all men” button and listen to the folks who often get shouted down in online dialogs. Want to broaden the perspectives in your feed? Move the politics slider from “my perspective” to “lots of perspectives” and Gobo introduces news stories from sources you might not otherwise find.

How does it work?

Gobo retrieves posts from people you follow on Twitter and Facebook and analyzes them using simple machine learning-based filters. You can set those filters – seriousness, rudeness, virality, gender and brands – to eliminate some posts from your feed. The “politics” slider works differently, “filtering in”, instead of “filtering out” – if you set the slider towards “lots of perspectives”, our “news echo” algorithm will start adding in posts from media outlets that you likely don’t read every day.

That sounds great! Why isn’t everyone using it?

There are some serious limitations to Gobo at present. It’s slow – we’re generally showing you posts that appeared on Twitter three hours ago. As we refine and scale the tool, we’ll get faster, but right now, Gobo’s a good way to see how algorithms shape your newsfeed, but not a great way to keep up with breaking news.

You’ll also notice that there’s probably a lot less content from Facebook than from Twitter. Facebook allows us to show you posts from public pages, but not from your friends’ individual pages. We’re exploring ways you might be able to feed your whole, unedited Facebook news feed through Gobo, but we’re not there yet.

You may also notice that filters don’t always work the way you’d expect. We’re using off-the-shelf open source machine learning filters – we may end up fine-tuning these over time, but we don’t have the advantage of billions of user sessions to learn from the way Facebook does. It’s also a good reminder that these filters are always probabilistic and inexact – you get to see where our system screws up, unlike with Facebook!

Who built it?

Gobo is a project of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies at MIT. The idea for the project came from conversations between Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and Ethan Zuckerman around decentralized web publishing, leading to the report “Back to the Future: The Decentralized Web”. Rahul Bhargava, Jasmin Rubinovitz and Alexis Hope built the tool itself, with Jasmin focusing on the AI filters, Alexis on the product design and Rahul on integration and deployment.

Our work on Gobo and on decentralized publishing, was made possible by the Knight Foundation, the founding donors behind our Center and supporters of some of our wackiest and most speculative work. We thank them for their trust and support.

Where’s Gobo going in the future?

We want Gobo to be more inclusive, incorporating content from new, decentralized social networks like Mastodon and Steemit, as well as existing networks like Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr. We really want to find a way to let users filter their Facebook feeds, as bringing transparency to that process was an inspiration for the process. We’d like to integrate RSS feed reading, possibly turning Gobo into a replacement for the late great Google Reader. And we’d like it to be lots faster. In the long run, we’d love to see Gobo run entirely in the browser so we don’t have central control over what content you’re seeing – an intermediate step may include allowing people to run local Gobo servers ala Mastodon or Diaspora.

That said, the real goal behind Gobo is to open a conversation about who gets to filter what you see on the web. If we prompt a conversation about why platforms don’t give you more control over what you see, we’d be really happy. If Facebook or another platform incorporated ideas from Gobo in their own design, we’d throw a party. We’d even invite you.

Can I help make Gobo better?

Heck yeah. There are bound to be lots of bugs in this prototype. Beyond that, Gobo is an open source project and we’ll be sharing source code on the MIT Media Lab github repository. We’ve designed the prototype to treat ML filters as modules that can be dropped into our processing queue — we’d love ideas of other text or image analysis modules we can introduce as filters for Gobo.

Why the name?

Ever seen a stage production where the lights look like they’re coming through a window, or the leaves of a forest? Those effects are created with gobos, filters cut from sheets of metal and placed in front of a light to shine a particular pattern on a curtain or other surface. We’re theater geeks, and it seemed like the perfect name for a product that lets you experiment with the effects of filters.

Categories: Blog

Finding hope… and dissing Lin-Manuel… at the Obama Foundation Summit

November 2, 2017 - 7:10pm

I just spent two days at the inaugural summit of the Obama Foundation, and I’m coming back from Chicago more enthusiastic about the state of civics than I have been in the past year.

For several decades, US presidents have been working to make their time out of office part of their legacy. Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency has served as a model, both with the Carter Center’s work on elections and tropical diseases, and his personal commitment through volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Bill Clinton build a massive operating foundation based on public/private partnerships that, despite some highly reported controversies, has done some excellent work around public health and climate change in the Global South.

Obama had previously announced that his foundation would focus on revitalizing civics and on engaged citizenship. Great! But what does that mean? I hosted some of the organizers of the foundation at the Media Lab a year ago and was worried that the foundation might feel like an on-ramp into democratic party organizing. My students and I made the case that many people are feeling alienated from conventional politics and its surrounding institutions, and that Obama’s foundation could make a significant impact by broadening the definition of what we consider engaged citizenship. My student Erhardt Graeff spent the summer with the foundation making this case and studying how wer might measure the impact of this new, broader vision of citizenship.

I don’t claim that our lab had anything to do with it, but the summit yesterday felt much less like the “mini-reunion” of the Obama campaign (as Politico reported) than an experiment in just how broad the concept of civic revitalization could be. There was almost no talk about politics – indeed, I don’t think Trump’s name was mentioned once – and anyone expecting talk of how the left takes back Congress, fights gerrymandering or revitalizes the two party system would have been deeply frustrated. But for people looking for models for how individuals are changing their communities, in the US and around the world, the program and the people participating in it, was a feast.

In 2010, I spoke at an event at the George W. Bush Presidential library on digital activism. I was struck by the fact that our program specified events to the minute, not the nearest quarter or half hour. Evidently, Presidential libraries celebrate one or more characteristics of their patron, and the Bush library celebrated the former president’s punctuality. Indeed, W joined us for precisely 12 minutes, just as the schedule specified.

It’s possible that the signature attribute of the Obama legacy projects will be diversity. I spent two days in perhaps the most diverse room I’ve ever encountered at a conference in the United States. 12 of 30 featured speakers in the program were women, 19 were people of color. Sitting down for lunch, I found myself between a Nigerian roboticist and an American Sikh scholar who’s writing a book on islamophobia and its side effects. I didn’t have a bad or boring conversation over two days – the staff packed the room with people doing mentoring of young men on the South Side of Chicago, or combatting racism against Afro-Brazilians. I was impressed that the organizers found people beyond the usual suspects – Elaine Diaz, whose brilliant Periodismo de Barrio is transforming Cuban independent journalism – instead of a more widely known figure like Yoani Sanchez. It suggested to me less interest in virtue signaling than in opening interesting conversations.

Some of the key takeaways from the summit for me:

Heather McGhee of Demos knit together issues of inequality, race and economics with greater clarity than I’d previously heard. She offered an analogy for the contemporary economy: a massively multiplayer game where those who are winning can change the rules.
“Our democracy has become as unequal as our economy,” she argued, citing voter suppression efforts and the ability of wealthy voters to influence elections through political giving. She traces the increasing unfairness of the economy to our increasing diversity: “It’s no coincidence that it’s become harder for the average American to get by as the face of the average American has changed.” My friend Micah Sifry referred to her as the next black president of the US and I think he’s got a point – linking questions of economic and political unfairness to a realization that fairness hasn’t been equally through American society strikes me as a viable direction for the Democratic party in response to the Trump presidency.

– Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani Yogurt, won my heart with his passion for South Edmeston, NY, a small town in central New York that had lost much of its workforce due to plant closings. Ulukaya saw parallels between the rural Turkish community he’d grown up in and the community he moved to, and grew Chobani in a way that created not only jobs with livable wages, but a deep investment in community development and pride.

He shared the stage with Brian Alexander, who positioned himself as the anti-JD Vance: also passionate about the future of Appalachia, but sees the problem as structural and economic, not a problem of “hillbilly culture”. Asking us “What is capitalism for? Do we work for it, or does it work for us?” Alexander put forward a vision of a corporation’s role in a community that sounded both old-fashioned, and with Ulukaya’s example, worth returning to: “Companies used to be rooted in a place. Management used to play on softball teams.” Companies like that remain in their communities and work to support the people who depend on them, not just shareholders.

I’m used to community economics coming from inner cities, but it’s rare to see similar ideas coming from rural America. Exciting for me as the proud resident of a town of 3000. And, as Alexander pointed out, our communities are getting screwed over. Referencing the opioid epidemic and the dumping of drugs on West Virginia, then demanding people take responsibility for their addictions, he noted, “a culture of personal responsibility would mean demanding responsibility from the CEO who dumped 3.3 million doses of opiods into a county with 29,000 people.”

– In a workshop brainstorming the priorities of the Obama Foundation, one of the organizers asked a hard question about experts and expertise. (Despite the common root word, these often get put in opposition in social change circles – experts have degrees, while those with experience are people in beneficiary communities.) Introducing herself as a “sneakerhead”, she wondered how expertise in sussing out fake sneakers could translate to identifying and calling out fake news. “Sneakerheads are always calling out fakes. And I didn’t have to take an online course in ‘sneaker literacy’ – I got to know sneakers because I care about them.”

It’s an interesting point, not just about self-directed learning and about fake news. It’s a complicated point for people engaged in co-design, the practice of designing solutions in a way that deeply involves the beneficiaries in the planning and creation of projects intended to benefit them. When I’ve worked on co-design, I’ve had a tendency to think of communities I’m working with as experts on local conditions and priorities, while my teams tend to be experts on technologies and design methods. It’s an exciting challenge to think about how to work with community members not just as experts on their own problems, but on different ways of solving problems, of having insights that my students and staff are unlikely to have. How do people solve the problems they encounter in their lives, and how can those problemsolving skills change how we develop and design together?

– Listening matters. I have reached a point in my career where I rarely get to go to events unless I’m speaking. I’ve also developed the bad habit of dropping into conference to speak, and then heading to other engagements. I just got to spend two days listening, taking notes and tweeting and it was wonderful.

That moment when President Obama stands up in a workshop about social media and asks a killer question… #obamasummit pic.twitter.com/kpJjvhWwxC

— Ethan Zuckerman (@EthanZ) November 2, 2017

What was also wonderful was watching Obama listen. Half an hour into a fascinating conversation about the responsibility tech platforms have for the conversations they host, Obama stood up from the back of the room (none of us had seen him walk in), and asked a complex, nuanced question about how to balance principles of freedom of expression with the power of platforms to amplify misinformation. I watched him listening intently in another session, and saw him knit observations from two talks I’d been at into his closing remarks. If Obama can make time to listen this carefully, respectfully and closely, so can I.

The closing session featured two talks that I won’t forget for a long time. Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical Hamilton, and Chicago rapper Common took the stage together, and talked about how social issues inspired each of their work. Lin was clearly starstruck to be spending time with Common, who he credited as the inspiration for the flow of the rhymes he gave to George Washington – “Hamilton had to be the smartest guy in the room, so I had to model his flow on someone with the trickiest, most polysyllabic rhymes, like Eminem or Big Pun. But George Washington was respected by everybody, and so his flow had to be from someone everyone respects in hiphop: you.” When Common started a freestyle session, Lin was too flustered to bring his A game, leading to a tweet I’ll always cherish:

But the highlight for me was seeing my personal civic hero, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and defender of countless youth trapped in the criminal justice system, offer his rules for engaged citizenship:

1) Get proximate and stay proximate to the problems you want to solve.

2) You can’t solve problems without changing the narrative – when it’s the war on drugs, we lost people we could save if we worked on treating addiction

3) Hope is your superpower. This isn’t about naiveté, but about finding strength to carry on when you encounter obstacles and frustration. “Hope is your superpower. Don’t let anyone take away your hope. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

4) To make change, we have to be willing to do uncomfortable things. Bryan ended his talk with the story of a civil rights activist, an elderly man in a wheelchair, who showed him his scars from injuries during the protests of the 1960s. “These are not my cuts, my scars. These are my medals of honor.”

I’m grateful for the Obama Foundation for letting me take part, and I cannot wait to see what this will become.

Categories: Blog

Stop killing protesters, including those protesting violence against protesters!

October 19, 2017 - 12:16pm

This morning, Twitter offered me a video of my friend Boniface Mwangi getting shot point blank with a tear gas container, leading to a hematoma. The irony of assaulting a man who was leading a peaceful march against police violence while wearing a t-shirt that read “Stop Killing Us” seems to have been lost on Kenyan authorities.

I was a carrying a giant,dummy bullet written #StopKillingUs. The police officer pushed me and then fired to my chest, point blank! pic.twitter.com/DarEAyJ19s

— Boniface Mwangi (@bonifacemwangi) October 19, 2017

I have been treated at Kenyatta Hospital. X-ray done,nothing broken. Just a hematoma (a solid swelling of clotted blood within the tissues) pic.twitter.com/CP8StVNYEb

— Boniface Mwangi (@bonifacemwangi) October 19, 2017

Given that Boni was kind enough to check in with me this morning to see if I could come to his talk at Amherst College next week (I can’t, but you really should – he’s a terrific speaker), I thought I’d take a moment to check in on Kenya’s disputed election.

Kenyan elections have not always been smooth affairs. The disputed 2007 election between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga led to protests – both peaceful and violent – and to waves of political and ethnic violence. Over a thousand people died. Tens of thousands were displaced. Kenya’s reputation as a stable and safe country suffered.

With 2007 firmly in mind, the international community has watched Kenya’s past two elections closely, though not always carefully. The election held in August of this year was widely certified as free and fair by international election observers, despite the fact that election tally forms were forged, the system for transmitting votes from polling stations to tabulation centers utterly failed, and the IT manager for the electoral commission was tortured and killed, likely to obtain his passwords to the system. It’s likely that international observers acted too hastily in certifying results, hoping to avoid post-election strife.

I have always marveled at how Kenyans rise to challenges. The 2007-8 strife led to a wave of civic engagement by young Kenyans that helped birth crowdmapping site Ushahidi, anti-violence efforts like Kuweni Serious and started countless young Kenyans down the path of political activism. Boni’s photographs of the 2007-8 protests helped bring his work as an artist and activist to international visibility.

And in 2017, Kenya’s supreme court rose to the challenge and overturned a flawed election demanding a clean re-run just a few weeks later. This was a remarkable act of judicial independence, given that all judges had been appointed by Uhuru Kenyatta, the winner of the disputed poll. Unfortunately, Kenya’s election body made very few of the changes the Supreme Court demanded, and it became increasingly clear to Odinga’s camp that a rerun of the elections later this month would have many of the same flaws of the previous poll. On October 10th, Odinga pulled out of the poll and encouraged his supporters – who had already been protesting – to demonstrate their refusal to let the election be stolen. Two days ago, elections commissioner Roselyne Akombe resigned and fled to the US, stating that she did not believe the commission could conduct a free and fair election, and that she’d begun fearing for her own safety given threats of violence.

As Odingo supporters have taken to the streets, Kenyan police have reacted with force, which has led to deaths – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report at least 33 protesters killed by police in the immediate aftermath of the August poll. On Monday, a high school student was shot and killed by police during protests in Kisumu, a stronghold for Odinga.

We have notified the police about tomorrow’s March on #StopKillingProtesters. Here is the code of conduct, safety protocol plus dress code. pic.twitter.com/DXu7rGzVgE

— Boniface Mwangi (@bonifacemwangi) October 18, 2017

These deaths were the backdrop for the “Stop Killing Protesters” march Boni and Team Courage organized today in the central business district of Nairobi. The protest was registered with local authorities and Boni’s team gave careful instructions to protesters, hoping to minimize confrontation with police. As his arrest and injury demonstrate, that’s been harder than it should be.

The situation in Kenya is hard to predict and it’s clearly a tense and scary time ahead. I know a lot of truly remarkable young Kenyans and I have a great deal of faith that 2017 will give birth to another wave of activism, engagement and innovation. I have less confidence in existing Kenyan institutions, which seem to be facing a situation more complex than they’re able to handle.

One aspect of the current situation that I find especially worrisome: international attention. When democracies stumble, international pressure often keeps the train on the rails, showing leaders that autocratic behavior will be noticed and will lead to consequences. It’s hard to imagine the Kenyan situation getting much attention in the US right now, given competition from crises like Puerto Rico and the ongoing recovery in Texas and Florida, not to mention the crisis du jour coming from the Trump administration. One of the dangers of the wave of nationalism and nativism sweeping across the world is that positive pressure of globalization weakens.

Categories: Blog

Mastodon is big in Japan. The reason why is… uncomfortable

August 18, 2017 - 12:58pm

Remember Mastodon? In April 2017, there was a wave of excitement about Mastodon, a federated social network begun in October 2016 by Eugen Rochko, a 24-year old German software engineer, as an alternative to Twitter. Recent news about CloudFlare’s decision to stop providing services to the Daily Stormer has me thinking about decentralized publishing, one possible response to intermediary censorship. As it turns out, it’s an interesting time to catch up on Mastodon, which has grown in a fascinating, and somewhat troubling, way. (Mastodon is one of the topics of the report Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and I released today, “Back to the Future: the Decentralized Web”.)

The enthusiasm earlier this year about Mastodon centered on the idea that the new distributed service could be like Twitter without as much harassment and hate speech. And indeed, using Mastodon is a lot like using Twitter – specifically, using Twitter through the excellent Tweetdeck client, which Rochko admits was his design inspiration – the structure of the service is sharply different from a centralized service like Twitter.

When you access Twitter (or Facebook, for that matter), you’re connecting to one in a cluster of servers owned by a single company, and managed if they were a single, huge server. There’s a single set of rules for acceptable behavior within the community, and a single directory of users – I’m @ethanz on Twitter whether you’re accessing the server from the US, Japan or South Africa.

Mastodon is different. It’s an open source software package that allows anyone with an internet-connected computer to set up an “instance”. The server administrator is responsible for setting and enforcing rules on her instance, and those rules can vary – sharply – from instance to instance. Each server has its own namespace. I’m @ethanz on octodon.social, but if you want to be @ethanz on mastodon.social, no one’s going to stop you. In this sense, Mastodon is less like Facebook and more like email – you can have your own address – and your own acceptable use policies – on one server and still send mail to a user on another server.

To have that ability to share messages with users of other servers, Mastodon has to support “federation”. Federation means that I can follow users on other Mastodon instances – you can have an account on mastodon.xyz and read my posts on octodon.social. It’s a bit more complicated than using a service like Twitter or Facebook, but it has the great advantage that communities of interest can have their own community rules. Don’t want adult content on your server? Fine – don’t allow it. Want to shield your child from adult content? Don’t federate your server with servers that allow NSFW content.

When the geek press began writing about Mastodon in April, the main story was about the community’s explosive growth. Tens of thousands of users joined in April, and some began to speculate that the network could serve as a challenger to Twitter.

It’s hard to say how fast Mastodon is growing, because it’s hard to say how big Mastodon is. The Mastodon Network Monitoring Project does its best to keep up, but servers come online and go down all the time. If you’re running a Mastodon server and don’t register or federate it (perfectly reasonable if you want a community just for people you invite) it won’t register on the project’s dashboard. So we might think of the 1.5 million registered users on ~2400 servers as the network’s minimum size.

Map of Mastodon instances from Mastodon Network Monitoring Project, August 17, 2017

Map those instances, and one thing becomes clear pretty fast: Mastodon is mostly a Japanese phenomenon. The two largest Mastodon instances – pawoo.net and mstdn.jp – have over 100,000 users each, significantly more than mastodon.social, the “mothership” site that Rochko himself administers. Three of the top five Mastodon instances are based in Japan, and the Mastodon monitoring project estimates that 61% of the network’s users are Japanese.

In one sense, this isn’t a surprise. Twitter is massive in Japan, where it has more users than Facebook, and is projected to be used by half of all social network users and a quarter of all internet users this year. But that’s not the whole explanation. Instead, we’ve got to talk about lolicon.

(I’m about to talk about cultural differences and child pornography. This is not a defense of child pornography, but it’s going to discuss the fact that different cultures may have different standards about what imagery is and is not acceptable. If that’s not okay with you, back away now.)

In the US, we have a strong taboo about sexualized imagery of children. People who are interested in sexualized imagery of children – whether it’s explicit photography or idealized drawings – are considered pedophiles, and the material they seek out is termed child pornography. (Let’s ignore for the moment the hypersexualization of tween girls in American popular culture – no one said cultural taboos have to be consistent.)

In Japan, there’s a distinction between 児童ポルノ – child pornography – and ロリコン – “lolicon”, short for “Lolita complex”. Child pornography is illegal in Japan and seeking it out would be deeply socially unacceptable. Lolicon, which includes animated cartoons and 2D drawings of young men and women in a way that is undeniably sexualized, sometimes through explicit depictions of sexual acts, is legal, widespread and significantly accepted. As Matthew Scala writes, “If you like ロリコン then you’re a nerd, but that’s not a big deal. It is legal and popular and sold in bookstores everywhere. I cannot emphasize enough that ロリコン is not only legal but really acceptable in Japan. It’s merely nerdy. On the other hand, if you like 児童ポルノ then you’re an evil sicko monster, and 児童ポルノ is highly illegal.” Or, as a Japanese friend of mine put it, “I think the sort of pedophilia tendency is considered nearly normal and tolerated but they are quite strict about the law around it now – not as strict as the US but realize that some things are illegal. But dreaming about these things isn’t illegal.”

(One more time – I’m not defending lolicon here, just explaining that lolicon is a thing, that it’s popular in Japan, and that this has implications for understanding Mastodon’s growth.)

Twitter’s rules about the acceptability of graphic content are vague – intentionally so. (I wrote the terms of service for Tripod.com, one of the first user generated content sites. When you administer a UGC site, vagueness is your friend.) Twitter’s rules state, “Twitter may allow some forms of graphic content in Tweets marked as sensitive media.” Those guidelines give Twitter’s administrators a great deal of freedom in removing lolicon and banning those who post it. You can still find lolicon on Twitter, but the service has evidently been quite aggressive in removing this sort of imagery. Lolicon fans became refugees. Scala, who wrote a helpful article on the migration of lolicon fans to Mastodon, argues that Japanese users had been looking for a Twitter-like platform where they could share lolicon writing and imagery for some time. They’d used earlier, less-user friendly decentralized social networks, and when Mastodon came around, they flocked to it.

And then Pixiv entered the picture. Pixiv is an enormously popular image archive site in Japan, aimed at artists who create their own drawings – it might be analogous to DeviantArt in the US, but focused on drawings, not photography. Lolicon is wildly popular on Pixiv, as you can tell from one of the signup pages.

One of several English language signup screens for Pixiv

In April 2017, Pixiv began hosting a Mastodon instance – Pawoo.net – that quickly became the most popular Mastodon server in the world. If you have a Pixiv account, it’s a single click to establish a Pawoo.net account. And if you monitor the feed on pawoo.net, you’ll see that a great deal of content features lolicon, much of it behind content warning tags. In response to the growth of pawoo.net, a number of large, predominantly North American/European Mastodon servers stopped federating posts from the Japanese site, as they were uncomfortable with lolicon appearing as part of their feed. Scala reports that Rochko modified the database on mastodon.social to make it possible to “silence” pawoo.net, so that posts only appear if you explicitly choose to subscribe to users of that server.

Needless to say, not every Mastodon administrator is excited that the protocol is being used to harbor lolicon. The terms of service for mastodon.cloud – the fifth largest Mastodon instance, and the largest based in the US – now explicitly prohibit “lolicon, immoral and indecent child pics”.

Community guidelines for mastodon.cloud, August 17, 2017

I started down the path to lolicon because I wanted to answer a simple question: was Mastodon growing as fast as it was back in April, and if so, why wasn’t I seeing more friends on the service? The answer seems to be that Mastodon continues to grow, but a major engine of its growth is Japanese erotica. And while I can see the headlines now – “Japanese Child Porn Powers Decentralized Publishing” – let’s be clear: this is exactly what decentralized publishing is good for.

The appeal of decentralized publishing is that it makes it possible to create online communities that operate under all sorts of different rulesets. If Twitter doesn’t find lolicon acceptable, lolicon fans can create their own online community with their own rules.

This is a hot topic at the moment. In the wake of neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, many internet intermediaries – companies and entities that provide services necessary to find, publish and protect online content – have chosen to stop providing services to white nationalist organizations. Matthew Prince, CEO of Cloudflare, a company that provides scaling services for websites, wrote an especially blunt and honest post about his decision to remove the Daily Stormer from his servers, while simultaneously explaining that he personally had far too much power to control what content could be booted from the internet. “I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet.”

Human rights activists have been worried about intermediary censorship for a long time – I wrote a chapter on the topic for the 2010 book Access Controlled. Decentralized publishing solves some of the problems of intermediary censorship, but not all. As white supremacists are booted from platforms like Twitter and Reddit, they may well seek out decentralized platforms where they set their own rules. (Many have migrated to a platform called Gab, which is not decentralized, but has a set of community guidelines that welcome racist, nationalist speech.) Intermediaries like Domain Name Registrars and Content Delivery Networks may still refuse them service, but neo-Nazis on their own Mastodon server won’t be worried that they’ll be kicked off Twitter, like the Lolicon fans were.

The point of decentralized publishing is not censorship resistance – decentralization provides a little resilience to intermediary censorship, but not a lot. Instead, decentralization is important because it allows a community to run under its own rules. One of the challenges for Mastodon is to demonstrate that there are reasons beyond lolicon to run a community under your own rules. This is analogous to a problem Tor faces. People undeniably use Tor to do terrible things online, publishing and accessing hateful content. But Tor is an essential tool for journalists, whistleblowers and activists. It’s a constant struggle for Tor to recruit “everyday” users of Tor, who use the service to evade commercial surveillance. Those users provide valuable “cover traffic”, making it harder to identify whistleblowers who use the service, and political air cover for those who would seek to ban the tool so they can combat child pornography and other illegal content.

Fortunately, there are communities that would greatly benefit from Mastodon: people who’ve grown sick of sexism and harassment on Twitter, but still want the brief, lightweight interaction the site is so good at providing. One of the mysteries of Mastodon is that while many instances were started precisely to provide these alternative spaces, they’ve not grown nearly as fast as those providing space for a subculture banned from Twitter. The Mastodon story so far suggests that sticks may be more powerful than carrots.

While I suspect some advocates for distributed publishing will be disappointed that Mastodon’s growth is so closely tied to controversial content, it’s worth remembering that controversial content has long been a driver of innovations in communications technology – pornography arguably was an engine that drove the adoption of cable television, the VCR and, perhaps, broadband internet. Beyond porn, the internet has always provided spaces for content that wasn’t widely acceptable. When it was difficult to find information and LGBTQ lifestyles in rural communities, the internet became a lifeline for queer teens. Distributed social networks are a likely space for conversations about ideas and topics too sensitive to be accepted on centralized social networks, and it’s likely that some of the topics explored will be ones that become more socially acceptable over time.

Our team at the MIT Media Lab – Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and myself – are releasing a new report today on distributed publishing, titled “Back to the Future: the Decentralized Web” We end up speculating that the main barriers to adoption of decentralized platforms aren’t technical, but around usability. Most distributed publishing tools are simply too complex for most users to adopt. Mastodon may have overcome that problem, borrowing design ideas from a successful commercial product. But the example of lolicon may challenge our theories in two directions. One, if you’re unable to share content on the sites you’re used to using – Twitter, in this case – you may be more willing to adopt a new tool, even if its interface is initially unfamiliar. Second, an additional barrier to adoption for decentralized publishing may be that its first large userbase is a population that cannot use centralized social networks. Any stigma associated with this community may make it harder for users with other interests to adopt these new tools.

Mastodon is big in Japan… at least, in one subculture. Whether that bodes well or ill for widespread adoption of the platform more globally is something we’ll be watching closely as we work to understand the future of distributed publishing.

Categories: Blog

Mistrust, Efficacy and the New Civics – a whitepaper for the Knight Foundation

August 17, 2017 - 6:45pm

When things get serious in the media space, my friends at the Knight Foundation rally the troops. Last week, I was invited to a workshop Knight held with the Aspen Institute on trust, media and democracy in America. I prepared a whitepaper for the workshop, which I’m publishing here at the suggestion of several of the workshop participants, who found it useful.

The paper I wrote – “Mistrust, efficacy and the new civics: understanding the deep roots of the crisis of faith in journalism” – served two purposes for me. First, it’s a rough outline of the book I’m working on this next year about mistrust and civics, which means I can pretend that I’ve been working on my book this summer. Second, it let me put certain stakes in the ground for my discussion with my friends at Knight. Conversations about mistrust in journalism have a tendency to focus on the uniqueness of the profession and its critical civic role in the US and in other open societies. I wanted to be clear that I think journalism has a great deal in common with other large institutions that are suffering declines in trust. Yes, the press has come under special scrutiny due to President Trump’s decision to demonize and threaten journalists, but I think mistrust in civic institutions is much broader than mistrust in the press.

Because mistrust is broad-based, press-centric solutions to mistrust are likely to fail. This is a broad civic problem, not a problem of fake news, of fact checking or of listening more to our readers. The shape of civics is changing, and while many citizens have lost confidence in existing institutions, others are finding new ways to participate. The path forward for news media is to help readers be effective civic actors. If news organizations can help make citizens feel powerful, like they can make effective civic change, they’ll develop a strength and loyalty they’ve not felt in years.

To my surprise and delight, the workshop participants needed little or no convincing that journalism’s problems were part of a larger anti-institutional moment in America. I brought in Chris Hayes’s idea that “left/right” is no longer as useful a distinction in American politics as “insurrectionist/institutionalist”, and we had a helpful debate about what it would mean to bring insurrectionists – those who believe our institutions are failing and need to be replaced by newer structures – into a room full of institutionalists – people who see our institutions are central to our open society, in need of strengthening and reinforcement, but worth defending and preserving.

What started to emerge was a two-dimensional grid of left/right and insurrectionist/institutionalist to understand a picture of American politics that can include both the Occupy Movement and Hillary Clinton as leftists, and Donald Trump and Paul Ryan on the right. While the US is currently wrestling with right-wing insurrectionism (and this meeting happened even before neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, VA and the President assured us that some of them were nice people) it’s important to remember that anti-institutionalism comes in a variety of flavors. (One researcher at the meeting observed that the common ground of insurrectionism may explain the otherwise weird phenomenon of Bernie supporters going on to support Trump.)

Mapping politicians on the twin axes of left/right and institutionalist/insurrectionist

Another idea that came up was that the categories of institutionalism and insurrectionism are fluid and changing, because revolutionaries quickly become institutions. When Google came into the search engine game, it was a revolutionary new player, upending Yahoo!, Lycos, Alta Visa and others. Twenty years later, it’s one of the most powerful corporate and civic actors in the world. Understanding that successful revolutions tend to beget institutions is helpful for understanding insurrectionism as a political pole. Some insurrectionists will win their battles and may find themselves defending the institutions they build. (I think fondly of my friend Joi Ito, who spent years as an enfant terrible in Japanese internet circles before becoming surprisingly acceptable as the director of the MIT Media Lab.) Others will hold onto insurrectionism even when their side wins – my friend Sami ben Gharbia moved seamlessly to being a critic of the Ben Ali government in Tunisia to critiquing the new government the Arab Spring brought to power.

Understanding that revolutions beget new institutions made me think of Pierre Rosanvallon’s work on Counterdemocracy, which isn’t as well known in the US as it should be. Rosanvallon observes that, during the French Revolution, a slew of new institutions sprang up to ensure the new leaders stayed true to their values. This wasn’t always a pretty picture – the Terror came in part from the institutions Rosanvallon explores – but the idea that democracy needs to be counterbalanced and bolstered by forces of oversight, prevention and judgement is one worth considering as we examine modern-day institutions and their shortcomings.

When a disruptive entity like Google or Facebook becomes an institution, it’s incumbent on us to build systems that can monitor their behavior and hold them accountable. It’s rare that existing regulatory structures are well-equipped to serve as counter-democratic institutions to counterbalance the new ways in which they work. As a result, there’s at least two ways look for change as an insurrectionist: you can identify institutions that aren’t working well and strive to replace them with something better, or you can dedicate yourself to monitoring and counterbalancing those institutions, building counterdemocratic institutions in the process.

What does this mean for the fine folks working with Knight on news and trust? The press is a key part of counterdemocracy. It needs to hold power responsible. As democratic institutions of power change, counterdemocratic systems have to change as well – nostalgia for how the press used to work is less helpful than understanding the way in which political and civic power are changing, so that the press can continue to act as an effective counterweight. The good news for me was that the folks at Knight are emphatically not holding onto a nostalgic view of the press, trying to return to a Watergate golden age. The bad news? Just like the rest of us, they don’t know what the shape of this emergent new civics is either.

Here’s a prettier version of this paper, hosted my MIT’s DSpace archive. What follows below is a less pretty, but web-friendlier version.

Mistrust, efficacy and the new civics:
understanding the deep roots of the crisis of faith in journalism

Ethan Zuckerman, Center for Civic Media, MIT Media Lab
August 2017

Executive summary
Current fears over mistrust in journalism have deep roots. Not only has trust in news media been declining since a high point just after Watergate, but American trust in institutions of all sorts is at historic lows. This phenomenon is present to differing degrees in many advanced nations, suggesting that mistrust in institutions is a phenomenon we need to consider as a new reality, not a momentary disruption of existing patterns. Furthermore, it suggests that mistrust in media is less a product of recent technological and political developments, but part of a decades-long pattern that many advanced democracies are experiencing.

Addressing mistrust in media requires that we examine why mistrust in institutions as a whole is rising. One possible explanation is that our existing institutions aren’t working well for many citizens. Citizens who feel they can’t influence the governments that represent them are less likely to participate in civics. Some evidence exists that the shape of civic participation in the US is changing shape, with young people more focused on influencing institutions through markets (boycotts, buycotts and socially responsible businesses), code (technologies that make new behaviors possible, like solar panels or electric cars) and norms (influencing public attitudes) than through law. By understanding and reporting on this new, emergent civics, journalists may be able to increase their relevance to contemporary audiences alienated from traditional civics.

One critical shift that social media has helped accelerate, though not cause, is the fragmentation of a single, coherent public sphere. While scholars have been aware of this problem for decades, we seem to have shifted to a more dramatic divide, in which people who read different media outlets may have entirely different agendas of what’s worth paying attention to. It is unlikely that a single, authoritative entity – whether it is mainstream media or the presidency – will emerge to fill this agenda-setting function. Instead, we face the personal challenge of understanding what issues are important for people from different backgrounds or ideologies.

Addressing the current state of mistrust in journalism will require addressing the broader crisis of trust in institutions. Given the timeline of this crisis, which is unfolding over decades, it is unlikely that digital technologies are the primary actor responsible for the surprises of the past year. While digital technologies may help us address issues, like a disappearing sense of common ground, the underlying issues of mistrust likely require close examination of the changing nature of civics and public attitudes to democracy.

Introduction
The presidency of Donald Trump is a confusing time for journalists and those who see journalism as an integral component of a democratic and open society.

Consider a recent development in the ongoing feud between the President and CNN. On July 2nd, Donald Trump posted a 28 second video clip to his personal Twitter account for the benefit of his 33.4 million followers. The video, a clip from professional wrestling event Wrestlemania 23 (“The Battle of the Billionaires”), shows Trump knocking wrestling executive Vince McMahon to the ground and punching him in the face. In the video, McMahon’s face is replaced with the CNN logo, and the clip ends with an altered logo reading “FNN: Fraud News Network”. It was, by far, Trump’s most popular tweet in the past month, receiving 587,000 favorites and 350,000 retweets, including a retweet from the official presidential account.

CNN responded to the presidential tweet, expressing disappointment that the president would encourage violence against journalists. Then CNN political reporter Andrew Kaczynski tracked down Reddit user “HanAssholeSolo”, who posted the video on the popular Reddit forum, The_Donald. Noting that the Reddit user had apologized for the wrestling video, as well as for a long history of racist and islamophobic posts, and agreed not to post this type of content again, Kaczynski declined to identify the person behind the account. Ominously, he left the door open: “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.” The possibility that the video creator might be identified enraged a group of online Trump supporters, who began a campaign of anti-CNN videos organized under the hashtag #CNNBlackmail, supported by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who took to Twitter to speculate on the crimes CNN might have committed in their reportage. By July 6th, Alex Jones’s Infowars.com was offering a $20,000 prize in “The Great CNN Meme War”, a competition to find the best meme in which the President attacked and defeated CNN.

It’s not hard to encounter a story like this one and wonder what precisely has happened to the relationship between the press, the government and the American people. What does it mean for democracy when a sitting president refers to the press as “the opposition party”? How did trust in media drop so low that attacks on a cable news network serve some of a politician’s most popular stances? How did “fake news” become the preferred epithet for reporting one political party or another disagrees with? Where are all these strange internet memes coming from, and do they represent a groundswell of political power? Or just teenagers playing a game of one-upsmanship? And is this really what we want major news outlets, including the Washington Post, the New York Times and CBS, to be covering?)

These are worthwhile questions, and public policy experts, journalists and academics are justified in spending significant time understanding these topics. But given the fascinating and disconcerting details of this wildly shifting media landscape, it is easy to miss the larger social changes that are redefining the civic role of journalism. I believe that three shifts underlie and help explain the confusing and challenging landscape we currently face and may offer direction for those who seek to strengthen the importance of reliable information to an engaged citizenry:

– The decline of trust in journalism is part of a larger collapse of trust in institutions of all kinds
– Low trust in institutions creates a crisis for civics, leaving citizens looking for new ways to be effective in influencing political and social processes
– The search for efficacy is leading citizens into polarized media spaces that have so little overlap that shared consensus on basic civic facts is difficult to achieve

I will unpack these three shifts in turn, arguing that each has a much deeper set of roots than the current political moment. These factors lead me to a set of question for anyone seeking to strengthen the importance of reliable information in our civic culture. Because these shifts are deeper than the introduction of a single new technology or the rise of a specific political figure, these questions focus less on mitigating the impact of recent technological shifts and more on either reversing these larger trends, or creating a healthier civic culture that responds to these changes.

What happened to trust?

Since 1958, the National Election Study and other pollsters have asked a sample of Americans the following question: “Do you trust the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time?” Trust peaked during the Johnson administration in 1964, at 77%. It declined precipitously under Nixon, Ford and Carter, recovered somewhat under Reagan, and nose-dived under George HW Bush. Trust rose through Clinton’s presidency and peaked just after George W. Bush led the country into war in Iraq and Afghanistan, collapsing throughout his presidency to the sub-25% levels that characterized Obama’s years in office. Between Johnson and Obama, American attitudes towards Washington reversed themselves – in the mid 1960s, it was as difficult to find someone with low trust in the federal government as it is difficult today to find someone who deeply trusts the government.

Data from Gallup, derived largely from the National Election Survey

Declining trust in government, especially in Congress – the least trusted branch of our tripartite system – is an old story, and generations of politicians have run against Washington, taking advantage of the tendency for Americans to re-elect their representatives while condemning Congress as a whole. What’s more surprising is the slide in confidence in institutions of all sorts. Trust in public schools has dropped from 62% in 1975 to 31% now, while confidence in the medical system has fallen from 80% to 37% in the same time period. We see significant decreases in confidence in organized religion, banks, organized labor, the criminal justice system and in big business. The only institutions that have increased in trust in Gallup’s surveys are the military, which faced Vietnam-era skepticism when Gallup began its questioning, and small business, which is less a conventional institution than the invitation to imagine an individual businessperson. With the exception of the military, Americans show themselves to be increasingly skeptical of large or bureaucratic institutions, from courts to churches.

Data on the left from Gallup. On the right are my calculations of drops in trust, based on Gallup data.

American media institutions have experienced the same decades-long fall in trust. Newspapers were trusted by 51% of American survey respondents in 1979, compared to 20% in 2016. Trust in broadcast television peaked at 46% in 1993 and now sits at 21%. Trust in mass media as a whole peaked at 72% in 1976, in the wake of the press’s role in exposing the Watergate scandal. Four decades later, that figure is now 32%, less than half of its peak. And while Republicans now show a very sharp drop in trust in mainstream media – from 32% in 2015 to 14% in 2016, trust in mass media has dropped steadily for Democrats and independents as well.

In other words, the internet and social media has not destroyed trust in media – trust was dropping even before cable TV became popular. Nor is the internet becoming a more trusted medium than newspapers or television – in 2014, 19% of survey respondents said they put a great deal of trust in internet news. Instead, trust in media has fallen steadily since the 1980s and 1990s, now resting at roughly half the level it enjoyed 30 years ago, much like other indicators of American trust in institutions.

It’s not only Americans who are skeptical of institutions, and of media in particular. Edelman, a US-based PR firm, conducts an annual, global survey of trust called Eurobarometer, which compares levels of trust in institutions similar to those Gallup asks about. The 2017 Eurobarometer survey identifies the US as “neutral”, between a small number of high trust countries and a large set of mistrustful countries. (Only one of the five countries Eurobarometer lists as highly trusting are open societies, rated as “free” by Freedom House: India. The other four – China, Indonesia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, are partly free or not free. Depressingly, there is a discernable, if weak, correlation (R2=0.162) between more open societies and low scores on Edelman’s trust metric.) As in the US, trust in media plumbed new depths in Eurobarometer countries, reaching all time lows in 17 of the 28 countries surveyed and leaving media contending with government as the least trusted set of institutions (business and NGOs rate significantly higher, though trust in all institutions is dropping year on year.)

So what happened to trust?

By recognizing that the decrease in trust in media is part of a larger trend of reduced trust in institutions, and understanding that shift as a trend that’s unfolded over at least 4 decades, we can dismiss some overly simplistic explanations for the current moment. The decline of trust in journalism precedes Donald Trump. While it’s likely that trust in media will fall farther under a government that presents journalists as the opposition party, Trump’s choice of the press as enemy is shrewd recognition of a trend already underway. Similarly, we can reject the facile argument that the internet has destroyed trust in media and other institutions. Even if we date broad public influence of the internet to 2000, when only 52% of the US population was online, the decline in trust in journalism began at least 20 years earlier. If we accept the current moment as part of a larger trend, we need a more systemic explanation for the collapse of trust.

Scholars have studied interpersonal trust – the question of how much you can trust other individuals in society – for decades, finding robust evidence of a correlation between interpersonal trust at a societal level and economic success. The relationship between interpersonal trust and trust in institutions is less clear: Sweden, for instance, is one of the world leaders in interpersonal trust, but one of the most mistrustful of governments and other institutions. Comparing the 2014 World Values Survey measure of interpersonal trust to the 2017 Eurobarometer survey of institutional trust shows no correlation. (R2=0.032) So while interpersonal trust has dropped sharply in the US (from 48% in 1984 to 31% in 2014, using data from the General Social Survey, the broader world shows fairly stable interpersonal trust. Yet a decrease of trust in institutions is widespread globally, as seen both in the Eurobarometer data and in Gallup OECD data. It’s not just that we trust each other less – people around the world appear to trust institutions less.

It’s also possible that reduced confidence in institutions could relate to economic stress. As numerous scholars, notably Thomas Piketty, have observed, economic inequality is reaching heights in the US not seen since the Gilded Age. The decrease of confidence in institutions roughly correlates with the increase Piketty sees in inequality, which is stable through the 50’s, 60’s and mid-70’s, rising sharply from there.

We might think of an explanation in which citizens, frustrated by their decreasing share of the pie, punish the societal institutions responsible for their plight. But with this explanation, we would expect to see rising inequality accompanied by a steady drop in consumer confidence. We don’t – consumer confidence in the US and in the OECD more broadly is roughly as high now as it was in the 1960s, despite sharp drops during moments of economic stress and a rise during the “long boom” of the ’90s and 2000s. It’s possible that citizens should be punishing governments, banks and businesses for rising inequality, but consumer behavior and confidence doesn’t corroborate the story.

I favor a third theory, put forward by Kenneth Newton and Pippa Norris, called the institutional performance model. Simply put, when institutions perform poorly, people lose trust in them: “It is primarily governmental performance that determines the level of citizens’ confidence in public institutions.” That trust in institutions, easily lost, takes a long time to regain. We might understand the collapse of confidence in US institutions as a set of high visibility crises: Vietnam and Watergate as eroding confidence in the federal government, the Catholic Church sex scandal destroying trust in that institution, the 2007 financial collapse damaging faith in banks and big business.

Newton and Norris developed their theories in the mid-1990s, noting that confidence in public institutions was plumbing new depths. In retrospect, their concerns seem well-founded, as the trends they observed have simply increased over time. In the mid 1990s, Newton and Norris were comfortable positing a relationship between society-wide interpersonal trust and trust in institutions – that relationship is less clear now, because interpersonal trust has remained fairly constant while trust in institutions has decreased. One explanation for the decrease in institutional trust is that institutions have performed poorly, and that citizens are increasingly aware of their shortcomings.

Cultural and technological shifts may have made it easier for institutions to lose trust and harder to regain it. Watergate returned the US press to its progressive-era muckraking roots and ended a period of deference in which indiscretions by figures of authority were sometimes ignored. (It’s interesting to imagine the Clinton-era press covering JFK’s personal life.) An explosion in news availability, through cable television’s 24-hour news cycle and the internet, has ensured a steady stream of negative news, which engages audiences through fear and outrage. The rise of social media fuels the fire, allowing individuals to report institutional failures (police shootings, for example) and spread their dismay to friends and broader audiences. Accompanying the evolution of media technologies is education: in 1971, 12% of Americans had graduated from college, and 57% from high school. By 2012, 31% had college degrees, and 88% had high school diplomas. The citizens of 2017 are better positioned to be critical of institutions than those of 1964.

If we accept any of these explanations for a decrease in trust in institutions, the obvious question emerges: How do we reverse this trend? How do we restore public trust?

It’s worth noting that those most concerned with restoring public trust tend to be elites, those for whom existing institutions are often working quite well. Eurobarometer’s 2017 report focuses on a widening trust gap between a well-informed 15% of the population and a less informed 85%. The well-informed minority scores 60 on Edelman’s trust index, while the less-informed majority is 15 points lower, at 45. The gap between elites and the majority is largest in the US – 22 points separate the groups.

One approach to institutional mistrust is to try and educate this disenchanted majority, helping them understand why our institutions are not as broken as we sometimes imagine. Any approach is unlikely to reach all citizens – some will remain frustrated and alienated, due to disinterest, misinformation, a healthy distaste for being told what to think, or due to the fact that their mistrust may be justified.

TV commentator Chris Hayes encourages us to recognize that those frustrated with institutions constitute a large and powerful segment of society. He suggests that dividing Americans into institutionalists, who want to strengthen and preserve our existing social institutions, and insurrectionists, who see a need to overhaul, overthrow, replace or abandon existing institutions, is at least as useful as dividing the population into liberals and conservatives. Insurrectionists include progressives (Bernie Sanders), libertarians (Rand Paul) and nationalists (Donald Trump), while both Republicans and Democrats are well represented within the institutionalist camp.

The defeat of a consummate institutionalist – Hillary Clinton – by an insurrectionist outsider suggests a need to take rising insurrectionism seriously. What if our citizens now include a large plurality unlikely to be persuaded to regain trust in our central civic institutions?

How mistrust reshapes civics

Assume for the moment that a large group of citizens is mistrustful of existing institutions. How do these citizens participate in civic life?

Low participation in congressional elections is often offered as evidence of the decline in American civic life. But in 2012, only 35 of 435 congressional seats were considered “swing” districts, where voting margins were within 5% of the national popular vote margin – the remaining 92% of districts strongly favor either a sitting Democrat or Republican. The safety of these districts leads to an extremely high rate of incumbent re-election, 95.9%. Combine the very low chance of making a difference in a Congressional election with extremely low trust in Congress (9% in 2016) and it’s easy to understand why many citizens – including some institutionalists – would sit an election out.

When we teach young people how to have a civic voice, we tend to emphasize the importance of voting as a baseline civic responsibility – as the bumper sticker says, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” But at high levels of mistrust, voting doesn’t work very well. If we see Congress, the Senate or the presidency as dysfunctional institutions, either unlikely to accomplish much or to represent our interests, voting for representatives or encouraging them to advance or support legislation doesn’t feel like a powerful way to influence civic processes.

High levels of mistrust present a challenge for protest as well. Unless the goal of a protest – a march, a sit-in, an occupation – is the fall of a regime (as it was with the protests of the Arab Spring), then a protest is designed to show widespread support for a political position and influence leaders. The March on Washington, likely the most remembered event of the civil rights movement as it culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was, after all, a march on Washington. It sought to pressure President Kennedy and Congress to take action on civil rights legislation and is credited with creating the momentum for LBJ to act quickly on civil rights after Kennedy’s assassination.

What happens when protesters no longer trust that institutions they might influence can make necessary social changes? The Occupy movement was widely criticized for failing to put forward a legislative agenda that representatives could choose to pass. Occupiers, in part, were expressing their lack of confidence in the federal government and didn’t put forth these proposals because their goal was to demonstrate other forms of community decision-making. Whether or not Occupy succeeded in demonstrating the viability of consensus-based governance, the resistance of Occupiers to turning into a political party or advocacy organization shows a deep insurrectionist distrust of existing institutions and an unwillingness to operate within them.

The danger is that insurrectionists will drop out of civic life altogether, or be manipulated by demagogues who promise to obviate the complexities of mistrusted institutions through the force of their personal character and will. The hope is that insurrectionists can become powerful, engaged citizens who participate in civic life despite their skepticism of existing institutions. To make this possible, we need to broaden our understanding of what it means to be a good citizen.

There is a tendency to assume that the actions that constitute good citizenship are stable over time. Good citizens inform themselves about issues, vote in elections, contact representatives about issues they care about and, if they fail to be heard, protest peacefully and non-violently. Michael Schudson argues that this model of citizenship is only one of several that has held sway in the US at different moments in our nation’s history. Early in the American republic, “good citizens” would be expected to send the most prominent and wealthy member of their community to Washington to represent them, independent of agreement with his ideology. Later, good citizens supported a political party they affiliated with based on geography, ethnicity or occupation. The expectation that voters would inform themselves on issues before voting, vote on split tickets making decisions about individual candidates or vote directly on legislation in a referendum was the result of a set of progressive era reforms that ushered in what Schudson calls “the informed citizen”.

We tend to see the informed citizen as the correct and admirable model for citizenship a hundred years after its introduction, but we miss some of the weaknesses of the paradigm. Informed citizenship places very high demands on citizens, expecting knowledge about all the candidates and issues at stake in an election – it’s a paradigm deeply favored by journalists, as it places the role of the news as informing and empowering citizens at the center of the political process. Unfortunately, it’s also a model plagued with very low participation rates – Schudson observes that the voting was cut nearly in half once progressive political reforms came into effect. And while we often discuss civics and participation in terms of the informed citizen mode, he argues that America has moved on to other dominant models of citizenship, the rights-based citizenship model that centers on the courts, as during the civil rights movement, and monitorial citizenship, where citizens realize they cannot follow all the details of all political processes and monitor media for a few, specific issues where they are especially passionate and feel well-positioned to take action.

Young people in particular are looking for ways they can be most effective in making change around issues they care about. Effective citizenship, in which individuals make rational, self-interested decisions about how they most effectively participate in civic life, can look very different from the informed citizenship we’ve come to expect. Joe Kahne and Cathy Cohen surveyed thousands of youth in California and discovered that while participation in “institutional” politics (rallies, traditional political organizing, volunteering to work with a candidate) is low, there is strong engagement with “>”participatory politics”, sharing civic information online, discussing social issues in online fora, making and sharing civic media. And while young people may not be volunteering for political campaigns, they are volunteering at a much higher rate than previous generations, looking for direct, tangible ways they can participate in their communities.

We are beginning to see new forms of civic participation that appeal to those alienated from traditional political processes. One way to understand these methods is as levers of change. When people feel like they are unlikely to move formal, institutional levers of change through voting or influencing representatives, they look for other levers to make movement on the issues they care about.

In his 1999 book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig argues that there are four primary ways societies regulate themselves. We use laws to make behaviors legal or illegal. We use markets to make desirable behaviors cheap and dangerous ones expensive. We use social norms to sanction undesirable behaviors and reward exemplary ones. And code and other technical architectures make undesirable actions difficult to do and encourage other actions. Each of the regulatory forces Lessig identifies can be turned into a lever of change, and in an age of high mistrust in institutions, engaged citizens are getting deeply creative in using the three non-legal levers.

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread NSA surveillance of communications, many citizens expressed fear and frustration. The Obama administration’s review of the NSA’s programs made few significant changes to domestic spying policies. Unable to make change through formal government processes, digital activists have been hard at work building powerful, user-friendly tools to encrypt digital communications like Signal, “>whose powerful encryption has now been incorporated into the widely used WhatsApp platform. Code-based theories of change allow programmers and engineers to become powerful social change actors, making new behaviors possible, whether they increase personal privacy or reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

Market-based theories of change use capitalism’s capacity for scaling to change the behavior of large groups of people. We usually think of Elon Musk as an inventive entrepreneur and engineer, but it’s also possible to think of him as one of the most effective activists working to halt climate change. By building a highly desirable electric car and the infrastructure to charge it at home and on the road, Musk may ultimately reduce carbon emissions as much as legislating global carbon markets. Market-based activists use boycotts, buycotts and social ventures to encourage consumers to make change using their wallets, a technique used since American colonists eschewed heavily taxed British goods, now organized and accelerated through communications networks.

If code-based theories of change are most open to engineers and market levers to entrepreneurs, norms-based theories of change have been embraced by those who make and disseminate media… which in the age of social networks includes the majority of Americans and the vast majority of young Americans. The Black Lives Matter movement is less focused on specific legislative change than on changing social norms that cause many people to see black males, especially young black males, as a threat. Laws are already on the books that should protect black males from police violence. But when a policeman perceives 12-year old Tamir Rice as a threat because he is a young black man playing with a toy, changing the norms of how African Americans are seen by police – and by society as a whole – is a high priority. Online, BLM protesters have focused on making unarmed deaths at the hands of the police highly visible, leading to a surge of media coverage in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, making these incidents at least 10 times as visible as they were before the Ferguson protests. (Forthcoming research from Center for Civic Media.)

Effective citizenship means that people look for the methods of social change they see as most effective. Young people often look for norms-based theories of change, taking advantage of their skills in building and disseminating media. Insurrectionists frustrated with legal institutions or with the behaviors of corporate America look for change through new technology and new ventures.

This shift in citizenship is still emerging. Media often hasn’t caught up with the idea that effective civic engagement happens outside the courts, the voting booth and Congress. This understandable overfocus on law-based theories of change leaves those frustrated with institutions frustrated with media as well. For insurrectionists who see Washington institutions as ineffective and untrustworthy, a strong media focus on these institutions can look like an attempt to maintain their legitimacy and centrality.

One of journalism’s key roles in an open society is to help citizens participate effectively. From close scrutiny of those in elected office to analysis of legislative proposals to editorial endorsements of candidates for office, news outlets help their customers make civic decisions. If mistrust in institutions is changing how people participate in civics, news organizations may need to change as well. We can recommit ourselves to explaining the importance and centrality of our institutions, but we run the risk of being insufficiently skeptical and critical, and the danger that we lose even more trust from our alienated and insurrectionist readers. Or we could rethink our role as journalists as helping people navigate this emergent civic landscape and find the places where they, individually and collectively, can be the most effective and powerful.

Dueling spheres of consensus

Shortly after the 2016 elections, a friend asked me to lunch. A Trump supporter, he knew we had voted differently in the election, and we both wanted to talk about the future of the country under the new administration. But he invited me specifically because he was angered by an article I’d written that grouped Breitbart founder Steve Bannon with alt-right leader Richard Spencer.

My friend explained that he read Breitbart religiously, not because he supports white supremacy, but because he supports net-zero immigration to the US as a strategy for raising the incomes of white and non-white Americans. Breitbart was the only major media outlet he found seriously discussing that policy stance. “If Bannon is beyond the pale, and Breitbart’s beyond the pale, does it mean that my views on immigration are beyond the pale? And what about the millions of Americans who agree with me?”

Research that Yochai Benkler and our team at MIT and the Berkman Center confirmed my friend’s assertion that Breitbart covered matters of immigration much more closely than other media outlets leading up to the 2016 election, focusing on the issue more than 3x as often as right-leaning outlets Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Thanks to the strong influence of Breitbart, we speculate, immigration became the most-reported on policy issue in the 2016 election, despite GOP efforts to soften the party’s stance on immigration to reach Latino voters.

The move of immigration from the fringe of the news agenda to a central topic is a phenomenon addressed by media scholar Daniel Hallin in his 1985 book, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. Hallin argues that we should think of potential news stories as fitting into one of three spheres. In the sphere of consensus, there is widespread agreement on an issue or a position (democracy is the best form of government; capitalism is a good way to build an economy) and therefore it’s not worth our time to discuss. In the sphere of deviance, there is widespread agreement that a stance is beyond the pale (sexual relationships between adults and minors are natural and should be legal; collective ownership of all goods is the best way to end economic inequality) and also not worthy of discussion. The (sometimes very narrow) sphere of legitimate controversy includes the standard political debates within a society, and journalists are expected to show themselves as neutral on those topics legitimate to debate (tax cuts for the wealthy will lead to economic growth; for-profit insurers will only survive with federally mandated medical insurance).

Lobbyists, activists and PR professionals have used Hallin’s spheres to shape what’s at stake in public policy debates. Health insurance companies have worked hard to push the idea of single payer healthcare into the sphere of deviance, rebranding the idea as socialized medicine to associate it with a disfavored economic idea. By citing the small number of scientists who do not see evidence that humans are contributing to climate change, advocates have kept the phenomenon of global warming within the sphere of legitimate debate.

While Hallin’s Spheres are related to the Overton window – the idea that certain policy prescriptions are so radical that a politician could not embrace them without compromising her own electability – being consigned to Hallin’s sphere of deviance has psychological implications that falling outside the Overton window lacks. Advance a policy suggestion that is outside the Overton window and you suffer the disappointment that your idea is discarded as impractical. Stray outside the sphere of legitimate debate into the sphere of deviance, and your position becomes invisible to mainstream media dialog. Journalism scholar Jay Rosen observes, “Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance — as defined by journalists — will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go… chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.”

The growth in media diversity brought about by the rise of the internet and social media means that if your ideas are outside the sphere of legitimate debate, you can simply find a media sphere where you’re no longer in the sphere of deviance. My friend, frustrated that he could not find media debating his ideas on immigration, began reading Breitbart, where his deviant ideas are within the sphere of consensus, and the legitimate debate is about the specific mechanisms that should be used to limit immigration. He is not alone. While less popular than during the 2016 election, Breitbart is the 61st most popular website in the US, close in popularity to the Washington Post. In our data set, which examines how websites are shared on Twitter or Facebook, Breitbart is the fourth-most influential media outlet, behind CNN, The New York Times and politics site The Hill.

The ability to find a set of media outlets compatible with your political views is not new. Even in the days of political pamphlets and early newspapers, it was possible to experience a Federalist or Anti-Federalist echo chamber. The rise of large-circulation newspapers and broadcast media, which needed to avoid alienating large swaths of the population to maintain fiscal viability, led us into a long age where partisan journalism was less common. Even as cable news made partisan news viable again, broadcast news networks and major newspapers maintained aspirations of fairness and balance, attempting to serve the broader public.

Those economic models make little sense in a digital age. As purveyors of wholly manufactured fake news (like the Macedonian teens who targeted content at Trump supporters) know, there is a near-insatiable appetite for news that supports our ideological preconceptions. But it’s important to consider that people seek out ideological compatible media not just out of intellectual laziness, but out of a sense of efficacy. If you are a committed Black Lives Matter supporter working on strategies for citizen review of the police, it’s exhausting to be caught in endless debates over whether racism in America is over. If you’re working on counseling women away from abortion towards adoption, understanding how to be effective in your own movement is likely to be a higher priority for you than dialog with pro-choice activists.

Partisan isolationism is not just purely a function of homophily. The structure of internet media platforms contributes to ideological isolation. While Pariser and others trace these structural effects to Facebook and other highly targeted social media, I argued in Rewire that three different generations of internet media have made it possible to self-select the topics and points of views we are most interested in. The pre-Google web allowed us to self select points of view much as a magazine rack does: we choose the National Review over the Nation, or their respective websites. Unlike broadcast media, which lends itself towards centrist points of view to attract a wide range of ad dollars, narrowcast media like websites and magazines allow more stark, partisan divisions. With the rise of search, interest-based navigation often led us to ideological segregation, either through the topics we select or the language we choose to pursue them – the vegan cooking website is unlikely place to meet conservatives, much as searching for progressive voices on a hunting site can be frustrating. And the language we use to describe an issue – climate change, global warming or scientific fraud – can be thoroughly ideologically isolating in terms of the information we retrieve.

What’s different about social media is not that we can choose the points of view we encounter, but that we are often unaware that we are making these choices. Many people joined Facebook expecting the service would help them remain connected with family and friends, not that it would become a primary source of news. As of 2016, 62% of American adults reported getting some news via social media, and 18% reported often getting news through platforms like Facebook. These numbers are more dramatic for young adults, and likely increased during the 2016 presidential election. Because Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm presents content to you based on content you’ve liked and clicked on in the past, it has a tendency to reinforce your existing preconceptions, both because your friends are likely to share those points of view, and because your behavior online indicates to Facebook what content you are most interested in. Eli Pariser calls this problem “the filter bubble”, building on earlier work done by Cass Sunstein, which recognized the tendency to create “echo chambers” online by selecting media that fits our politics. Pariser argues (controversially) that algorithms used by Facebook and others increase this tendency.

It’s worth noting that the filter bubble problem isn’t inherent to social media. Twitter has pointedly not filtered their timeline, which avoids the filter bubble, but leaves responsibility for escaping echo chambers to the user. While you can decide to follow a different group of people on Twitter, research from Nathan Matias suggests that even highly motivated people are unlikely to make major changes in their online behavior in order to combat biases and prejudices.

Our team at the MIT Media Lab is working on Gobo, a new tool that allows you to filter your Facebook and Twitter feeds differently, using natural language processing and machine learning to build filters that can increase or decrease the political content of your news feed, give you more or fewer female authors, or consciously choose to encounter more news outside of your echo chamber. One of the key questions we seek to answer in buiding the tool is whether people will actually choose to use these filters. One hypothesis we hope to disprove is that, despite complaining about filter bubbles, many people seem to enjoy ideological isolation and may choose settings similar to what they encounter online now.

General interest media, like broadcast television and national newspapers, traditionally saw themselves as having a responsibility to provide ideological balance, global perspectives and diversity in their coverage. (Whether they succeeded is another question – I’ve heard many reports from people of color that they felt invisible in those “good old days” and far more visible in contemporary, fragmented media.) As that business model becomes less viable, because readers gravitate towards ideologically compatible material, it’s worth asking whether platforms like Facebook have an appetite for this work.

Thus far, the answer seems to be no. Facebook has assiduously avoided being labeled a publisher, trying to ensure both an escape from legal liability for content it hosts under the Safe Harbor provisions of US internet law, and to prevent itself from being criticized about exercising poor editorial judgement. The problems Facebook is confronted with are serious. Demands that the platform block “fake news” are challenging, given that most of what’s called “fake news” is not obviously fraudulent. If Facebook begins blocking platforms like Breitbart, it will be accused of censorship of political content, and rightly so.

One possible escape for Facebook is to eliminate algorithmic curation of newsfeeds, moving back to a Twitter-like world in which social media is a spray of information from anyone you’ve chosen to pay attention to. Another is to adopt a solution like the one we are proposing with Gobo, and put control of filters into the user’s hands. It’s an open question whether Facebook would choose a path forward that gives its users more control over their experience of the service.

In considering how platforms enable online discourse, we need to consider the idea that sharing content is a form of civic participation. Part of our emergent civics is the practice of making and disseminating media designed to strengthen ties within an identity group and to distinguish that group from groups that oppose it. Consider the meme-makers competing for $20,000 from Infowars. Many involved don’t believe that CNN is ISIS, as one popular meme allegesas Judith Donath explains, “News is shared not just to inform or even to persuade. It is used as a marker of identity, a way to proclaim your affinity with a particular community.”

Donath’s insight helps explain why factchecking, blocking fake news or urging people to support diverse, fact-based news is unlikely to check the spread of highly partisan news. Not only is partisan news comfortable and enjoyable (I find it reassuring to watch Trevor Noah or Samantha Bee and assume that friends on the right feel the same watching Fox News commentators), spreading this information has powerful social rewards and gives a sense of shared efficacy, the feeling (real or imagined) that you are making norms-based social change by shaping the information environment.

The research Benkler and our Media Cloud team conducted shows how rapidly these partisan ecosystems can come into being. Examining 1.25 million media stories and 25,000 media sources, we gave each media source a partisanship score based on whether people who shared tweets from the Democratic or Republican candidates also shared a story from a source. Stories from the New York Times were more often shared by people who’d retweeted Hillary Clinton than those who’d retweeted Donald Trump, but the effect was much more pronounced with Breitbart: Breitbart was amplified almost exclusively by Trump supporters. Our research shows a tightly clustered set of sites read only by the nationalist right. The vast majority of these sites are very new, most founded during the Obama administration. This community of interest has very little overlap with traditional conservative sources like the Wall Street Journal or the National Review. In our study, those publications are both low in influence and linked to by both the left and right, while the Breitbart-centered cluster functions as an echo chamber.

The emergence of echo chambers like the one around Breitbart further complicates fact-checking. danah boyd explains that in teaching students not to rely on Wikipedia, we’ve encouraged them to triangulate their way to truth from Google search results. On topics covered heavily in the Breitbartosphere but not addressed in the broader media universe, this leads to a perverse effect. Search for information on Pizzagate as the story was being developed on sites like Infowars and you would likely find links to other far-right sites promoting the story. By the time sites like the New York Times became aware of the story and began debunking it, many interested in the faux-scandal had persuaded themselves of its truth through repetition within a subset of closely related websites, to the point where an unstable individual took up arms to “self-investigate” the controversy.

Hallin’s spheres suggests we question whether we are encouraged to discuss a wide enough range of topics within the sphere of legitimate controversy. The problem we face now is one in which dialog is challenging, if not impossible, because one party’s sphere of consensus is the other’s sphere of deviance and vice versa. Our debates are complicated not only because we cannot agree on a set of shared facts, but because we cannot agree what’s worth talking about in the first place. When one camp sees Hillary Clinton’s controversial email server as evidence of her lawbreaking and deviance (sphere of consensus for many on the right) or as a needless distraction from more relevant issues (sphere of deviance for many on the left), we cannot agree to disagree, as we cannot agree that the conversation is worth having in the first place.

Much as there is no obvious, easy solution to countering mistrust in institutions, I have no panaceas for polarization and echo chambers. Still, it’s worth identifying these phenomena – and acknowledging their deep roots – as we seek solutions to these pressing problems. It is worth noting that the research Benkler’s and my team carried out suggests the phenomenon of asymmetric polarization – in our analysis, those on the far right are more isolated in terms of viewpoints they encounter than those on the far left. There’s nothing in our research that suggests the right is inherently more prone to ideological isolation. By understanding how extreme polarization has developed recently, it might be possible to stop the left from developing a similar echo chamber. Our research also suggests that the center right has a productive role to play in building media that appeals to an insurrectionist and alienated right-leading audience, which keeps those important viewpoints in dialog with existing communities in the left, center and right.

Fundamentally, I believe that the polarization of dialog in the media is a result both of new media technologies and of the deeper changes of trust in institutions and in how civics is practiced. The Breitbartosphere is possible not just because it’s easier than ever to create a media outlet and share viewpoints with the like-minded. It’s possible because low trust in government leads people to seek new ways of being engaged and effective, and low trust in media leads people to seek out different sources. Making and disseminating media feels like one of the most effective ways to engage in civics in a low-trust world, and the 2016 elections suggest that this civic media is a powerful force we are only now starting to understand.

Closing questions

I want to acknowledge that this paper may stray far from the immediate challenges that face us around issues of information quality, in the service of seeking for their deeper roots. My questions follow in the same spirit. For the most part, these are questions to which I don’t have a good answer. Some are active research questions for my lab. My fear is that we may have to address some of these underlying questions before tackling tactical questions of how we should best respond to immediate challenges to faith in journalism.

Trust:
– How long does it take to recover trust in an institution that has failed? What are examples of a mistrusted institution regaining public trust?
– Is the fall in institutional trust an independent or a joint phenomenon – i.e., does losing trust in Congress lessen our trust in the Supreme Court or the medical system
– Is trust in news media higher or lower in countries with strong public/taxpayer supported media? Does trust correlate positively or negatively to ad support? Privacy-invading tracking and targeting?
– If people don’t trust institutions, who or what do they trust? How do those patterns differ for more trusting elites and for the broader population?

Participation:
– What forms of participation (from the traditional, like voting, to the non-traditional, like making CNN-bashing memes) are indicators of future civic engagement? Should we be encouraging and celebrating a broader range of civic participation amongst youth? Amongst groups that see themselves alienated from conventional politics?
– Should media attempt to explain and engage audiences more deeply in institutional politics? Will acknowledging the limits of existing institutional politics restore trust in journalism, or damage trust in government?
– Should media celebrate and promote new forms of civic engagement? Will this further decrease trust in institutions? Increase a sense of citizen efficacy?
– What would media designed for increased public participation look like? Are there models in the advocacy journalism space, or in solutions journalism, constructive journalism or other movements?

Polarization:
– Is it reasonable to expect Americans to rely on a single, or small set, of professional media sources that report a relatively value-neutral set of stories? Or is this goal of journalistic non-partisanship no longer a realistic ideal?
– Could taxpayer-sponsored media serve a function of anchoring discourse around a single set of facts? Or will public media be inherently untrustworthy to some portion of American voters? Why does public media seem to work well in other low-trust nations but not in the US?
– Is there a role for high-quality, factual but partisan media that might reach audiences alienated from mainstream media?
– Should media outlets learn from what’s consensus, debatable and deviant in other media spheres and modify coverage to intersect with reader’s spheres? Is shifting the boundaries of these spheres part of how civics is conducted today?

Categories: Blog

The Village of Peace. And Coca. Lots of Coca.

August 15, 2017 - 3:06pm

A year ago, I had the opportunity to go to Colombia for the first time, as part of a delegation from Open Society Foundation. We were trying to understand the affects Colombia’s long guerilla war had on the society and what we might expect from the peace referendum planned for a few months later.

The referendum failed, but the peace didn’t, and Colombia seems to be transforming. I returned to Bogota in November 2016 to speak at a national journalism event. My friends who’d judged the contest marveled that this was the first year where the best reporting was not about the war, but about social issues: homosexuality, drug use, women’s roles in the workforce. “It’s almost like we’re a normal country,” one of the judges told me, laughing.

I wrote about my experiences visiting a small village where coca farming is the primary local industry. I’d hoped to sell the piece to one of my editors in the US, but I couldn’t get any traction. It’s sat open in a browser tab for a full year as I’ve felt guilty about not finding a way to share this story with a wider audience.

Colombia is in the news again, with the demobilization of the FARC in its final steps. And coca, the center of the story I wanted to tell, is back in the news, with record levels of Colombian countryside planted with coca bushes. Once again, authorities are trying to lure coca farmers into growing substitution crops… and once again, the economics of the equation don’t make sense to the farmers.

I re-read the piece today, and I still think it’s important for understanding some of the challenges Colombia still faces, especially in areas outside of the major cities. If you like it, please share it, so I can feel less badly about failing my friends in Lerma by not getting the New York Times or National Geographic to pick this up. :-)

The village of Lerma, Colombia is 700 kilometers from Bogota, 150 kilometers from the border with Ecuador, and a long, long way from anywhere I’ve ever been before. My companions and I flew from Bogota to Popayán, a provincial capital of whitewashed houses, countless churches and cobblestone streets, then took a bus three hours down the Pan American highway, onto smaller roads and ultimately nine kilometers of dirt and gravel. I spent the trip losing my breath at the beauty of the mountain scenery and trying not to lose my breakfast, my nerve or my mind as our driver slalomed through bus-plungeworthy curves.

We had come to Lerma for the reason outsiders ever come to Lerma: coca.

I am a member of the global board of the Open Society Foundations and a team from our organization had come to Colombia to learn about the economic and social challenges the country is facing as it goes through a peace process at the end of a 50 year war with the FARC, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla army which has engaged in terrorism, kidnapping for ransom and drug production and trafficking. We’d come to Lerma to meet farmers who were cultivating coca not to sell for cocaine production, but for licit uses: a nutrient-rich flour, a medicinal tea, for chewing as their ancestors had for centuries.

Posters advertising the festival of coca, and a coca-laced beverage in a home outside Lerma

What we found was more surprising than licit coca. We found a community that had once descended into unimaginable violence and had remade itself into what residents proudly call “a village of peace”.

Our hosts in Lerma met us with lemonade spiked with coca leaf powder and sweet local basil, and lead us into a covered town square, where we sat on concrete bleachers while schoolchildren played chirimía, a local musical style that features reed flutes and drums. After the performance, schoolteacher Tocayo offered a remarkable history of the town to us and to a group of elementary school students.

Leader of the school Chirimía ensemble presents her group

In his account, Lerma was a peaceful village where people cultivated plantains, yucca and chickpeas, as well as small coca crops, until the Peace Corps arrived in 1979. Yes, according to local legend, those idealistic volunteers were the agents of Lerma’s destruction, bringing to the rural community the chemical techniques for extracting cocaine from coca leaves. Once the Peace Corps volunteers had done their sinister work, Lerma farmers quickly realized they could make far more money growing and processing coca, so they abandoned subsistence farming and became narcotics providers.

By the early 1980s, Lerma had attracted the attention of the Escobar network, Colombia’s most powerful drug cartel. The cartel bought Lerma’s coca leaves and paste, turning the village into a boom town. Lerma residents put new roofs on their houses, bought cars and motorbikes, and guns. They partied, drinking heavily and partaking of their new crop. The town’s population surged from 400 to 2,000. By 1983, the international market was glutted with cocaine and prices began to fall. Accustomed to their new wealth, Lerma’s residents began mugging each other to make ends meet, and those who hadn’t already arm themselves bought guns.

If other villages in the region were terrorized by the FARC or by M-19, a Bolivarian guerrilla group, Lerma was terrorized by the people of Lerma. Over the course of five years, at least 20% of the town’s population was murdered. The murder rate sparked on Thursdays, the town’s market day, when farmers came in town to sell their crops and spend their money in local bars, where all-day drinking sessions often devolved into gunfights. According to Rudy Gomez, a schoolteacher in Lerma, “La gente decía que si se pusiera una lápida en cada sitio donde había caído un muerto, no habría por dónde caminar” (The people say that if there was a stone at every place where someone died, you wouldn’t be able to walk.)

In 1988, a group of schoolteachers and widows intervened, pressuring bar owners and liquor stores to shut their doors in the hopes of ending the violence. For ten years, Lerma was a dry town, and citizens turned from drinking to rebuilding the town. One of the town’s few university graduates, Walter Giviría, returned to his hometown to teach and invited friends to join him. The young teachers turned empty bars into classrooms, eventually raising enough money to build a sprawling elementary and high school. By focusing on the next generation, the town followed the advice of an old proverb, which says, “For new birds, you need new eggs” – those who’d grown used to easy drug money might not be saved, but the new generation could be.

Schoolteacher Tocayo presenting the local history and the town seal of Lerma. The “e” in the town’s name is a coca leaf.

“We succeeded in making social change,” explained Tocayo, “but not in economic change.” Instead of two murders a week, Lerma experienced a decade without violent deaths. But the village was still desperately poor. Lerma tried to shift from coca to sugarcane, but the switch was economically disastrous. And so, at least 40 families in Lerma grow coca as part or all of their crop.

Our tour guide, “Gato”, led us up a steep mountain path to a farm in the shadow of El Cerro de Lerma, a 2500m peak that dominates the local skyline. We’d been told we were meeting the largest local landholder, and I’d been expecting an elaborate hacienda. Instead, carefully tended low hedges led us to a small, tidy mud brick house surrounded by what appeared to be wild jungle. Once Celima, the farmer, began pointing out that this tree grew oranges, that one tangerines, a third bananas, did I began to understand that the jungle was the farm. To the trained eye, the apparently random explosion of green was a carefully planned garden. We walked past a shallow fish pond, covered with thick netting to deter birds, through thickets of coffee bushes, yucca and pineapple plants.

Celimo, showing off the achiote harvest.

Turning a corner past an achiote tree, we entered the coca fields, head-high bushes reaching up to strands of barbed wire strung at 2.5m above ground-level as a trellis for the plants. Planted at the feet of each bush were bean plants – the farmer explained that the beans would climb the coca plants. (Using legumes to fix nitrogen to fertilize other plans is a time-honored technique, reportedly taught to colonial farmers in New England by native Americans. Celimo confirmed that he used almost no commercial fertilizer, not out of a desire to seek organic certification, but because it’s expensive and hard to transport to his fields.)

Local politician Gustavo Muñoz borrowed a machete from the farmer and cut chunks for fresh sugarcane for members of our group. I asked why sugarcane had failed as a commercial crop in Lerma, since it clearly grows well in local soils. The answer is complicated, and helps reveal why crop substitution, the coca-combating philosophy promoted by the Colombian government, is having trouble catching on. First, the farmer explained, the US government had sprayed the entire village with herbicides shortly after they’d converted to sugarcane, seeking to kill remaining coca crops. But beyond that frustrating setback, simple economics lead farmers to grow coca. Our host explained that sugarcane takes a year to mature before you can harvest it, while coca will begin producing harvestable leaves within four months. Sugarcane can be harvested once a year, while coca produces four crops a year. And while sugarcane does poorly in drought, coca is extremely drought-tolerant.

We paused to eat cancherina, a mixture of roasted corn flour, quinoa flour, sugar and coca flour into a gritty powder that’s best eaten while drinking lots of water. It’s traditional traveling food in the Andes, and it was good preparation for the next leg of our trip, a 4km hike further into the mountains to another farm, where we saw a legacy of the failed experiment with sugarcane: an iron press designed to extract cane juice from sugarcane.

The sugar press. All we need is horses. And a way to get the product to market. And a bigger press. And sugarcane that grows four times a year.

The press is designed to be operated by horses who pull poles to turn the heavy gears, an unthinkable luxury for most people in the town. (Our group of twenty takes turns riding three horses on the rocky trails, apparently a large percentage of the local equine supply.) And even this press isn’t up to national standards – to sell cane juice to the national sugar company, Gato explains, the farmer would need a much larger, and much more expensive gas-powered press. And if the government provided funding for a gas-powered sugar press? The heavy, hard to transport cane juice is still 6km from town on a rough muletrack. “And so…” his explanation trails off. And so, we grow coca.

And so, we eat coca. Lunch at the farm is a little like dinner with your hippie friends who insist in putting marijuana in everything they cook. Coca flour accents a rich achiote-driven stew full of sweet corn and potatoes. A coca leaf, carrot and lime salad accents guinea hen over rice, or, for the vegetarians, handmade noodles flecked with coca leaf. Unlike your hippie friends, the campesina women can cook, and we linger over a dessert of corn and pumpkin in coconut milk, talking about the role of farmers in Colombian society, who sometimes see themselves almost as an ethnic group distinct from urban Colombians.

And then we pick coca.

It’s really not hard – bushes grow all around the mud-brick buildings and picking involves stripping the leaves from a branch. In three minutes, we filled a huge basket with leaves, which were transferred to a clay oven over a slow fire. After roasting the leaves for half an hour, our hosts offered an explanation that characterized coca leaves as female and a white rock they’re consumed with is male, encouraging us to put bundles of leaves into our cheeks and slowly soften them with our jaws, then take a pinch of white rock and add it to the mass in our mouths. (It seems likely that the rock is sodium bicarbonate, which activates the alkaloids in the leaves.)


In the coca bushes

The leaves are bitter and tangy, but not unpleasant, and they almost immediately numbed my mouth and tongue. And while I didn’t feel high, I did feel surprisingly good, given that the hike back to town, in midday heat and high altitude, was brutal. Gato explained that the people of Lerma routinely walked to the PanAmerican highway, 20 kilometers from town, to demand services from the central government by blocking that critical route, chewing coca all the way.

As my companions shopped for coca-derived souvenirs, I felt like the trip had opened more questions for me than it had answered. How had this village been spared guerrilla violence since conquering its own demons in the 1980s? Was the lovely and peaceful town we were visiting supported by subsistence farming, or was coca production driving the local economy? And where was all that coca going? We were the largest group of visitors the town had ever received, and Gato reported that small groups came roughly once a month – it doesn’t require all that much coca to produce the “hayu” cookies I took home. (Hayu is the local indigenous word for coca, and part of Lerma’s rebranding campaign involves celebrating the virtues of the local herb, Hayu.)

Gustavo Muñoz, local counselor, sugar cane harvester, caballero.

My translator Juan learned more of the truth talking to politician Gustavo Muñoz as we toured the high school’s computer lab. “I’m Colombian. I know that every place that has coca has a master. Who’s the master in Lerma?” he asked. The answer is both complex and encouraging. M-19, the guerrilla army influential around Lerma, demobilized and became a political party in the late 1980s. When a paramilitary – nominally opposed to the FARC and other guerrilla groups, but often just a front for narcotrafficking and extortion – tried to move into the village in the 1990s, the villagers resisted and the paramilitaries couldn’t get a foothold and moved on.

Between its success story of moving beyond cocaine and alcohol towards peace, and its track record of chasing out paramilitaries, the guerrilla army powerful in southern Cauca – the ELN – tends to treat Lerma with some respect. While two ELN camps are within walking distance of the village, our hosts report that their presence in the village is limited to occasional visits by commanders who share their mobile phone numbers and ask villagers to call if “anyone unusual” – aka, paramilitaries – comes to town.


ELN hasta siempre – ELN forever

We got a sense for just how close the ELN is to Lerma as we left town. Shortly after the dirt road turned back to pavement, but before we hit the Panamerican, we passed a house emblazoned with the graffito “ELN hasta siempre” (ELN forever). Two kilometers later, we passed a government checkpoint.

Just we left Lerma for Popayán, Muñoz pulled me aside for a negotiation, asking me to use my (non-existent) pull with Bogota to ensure the government paved the road into town. I explained that I didn’t have any political power, but that I would write about my visit to Lerma and explain that, with a better road, it would be a remarkable destination for ecotourism, for visitors who wanted to learn more about Colombian agriculture and the cultural use of coca.

That’s all true. What’s also true is that the future of towns like Lerma is critical to the future of Colombia. For more than 50 years, Colombia has faced armed insurgencies whose powerbase is in rural areas hundreds of kilometers from Colombia’s cosmopolitan cities. As long as those villages feel invisible to Bogota, as long as they see no economic options beyond coca, they are likely allies to ELN and any other rebel movements outside the current peace negotiations.

(While the national referendum on the peace process is only weeks away, the subject of the peace vote didn’t come up in Lerma until we brought it up. Our friends assured us that they’d all vote for peace, mostly because former president Uribe is urging his supporters to vote no, and they cordially loathe Uribe.)

While the FARC has come to the table, the ELN has not, and there’s no guarantee that peace with the FARC will force ELN into negotiations. One possibility is that ELN may take in FARC dissidents who’ve rejected peace and become more active in kidnapping and cocaine production. Another is that ELN may remain a small force focused on local grievances and not on the national political process. While FARC’s Marxist politics incline it towards seeking political power in Bogota, ELN was founded by Catholic priests steeped in liberation theology who felt Bogota was not helping the poor. While ELN has become criminal organization engaged in kidnapping for ransom, it’s not hard to imagine sympathy for some of their positions from farmers who feel excluded from Colombia’s economic transitions.

Riding, and limping, into Lerma after visiting a farm in the mountains.

The Colombian state needs a much stronger presence in towns like Lerma if it wants to counter the influence of the ELN, and that presence needs to start with aggressive infrastructure-building and economic development efforts. As we navigated endless switchbacks on our return to the provincial capital, we passed farm after farm selling tangerines, a dozen for $0.30, because there’s no good way to bring their products to national and international markets. It’s just too easy for farmers to make coca paste (a crack-like substance smoked locally as “bazuco”) and sell it to guerrilla armies, paramilitaries or any other broker taking advantage of the consequences of America’s failed drug wars: an increase in price with little reduction of supply.

Coca flour cookies and other Lerma souvenirs

Can Lerma find a way to build an economy around legal coca? It seems almost impossible. But this is a town that kicked out guerrillas and paramilitaries, bars and guns while searching for peace. Don’t ever underestimate the people of Lerma.

There’s little written about Lerma available online in English or in Spanish. This 2013 piece in Cali’s El País offers a recounting of Lerma’s origin story. This 1995 story from El Tiempo looks at the role of teachers in transforming the town and notes Lerma’s attempts to become a sugar producer.

Should you go to Lerma? Absolutely, yes! And absolutely not!

Let me explain. On the one hand, Lerma is one of the loveliest villages I’ve visited anywhere in the world, and I learned more about Colombian agriculture and rural development in a single day that I could have imagined. (And I almost tried to kidnap one of the cooks because the food was so good.) However, the roads to Lerma are often closed due to protests. And ELN attacks do still occur in the area. We traveled to Lerma by coordinating closely with CASA, a local organization that works on rural development in Cauca state. If you wanted to visit Lerma, it would be wise to coordinate with a local group that knows the area well.

Categories: Blog

Defining(?) Disobedience

July 20, 2017 - 4:02pm

Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, is fond of saying that you don’t win a Nobel Prize by following the rules.

Until Joi, Reid Hoffman and I started working to craft the Media Lab’s $250,000 Disobedience Award, I hadn’t realized that Joi was speaking literally as well as figuratively. Joi’s quip refers to Dr. Jerome Friedman, the MIT physicist who shared the 1990 Nobel Prize in physics for discovering that protons had an internal structure, which confirmed the existence of quarks. Friedman defied his advisor’s instructions and continued collecting data from the Stanford Linear Accelerator. As it turns out, the data he’d disobediently collected was what led to his key discovery.

Productive disobedience of the sort that yielded Dr. Friedman’s Nobel is not always easy to find. In Japan, where Joi has lived most of his life, it can be a challenge for people who’ve been taught to comply and obey throughout their academic and professional careers to break away from the expected path. In Silicon Valley, where disruption of existing business models is practiced almost as a religion, it can be difficult to find disobedient minds who consider the deep social consequences of their disruptions.

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, encouraged Joi to explore the idea of a Disobedience Award, providing $250,000 to fund an award for responsible, ethical disobedience. Given the opportunity, we knew we’d have a wealth of candidates. What we didn’t realize was how challenging it would be to define responsible and ethical disobedience, and to select a winner for whom the award would be both an appropriate recognition of their work and financial fuel for increased impact.

The Disobedience Award is inspired in part by the MacArthur “genius” grant, which sometimes recognizes a lifetime of achievement, but more often identifies relatively obscure scholars, artists and innovators whose work has the potential to transform the world. We decided to aim in a similar direction: we would accept both expected and unexpected nominees, and one criterion for selection would be whether the recognition our award might confer could transform someone’s life and work. This meant we were looking for people whose disobedience and resistance was ongoing, not purely something in their past.

Unlike the MacArthur grant, where the nomination and selection process is shrouded in secrecy, we wanted to make our process as transparent as possible. In addition to posting a call for nominees, we added a nominator prize, inviting whoever nominated the winner to join us at the Media Lab for the award ceremony. Recognizing the power of networks, our colleague Iyad Rahwan, suggested we use a tactic he’d used to help win DARPA’s Red Balloon challenge — award the nominator of the nominator as well. We encouraged anyone in the world to nominate either a candidate or someone they thought would have great ideas for candidates. We then contacted the nominators and invited them to submit their ideas.

The result? More than 7800 nominations from all over the world, and a major challenge for the selection committee. As the nominations came in, Joi and I recruited a team of twelve judges —
Farai Chideya, George Church, Sasha Costanza-Chock, Jesse Dylan, Jerome Friedman, Marshall Ganz, Andrew “bunnie” Huang, Alaa Murabit, Jamila Raqib, Maria Zuber, and ourselves — all with expertise in areas such as activism, journalism, science and the arts where we expected the most submissions. Our judges are distinguished, smart and very busy; people unlikely to have time to read 7800 applications. So our Disobedience Award team took on the challenge of weeding out duplicates and identifying the strongest 220 candidates.

Joi and I each pledged to read all 220 dossiers the team prepared, but we opened the process to as many of the selection committee as were able to participate. We held each finalist up to our mission to recognize a living person or group who is, or has been, engaged in acts of responsible, principled, ethical disobedience in pursuit of the public good. Not only did this focus the deliberations; it also gave us flexibility and helped us to address concerns in a free and frank way.

Cross-checking our lists, we identified seven finalists who’d been flagged by multiple judges. While there’s a great deal of refinement we hope to do before repeating this process next year, we all agreed we had a very strong set of final nominees for this inaugural award.

Before listing those finalists, it’s worth mentioning who was nominated and didn’t make it to our list. Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were both nominated dozens of times, and Snowden himself spoke via video link at the conference where we announced the Disobedience Award last year. While no one questioned the impact of their disobedience or the risks each took, none of us felt that the recognition we could add would increase their fame or infamy.

Aaron Swartz was also nominated many times. Joi and I both knew Aaron and hosted a memorial at the Media Lab for him shortly after his death. While an award in Aaron’s memory would have been fitting recognition of Aaron’s principled and disobedient activism, we felt it was important that the award go to a recipient who could leverage both the award and its visibility to advance the issues they work on. While we chose not to award him the award posthumously, I can report that Aaron was very much on my mind as we chose honorees.

Our judges researched and wrote up “cases” for why they believed the seven finalists should receive the award. The best of these cases included arguments both for and against making the award, exploring the question of whose acts best exemplified pro-social disobedience.

Ultimately, we chose two winners of the Disobedience Award — people whose work reflects the hopes that led to the award in the first place: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and medical school professor, and Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor, who first brought attention to the Flint water crisis. Their work combined activist energies with scientific research and made visible a public health crisis involving thousands. Their work has led to criminal involuntary manslaughter charges against Michigan public officials and has placed the issue of urban water quality — and urban infrastructure — at the center of American public debate.

We had not initially intended to offer honorable mention prizes, but our finalists were so strong, we asked Reid to offer additional funding. We were then able to award $10,000 each to James Hansen, an environmental science professor and advocate for intervention to combat climate change; The Water Protectors of Standing Rock, an historic gathering of tribes, allies, and people from all walks of life standing in solidarity to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline; and
Freedom University Georgia, a project to provide free college classes to undocumented students in Georgia who are charged out-of-state tuition to attend state schools.

***

The debates about who deserved recognition and who the committee did not agree to honor help illustrate how complex the concept of disobedience actually is.

Dr. Hansen’s nomination sparked debate about whether the award was exclusively for those in the midst of their life’s work, or whether it could honor a career well spent. At 76 years old, Hansen is widely recognized as a pioneer of climate change research. But he is less known than non-scholars who’ve worked on raising climate awareness. As well, he embodies disobedience within an institution. Hansen did much of his work while employed by NASA, facing substantial pushback as he made bold, data-backed predictions about climate change. So, to highlight those within powerful institutions standing up for what’s right in defiance of pressure, the committee decided it was important to honor his many contributions.

The Water Protectors of Standing Rock raised a set of issues we simply hadn’t considered: How do you properly honor a movement? This is a collaboration of Native Americans who organized a prayer camp to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline: Phyllis Young, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Jasilyn Charger, and Joseph White Eyes. Their efforts, supported by Sioux and Lakota elders, were joined by thousands of veterans, activists, and others. The Standing Rock nominations—as well as dozens for individuals and groups connected to Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, and for LGBTQ activists—reminded us that disobedience can be a team sport, that we can stand up as a group to pressure that might crush us as individuals.

Freedom University Georgia, which offers free classes on Sundays, was founded by professors at the University of Georgia who were outraged that undocumented students had to pay out-of-state tuition to attend state schools. Students in the program have gone on to universities in other states where laws are more flexible and just. In honoring Freedom University and its founders—Professors Betina Kaplan, Lorgia García Peña, Pamela Voekel, and Bethany Moreton—we hope to learn from their model and to challenge ourselves about how best to consider similar programs in our communities.

Perhaps most important is understanding the complexities involved in why we chose not to honor the remaining three finalists.

Alexandra Elbakyan is a Kazakhstani graduate student who has deeply challenged the scholarly publishing industry by using academic credentials to “unlock” millions of copyrighted research papers. Depending on who you ask, she is either bravely challenging a model of scientific publishing that leaves millions of researchers in poor countries without access to scholarship, or she’s irresponsibly destroying a critical component of academic research without considering the consequences. Our debate opened questions about why defiance is appropriate. Most of the committee was sympathetic to the aims of SciHub, but less so to the Library Genesis (LibGen), a subsequent project that has sought to open up a wider range of books as part of a broader attempt to make information free. Many committee members felt that Elbakyan had identified a situation worthy of defiance in the world of making research papers available to international scholars, but weren’t willing to accept the idea that making all books free was a worthy goal.

While we tried to build a diverse, international group of judges, our finalists were primarily people who work on issues well known and understood within the US. We had many nominees who, like Rafael Marques de Morais, do risky and important work in closed societies around the globe. I consider it a shortcoming of our process that we didn’t work harder to honor nominees working on issues our committee didn’t understand as well as issues like climate change or undocumented people. On the other hand, we had a rich discussion of the dangers of recognizing that some disobedience is more “comfortable” for the committee than others — one committee member made the argument that we wouldn’t want to honor Ai Wei Wei, because it’s easy and popular for a mostly American committee to show opposition to censorship and control of speech in China. Understanding how to honor and showcase disobedience in countries we know less about than the US or China will be an ongoing question for us as we revise and improve our process.

No issue challenged our committee as much as the question of honoring Omar Barghouti and the BDS movement. Those who favored recognizing his activism noted that BDS is the main non-violent movement to end Israeli occupation of Palestine, with the goal of creating a democratic Palestinian state, and is having great success putting pressure on the Israeli government. Given the apparent intractability of the Israel/Palestine situation, BDS offers hope that an international campaign like the one that challenged apartheid in South Africa could lead to change in Israel. Those who opposed honoring BDS pointed primarily to one of the most controversial aspects of the campaign: a cultural and academic boycott of Israeli artists, writers and scholars. For many members of the committee, an academic boycott was simply a non-starter — the free flow of ideas across borders is a fundamental principle of academia, and the idea of excluding Israeli academics instead of interacting with them was unacceptable.

Our award winners reflect the hopes that led to the award in the first place. Doctors Hanna-Attisha and Edwards are scientists who became activists, using rigorous research to investigate the concerns of citizens in Flint, Michigan and unravel a mystery that many in positions of power would have preferred to keep under wraps. Both faced harassment and ridicule for their work and risked academic sanction for defying conventions of peer review, as they sought to bring attention to Flint’s water crisis before more people were affected. Their work shows that science and scholarship are as powerful tools for social change as art and protest.

As the first Disobedience Award, this year’s committee recognizes that we must refine our process, but we are proud of the results. Our discussions sparked deep conversation and — at times — disagreement on how best to organize and award such a public prize. But seldom are we given the opportunity at this scale to witness and congratulate such selflessness and dedication. It was a hopeful experience, one that challenges us, especially those in academia, to use our powers for good.

Categories: Blog

Seeing Haiti: a photo essay

February 19, 2017 - 10:41am

Imagine a nation with a noble and proud history, but a rough last century. It was occupied by a massive, powerful neighbor to the north, who undermined its political system and land ownership to benefit its national commercial interests. Soon after those occupiers desisted, looted the treasury, slaughtered the opposition and chased away almost everyone with a university degree. Then the advent of AIDS destroyed a burgeoning tourism industry. After the younger madman was forced into exile, a few years of democratic reform were halted when the northern occupier intervened to exile a leftist leader and handed control of the country over to an occupying UN force. That force did little to stabilize the country, and managed to make things significantly worse, bringing a cholera epidemic to the nation. To round out the picture, throw in a massive earthquake that decimated the capital and top it off with a category four hurricane.

That’s Haiti. You wouldn’t wish that string of bad luck on Donald Trump. (Pick your own worst enemy if that doesn’t work for you.)

Now let’s imagine an impoverished neighborhood wracked by gang violence, where gunfire is a common, if not daily event. In the middle of the neighborhood, surrounded on all sides by high-density housing, is a quiet park. It includes a brightly painted truck filled with newspapers and books, a mobile library that can bring reading to communities where few books are found. An elegant waterfall runs down the steps of a garden path past plots of medicinal herbs and community gardens, resplendent in colorfully painted tires. At the base of the garden is an architecturally ambitious library, carefully constructed of geometric bamboo pods, every seat packed with uniformed schoolchildren devouring books in Kreyol, French and English.

That’s Haiti, too. Specifically, that’s Parc de Martissant, the project of FOKAL (The Fondation Connaissance et Liberté), a Haitian foundation that’s part of the Open Society Foundations. Its founder Michèle Pierre Louise (Prime Minister during President Preval’s term) and executive director Lorraine Mangones have offered an unconventional solution to Haiti’s many ills. While they work on combatting cholera, rebuilding the legal system, strengthening agriculture and protecting human rights, they do something most of our foundations don’t do. They build and restore beautiful public spaces, creating sources of neighborhood and national pride. While many international organizations are focused on helping Haitians access the bare minimum of healthcare and education, FOKAL dares to imagine what Haiti could be. And then they go ahead and build it.

Don’t get too comfortable. Because just above the library is a concrete path lined with shards of tile from a factory destroyed in the earthquake. Dark outlines represent the bodies of the fallen. The path leads to a broad, spreading tree. Below neon pink flowers, it bears fruit – heavy, mirrored skulls turning slowly in the breeze. The skulls are cast from the faces of the people in the neighborhood and made of concrete and rebar, the materials that killed tens of thousands of city residents when buildings collapsed in the earthquake of January 2010.

And that’s Haiti as well. Because there’s darkness in the beauty, and beauty in the darkness.

A week in Haiti, spent almost entirely in Port au Prince (and too much of it in the back seat of a bulletproof SUV), is not long enough to get meaningful impression of a nation. What I have are glimpses and fragments, some hopeful, some haunting.

I’m honored to serve on the Global Board of Open Society Foundations, and with our Vice President, Haitian-American Patrick Gaspard (former US ambassador to South Africa) and three fellow board members, I spent a week in Haiti touring FOKAL projects in Port au Prince and in Les Cayes, an agricultural community hit hard by Hurricane Matthew. On my last day in the city, I toured the downtown with a brilliant FOKAL architect, Farah Hyppolite, who has dedicated herself to restoring Port au Prince’s “gingerbread houses”, elegant hybrids of European and tropical architecture built for the city’s wealthy merchants at the beginning of Haiti’s dismal century.

Farah tells me that she had wanted to build the future of Haiti, ambitious structures that reflected the nation’s aspirations. But the earthquake destroyed her landmarks: the small gingerbread house she grew up in, the school she attended, the landmark buildings downtown that oriented her on the Rue Grand. “What will I show my children of where I grew up? Without my city, where is my past?”

For almost two decades, all I knew of Haiti was its art, in a watered-down and derivative form, paintings hawked on the streets of Santo Domingo and hanging in endless airport gift shops throughout the Caribbean. Too bright for New England, the paintings I found beautiful in the tropical sun looked gaudy on my white walls.

That explosion of color is everywhere in Haiti, from the paint on the side of goat-skinned drums, to the fruits in the market and most of all, the tap taps, elaborately painted pickup trucks that make up the capitol’s mass transit system. The ironwork, the cut, painted plywood, the explosive paint job and loud slogans compete to be heard over a visual environment that buzzes and pops at deafening volume.

I wasn’t expecting the color in vodou. In the Bureau D’Ethnologie, Erol Josué, a celebrated dancer and musician who serves as the museum’s curator, shows us bright, elegant dresses donned for rituals, embodying the colors and characteristics of the different spirits. Over lunch, I learn that during a ceremony, men may be taken over by female spirits, and vice versa, a fact that’s helped make vodou a welcoming place for the gay and lesbian community at a moment when charismatic churches are condemning and ostracizing queer Hatians.

I find the darkness I’d anticipated in a different sort of museum downtown. Lodged between a tire shop and an iron fabricator on Rue Dessalines is “Atis Rezistans”, the workshop and gallery of Andre Eugene, an internationally celebrated sculptor. Through a rusted arch and down an alleyway is a warren of courtyards and buildings, packed to the gills with wooden idols, ordained with nails, the guts of discarded computers, auto parts and tin cans. One wall is covered with the dark shapes of animals, serpents and spirits, cut from tires by the students in the neighborhood who Eugene teaches.

Vodou is a syncretic faith, build by slaves who combined elements of worship from Fon, Yoruba and other traditions in west Africa with Catholic rituals learned from the colonizers in the Caribbean: Ogun, orisha of war and metal in Nigera, meets St. George, patron saint of soldiers, and they become a loa. Eugene’s work syncretizes the detritus of post-Aristede Haiti with these ancient spirits into a new pantheon.

Eugene leads me through a curtain of bottle caps into his office, and I nearly trip over a human skull. I ask the artist where he obtained these dark materials. “Oh, skulls were easy after the earthquake. You could find them everywhere.” I ask him why his art is so morbid, expecting reflections on Haiti’s recent slew of tragedies. “It’s good to be different,” he tells me. “I like the dark.”

Indeed, Eugene’s art was dark before the earthquake and the hurricane. One of my companions grew up in the neighborhood and tells me that he always thought Eugene was crazy, a strange man who roamed the streets picking through garbage. Now that strange man shows art around the world and sells pieces for thousands of dollars. Eugene leads me to the unfinished second floor of his gallery and shows me the neighborhoods. He points out the workshops of fellow artists in the neighborhood, but my eye is drawn to the rooftops where scrap metal weighs down roofing sheets, rusting metal that holds the neighborhood together.

The shock of some of Eugene’s pieces wears off as I spent time with them. The gaping skulls with marble eyes begin to remind me of Eddie, Iron Maiden’s macabre, smiling, icon. Other pieces give me a deep sense of dread the longer I spend with them, in particular, those that feature baby dolls, disfigured, in bondage and crucified.

The Centre d’Art, a leafy and green space up the hill from Rue Dessalines, feels like it’s miles away from Atiz Rezistanse, but Haiti’s recent past is present here as well. On the site of a former gingerbread house, collapsed in the 2010 earthquake, are a set of shipping containers and pavillions, now the site for Haiti’s most important art collection. One 40′ box contains the archives of the Centre’s 70 year history. Another is filled with metal sculpture, a third with shelves of paintings and drawings, ornamental boxes and painted screens.

In a shady corner of the garden, a long wall serves as a blackboard, covered with elegant illustrations of the human form, the remnants of a workshop by Lionel St. Eloi, a sculptor and painter whose work includes richly colored canvasses and life-sized figures assembled from scrap metal. I fall in love with his owls, and St. Eloi has to be coaxed down from a nearby rooftop, where he’s wielding a power saw and working on carnival preparations, to sell me the piece.

I’m home from Haiti now, St. Eloi’s owl sits on my kitchen table, as lovely and wise in my snowbound New England home as in its tropical home. This afternoon, I plan to put it on the mantle over my fireplace where it can watch over myself and my guests, and perhaps scare the mice that enjoy the heat from the chimney.

A mask from Eugene’s studio came home with me as well. It’s by one of Eugene’s students, and while it’s as twisted and gruesome as the master’s work, it reminds me of something more comfortable, the unfamiliarity of the shapes of west African masks when I first came to Ghana two decades ago. I’m not sure what corner of the house I want it peering at me from, but I want it near me, to become part of my space over the years, the way things that are dark or broken can become comfortable and familiar.

Haiti is beautiful. Haiti is broken. Haiti is hopeful. Haiti is darkness. Haiti is color. You don’t always get to choose.

Love and respect to my friends at FOKAL, and to everyone who is working to share Haiti’s beauty and hope with the world, and more importantly, with all Haitian people.

All text and images are creative commons licensed, attribution only – please feel free to share, remix and reuse them, but please credit me. Profound thanks to Michèle, Lorraine, Farah, Dmitri and all the staff at FOKAL and OSF who made this visit possible.

Categories: Blog

Stop saying “fake news”. It’s not helping.

January 30, 2017 - 5:32pm

One bit of good news for those thoroughly freaked out by the Trump presidency: there’s anger, passion and drive on the left that’s unprecedented in recent memory. Two weekends ago, my girlfriend, a veteran of Occupy Houston, warned me that it was difficult to mobilize people in that car-centric city and thought we might find a few hundred marchers for the post-inauguration march. The crowd we joined was 22,000 strong, and as we assembled in front of Houston city hall, the chief of police told us that we were the largest protest in the city’s history. And the Houston protest was a small one compared to massive protests in Boston, New York, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, LA and DC.

This weekend featured a wave of demonstrations at airports around the US against the racist and unconstitutional Muslim ban. The ACLU, leaders in fighting the ban, raised more than $24 million over the weekend, demonstrating that activists are willing to put money where their hearts are. And an army of lawyers is occupying airport food courts, offering legal representation to anyone prevented from entering the US. The outpouring of progressive efforts has been so massive that journalists are beginning to refer to it as “the surge”.

Here’s the bad news: thus far, we’re not very good at channeling that energy. There’s so much to react to, from fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the election to concern about concrete steps Trump is taking in office that it’s hard to know what to proactively work on. And there’s a danger in reactive activism: your opponent gets to choose and frame the issues for you. For all its weaknesses, the Trump administration is masterful at framing issues to its advantage, as the left is just now beginning to understand how powerful a tool this can be.

Immediately after the US election, “fake news” emerged as a major story, a partial explanation for Trump’s surprise electoral victory. Within a week, I’d been invited to four different conferences, brainstorms or hackathons to combat fake news, done a dozen media interviews and briefed the heads of two major progressive foundations on the issue. Fake news was a problem for American democracy and progressive leaders were on it!

Unfortunately, so was the Trump administration. On January 11th, Trump offered his first press conference since the election, and refused a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, criticizing the network and declaring “You are fake news.” This week, the President expanded the fake news camp to include the nation’s “paper of record”.

The failing @nytimes has been wrong about me from the very beginning. Said I would lose the primaries, then the general election. FAKE NEWS!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 28, 2017

Somebody with aptitude and conviction should buy the FAKE NEWS and failing @nytimes and either run it correctly or let it fold with dignity!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 29, 2017

Media Cloud, the tool we developed at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center to track the spread of ideas in news media, shows that “fake news” was associated primarily with Facebook in the months of November and December. Coverage of fake news focused on Buzzfeed’s excellent reporting on for-profit news sites in Macedonia that created “news” out of whole cloth in hopes of attracting US right-wing eyeballs and ad dollars by designing news stories likely to be spread on Facebook. In January, the fake news narrative has shifted to CNN as a result of the President’s adoption of the term, wielded against CNN in revenge for their decision to cover (though not reproduce) the Steele dossier.

Mentions of “fake news”, November and December 2016

Mentions of “fake news”, January 2017

The President’s embrace of the term “fake news” should be reason enough for the left to stop organizing conferences and projects on the topic. It’s a vague and ambiguous term that spans everything from false balance (actual news that doesn’t deserve our attention), propaganda (weaponized speech designed to support one party over another) and disinformatzya (information designed to sow doubt and increase mistrust in institutions) – I wrote at length about the complexities of the term for Deutsche Welle last week.

But that’s not the real problem. The problem is that the very concept of fake news helps the Trump administration.

Many pundits complained that Trump campaigned without a platform, just a set of audience-tested applause lines. While that may be true, the campaign was not without a strategy. Trump and his advisors realized that the dominant political mood of the moment is one of mistrust. The primary locus of this mistrust is the government in Washington – in 1964, 77% of Americans trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time. By 2011, that number was down to 19%. But this collapse in trust affects all large, bureaucratic systems, from universities and hospitals to the military and churches. And people really mistrust media: in 1979, 51% of people trusted newspapers all or most of the time. By 2013, only 24% of people trusted newspapers, and 21% trusted television news.

It’s deeply uncomfortable when the President refers to the media, a constitutionally-protected institution critical to monitoring a representative democracy, as the “opposition party”.

Where was all the outrage from Democrats and the opposition party (the media) when our jobs were fleeing our country?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 30, 2017

But it shouldn’t be that surprising – in many ways, Trump ran against the media as much as he ran against Hillary Clinton. The chant of “CNN Sucks!” was a common feature of his rallies, one he encouraged by railing against the unfairness of the coverage he was receiving.

Elected as a revolutionary, Trump is governing as an insurrectionist, moving to sideline or disable much of the federal government. For those of us uncertain as to whether Trump was a conventional Republican with inflammatory rhetoric or a genuine rebel, his cabinet choices made things very clear. The nominees he has proposed are a wrecking crew, in many cases explicitly dedicated to the destruction of the agencies they oversee. This is strategy, specifically Steve Bannon’s strategy. As Ronald Radosh reported last summer, Bannon identifies as a Leninist, dedicated to the destruction of establishment institutions through Tea Party populism.

Some of the mainstream Republicans who supported Trump because it was a way to defeat Clinton are feeling very uncomfortable about how the President is governing. But many in Trump’s base are pleased to see that he genuinely wants to overturn and abolish institutions they feel have not served them well. (Uncomfortably, they have a point. Rising inequality means that the economic recovery under Obama hasn’t reached many households. Not that voting in a plutocracy is an especially good way to combat this.)

The best way to defeat insurrectionism is with strong institutions. We’ve got to celebrate the ones that are working well and reform the ones that are broken. We may even need to tear some down and replace them with something better. And we have to humanize all of them, identifying and celebrating the people who are working hard to make these institutions function, and to fix them when they decay. It’s easy to hate an institution – it’s harder to hate the people within it. That’s the power of Twitter accounts like @RogueNASA and @AltUSNatParkService. They remind us that real people work within government institutions, that they’re proud of what they do, and that we need to get beyond our understandable mistrust of agencies, bureaucracies and hierarchies, and celebrate the things they do well.

That’s the problem with a focus on fake news. By adopting the frame, we remind people of the difficulty of reporting in a digital age, the real problems of verifying information and the times our journalistic institutions have failed. We should fix our failures, we should get better at stopping misinformation before it starts to spread, but we can’t do this in a way that supports a Trump attack on the very notion of independent media institutions.

There’s another thing, too. Fake news is not the problem. My colleagues at Harvard are releasing a study of news during the 2016 election next month. They looked at how influential thousands of different news outlets had been during the cycle. They found dozens of news outlets that have been flagged by academics as purveyors of fake news, publishers that create stories from whole cloth for profit. While those sites exist, they were not very influential in the 2016 election – the most influential don’t even rank in the top 100 sites in the analysis. Far more people have been influenced by talk about fake news than by fake news itself.

Why? Because progressives love the idea of fake news. Most progressives – myself included – find it hard to understand how fellow Americans can view the world so differently. By blaming the results of the election on fake news, we have an easy explanation for an incomprehensible situation. If we could just eliminate misinformation, everyone would agree with us!

As Michael Schudson points out in his brilliant The Good Citizen, central to the progressive movement was the idea of the informed citizen. Crusading newspapers reported on malfeasance, and citizens were expected to spend hours informing themselves on candidates and propositions. The net result? The voting rate dropped by 50%. Unfortunately, political decisions are seldom rational, fact-based ones as much as we’d like them to be.

The uncomfortable truth is that support for Trump’s insurrectionist agenda is real, and that there’s a ferocious appetite for news that confirms our existing biases – on both sides of the aisle. Yes, we should find a way to battle deceptive misinformation. But we need to work harder on building media that pushes us to see different perspectives and helps us understand the complex political reality we live in. The answer is not to fight fake news – it’s to build wide news, media that helps us understand people we disagree with and people we seldom hear from.

Categories: Blog

It’s Journalism’s Job to Save Civics

January 18, 2017 - 3:51pm

In early December, I spoke at the inaugural conference on Constructive Journalism hosted at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. The conference is the brainchild of my friend Cathrine Gyldensted, who has been developing the powerful idea that journalism can’t just inform us about the problems of the world, but must help us take action and transform the world for the better. The venerable Christian Science Monitor is refocusing its work around constructive journalism, and ideas like solutions journalism, put forward by David Bornstein at the New York Times are gaining recognition and traction.

My speech followed one by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian, who talked about his decision to engage his newspaper in the “Keep It In the Ground” campaign, partnering with 350.org to advocate divestment from fossil fuel companies. My talk intersected inasmuch as I’m also deeply interested in how different organizations can make social change, and what news organization might choose to do at this surprising and scary moment in time.

Keynote EthanZuckerman, #CJC16, December 2nd 2016 from Constructieve Journalistiek on Vimeo.

This is a near-verbatim transcript of my talk, made using rev.com (which I highly recommend.) I’ve touched it up a bit so I sound slightly less stupid. If you want to see me give the talk, or ogle my exciting slides, the video of the talk is available here. (This was fascinating to edit, by the way. I like to think that I write the way I talk – I don’t. I suspect very few of us do…)

Even before I got here and discovered that the theme for this conference is “What nu?” I had titled my talk “What Now?” It’s a sincere question – I really don’t know what we do now. This is a very strange moment in time. Many people have been surprised by what’s happened in 2016, starting with Brexit, but unfolding outside the Anglophone world as well.

I’ve been spending a lot of time these days in Colombia. We just watched a country have a referendum on whether to end a 52-year civil war that completely transformed and destroyed a beautiful nation. People voted “no”, which doesn’t make much sense on its surface until you realize that my country just elected as president a man who has absolutely no interest in governing, no interest in politics, no interest in really anything other than ego and his own power.

What I want to suggest is that this is a moment that is shocking, but it’s not actually surprising for anyone who’s been paying attention. What’s actually going on is the continuation of a number of trends that have been happening for at least a decade now or perhaps significantly longer. The person that I found most useful in trying to navigate this moment in time is, weirdly enough, a television commentator. His name is Chris Hayes, who is on MSNBC in the U.S. He wrote a very good book a couple of years ago called “Twilight of the Elites”.

In the first chapter of this book, he says, “Look, let’s forget about this whole notion of left and right. It’s not actually very helpful at this moment in understanding the world. What’s much more helpful is thinking about institutionalists and insurrectionists.” Institutionalists are people who say, “Look, these big structures of society that we’ve built, whether they’re governments, corporations, or universities, they mostly work. They mostly get the job done. We need new, smart people involved with them. We need to make them stronger. We need to make them more modern, but the basic structures work.”

I would say the institutionalists have been winning for a very long time. Perhaps since World War II, the institutionalists have been firmly in control. Now there’s a new camp of people who are insurrectionists. The insurrectionists basically say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Have you looked around lately? Do you really think these structures are working? Do you really think government is doing what we want it to do as people? Do you really think unfettered capitalism the way that we have it in the world right now is working especially well? You must be nuts. It is time to knock these things down.”

That’s the tension. More than the tension between left and right is the tension between people who want to make improvements and tweaks to existing systems, and people who largely believe it’s time to pull those systems down, and try something else. I want to make the argument that over the last couple of decades, the institutionalists have gotten quite weak, and the insurrectionists have gotten quite strong.

This is a graph of responses to a question that the Gallup Polling Organization asks American roughly every six months. The question is very simple: “Do you trust the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time?” This graph peaks in 1964 at 77%. If we go back to ’64, the enormous majority of Americans felt like the government is doing the right thing all or most of the time. The most recent version of this poll was at 19%. Now, I would point out that’s a moment of very high popularity in the Obama presidency. It’s actually been down to 9% or 10% over the course of his time in office.

I was born in 1973, and the only time that the majority of Americans have said that they had great confidence in the government in Washington during my entire 43-year lifetime was shortly before we invaded Iraq… which just shows what the American people know. The point is we have had massive decay in confidence in our government. We’ve also had massive decay in confidence in all sorts of other institutions. Asking similar questions about the police, organized religion, the medical systems, public schools, banks, organized labor, and of course newspapers and television news, we’ve seen collapses in confidence, particularly over the last 20 years.

This is not just not happening in the United States. The Netherlands, as it turns out, shows up as a fairly trusting country in Edelman’s Eurobarometer Trust Index. They’ve gone out and asked very similar questions about confidence in government, in NGOs, and all sorts of different sectors. The Netherlands is at the very high end of trusting countries. Trust seems to be increasing in the Netherlands, but it’s worth noting that the Netherlands and Scandinavia are quite rare within democracies. Within most mature democracies, trust is low and it’s going down.

Oddly enough, Northern Europe is in the same bin as autocracies. China, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, those for the most part are the only countries that seem to have very high trust in government. But even in the Netherlands, faith in democracy seems to be waning. Here’s a set of graphs from a forthcoming paper by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa. This graph shows people’s answers to the question, “Is it essential to live in a democracy?”

These graphs are pulled apart by birth decade. Of people in the Netherlands born in the 1930’s, more than 50% said it was utterly essential to live in a democracy. You get down to people born in the 1980’s, it’s much closer to about 35%. You haven’t had the staggering fall that we’ve had in the United States, where we’ve gone from 75% down to the students that I teach, where fewer than 25% tell you that it is essential to live in a democracy.

Something has happened. Our confidence in these institutions has been badly shaken. You could make the argument that it’s been badly shaken, because frankly, these institutions are not doing a very good job right now. In my country at least, our democracy is highly dysfunctional. For the most part, we are not managing to come together and compromise. For the most part, we have oppositions between two parties who will absolutely not see eye to eye, and they end up spending an enormous amount of time and energy blocking each other and not getting very much done.

If you’ve been watching this for the last 20 or 25 years, it’s very easy to understand why people would become frustrated and alienated with this situation. If that’s bad news, I have worse news for us, because we are in the media field and people really don’t like us.

This actually became a common thing at Trump rallies. I’d like to remind you one more time: the person who we somehow have elected as the president of the United States, a common feature of his public appearances are his supporters standing up and chanting specifically about a fairly neutral to conservative media network, and their utter distaste for it. There is incredibly low confidence in our institution, that institution of journalism, very low confidence that we are doing our jobs without fear or favor, without agenda, that somehow what we are saying can be trusted. Instead what ends up happening is in an environment where it’s very, very easy for people to publish almost anything, we start seeing news that looks like this:

I wouldn’t expect you to be following the intricacies of U.S. politics, but about five days before the presidential election, the well known and highly celebrated Denver Guardian published the story stating that an FBI agent who had been investigating Hillary Clinton had committed suicide and burned his house under the incredible pressure that he had come under from Hillary’s sinister forces. This turned into people putting forward memes about Hillary Clinton being responsible for the deaths of dozens of people in her long and sordid career.

As it turns out, this story is entirely fake. There is no Denver Guardian. There has never been a Denver Guardian. The Denver Guardian is a website that someone put up because this was a way to get attention, and frankly a way to make money. Many of the most popular websites in the United States leading up to the election are run out of Macedonia. They are not run out of Macedonia as a giant Macedonian conspiracy to take over the U.S. government. They’re run out of Macedonia because it is a great way to make money.

It turns out that one of the best ways to make money as a Macedonian teenager right now is to aggregate links to pro-Trump, anti-Clinton content. It doesn’t matter whether they are true or false, so long as you put them together in a believable form. Run some Facebook ads on them and watch the money roll in. There are more than a hundred of these websites that are turning out to be a very robust media environment that people are paying an enormous amount of attention to.

My colleague Yochai Benkler over at Harvard is going to release some research in the next couple of weeks. He graphed links within the media environment in the United States leading up to the 2016 election. There are two major clusters to his map. We’re used to thinking of there being a left-wing cluster and a right-wing cluster. In one of these clusters in 2016, there are those noted left-wing sources like the Nation, the Guardian, The New York Times, also those noted left-wing sources like the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, the Independent. Actually, all mainstream media ends up in one cluster.

In the other cluster is Breitbart and all of this stuff being run out of Macedonia, all this stuff that’s basically been made up for internet consumption. We’ve ended up in a moment where there’s very low trust in media, and frankly, there’s a lot of media that we would need to be very worried about trusting. Now, if you feel like this young woman here feels, you’re probably not alone. This is what happens with mistrust. Mistrust is designed to breed helplessness.

If you’re looking for some of the political systems that have tried the hardest to create mistrust, you can look to the media environment in Russia, which is trying very hard to build up a culture of conspiracy theory which makes it very difficult to figure out how to organize and mobilize. In the wake of high mistrust, the natural instinct is to look towards charismatic individuals, anyone who can stand up and say, “I will find you a way through this,” because when you have very low trust in institutions, it’s very hard to mobilize people to participate within those institutions.

If, as in my country, you have a 9% approval rating for Congress, trying to get excited about electing new Congresspeople is not a very easy thing to do. Those Congresspeople will tell you that if they get elected, there’s almost nothing they’re going to be able to do since so little legislation gets passed. In high mistrust societies, you see falling participation rates. You see falling voting rates. You see falling number of people running for political office, because they don’t feel like they can make change that way.

Weirdly enough, you may also lose the ability for protest to have change, because when you protest, you are almost always trying to influence someone who is in power. When you go on a march, when you go to the Capitol, you are marching in the hopes that your leaders will listen to your demands, will listen to your concerns, will take you seriously. Once you lose trust in those institutions, you may even lose some of the most popular avenues for dissent.

I want to suggest that we can understand these strange moments: this decision of our friends in the UK that the EU is not something they were particularly excited about anymore, the decision of my fellow citizens that we wanted a radical change in who is leading our country. You can understand this in terms of efficacy. If people don’t feel like they can be effective, if they don’t feel like they can make change through existing institutions, they will look for ways that they feel like their actions matter. If you look at Brexit, people who were very angry, very frustrated and concerned about directions in which their country was going managed to have an effect.

Will it be the effect that they were looking for? Probably not. It’s probably not going to magically save the UK healthcare system. It’s probably not going to change some of the demographic transformations that the UK is going through. Is the US magically going to become great again because we elected Trump? Almost certainly not. It’s almost certainly going to become more racist. It’s almost certainly going to become very difficult to compete in the global economy, but people felt so alienated, so pissed off at these institutions that being able to make this change felt powerful.

This idea of helping people feel power, helping people feel that they can make an effect on the world, this is the essence of what we try to talk about when we talk about this field of Constructive Journalism.

I’ve been showing this slide for almost 10 years now, before Cathrine was even really building up this idea of Constructive Journalism, but this has been my fear about how media works most of the time. We are very good at documenting things that people should care about. We get them riled up. We get them informed. We get them interested. We get them invested, and then we don’t tell them what to do, because frankly, most people are not as brave as Alan Rusbridger is. Most people are not willing to say, “We’re going to go a step further, and not just tell you what’s going on in the world, but we’re going to tell you ways that you could be effective as a citizen in doing something about it.” The best journalism thinkers out there have been urging us to do this for a while.

If you read one essay coming out of this conference, let me urge you to read this wonderful essay by Michael Schudson, “Six or Seven Things the News can Do for Democracy”. Schudsonbasically says, “Look, some of these are very familiar to us. We know we’re supposed to inform each other. We know we have to do these deep investigations and analysis. We know deep in our hearts, we forget it every time we look at a comment thread, but we know deep in our hearts that we have to provide public fora for people to discuss difficult issues.”

Many of us know that media at its best is about social empathy. It’s about helping us understand what people are thinking and feeling, but these last two get really radical. Most of us are not used to thinking of journalism as a tool for mobilization, but sometimes when an issue is as big as climate change, then we actually have to step up and say, “You know, there isn’t a meaningful debate about this. What there is is a failure of efficacy, and we have to help people figure out how to be effective in the action that they’re taking.” We have to help readers figure out how they would divest, how they would avoid these companies that stand to profit on an unsustainable way of moving into the future.

Then perhaps the most radical thing that Michael says is that we have to help people understand the value of participatory democracy. This is the place where I want to suggest that Michael doesn’t have it entirely right. That’s because I think we no longer know what we’re talking about when we talk about civics.

When we talk about public participation, we encourage people to participate in the ways we know are “right”. We urge people to inform themselves on issues. We urge people to go out and vote. Sometimes, we urge people to think about issues and potentially go out and protest. Remember, I’m making the argument that at a moment of very low trust in institutions, these things may be valid things to say to the institutionalists, but they do not help you with the insurrectionists.

As for the people who have already concluded these structures just don’t work, when you urge them to participate this way, they lose what little faith they had in you. They end up saying, “You’re part of the system that clearly isn’t helping and clearly isn’t going anywhere. You’re urging us to waste our time, waste our energy on these efforts that we know aren’t going to do anything.”

Here is how I want to suggest the world works these days. This guy is Larry Lessig. When he is not running for the U.S. presidency, he is a pretty good legal scholar. He wrote a book in 2000 called “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”. For people like me who study online media, this became something of an almost prophetic text for us. A lot of us read this and said, “Finally, someone actually understands that technology can control our behavior as much as laws do.”

Larry made this case that while we’re used to thinking about passing laws that determine what we can and can’t do, any number of technologies – which he refers to as “code”- can constrain us or enable us to do certain things.

You have all sorts of codes in the Netherlands that enable certain behaviors. You seem to have a fetish for bicycles. They’re rather well supported in your infrastructure. You have lanes for them all over the place. You have parking lots for them all at the train stations. You have a set of social norms that seem to prevent people from stealing them, but it’s a combination of norms and code that make these behaviors possible. Laws help create this environment, but a lot of Holland’s bike-friendliness has to do with the actual technical architectures.

Lessig makes this case that we actually use four different levers to make behaviors happen. We pass laws to make certain things legal and illegal. We use markets to make things expensive or cheap. In my country, gasoline is a whole lot cheaper than it is over here, which is probably why you guys end up riding bicycles.

We have social norms, where in the U.S., we get pissed off with people in bicycles because they’re taking my damn lane, and we take a swipe at them and so on and so forth. That’s not a particularly good thing if you’re a bicyclist. Social norms have a lot to do with how we govern behavior. Then we havetechnological architectures, codes that enable certain behaviors.

Here’s something I call “the inverted Lessig”. All of these ways that we control society turn out to be paths to social change. If we want to make the world a different place, we can pass laws, yes, but that’s really hard these days. At least in the U.S., trying to make change through laws has become highly professionalized and it’s become incredibly difficult. For many people, their chance to be effective, their chance to make social change happens through these three other levers.

Here is what it looks like: Most people note that the people in the US are not actually interested in the rest of world. We are in fact deeply interested in the rest of the world. We’re just interested in the secrets that you’re sending to one another, and because of our deep interest, we’ve been reading your mail, listening to your phone calls, and generally paying quite a bit of attention to the rest of the world, because it’s possible that you’re all terrorists. You may not even know it.

Our National Security Agency provides the helpful service of reading an enormous number of your communications to keep you safe. I as an American are not particularly thrilled about this. I’m rather deeply embarrassed by it. I’m pretty unthrilled that my allegedly progressive president Barack Obama has done very little to change this situation, and there’s not a lot that I’m going to be able to do in a Trump administration to try to provide privacy to all the digital communications that flow through the United States.

However, there are some awfully good hackers out there who are building things like Tor. They’re building things like Signal, which I use every day, a very good encrypted voice and SMS platform. There’s lots of people looking at technological structures that may be able to protect privacy even if we can’t make those protections through law. This is a way to try to make change when you can’t make it in one fashion. If you can’t somehow put surveillance back in the box under U.S. law, is there a way that hackers and coders can come out and make change through other different means?

It turns out there absolutely is. Then the question becomes, “How did people adopt it? How did people pick it up?” Allen [Rusbridger, of the Guardian] has been looking for change through markets. How do we get a group like Gates, like the Wellcome Trust to essentially say, “These large companies cannot to burn the fossil fuels that they’re pulling out of the ground?” There’s other ways to make massive change through markets. Consider a company like Tesla, which is trying to make electric vehicles, not only practical but dead sexy, and trying to figure out how to make solar power, something that everyone is using with power walls in their houses.

This is a way to make change even if governments aren’t willing at this point to pass laws, aren’t willing to sign on to international treaties, aren’t willing to set carbon goals that would help keep us at two centigrade degrees of global warming. A lot of my work centers on this idea that some of the most powerful change that we make is through social norms.

One of the things that’s happening in the United States is that unfortunately, our police shoot a lot of people. In particular, they shoot a disproportionate number of Black people. This is not a matter of law. It has been illegal to shoot people for a whole long time in the United States. It’s been illegal to shoot Black people for at least 100 years or so. We don’t need particularly new laws around this. What we do need is a set of social norms. What ends up happening is that people in the United States have a strong tendency to see people of color, particularly young men, as a threat, and this gets reinforced by the media.

When Michael Brown – a young man in Ferguson, Missouri – got killed by police, the media ended up using a particular mug shot for him. They took this image over to your left off of his Facebook page. Now, what does Mike Brown look like in this image? Just shout something out. What do you see about Mike Brown? How does he look?

Audience member: “A thug.”

Yes, he looks like a thug. He looks tough. Why does he look like a thug? What in that photo is making him look so tough? He shot from below, which makes him look taller. It makes him look bigger. This is a Facebook photo. This is an 18-year-old kid. Of course, he wants to look tough. I want to look tough. He’s put this photo up there to make himself look as badass as possible, and this is the photo the media has grabbed to discuss Michael Brown.

This is another picture of Michael Brown taken around the same time. What does Michael Brown look like in this photo? He’s sweet. He’s a baby. He’s got these baby cheeks. He’s a cute kid. He’s a nice kid. That’s a very different image of who this young man is. Activists looked at this disparity and said, “Let’s go into our Facebook feeds. Let’s find the photo that makes us look at our worst, and the photo that makes us look at our best.”

You look at this young man here, and in one of those photos, he looks like a guy you don’t want to mess with. In the other photo, this looks like a man who you very much want to celebrate about what’s best about America. Over the course of three days, this turned into a national campaign of people taking this on, writing essays about it, writing about why they want to participate in it. Within three days, this was on the front page of the New York Times, and more importantly, it’s very hard to find that first photo of Mike Brown anymore. You simply don’t see it.

Media got the point. They got the point that the way that we portray these victims of police violence has a lot to do with our norms about whether we see Black men and boys as dangerous or not. What’s our role in all of this? As practicing journalists, what should we be doing about this? The first thing I want to say is that if you buy my theory that these are the ways that we make change now, very different people have power than we’re used to thinking about.

Yes, politicians are powerful. They’re really important as far as making change through law, and they have a lot of power in terms of force of norms, but they’re probably not the most powerful actors in terms of norms. Celebrities are much more powerful, but not necessarily just the Angelina Jolie-type celebrities. Celebrities in terms of people who have lots of followers, whether it’s on YouTube or whether it’s on Facebook, people who are able to mobilize large networks of people to work together on an issue or to help people change their thinking have great sway over norms.

Who’s powerful in markets? People who already have money. It’s easier to be Elon Musk when you have millions of dollar to go and start a company. But also powerful are people who are able to raise money through different means, people through crowdfunding, people who are able to get different amounts of money together.

It’s possible to make a great deal of change through code. Platforms like Facebook end up being very powerful at this moment in time, but code is wonderfully asymmetrical, and you have individual hackers who have found ways to put strong encryption into software, proof an individual can make change.

We as journalists need to understand how power is working, who is powerful, and try to figure out how we tell and celebrate those stories. We also need to try to figure out how we get critical and careful about how power works in this news space. The project I’ve been working on for the last decade or so tries to figure out this question of how much influence media really has.

Alan [Rusbridger] told a brilliant story that involves running a campaign, getting it seen by millions of people, and at the end of it, the guy that he was targeting did the thing that he wanted him to do. That’s the best type of story that we can tell about the impact of media, but most stories aren’t that simple. Most stories don’t go from, “I wanted A, I ran a campaign, and I accomplished A.” Most are much more complicated.

Here is one of those complicated stories, and I’ve been trying to figure them out with a tool that we build in my lab called Media Cloud. Media Cloud looks at about half a million media sources, grabs every story that comes out of them, and then allows us to search them and analyze them.

What we wanted to search and analyze is how does English language media talk about people of color in the United States who were unarmed and killed by police. Like I said, there’s a lot of these people. We ended up looking at everyone from 2013 to 2016 to figure out what sort of media coverage they got after they were killed by police. We put a marker in this graph of Mike Brown’s death, because shortly after Mike Brown’s death, we’ve seen the emergence of the social movement called Black Lives Matter.

One of the big foci of Black Lives Matter has been paying attention to police violence against people of color. Before Black Lives Matter, if you are an unarmed person of color shot by the police, the most likely thing that happens is nothing. No one reports it. There are zero media stories. That’s that thick bit at the bottom of the curve. There is a small number of people who get a small number of stories. They basically get a small amount of regional coverage. There’s almost no one who makes it up to the top and becomes the object of national debate.

After Mike Brown, that curve’s very different. There are a lot fewer people who are invisible. Basically, if you get shot by the police as an unarmed person of color, there is going to be a story about it, whether or not it makes it up to the national level, that invisibility starts going away. In fact, that invisibility goes away in such a big way, or to quote my new political leader, “So bigly, so hugely,” that you have 10 times as much coverage shortly after Mike Brown’s death for the average person of color killed by police than you did before.

We see an even bigger effect on Facebook, when we looked at how these stories got shared on Facebook. These stories get shared. They get propagated. They get talked about. Unlike with the media, where frankly we’ve gone back down to ignoring unarmed people of color, on Facebook, we’re still at about four times as much attention as we were before Mike Brown. Audiences are telling journalists, “We still want to see these stories. We still care about this.”

What’s come out of it? Well, we’ve actually seen in most police departments in the United States a willingness to adopt body cameras. We’re up to the point where 95% of police departments are actively working on a program to put body cameras on all of their police. Now, is this as easy saying we had a movement around Mike Brown’s death, and then we paid attention, and then journalism changed, and we got body cameras? No. It’s really complicated. It’s really messy, but if you are working on a movement like Black Lives Matter, and your goal is to change the social norm, this is some pretty good evidence that those sorts of campaigns can work, and that they can work by modifying media and changing what we pay attention to.

I want to ask us to think about these things. Think about can we communicate how power works now, not just in terms of politics and law, but in terms of markets, in terms of technologies, in terms of social norms? Celebrate the successes of people who are doing this work well. Then finally, as Alan made the case, figure out how we link these stories to meaningful action.

So many of us have written stories where we’ve ended up saying, “Now that you know about this, please take action. Write to your senator or congressman. Sign this petition.” Stop doing that. For the insurrectionists, that doesn’t work. That’s a signal that you’re not serious.

Think about the other changes people are trying to make. Think about things that people are trying to do in markets with code, with norms. Think about how we link people to those actions as well as to legal actions.

One final thing: we have this tendency in journalism right now to feel very sorry for ourselves. This is a field that we are all enormously proud to be part of. This is a field that is harder and harder to make a living in, and I see more and more news organizations essentially saying, “You’re going to miss us. We’re going away. I just want to warn you.”

I’m not saying this isn’t true. I think this probably is true, but I also think it’s a lousy way to market ourselves. I think it’s happening in part because people are looking at what we’re doing, and saying, “You’re not helping me. If you were helping me, if you were helping me get over that moment of hopelessness, if you were helping me figure out how to be effective and how to make a change, I would find a way to be there for you.” I want to end with this idea. I don’t think it’s the public’s job to save journalism, but I do think it’s journalism’s job to help save civics.

I think we have to figure out how these changes are taking place, and whether we reach out to the institutionalists and say, “It’s time to make those institutions stronger and better than they ever were before,” or whether, and this is what I’m urging you, we reach out to those insurrectionists, and say, “We hear you. We know why you feel powerless. We want to help you become powerful.” If we can figure out how to save civics, how to get more people who are alienated deeply engaged with this, that’s the first step towards saving journalism. If we help the citizens who rely on us become more powerful and more effective, they’re going to step in, and then try to find a way to be there for us. Thank you.

Categories: Blog

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January 17, 2017 - 2:17pm

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Categories: Blog

The Four Freedoms, in 2017

January 7, 2017 - 3:36pm

I spoke this afternoon at a rally in Pittsfield, Massachusetts my (almost) hometown (I live one town north, in Lanesboro.) The rally honored the four freedoms, articulated in his 1941 state of the union address by FDR: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Along with a range of Massachusetts politicians – Senator Ed Market, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer – I was part of a group of community leaders invited to reflect on the four freedoms and our particular moment in time.

James Roosevelt, grandson of FDR, speaking at Four Freedoms rally in Pittsfield, MA, January 7, 2017

We had a remarkable turnout for the event. The Reverend who hosted us told me the church held 1400, and it was filled to capacity, with people sitting in the aisles, and 300 in an overflow seating room. The population of Berkshire county is only 129,000, so the folks who came out to march and listen to speeches total more than 1% of our total citizenry.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked the four freedoms in his 1941 state of the union address, the world was at war, and the president wanted Americans to support the government in spreading these freedoms around the world. We’re in a very different world now, where decades of international cooperation and unification are giving way to isolationism, nationalism and the demonizing of migrants and marginalized groups. These scary trends aren’t limited to the US – we see them everywhere from Britain to Hungary, France to Russia, Poland to South Africa.

Roosevelt saw the US government as the guarantor of these freedoms around the world, first through war with Japan and Germany, then through the Marshall Plan and through decades of American hard and soft power. That’s another way in which we’re in a different world. In the 1960s, when you asked Americans if they had trust in the federal government to do the right thing, more than 75% said that they did. These days, that number is under 20%. The four freedoms matter more than ever, but even despite the hard work of our representatives here on the stage, many of us don’t believe the government can bring them about. Instead, it’s up to us, individually and collectively.

When Norman Rockwell painted Freedom of Speech, he depicted an Arlington, VT man standing up to dissent at a local town meeting. That’s about as public as most speech could be in the 1940s. But now, every one of us has the power to speak, potentially to a global audience, using nothing more than the phones in our pocket. If you don’t like how the media covers this march, film a video, write a blog post, make your own media.

Our challenge now is not just to speak, but also to listen. When everyone is speaking, it’s too easy to listen just to the people we want to hear. We’ve got to listen deeply and widely, to people in other countries and to people in our own who we don’t agree with.

We’ve got to listen, because people are scared: children whose parents brought them to the US who discover they are not citizens when they apply to college, our Muslim brothers and sisters who are unfairly blamed for acts of terror, human rights defenders who are threatened and challenged around the world. The way we achieve freedom from fear is through solidarity, through listening hard to what people have to say, then using our speech to support them, defend them and stand with them.

This is a scary moment, a time where it looks like the progress we’ve made around the world might reverse, where we go from a world that’s gotten much bigger to one that shrinks. The good news is that we get to decide how big a world we want to live in. We get to decide how to speak, how to listen and how to stand together against fear.

Categories: Blog

Race, Fame and Ability: untangling media coverage of NFL QBs

December 24, 2016 - 8:43am

Some research from our lab, the Center for Civic Media, because it’s fun and something I’m glad we produced.

In the US, NFL football is more than a sport – it’s a stage on which broader national dramas play out. In the past years, the NFL has brought to national attention conversations about domestic violence, about cheating and fairness and about the ethics of loving a sport that is likely killing its players. With Colin Kapernick’s decision not to stand for the singing of the national anthem during a pre-season football game, starting a wave of similar protests by athletes, a national debate about endemic racism in the US has now become a debate about race, protest, politics and NFL football.

Some years ago, journalist and activist, the late Dori Maynard posed a question to the Media Cloud team: Does sports media use different language to talk about black and white athletes? The question, Dori told us, came from basketball player Isaiah Thomas, who had observed that journalists often described black athletes as physically talented but talked about the intelligence of white athletes. While both descriptions are laudatory, they focus on different aspects of a player’s talents, and enforce long-standing racial stereotypes about intellect and physicality. Could Media Cloud, Dori wondered, put some numbers to these anecdotes?

This isn’t a new research question. Scholars have analyzed the language play-by-play announcers use and have seen the patterns in which white players are praised for intelligence and black players for physical attributes. (See also Rainville and McCormick, 1977 and Rada 1996) Media Cloud gives us the chance to analyze a different corpus, sports stories written after the game, and to examine this possible phenomenon on a different scale. We focused our study on the attention paid to and language used to discuss NFL quarterbacks, the most highly paid and most discussed players on the field.

So do we talk about white quarterbacks as intelligent and black quarterbacks as athletic? Well, like almost everything involving media and race, it’s complicated.

First, we talk a great deal about football in the US media. We analyzed tens of thousands of  stories from 478 publications (including US sports websites like NFL.com as well as national and regional sources) over 4 months of NFL regular season coverage in 2015.Despite the prominence of stories like , the vast majority of writing about football discusses this week’s results, next week’s matchup and teams’ strategies for success. As a result, the table of word frequencies when we talk about quarterbacks is heavy on two kinds of words: words that describe gameplay, and words that describe injuries.

We’ve classified each of the 53 quarterbacks who played in NFL games last season as white, black or hispanic (using data from the besttickets unofficial NFL player census, acknowledging that these categories are socially constructed, complex and overlapping.) We then examined what words are associated with coverage of white QBs and QBs of color. In general, white QBs were slightly more associated with action words – ran, threw, leapt – and non-white QBs with words about their health and bodies, their off-field lives and descriptive words, like “dominant” or “judgement”. (Our handcoding of the top 250 words associated with QBs, and synonyms for those words, is here.)

We further examined what words were disproportionately associated with white and non-white QBs. For instance, the words “Heisman” and “trophy” were more than three times as likely to appear in stories about black QBs than about white QBs, likely because Heisman winning black QBs Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston played more last year than white Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Some of those terms do suggest a focus on the physicality of black QBs:

Word used more with black QBs Usage note “Mobile” 2.48x “Threat” 2.46x (aka: “dual threat” to run or pass) “Legs” 2.03x “Runner” 2.00x “Scrambling” 1.97x “Rushing” 1.92x “Sliding” 1.87x “Speed” 1.84x “Balance” 1.84x (may refer to a “balanced offense” as well as to the physical characteristic)

Words disproportionately associated with white quarterbacks tend to characterize specific scandals and controversies. In most cases, these words describe only one or two quarterbacks, whereas the words disproportionately associated with black QBs often describe multiple players:

Word used more with white QBs Note “Deflated” only associated with Tom Brady “Charter” only associated with Ryan Mallett missing a charter flight “Court” “Hormone” “HGH” “Jazeera” An Al Jazeera story about possible use of human growth hormone in the NFL

Words associated with both white and black quarterbacks, but disproportionately with white QBs also include “domestic” (ie., domestic violence) and partying.

Before concluding that US media is somehow biased against white QBs and their scandals, it’s worth keeping in mind that these terms disproportionately associated with white QBs are highly idiosyncratic – they’re more the portrait of a single player’s struggles than the way a whole group of players are characterized. Moving down in the frequency table to words that appear 1.5x to 5x more with white QBs than black QBs, we find some evidence to support the “white brains, black bodies” hypothesis, but less than we expected.

Word used more with white QBs Usage Note “Slipped” 4.3x “Slow” 4.2x “Prepared” 2.3x “Practice” 2.1x “Caller” 1.9x (“signal caller”) “Steady” 1.7x

If there’s no racial smoking gun in looking at word frequencies, it may be because, as John Caravalho put it, “No broadcaster or sportswriter this side of Rush Limbaugh is so self-destructive as to blatantly muse on the suitability of a black quarterback.” Reporters may be increasingly sensitive to issues of word choice. But the amount of attention paid to white versus black QBs tells a somewhat different story.

We analyzed how much media attention each of the 53 quarterbacks in our study received. To adjust for the fact that some quarterbacks in our set played very few minutes, we calculated words per minute played, a statistic that ranged from 25.5 words/minute for Titans backup Zack Mettenberger, to 471.4 words/minute for the Cowboys Tony Romo, who suffered a shoulder injury and missed most of the season, to the great dismay of the Dallas press. While Romo is the largest outlier in the set, five other quarterbacks – all white – received unusually high words per minute scores: Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel, Landry Jones, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The first three – Weeden, Manziel and Jones – played very few games – Jones was a substitute in a single game, while Weeden and Manziel started fewer than 3 games in a 16 game season – skewing these counts. Manning and Brady are “name-brand” quarterbacks, who received additional attention in 2015, Brady for the ongoing “Deflategate” saga and Manning for winning the Super Bowl and retiring.

Comparing a quarterback’s passer rating to his words of coverage suggests that “name brand” quarterbacks are at a distinct advantage in terms of media attention. Six quarterbacks – five white, one black – appear as outliers in this chart. (Romo, who we code as “Hispanic”, didn’t play enough minutes in 2015-16 to have a QB rating.) Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are all elite quarterbacks who are also recognizable public figures, endorsing products and commanding media attention. (All receive more than $6m in endorsements per year, and rank #1, #4 and #5 in the list of QBs ranked by endorsement money in 2015.) Manziel’s disproportionate attention springs from notoriety – he was benched after videos surfaced of him partying during a bye week – while Andrew Luck had an injury-plagued season that was both poor and widely discussed. The only black quarterback who is an outlier in this set is Marcus Mariota, who outperformed expectations for the Titans, and generated widespread hand-wringing in Tennessee when he was injured late in the season. Notably, the year’s best-rated quarterback – the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson – is black, and received significantly less attention than worse-rated “brand name” quarterbacks, though average attention for his rating as predicted by our model. Like Manning, Rodgers and Brady, Wilson makes more than $6m a year in endorsements, but his financial success doesn’t lead to disproportionate coverage. Nor does it lead to overcoverage of Drew Brees and Eli Manning, white QBs who were #2 and #3 on the endorsement list in 2015.

Given the messy relationship between performance and attention, we asked whether a naive hypothesis – that sportswriting coverage tracked actual performance – might help answer Dori and Isiah’s question. If black quarterbacks tend to be described as “athletic”, might it be in part because their athleticism is more impressive than that of white quarterbacks?

We looked at two statistics to try to calculate “athleticism”: the 40 yard dash and rushing yards gained by the quarterback. White quarterbacks averaged a little over 4.8 seconds on the 40 yard dash, while black quarterbacks averaged a little below 4.6 seconds. In the NFL, that .25 second gap is an eternity – black quarterbacks, on average, run nearly as fast as receivers, the fastest players on the field, while white quarterbacks are closer to linebackers. That speed apparently matters, as black quarterbacks averaged a little over 200 rushing yards in a season, while white quarterbacks generally had fewer than 50.

This finding about differences in athletic ability by race is obviously heavily loaded, given the long history of racist speech that portrays blacks as fundamentally physically different than whites.  We note that the system that results in the presence of more athletic black quarterbacks than white quarterbacks in the NFL is a highly complex one that is deeply embedded in the racial mores of our society.  This piece on how modern NFL quarterbacks are made finds that the top 15 quarterback prospects in the 2016 draft overwhelmingly: started playing quarterback by age 9, came from stable families in homes worth at least the median home value, had outside coaching starting in high school, and participated in year round formal 7v7 programs.  This kind of intense, adult driven athletic experience is much more common in suburban communities than urban communities.  For one example, his piece on the “Hidden Demographics of Youth Sports” lists the five states with the lowest rate of high school sports participation, and four of those five are among the states with the most black households.  All of this is to say that this data on the athletic advantage of black over white quarterbacks may or may not say anything about inherent athleticism of black people but almost certainly says something about the deeply racially infused cultural systems that produce modern professional athletes.

Given all of the above, there’s an argument that black quarterbacks are genuinely more athletic – at least in terms of foot speed – than white quarterbacks, and the differences we see in language about quarterbacks may correlate to their performance. That may run counter to suspicions that led Dori to ask her question. But we did find a way in which there’s an apparent racial disparity in coverage: sheer attention.

Only eight quarterbacks broke the 40,000 word barrier in our set, two black, one hispanic, five white. Set the bar at 50,000 and we’re down to four white QBs and Tony Romo. At the highest levels of attention, four “name-brand” quarterbacks (Rodgers, Brady, Manning, Romo) and one screw-up (Manziel) dominate discussion of football in 2015-6. Elite black QBs – Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariotta, Cam Newton – received more attention than mediocre quarterbacks, but less than name brand, endorsement laden white QBs, despite in Wilson’s case, significantly superior performance.

Is there a racial bias in sportswriting about the NFL? Probably.That bias may be related to which NFL players gain endorsement contracts and widespread celebrity, and which ones fall short of expectations to reach that elite level. It’s difficult to entangle causality, though – all but one of these “name brand” QBs are white, and we may pay attention to them because of their celebrity, which correlates only partially to their superior athletic performance, and may correlate more closely to their race.

We will be updating our study at the close of the 2016-7 NFL season, and are looking forward to seeing whether Kapernick’s protest challenged the attention patterns we saw in the previous season.

This post was written by Ethan Zuckerman in collaboration with Allan Ko, Rahul Bhargava, and Hal Roberts. Allan Ko produced the graphics and conducted the quantitative research.

Categories: Blog

Lunch with my friend, the Trump supporter

December 9, 2016 - 8:06am

Two week ago, I wrote an op-ed for CNN.com on Steve Bannon, the “alt-right” and white nationalism. It got the reaction I usually get when I write on CNN – passionate wishes for my speedy demise, helpful reminders that I am overweight and smell bad, and calls to my employer to fire me immediately.

The most interesting response I received came from an alum of Williams College, the small college in western Massachusetts I graduated from. My op-ed raised questions for him, and he wanted to buy me lunch to talk about them if I was willing to dine with a Trump supporter.

I was. Not only was he paying, but I’m acutely aware that I’m ideologically isolated and that I have almost no Trump supporters – or, perhaps, no _out_ Trump supporters – in my work and personal circles.

We had lunch earlier this week, and we spent an hour getting to know each other – our families, our paths to the jobs we hold today, our feelings about our alma mater. Basically, we spent an hour becoming friends. I like the guy. I’m going to have lunch with him again, and I’m going to pay the next time.

All of which made it harder to ask the question I needed to ask: Why Trump?

My friend acknowledged that Trump is thin-skinned, erratic, blustery, abusive, that he’s said and done things that were lewd, boorish and abusive, that he has grave doubts about his judgement. But Trump gives him hope on the one issue he cares about: immigration.

The US has approximately 42 million immigrants, or 13.3% of the population, with roughly 1.2 million arriving per year. My friend would prefer we move to a much more restrictive set of immigration policies taking us towards net zero immigration. His reasons surprised me. “What happens to the wages of the average waiter in this restaurant if we end immigration. Labor is more scarce. Wages rise.” If we ended immigration, we’d take steps towards improving the lives of the underemployed and reducing inequality in the US, he argues.

Good progressive that I am, I can think of a lot of other ways to reduce inequality and improve waiters’ lives: a livable wage law, single-payer healthcare, redistribution of wealth via a progressive income tax. I expected a fight over regulated and unregulated markets with my friend, but we ended up in a different place: a fundamental disagreement over who matters.

My friend identifies as a “citizenist”, someone who believes our goal as Americans should be to better the lives of other American citizens. “I don’t care who they are, where they’re from, what they believe – if they’re here and they’re citizens, they’re the ones we should help.” I identify as a globalist. I consider it an accident of birth that I’m an American rather than Nigerian, and I don’t see a strong reason to privilege the economic success of someone who happened to be born here over that of someone who wants to come here. I have great sympathy for Lant Prichett’s argument that eliminating national boundaries would be the best possible step for global economic development.

During my first year of college, I roomed with a devout Christian from a small town in Pennsylvania. We were both philosophy majors, we both loved to argue, and we became dear friends despite the fact that our worldviews diverged radically on many subjects. A few months into our friendship, we learned that certain of our arguments simply reduced to a fundamental moral disagreement that neither of us would budge from. Finding the roots of these disagreements was surprisingly satisfying – it allows you to look at someone you respect and say, “Oh, THAT’s why you believe that apparently absurd thing.” When my Trump-supporting friend and I reached the citizenist/globalist split, I feel like we’d found bottom in that way. I believe he’s fundamentally wrong, but I can see how he got from his underlying principles to his otherwise incomprehensible conclusion.

My friend’s question for me was far more specific than why I opposed Trump. He quoted the final line of my CNN op-ed: “If we can’t agree that Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon are beyond the pale, what can we agree on?” Was it fair to put white supremacist Spencer and activist publisher Bannon in the same category?, my friend probed.

The question mattered to him because he finds himself siding with Bannon on many issues. More critically, he saw Breitbart, the site Bannon published, as one of the few that gave voice to his perspectives on immigration. “If Bannon is beyond the pale, and Breitbart’s beyond the pale, does it mean that my views on immigration are beyond the pale? And what about the millions of Americans who agree with me?”

And so, here it gets complicated. My friend and I agree that political dialog in the US is often too narrow. He’d like the sphere of legitimate controversy to include discussion of net-zero immigration. I’d like to see the dialog expand to include elimination of national borders. The rise of the internet as the dominant public sphere has led to an expansion of opinions we can encounter online, giving voice to perspectives that are still in the sphere of deviance for most media. For the most part, I think this is a good thing.

But here’s the catch. When Breitbart comes on the scene and pushes the sphere of legitimate controversy to the right, we start hearing points of view that probably should remain in the sphere of deviance. Bannon gives voice to the net-zero immigration point of view, but also to the ethnonationalist point of view. I’d argue that’s a point of view that should remain in the sphere of deviance due to the damage it’s caused over the years. (There’s clearly points of view on the left that I’d put in the sphere of deviance as well. For me, black bloc protests that focus on property destruction as a way of challenging global capitalism probably push into the deviant sphere. And I’m happy putting the anti-vaxxers there.)

My friend is with me… sort of. We both agree there’s points of view that we’re best not giving airtime to. But we’d draw the line differently. He wants to exclude “the guys in the sheets”. I propose a line that excludes Milo Yiannopoulos, who has promoted misogynistic bullying online during Gamergate, but my friend is a reader and fan of Milo. And the more I talk about the issue with him, the more I realize I’m uncomfortable both with where that line should be placed and, more broadly, with placing lines.

Psychology professor Peter Coleman wrote a book called The Five Percent about apparently intractable conflicts. One of the key stories he explores is tension between pro-choice and pro-life activists in Boston. In 1994, John Salvi III opened fire in two abortion clinics in Brookline, MA, killing two and wounding five. Coleman describes how a group of six women, some ardently pro-life and others ardently pro-choice, began meeting in secret over the course of six years.

Over the years, the women became deeply fond of one another. But rather than coming to agreement on issues of abortion, they became more polarized over time. Through years of explaining their positions respectfully to someone who deeply disagreed with them, the women became stronger and clearer in their convictions.

Is this a success or a failure? If you’re in the camp that believes that careful, fact-based deliberation leads to compromise and new solutions, it’s disappointing. But for Dr. Coleman, this is as good as we could hope for. The vitriol and anger that characterized the dialog between these two groups evaporated as these core activists began to know each other as people. And this may be the best we can hope for with controversies that reduce to fundamental conflicts of values.

Sitting down with my friend was made easier by the fact that we have a lot in common. We’re both hyper-privileged white males, we had enough time and flexibility to schedule the conversation, we both felt comfortable in the setting he’d chosen for the conversation. We had a great deal of common experience through our time at the same college. Neither of us felt personally threatened by recent political events in the way an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim American might. And even with all this going for us, it wasn’t an easy conversation – we circled around it for an hour before diving into it.

At this point, my friend isn’t comfortable revealing his identity, for fear that being identified as a Trump supporter will hurt his chances at working in academia. That, too, is an obstacle to these conversations, and some of that blame goes to me and friends on the left who are working to ensure that no one believes that President Trump has the approval of a citizenry united behind him. But I’m looking for ways to fight the excesses candidate Trump has promised while finding a way to keep open dialog with the people who supported him.

Postscript: I talked through the diagram I offered above with my friend and colleague Nathan Matias. He noted that, while helpful, the diagram does little to shed light on the current question d’jour: fake news. He’s right. The diagram above presumes good faith, and much of the media that’s created around the 2016 presidential election was not disseminated in good faith.

Stories in good faith often work to push the boundaries of the sphere of legitimate controversy. As a result, they make some people uncomfortable, since they bring in perspectives and views we’re not comfortable entertaining. But that’s different from two categories of news that are being lumped into the idea of “fake news”.

Some “fake news” is propaganda. It’s weaponized text, designed to make our side look good and the other side look bad. Much propaganda isn’t fake – it’s simply heavily biased, and offers an incomplete view of events to have a persuasive effect. The medium term effect of propaganda is polarization, as we stop seeing our political opponents as reasonable people we disagree with, but as people who are so wrong and misguided that we couldn’t possibly find common ground with them. In the long term, propaganda destroys democracy, because it silences dissent and calcifies the parties currently in power.

A small amount of “fake news” is better described as disinformatzya. Its goal is not to persuade readers of its truth so much as it attempts to raise doubt in the reader that anything is true. We’re not used to disinformatzya in the US, but it’s been quite common not only in Russia but in Turkey, where Erdogan has manufactured fake news designed to reduce Turkish trust in Twitter, trying to disable it as a vehicle for organized opposition to his leadership. The long-term effect of disinformatzya is reduced faith in institutions of all sorts: the press in particular, but government, banks, NGOs, etc. Who benefits from this doubt? People who already have power benefit from a population that’s disempowered, frustrated, confused. And highly charismatic leaders who promise guidance away from failed institutions benefit personally from this mistrust.

My friend and I didn’t directly engage with issues of propaganda and disinformatzya versus boundary-pushing in good faith, but the subject came up more than once by accident. Trying to demonstrate Breitbart’s pushing of subjects beyond the pale, I referenced an article, “Are Jews White?”… which of course proves to be an Atlantic article asking questions about whether Breitbart is raising questions like this, not an actual Breitbart article. Yep, I’m a communications scholar, and I’m still susceptible to confirmation bias.

NB: I asked my friend to review my blog post and offer corrections and clarifications to ensure that I’m portraying him fairly. This post reflects his corrections and amendments.

Categories: Blog

Trump’s victory and the rise of insurrectionism in America

November 13, 2016 - 5:49pm

Hundreds of thousands of articles will be written this week trying to explain what happened in the 2016 US presidential election. One of the best explanations was written four years ago by television host and cultural commentator, Chris Hayes.

In his book, Twilight of the Elites, Hayes explains that left/right divisions in the US are no longer as relevant as the tension between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists believe the institutions of our society – government, media, education, healthcare, business – are fundamentally sound, but need the ongoing engagement of good, energized people to keep them healthy and functional. Insurrectionists believe that these same institutions have failed us and need to be torn down and replaced.

We just experienced a presidential election between a consumate institutionalist and a radical insurrectionist. Clinton’s notable qualities – her deep understanding of the way Washington works, her experience in the State department, the respect she receives from powerful people domestically and internationally, her ethic of hard work – are the calling cards of the institutionalist. She understands the system and is ready to make it work better.

Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the systems he’s just been given the keys to. That’s okay, since he’s not promising to steer it well, but instead to crash it into a wall. The people who elected Trump did so not because they thought his business expertise would translate into good governance. They did so because the American system wasn’t working for them, and Clinton promised only fine-tuning of a system that’s failing them. Crashing the bus is a stupid move, but when you believe it’s been driven in the wrong direction for the past few decades, it can feel like progress.

Well before Trump announced his unlikely candidacy, institutionalists were starting to feel the earth shift under their feet. For decades, American trust in government has been shrinking. In 1964, 77% of Americans told pollsters that they believed the government in Washington would do the right thing all or most of the time. Now, that number is under 15%. And who can blame us? Trust started falling with Watergate, accelerated under 8 years of Reagan telling us that government couldn’t do anything right, was reinforced by the failures of the war in Iraq, our national failure to protect the poor after Katrina and the financial crisis of 2008. If you’re not at least a little mistrustful, you’re not paying attention.

When people start to mistrust systems, two things happen. They stop participating within them, and they look for someone – a single person who they can relate to – who promises a way out of or around the system. Mistrust leads both to low political participation, as we saw in this election, and to the rise of authoritarians and demagogues.

Someone always runs as the outsider, the rebel who’ll shake up the political establishment. The Republicans – in spite of themselves – nominated a genuine outsider this year, someone who neither understood or respected the process. When the nation – and the world – is in an insurrectionist mood, the normal rules of politics don’t apply. For his insurrectionist supporters, every time Trump trampled on another norm – threatening to prosecute his rival, banning reporters from his events, encouraging violence in his rallies – it was evidence that he was genuinely outside the system, genuinely willing to challenge the status quo. When we on the left celebrated Clinton’s self-control, leadership, competence and experience, it read as us reassuring our insurrectionist neighbors that we institutionalists were committed to ensuring that nothing major would actually change.

I work with thousands of people on dozens of civic projects, all of whom are asking, “What now?” I don’t know, and I distrust anyone who thinks s/he does. But here’s a start:

This would be a good time to take insurrectionists seriously. When we dismiss all Trump voters are racists or misogynists, we run the risk of ignoring those who hated Trump, hated what he stood for, and voted for him anyway, because they hate their dead-end jobs, they can’t afford health insurance, and they see things getting worse, not better, for their children.

Don’t get be wrong – some genuinely hateful people voted for Trump because they see him as making America Hate Again. Protecting marginalized people – immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQI, people of color – has to be the top priority for the next four years for anyone outraged and dismayed by Trump’s election.

But progressives need a new vision for an economy where workers, not just entrepreneurs, have a bright future. And I’m pretty sure that future isn’t built around the gig economy. Yes, GDP is up, but when inequality is as high as it is, that doesn’t mean a thing for most workers. Yes, unemployment is reasonably low, but the quality of jobs has dropped for many of the workers who are demanding change. Understanding that many people feel their future slipping away, and that people who feel threatened tend to treat those they see as “other” very badly, is an important step anyone who works on social change needs to take.

Not all insurrectionists are conservative. Occupy was a progressive insurrectionist movement, as was Podemos. So is the Pirate Party in Iceland, which came close to capturing power last month. Insurrectionism doesn’t have to mean a return to the political dark ages (though under Trump, it likely will.)

Progressives need to understand an insurrectionist moment as an opportunity to push for structural change. Trump wants to “drain the swamp”, and make fundamental changes to how Washington works. Conveniently, so do I – Washington hasn’t worked very well for many people for a long time now. When Trump’s incoherent and insane ideas don’t pan out, it would be a very good thing for progressive insurrectionists to offer some structural changes we’d like to make. An electoral college bound to the popular vote, larger congressional districts with rank-order voting to lessen tyranny of the majority, bans on dark money? Those are hard for with an institutionalist, who’s been put into place by that system, to fight against, but they could be the platform for a progressive insurrectionist.

If you can’t make change through law, make in another way. For the past couple of years, I’ve been preaching the idea that elections, laws and court decisions aren’t the only path to social change. I’ve done so because I’ve seen many progressive-leaning insurrectionists become frustrated with their inability to pass laws and elect leaders to advance their priorities.

Law is a powerful way to make social change, but it’s far from the only way. Deep changes like the acceptance of gays and lesbians in society is a norms-based change that unfolds in popular culture and social media far before law catches up and protects rights. Changes in technology are leading to a change in how we understand and protect privacy, allowing citizens to respond to government surveillance by hardening their personal privacy. Changes in markets, where social enterprise is emerging as an alternative to conventional enterprise, is an area where disruptive, insurrectionist practices are celebrated. We’re starting to see successful examples of change using levers other than law as the primary lever of change. This challenging moment is a good time to learn to use those non-legal levers better.

Help people feel powerful. Insurrectionism results from the understandable feeling many people have that they are powerless to change the systems that govern their lives. Anything we can do to help more people feel powerful undercuts the insurrectionist argument. Alternatively, anything that helps people make change by combatting and replacing dysfunctional institutions with ones that work better harnesses insurrectionism for positive ends. What doesn’t help is any outcome that leaves people feeling powerless and alienated, as that’s the circumstances that’s led us to this dark moment.

I didn’t want to see a Trump presidency, and the rise of insurrectionism to the highest levels of the American government scares the crap out of me. But scarier is the endless blame game I hear my allies engaged in, figuring out whether we blame the media, the FBI or anyone other than ourselves for this loss. We have a brief opportunity to figure out how to make social change in an age of high mistrust and widespread insurrectionism. It would be a shame if Donald Trump figured out how to harness this power and the progressives lined up against him failed to do so.

Categories: Blog

Making space for sadness

November 13, 2016 - 6:53am

I hadn’t found space yet to cry this week.

As the election results came in, I was out bowling with my students, and as they got more despondent, I told them ways Clinton might still win. When I woke to a Trump presidency, I knew there would be crying people in my office (I didn’t expect some would be faculty!) and I started sharing my sincere, but carefully chosen, feelings that this was a chance to build a new, stronger progressive, anti-racist movement. I spent Friday in a day-long workshop with Marshall Ganz, working on sharpening my skills so I can be a better leader and a better coach to those I work with. Saturday, I marched with friends in the cold, protesting in a town where almost everyone agrees with us because I thought it was important to show my face, to lend my body to a mass of people standing up and resisting.

I didn’t cry until this morning when a friend posted this Kate MnKinnon Saturday Night Live video.

Yep. That did it. So I’ve spent the last hour in bed sobbing, which I really needed. And once I was ready to stop crying, Dave Chapelle’s monologue was a good way to get up and face the morning.

And so, later today I’m off to London to see friends who’ve been trying to find the way forward after Brexit. On stage Tuesday, we’re going to talk about how the US, the UK and much of the world have gotten to a place where people feel so alienated and mistrustful that they’re willing to try anything in the hopes of seeking a change. We’re going to look for ways that progressives can play defense, to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, while looking for ways that massive change could lead to massive growth.

I’m wiping my eyes, packing my bags and getting back to work. However you’re feeling this week, I hope you’re able to do so too.

Categories: Blog

What happens when mistrust wins – my speech at the Colombian national journalism prize

November 4, 2016 - 9:25am

I spent yesterday in Bogota, Colombia, as the invited guest of the Premio Nacional de Periodismo Simón Bolívar, offering a speech on the future of civics and the future of journalism. It’s a wonderful event – roughly 1100 people came to celebrate Colombia’s equivalent of the Pulitzer prize. I had a great time meeting the amazing Colombian journalists who served as the jury for the award as well as the team behind the event.

My friends on the jury pointed out something that they found amazing – this year’s winners offered stories about the environment, gay adoption, teenage parties, sexual identity… and almost nothing about the country’s 52 year long civil war. As one of my friends put it, “Maybe we can now focus on the problems any normal nation has.” Fingers crossed that, despite the no vote on the peace deal with the FARC, this positive trend continues.

Here’s what I shared with the audience in Bogota:

I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about a deep change that I think is occurring in the world we share. Since I’m a professor at MIT, you are probably expecting me to tell you about a technological shift – the rise of synthetic biology or of quantum computing. But please don’t worry – I don’t understand that stuff either. Instead, I’m here as a journalist and a publisher, and I want to talk about a social and political shift I’m seeing in my lab and in my reporting work. It’s a shift that helps explain what’s happened in recent events both in Colombia and in the US. And it’s a shift that’s changing what it means to be a journalist and what our industry needs to do.

I was last in Bogota in August, just three months ago. Talking to friends and colleagues, I felt the great hope many people had that the 52 year civil war might be coming to an end, that the amazing transformation of cities like Bogota and Medellin would become what Colombia was known for globally, instead of years of violence. I also got the strong sense that peace was hard, that achieving a solution that Colombians thought was fair and just was going to require much more than an agreement and a referendum.

In the wake of the vote on October 2, Colombia looks like a nation divided, with 49.8% voting sí and 50.2% voting no. I want to suggest that Colombia is divided in a much more serious way, between 62% who didn’t vote and 38% who did. The group that won in the referendum was not Uribe supporters, not those who wanted to see more FARC leaders prosecuted. Those who won the vote were the 62% who had so little faith in the democratic process that they didn’t vote.

It’s very fashionable to beat up on the people who didn’t vote – they were too lazy, they weren’t educated enough about the issues, it was raining and they didn’t care enough about their civic duty to go out and get wet. I want to suggest that it’s dangerous to dismiss this group as lazy or uneducated.

Let me give you an example from the United States. In our elections, we see a great difference in turnout between old people and young people – retired people vote at almost twice the rate of people in their twenties. People read these statistics and declare that we have a crisis in civics! Young people are so selfish, so obsessed with their phones and music and media that they aren’t paying any attention to the world around them.

But there’s other data that contradicts this. Young people in America are volunteering at higher rates than they ever have. Huge percentages of people are active online in political discussions about racism and about sexual harassment, writing online and sharing stories of their experiences. Most of my students aren’t going into politics or into government service, but they are starting businesses that have the twin goals of making money and of making social change, building products and services around alternative energy and organic farming. They may not be voting, but they are profoundly active in their communities and in civic life.

So what’s going on here? This isn’t a crisis in civics, it’s a crisis in confidence, specifically a crisis in confidence in institutions.

The Gallup Research survey asks Americans the same question every year: do you have confidence that the government will do the right thing all or most of the time? In 1964, 71% of people said yes, they had confidence in the government. Last year, the answer was 13%. And who can blame them? The US congress passes fewer laws than ever, there’s less compromise between our two parties, and it’s so difficult to accomplish everything that the government periodically shuts down, and is in danger of defaulting on its debt, not because we are out of money, but because we can’t agree to sign the check.

But Americans aren’t just losing confidence in government – the same survey asks about confidence in other institutions: the church, banks, big business, universities, the health care system, the police. In the US, confidence is down in every large institution with the exception of the military.

So I have some bad news – mistrust is on the rise around the world, not just in the US. The research firm Eurobarometer looks at these same questions of trust in institutions around the world, and they find that trust is diminishing in most democracies. There’s two places trust is increasing – the most successful democracies in Scandinavia and Northern Europe and in autocratic states, like China and the United Arab Emirates.

What happens at times of high mistrust? People stop participating in the political process. If you don’t trust that the government can or will carry out the will of the people, why bother to vote? Why run for office or support the campaigns of those who do? Elections continue, but the people who are elected know that they lack a strong mandate – they were elected by a plurality of voters, and they know the majority may not support anything they do. The people who continue to participate are those most passionate… and most extreme. We end up with paralysis, because the most passionate participants are not willing to compromise. And this paralysis leads to more disengagement from voters – they were worried that government couldn’t accomplish anything, and this paralysis simply proves they were right.

When we lose confidence in institutions, we tend to transfer our trust to individuals. In the US, that’s leading to one of the strangest elections in history, where a man with no experience governing, a history of business failures and a track record of offending nearly everyone in our country stands a chance of becoming our president. But mistrust in institutions doesn’t have to lead to demagoguery. It can lead to all new ways for citizens to participate in civic life.

Around the world, I am seeing citizens look for ways to make change outside the political system. My students don’t want to go into government, but they do want to go into business. Last week, I met with two students from India who’ve invented a pollution control device that filters particles out of exhaust. You can attach it to a car, a generator, a motorbike, and not only does it reduce your emissions, but their technology can turn those particles into ink. So you can drive your car or run your generator, and fill the toner cartridge for your laser printer at the same time. They’re convinced that they can help people make money and reduce emissions at the same time, and they might be right.

Making change through technology and markets is a great way for individuals to try to make change when they lose faith in their ability to pass laws. But perhaps the most powerful way people can make change is by trying to shape social norms, the unwritten rules of how we interact with each other in society. In the US, you may know, we’re having very serious problems with African Americans being killed by police. This isn’t a problem of law: it’s illegal for the police to kill someone unless their lives are at risk. It’s a problem of social norms: due to America’s tragic racial history, many white people perceive young black men to be dangerous. Ending the violence means changing this deep-seated perception.

Activists involved with the Black Lives Matter movement have used social media to call attention to this crisis of police violence – they’ve demanded the news media do a better job of covering cases where black people are killed by police by making victims famous. Our lab did a study of these efforts and found there were ten times as many stories about black victims of police violence after the movement started than before it began.

This form of social change is uncomfortable for us as journalists. For one thing, the press is an institution that’s subject to almost as much mistrust as government. And now activists are telling us that we’re not doing our jobs right, that we need to cover this story and not that one. They are telling us that we’re not always living up to our own ethical standards, that our reporting sometimes makes complicated situations more confusing.

I want to invite you to look at the situation a different way. Activists have realized that making media is a way of making change. What they’ve realized is what we do as journalists is powerful, and that they can do this work, too. We have a natural tendency to defend our territory, to complain about these interlopers invading our profession as we struggle to keep doing the important work we do. But I believe that they way forward is to cooperate with people who are making media to make change. I believe activists and citizens can make news that is fair and trustworthy, and that we can learn new lessons from them as well.

My friend Michael Schudson has an essay called “Six or Seven Things News Can Do For Democracy”. Some of what he asks the press to do is familiar to us – to inform, investigate and analyze the events that take place in the world around us. These are tasks everyone who proudly calls themselves a journalist knows how to do well, and we can help citizens learn to do this work as well.

But Schudson asks the news to do things we’re less comfortable with. He argues that it’s news’s job to make us empathize with stories of people who are unfamiliar to us. That the news needs to provide a public space for discussion of the issues of the day. That sometimes the job of news is to empower people to mobilize and take political action. Some of these are places where we can learn lessons from activists, from citizen journalists, from people who are using the media to make change and to feel powerful even when they feel deeply disempowered by the institutions around them.

Schudson ends his essay by suggesting that news can help people understand and appreciate our democratic system and how it works. Here I want to suggest that our job isn’t to explain how we think democracy is supposed to work, or how democracy used to work. Our job is to help people understand how democracy works – and doesn’t work – now.

Often, people are right to be mistrustful of institutions – our job is to discover and reveal institutions that are broken or corrupt. But we cannot stop there, or we leave our readers informed but disempowered. We have to help citizens – our readers – understand how they, personally, can make change in the world, at the ballot box, as consumers, as entrepreneurs, through social media, through technology. We have to document where the levers of power are in society today and help people learn how to move them.

Maybe it’s not fair to put this challenge on the media, an institution that’s going through its own struggles to be financially sustainable. But I believe the answer to our future as an industry begins with ensuring we are relevant as a civic actor. And the brilliance and bravery of the journalists in Colombia we are honoring today and who have done groundbreaking work through years past gives me great confidence that you are all up to the task. Thanks for listening to me and thank you for the work you do.

Categories: Blog

This crazy election: Denial of Service attacks on Democracy

November 1, 2016 - 1:31pm

Reading Facebook before bed last night, amidst the Halloween costumes and candy haul photos, I saw this headline: “How to choose between the most corrupt, least popular candidates of all time”. Given that I’m researching a book on mistrust and its effects on politics and civic life, this seemed like something worth reading.

Alas, instead of examining the peculiarities that have led us to an election between two candidates that might have otherwise been unelectable, the article is a humor piece. It offers “offensive and misdemeanors” for each candidate and advises you to use your own moral compass to make the choice. For Clinton, it lists “Poor email server management”. For Trump, there’s a list of 230 sins. I made it through about 90 before falling asleep.

So… I voted for Clinton. I did so because I think Trump is an especially hideous human being, and voting for Clinton lets me vote against him twice (denying him my vote, and voting for the candidate most likely to beat him, instead of for Stein, Johnson or my favorite, Vermin Supreme.) And while I feel great about voting for our first female president, I voted for Clinton with some misgivings. I’m not thrilled about how little access she’s given the press through formal press conferences. I’d like to understand her relationship with Wall Street better and how this might affect support for the sorts of consumer protections Elizabeth Warren has fought so hard for. And I’m really pissed off about the ways in which the Clinton Foundation appeared to use access to the State Department to raise money.

Weirdly enough, despite 18 months of non-stop election coverage, I feel like these stories are somewhat undercovered. But it’s not actually coverage – it’s a shortage of attention. While there’s been good reporting on them, these stories haven’t taken over the news cycle in the way we would expect them to. There’s three reasons for this, and none are that the mainstream media is in the tank for Clinton.

First, the sheer amount of shit and scandal that Donald Trump generates every time he opens his mouth has overwhelmed the mainstream press to the point where it’s surprisingly difficult to pay attention to any specific piece of it. Scandals that would sink another candidate – a personal foundation that doesn’t actually give any money, for one – simply become part of the noise and the haze.

Just today, the New York Times is reporting that Trump used tax avoidance strategies that have subsequently been ruled improper, and were deeply dodgy when he engaged in them. Slate reports on speculation from the computer security community that a server run by the Trump Organization may have had secret communications with a server owned by a bank connected to Russian oligarchs, raising the possibility of a secret email channel between the Trump campaign and Russian groups. (There’s good arguments that the evidence discovered isn’t a smoking gun, but evidence that email is weird and wonky.) And while Democrats wonder why James Comey chose Friday to reopen an investigation of the Clinton email scandal based on emails found in an investigation of Anthony Weiner’s solicitation of a 15-year old girl (if you wrote this stuff for telenovelas, you’d get fired), Mother Jones wonders whether there’s video evidence of Donald Trump at a Russian orgy that gives the FSB leverage over Trump in a kompromat operation.

The sheer flood of craziness makes it hard to focus on any single issue. If this is the result of brilliant oppo research from the Clinton campaign, they should just fucking stop already. A Trump orgy tape, or Trump saying the “n-word” (the other rumored November surprise), isn’t going to persuade undecided voters (though it might contribute to the collective demoralization of staunch Republicans and keep them from the polls.) But the flood of negativity is also giving ammunition for those who support Trump because they believe our electoral system and media are rigged and that he faces a massive political and media conspiracy that’s keeping him from the presidency.

The sheer volume of Trump scandals means that journalists have to answer questions about false balance and equivalency when they look into Clinton scandals. Report on concerns about the Clinton Foundation and you face reasonable questions about whether the sins of the Clinton Foundation are as rotten as those of the Trump Foundation, or whether influence peddling rises to the same level of importance as sexual harassment.

Report on Clinton missteps and you also run the danger of being lumped in with the vast right wing conspiracy that’s been generating “Hillary is the Devil” stories since the late 1990s. These stories have reached truly astounding levels of complexity and paranoia – Google “Clinton Death Count” for a quick dive into the world where the Clintons have ruthlessly killed dozens of friends and associates who’ve had the misfortune to cross their paths. When you report on a “legitimate” Clinton scandal, you run the risk of being considered one of those who believes Hillary strangled Vince Foster with her bare hands to satiate her naked blood lust, and you know the story you’re publishing gives more ammunition for those who blame Clinton for everything from Benghazi to the lack of a headphone jack on the iPhone 7.

With the death of Blackberry, Clinton has moved to Apple products and is worried that the phone jack leaves her vulnerable to FBI tapping. So she pressured Tim Cook into a product change he knew would tank the business so she could protect her nefarious communications. (I just made that up, but I expect to see it on Infowars by this evening.)

The net result of this batshit crazy election cycle is a Distributed Denial of Service attack on democracy. Like a webserver brought to its figurative knees by an endless flood of malformed requests, we are beginning to melt down under the avalanche of craziness. We’re left with the impression that this is an election between the possibly shady but unfairly attacked versus the truly unhinged… or between the thoroughly corrupt insider whos managed to undermine both government and the media versus the rough, offensive and often outrageous outsider who’s the only man she couldn’t bring down. We can’t move beyond those impressions because we are drowning in controversies and conspiracies, with very little help in understanding which matter and which we should take seriously.

That’s not good for us in the long run. I anticipate that Clinton will win the election, not in a landslide, but in a surprisingly close race. Almost immediately after taking office, she will be impeached, both because it’s a great way for the right to slow down any policy steps she might take (“Obviously, we can’t consider a candidate for the Supreme Court while the President is being impeached!”) and because there’s tons of data from Wikileaks and elsewhere that raises uncomfortable questions about the Clintons’ foundation and her service as secretary of state. Given the increasing polarization and paralysis of the government combined with the three ring circus of impeachment, the Hillary Clinton presidency will be historically unproductive, giving the Republicans a great chance to reposition themselves as the party of revolution, promising to blow up a broken system and replace it with something new that works. And this time around, they probably won’t nominate a serial molester who dodges taxes.

We need an oppositional press that vets candidates before we get this far in an election cycle. We needed investigations of Trump and Clinton’s foundations many months before the election. And we need new strategies, both as press and as voters, for navigating political cycles in which information is in surplus and attention is scarce.

Categories: Blog

Dumpsterfire 2016: What To Do When You Have No Idea What To Do

October 17, 2016 - 12:40pm

After the last presidential debate, I wrote on Twitter that the whole experience had left me wanting to take a shower… in sulfuric acid. Looking for an anger beyond fear, anger and despair, I made four donations – to a US NGO, an international NGO, a progressive candidate for the US House of Representatives, and a libertarian Republican candidate for the North Carolina state senate. I wrote about my decision to do this on Twitter and Facebook, urging my readers to find a way to do something that made them feel positive and affirmative about this increasingly terrifying and alienating election cycle.

A smart, considerate friend who is deeply informed about North Carolina politics took me to task for my support of Greg Doucette, the Republican I’d given the princely sum of $50 to. Doucette, she explained, is challenging a Democrat with a record she sees as admirable. Beyond that, the North Carolina GOP, as a whole, is taking terrible steps to limit the rights of transgender people. How could I provide any support to such a horrific party?

I’m not sure she’s right, nor am I sure she’s wrong. I was frustrated that my gesture towards personal friendship and bipartisanship suddenly put me in a position to justify the collective actions of a party I’d never vote for. And I felt embarrassed that I’d made a simple, quick personal gesture without consideration of the larger political implications, or without educating myself about Doucette’s opponent in his race.

I had some of the same feelings again today. In response to the horrific firebombing of a GOP field office in North Carolina, a group of progressive and democratic friends raised over $13,000 to help rebuild that space. On a mailing list that these friends and I frequent, a debate is now raging about whether this lovely gesture just creates fungible funding for the GOP, who almost certainly have insurance, and who will use this gift of progressive money to further conservative agendas. Again, I feel lousy – even though I wasn’t quick enough to join the campaign, which raised the money in 40 minutes! – and I wonder whether there’s any way to make even a symbolic kind action at this angry, bitter and partisan moment.

I decided that I’m going to try to shape my thinking with three rules to help me make decisions on questions like this over the next few weeks.

Action over inaction
My deepest fear over the 2016 election is not of revolution or armed uprising by angry Trump supporters, but merely a continuation of the long, slow process of disengagement with civics and politics as a whole. I’ve been writing and speaking for months now about my sense that the dominant trend in politics globally is mistrust of institutions, and that mistrust leads naturally to disengagement and a sense of disempowerment. Because the default is inaction, engagement over disengagement is a good rule to try and follow.

It should go without saying – though, this crazy year, nothing goes without saying – that I am advocating non-violent action, whether that’s protest, volunteering, canvassing, donating, making media, etc. It should also go without saying that informed, careful, considerate action is better than thoughtless, spontaneous action without considering the consequences. But it’s easy to fall into a cycle of critique that leads to paralysis.

People over party
I desperately want Donald Trump to lose this upcoming election. And I believe Hillary Clinton will be an excellent president. But I’m deeply frustrated that our political system gave us two candidates who are so widely disliked, guaranteeing a best case scenario in which a Clinton presidency is dogged at every turn by an angry, recalcitrant Republican house. I’m sick to my stomach thinking of another four years of paralysis, and frustrated that I have no answer for friends who wonder when will be the election cycle that we break out of a two party system and consider a wider range of alternatives.

I’ve voted Democrat all my life (with the notable exception of supporting William Weld over John Silber in 1990), but have always tried to understand the positions my Republican friends have taken. A foundational experience for me was visiting a Republican friend who’d been named chief of staff for Kansas senator (now governor) Sam Brownback in his new office in the Capitol. I intended for us to have a friendly visit, crack a few political jokes at each other’s expense and move on. Instead, my friend said, “Do we have any business to discuss?” I laughed and asked what issues Sam Brownback and I might possibly have common ground on. My friend immediately came up with two – increasing H1-B visas for high-skilled immigrants, and seeking increased funding to protect against violence in Central Africa. It was an amazing lesson that people can find things to agree on even when parties can’t.

I supported Greg Doucette because he’s a decent human being who shares many of my positions and values, especially around issues of criminal justice. But I supported him also because he’s running as a Republican, and I was thrilled to see an opportunity where I could support someone on “the other team”. Even if Clinton wins in a landslide, at least 40% of the US voting public is going to feel frustrated and alienated. I believe that building ties with people of like minds and good hearts across the aisle is work worth doing and has importance far beyond whoever wins or loses individual seats in this election.

Kindness over everything else
If you are a sentient being, Democrat, Republican or otherwise, this has been a tough election cycle. Many of my conservative friends are deeply dissatisfied with their nominee, and some are growing frustrated that their failure to support Hillary Clinton has lumped them into a basket of deplorables. Many of my progressive friends are angry at being told to support Clinton less apocalypse occur. Many women who are survivors of sexual abuse are triggered by Trump’s persistent and casual misogyny and bullying. African American friends are still reeling in anger from the continued stream of unarmed black men and women killed by police.

This is an ugly moment in time. Being kind to one another is one of the few things that’s unambiguously the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean just being courteous and polite. It means actually stopping to try and understand why people hold the beliefs they do. This excellent piece – provocatively named “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind” – is a good start, at least as regards understanding why people in rural areas of the US are feeling so forgotten and disrespected.

It’s also possible that kindness is the single most important and powerful thing you can do to make change in the world. Consider the story of Derek Black, who inherited a leadership role in the White Nationalist movement from his father, the founder of the Stormfront message board community. A fellow student at New College in Sarasota, Florida reached out to Black, inviting him to an interfaith shabbat dinner, not to confront him about his beliefs, but simply to reach out and include him. This kindness proved transformative – at great cost to his relationships with his family, Black has forsaken white nationalism.

Kindness works. I’m less sure that anything else does.

Categories: Blog

Going Solo – On hating and accepting change

September 18, 2016 - 5:26pm

I have not been writing much about my divorce on this blog – I’ve kept most of that discussion on Facebook. I thought this post, wrestling not only with the divorce, but unwanted change more generally, might be helpful for a broader audience.

I have been coming to grips with the uncomfortable realization that I am a conservative.

Not a political conservative – if anything, this election is hardening my identity as a progressive insurrectionist. Not a social conservative – that the world around me is more colorful, diverse and fluid by the day is a major source of joy. Personally conservative.

I don’t like change. I’d go as far as to say that I hate it.

I live in the same house I bought almost twenty years ago. It’s painted the same color it was then. It’s in, more or less, the only town I’ve lived in as an adult, the town I moved to for college twenty seven years ago. I’ve had the same damned non-hairstyle since I was sixteen.

Given my lived preferences, it appears that I would be happiest if everything in my immediate personal life could stay the same forever.

That, of course, isn’t an option.

Earlier today, my wife of seventeen years and I divorced in a ceremony she designed. It began with a blessing over wine in the battered, tarnished cup someone had given us at our wedding, engraved with the date. My beloved ex took the wine blessed in that cup, poured it into two red plastic Solo cups, and we each drank from our own. As the wine moved from a beloved relic into the table settings for a game of beer pong, I couldn’t help seeing this as a downgrade of a life together into two uncertain, lesser futures.

Which is, of course, wrong. Our lives are both already changing in ways that are healthy, unexpected and often delightful. I just need to get over hating the process.

What I’m learning – slowly, awkwardly, painfully – is that the changes I fear and dread have often already happened. By the time Rachel was ready to tell me she needed to end our relationship, it had changed a long time ago. We had stopped being the center of each other’s personal universes, had disengaged from the others passion and work, had begun sharing and confiding in other friends. My instinct was to fight these changes, to try and bring things back to the comfortable stability we had once enjoyed. I am grateful that Rachel fought to embrace the change, to step into the unknown, believing that things could be different and better.

My reaction to the end of my marriage with Rachel was to frantically reach out to old friends and demand they reassure me that they still loved me and that our relationship would never change. Some did. Some didn’t. In a few cases, friends took the opportunity to point out that we weren’t as close as we had been, that our friendship had already changed, or even ended, sometimes years before. They are right, too, and the onus is on me to discover what those friendships might be now, and what new spaces may have opened in my life as other friends have departed.

The problem with hating change is that it doesn’t stop it from happening. It just assures that change will happen to you, rather than allowing you to choose to make a change.

I am slowly learning to see the upside of my old nemesis. Some of what’s happened to me in the past year has been unbelievably wonderful. Those marvelous parts happened when, faced with a change that was already underway, I made a choice and made a change. My challenge now is to overcome my instinctive fear, this desire for everything to remain static and comfortable – despite its imperfections – and learn to love the changes. They’re coming anyway.

Categories: Blog

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