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…My Heart’s in Accra
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On me, and the Media Lab

August 20, 2019 - 6:28pm

A week ago last Friday, I spoke to Joi Ito about the release of documents that implicate Media Lab co-founder Marvin Minsky in Jeffrey Epstein’s horrific crimes. Joi told me that evening that the Media Lab’s ties to Epstein went much deeper, and included a business relationship between Joi and Epstein, investments in companies Joi’s VC fund was supporting, gifts and visits by Epstein to the Media Lab and by Joi to Epstein’s properties. As the scale of Joi’s involvement with Epstein became clear to me, I began to understand that I had to end my relationship with the MIT Media Lab. The following day, Saturday the 10th, I told Joi that I planned to move my work out of the MIT Media Lab by the end of this academic year, May 2020.

My logic was simple: the work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view. It’s hard to do that work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly in working with Epstein and in disguising that relationship.

I waited until Thursday the 15th for Joi’s apology to share the information with my students, staff, and a few trusted friends. My hope was to work with my team, who now have great uncertainty about their academic and professional futures, before sharing that news widely. I also wrote notes of apology to the recipients of the Media Lab Disobedience Prize, three women who were recognized for their work on the #MeToo in STEM movement. It struck me as a terrible irony that their work on combatting sexual harassment and assault in science and tech might be damaged by their association with the Media Lab. The note I sent to those recipients made its way to the Boston Globe, which ran a story about it this evening. And so, my decision to leave the Media Lab has become public well before I had intended it to.

That’s okay. I feel good about my decision, and I’m hoping my decision can open a conversation about what it’s appropriate for people to do when they discover the institution they’ve been part of has made terrible errors. My guess is that the decision is different for everyone involved. I know that some friends are committed to staying within the lab and working to make it a better, fairer and more transparent place, and I will do my best to support them over the months I remain at the Lab. For me, the deep involvement of Epstein in the life of the Media Lab is something that makes my work impossible to carry forward there.

To clarify a couple of things, since I haven’t actually been able to control the release of information here:

– I am not resigning because I had any involvement with Epstein. Joi asked me in 2014 if I wanted to meet Epstein, and I refused and urged him not to meet with him. We didn’t speak about Epstein again until last Friday.

– I don’t have another university that I’m moving to or another job offer. I just knew that I couldn’t continue the work under the Media Lab banner. I’ll be spending much of this year – and perhaps years to come – seeing if there’s another place to continue this work. Before I would commit to moving the work elsewhere at MIT, I would need to understand better whether the Institute knew about the relationship with Epstein and whether they approved of his gifts.

– I’m not leaving tomorrow. That wouldn’t be responsible – I have classes I am committed to teaching and students who are finishing their degrees. I plan to leave at the end of this academic year.

– My first priority is taking care of my students and staff, who shouldn’t have to suffer because Joi made a bad decision and I decided I couldn’t live with it. My second priority is to help anyone at the Media Lab who wants to turn this terrible situation into a chance to make the Lab a better place. That includes Joi, if he’s able to do the work necessary to transform the Media Lab into a place that’s more consistent with its stated values.

I’m aware of the privilege that it’s been to work at a place filled with as much creativity and brilliance as the Media Lab. But I’m also aware that privilege can be blinding, and can cause people to ignore situations that should be simple matters of right and wrong. Everyone at the Media Lab is going through a process of figuring out how they should react to the news of Epstein and his engagement with the Lab. I hope that everyone else gets to do it first with their students and teams before doing it in the press.

Categories: Blog

Training the next generation of ethical techies

August 14, 2019 - 7:53am

My friend Christian Sandvig, who directs the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing at the University of Michigan, started an interesting thread on Twitter yesterday. It began:

“I’m super suspicious of the “rush to postdocs” in academic #AI ethics/fairness. Where the heck are all of these people with real technical chops who are also deeply knowledgeable about ethics/fairness going to come from… since we don’t train people that way in the first place.”

Christian goes on to point out that it’s exceedingly rare for someone with PhD-level experience in machine learning to have a strong background in critical theory, intersectionality, gender studies and ethics. We’re likely to see a string of CS PhDs lost in humanities departments and well-meaning humanities scholars writing about tech issues they don’t fully understand.

I’m lucky to have students doing cutting-edge work on machine learning and ethics in my lab. But I’m also aware of just how unique individuals like Joy Buolamwini and Chelsea Barabas are. And realizing I mostly agree with Christian, I also think it’s worth asking how we start training people who can think rigorously and creatively about technology and ethics.

It’s certainly a good time to have this conversation. There’s debates about whether AI could ever make fair decisions given the need to extrapolate from data in an unfair world, whether we can avoid encoding racial and gender biases into automated systems, and whether AI systems will damage the concept of meaningful work. In my area of focus, there are complex and worthwhile conversations taking place about whether social media is leading towards extremism and violence, whether online interaction increases polarization and damages democracy, or whether surveillance capitalism can ever be ethically acceptable. And I see my colleagues in the wet sciences dealing with questions that make my head hurt. Should you be able to engineer estrogen in your kitchen so you can transition from male to female? Should we engineer mice to kill off deer ticks in the hopes of ending Lyme disease?

That last question has been a major one for friend and colleague Kevin Esvelt, who has been wrestling with tough ethical questions like who gets to decide if your community (Nantucket Island, for instance) should be a testbed for this technology? What is informed consent when it comes to releasing mice engineered with CRISPR gene drive into a complex ecosystem? Admirably, Dr. Esvelt has been working hard to level up in ethics and community design practices, but his progress just points to the need for scholars who straddle these different topics.

I think we need to start well before the postdoc to start training people who are comfortable in the worlds of science, policy and ethics. Specifically, I think we should start at the undergraduate level. By the time we admit you into somewhere like the Media Lab, we need you to already be thinking critically and carefully about the technology we’re asking you to invent and build.

I was lucky enough attend Williams College, which focused on the liberal arts and didn’t seem to care much what you studied so long as you got into some good arguments. I was in a dorm that had a residential seminar, which meant that everyone in my hall took the same class in ethics. Arguments about moral relativism continued over dinner and late into the night, in one case ending with a student threatening another with a machete in her desire to make her point. It wasn’t the most restful frosh year, but it cemented some critical ideas that have served me well over the years:

– Smart people may disagree with you about key issues, and you may be both making reasonable, logical arguments but starting from different sets of core values
– If you feel strongly about something, it behooves you to understand and strengthen your own arguments
– You probably don’t really understand something unless you can teach it to someone else

My guess is that courses that force us to have these sorts of arguments are critical to unpacking the intricacies of emerging technologies and their implications. To be clear, there’s the field of science and technology studies, which makes these questions central to its debates. But I think it’s possible to sharpen these cognitive skills in any field where the work of scholarship is in debating rival interpretations of the same facts. Was American independence from England the product of democratic aspirations, or economic ones? Is Lear mad, or is he the only truly sane one?

The fact that there’s dozens of legitimate answers to these questions can make them frustrating in fields where the goal is to calculate a single (very difficult) answer… but the problems we’re starting to face around regulating tech are complex, squishy questions. Should governments regulate dangerous speech online? Or platforms? Should communities work to develop and enforce their own speech standards? My guess is that answer looks more like an analysis of Lear’s madness than like the decomposition of a matrix.

But liberal arts isn’t all you’d want to teach if the goal is to prepare people who could work in the intersection of tech, ethics and policy. Much of my work is with policymakers who desperately want to solve problems, but often don’t know enough about the technology they’re trying to fix to actually make things better. I also work closely with social change leaders like Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She came to our lab to learn about algorithmic bias, noting that if the NAACP LDF had been able to fight redlining two generations ago, we might not face the massive wealth gap that divides Black and White Americans. Sherrilyn believes the next generation of redlining will be algorithmic, and that social justice organizations need to understand algorithmic bias to combat it. We need people who understand new technologies well enough to analyze them and explain their implications to those who would govern them.

My guess is that this sort of work doesn’t require a PhD. What it requires is understanding a field well enough that you can discern what’s likely, what’s possible and what’s impossible. One of my dearest friends is a physicist who now evaluates clean energy and carbon capture technologies, but has also written on topics from nuclear disarmament to autonomous vehicles. His PhD work is on Bose-Einstein condensate, a strange state of matter that involves superimposing atoms at very low temperatures by trapping them in place with lasers. His PhD and postdoc work have basically nothing to do with the topics he works on, but the basis he has in understanding complex systems and the implications of physical laws means he can quickly tell you that it’s possible to pull CO2 from the environment and turn it into diesel fuel, but that it’s probably going to be very expensive to do so.

I’m imagining a generation of students who have a solid technical background, the equivalent of a concentration if not a major in a field like computer science, as well as a sequence of courses that help people speak, write, argue and teach technological issues. We’d offer classes – which might or might not be about tech topics – that help teach students to write for popular audiences as well as academic ones, that help students learn how you write an oped and make a convincing presentation. We’d coach students on teaching technical topics in their field to people outside of their fields, perhaps the core skillset necessary in being a scientific or technical advisor.

There’s jobs for people with this hybrid skill set right now. The Ford Foundation has been hard at work creating the field of “Public Interest Technology”, a profession in which people use technical skills to change the world for the better. This might mean working in a nonprofit like NAACP LDF to help leaders like Sherrilyn understand what battles are most important to fight in algorithmic justice, or in a newsroom, helping journalists maintain secure channels with their sources. I predict that graduates with this hybrid background will be at a premium as companies like Facebook and YouTube look to figure out whether their products can be profitable without being corrosive to society… and the students who come out with critical faculties and the ability to communicate their concerns well will be positioned to advocate for real solutions to these problems. (And if they aren’t able to influence the directions the companies take, they’ll make great leaders of Tech Won’t Build It protests.)

(I was visiting Williams today and discovered a feature on their website about four alums who’ve taken on careers that are right at the center of Public Interest tech.)

Building a program in tech, ethics and policy helps address a real problem liberal arts colleges are experiencing right now. The number of computer science majors has doubled at American universities and colleges between 2013 and 2017, while the number of tenure-track professors increased only by 17%, leading the New York Times to report that the hardest part of a computer science major may be getting a seat in a class. Really terrific schools like Williams can’t hire CS faculty fast enough, and graduates of programs like the one I teach in at MIT are often choosing between dozens of excellent job offers.

Not all those people signing up for CS courses are going to end up writing software for a living – my exposure to CS at Williams helped me discover that I cared deeply about tech and its implications, but that I was a shitty programmer. Building a strong program focused on technology, ethics and policy would offer another path for students like me who were fascinated with the implications of technology, but less interested in becoming a working programmer. It also would take some of the stress off CS professors as students took on a more balanced courseload, building skills in writing, communications, argument and presentation as well as technical skills.

Christian Sandvig is right to be worried that we’re forcing scholars who are already far into their intellectual journeys into postdocs intended to deal with contemporary problems. But the problem is not that we’re asking scholars to take on these new intellectual responsibilities – it’s that we should have started training them ten years before the postdoc to take on these challenges.

Categories: Blog

Philanthropy and the hand-off – what happens if government can’t scale social experiments?

August 5, 2019 - 12:15pm

My friend and (lucky for me) boss Joi Ito has an excellent essay in Wired which considers the challenges of measuring the impact of philanthropy. For Joi, one of the key problems is that social problems are complex, and the metrics we use to understand them too simple. Too often we’re measuring something that’s a proxy for something else – we can measure circulation levels at libraries as a proxy for their usage, but we’ll miss all the novel ways libraries are reaching communities through makerspaces, classrooms and public spaces. What we need are better ways of understanding and measuring the resilience and robustness of systems, not just simple proxies that measure growth or contraction.

Joi’s meditation on measurement is consistent with his current intellectual interests: irreducible complexity and resisting reduction. And, like Joi, I’m obsessed with how philanthropy could do a better job at making progress on social challenges. I’ve done my own work around measuring impact with the Media Cloud platform, as my friend Anya Schiffrin and I explored in this article on measuring the impact of foundation funded journalism.

But I came away from Joi’s article wondering if there wasn’t a major factor he missed: the disappearance of governments from the equation of social change. Joi works with some of the biggest and wealthiest players in American philanthropy – the Knight and MacArthur Foundations. I work with some of the others – the Open Society Foundation, the Ford Foundation. We’ve both been involved with helping invest enormous sums of money… and we’ve both learned that those sums aren’t so enormous when you put them up against massive social challenges, like addressing poverty through improved school quality. There are models that could work at scale – the model pioneered by Geoffrey Canada as the Harlem Children’s Zone starts working with children pre-birth, through parenting classes and follows students through high school and into college. But it’s depended on massive infusions of private investment, and when the Obama administration sought to replicate its success as “promise zones”, the project received only a small percentage of the funds the President sought for it, and its impacts are likely to be quite diffuse.

It’s possible for philanthropists to fund experiments, even multi-decade experiments like Harlem Children’s Zone. But it’s unlikely that philanthropists can, or should, take responsibility for solving problems like intergenerational poverty in African American communities. At best, we ask phianthropists to enable and lift up promising experiments, in the hopes that governments could learn from those results and adopt best policies. But since the Reagan/Thatcher moment of the 1980s, we’ve expected less and less from our governments, and they’ve seemed less able partners to transform societies for the better. I’m increasingly worried that working with philanthropies – something I spend a great deal of my time doing – is missing the larger point. We need revolutionary change, where government becomes part of the solution again, not better metrics within philanthropy.

In the spirit of the mid-2000s, Joi, I’m opening a blog conversation – do I have it right, or do you believe that philanthropy without handing ideas off to governments to scale? And if those governments aren’t there to receive these experiments, what are we spending our time on in philanthropy?

Categories: Blog

Beyond the Vast Wasteland: briefing Congresspeople for the Aspen Institute

July 31, 2019 - 1:49pm

I was privileged to speak to a gathering of Senators and Representatives who came to MIT for an Aspen Institute event in May, 2019 titled “Internet, Big Data and Algorithms: Threats to Privacy and Freedom, or Gateway to a New Future”. It was a pleasure to share the stage with old friends Jonathan Zittrain and Cathy O’Neil as well as my student Joy Buolamwini, qnd a wonderful opportunity to share some of my thinking about the future of social media with lawmakers who could help or hinder this vision becoming a reality. This piece draws on my earlier piece “Six or Seven Things Social Media Can Do for Democracy”, as well as a speech from late 2018, “We Make the Media”. More forthcoming on this topic later this summer/early fall.

In 1961, the newly appointed chairman of the FCC, Newt Minow, addressed the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington DC. Minow’s speech demanded that broadcasters take seriously the idea that serve the public interest – and distinguished the public interest from simply what interests the public. And Minow coined an unforgettable phrase to explain what a poor job broadcasters were doing. Challenging executives to watch a day of their own programming without anything to distract or divert them, Minow declared, “I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

There have been hundreds of articles written over the past two years about social media that might have been better titled “a vast wasteland”. This flood of articles argues that social media often doesn’t work the way we think it should, that partisan manipulation of Facebook may be swaying elections, and that extremism on YouTube may be contributing to a wave of ethnonationalist violence. It’s a thoroughly appropriate moment to evaluate whether social media is making our society and our democracy stronger, or pulling it apart. From Cambridge Analytica to Comet Ping Pong to the massacre in New Zealand, alarm bells are sounding that not all is well in our online public spaces.

But Minow’s speech didn’t end with a condemnation of the sorry state of broadcasting in 1961. Instead, Minow articulated a vision for television to inform, enlighten and entertain, a future he hoped to achieve without censorship, without replacing private companies with government entities, and mostly through voluntary compliance. And, with 1967’s Public Broadcasting Act, the founding of PBS in 1969 and NPR in 1970, a surprising amount of Minow’s vision came to pass.

It’s important that we consider the real and potential harms linked to the rise of social media, from increasing political polarization, the spread of mis-, dis- and malinformation to trolling, bullying and online abuse. But much as television was in its teenage years in the early 1960s, social media isn’t going away any time soon. It’s essential that we have a positive vision for what social media can be as well as a critical take on mitigating its harms.

I’m interested in what social media should do for us as citizens in a democracy. We talk about social media as a digital public sphere, invoking Habermas and coffeehouses frequented by the bourgeoisie. Before we ask whether the internet succeeds as a public sphere, we ought to ask whether that’s actually what we want it to be.

I take my lead here from journalism scholar Michael Schudson, who took issue with a hyperbolic statement made by media critic James Carey: “journalism as a practice is unthinkable except in the context of democracy; in fact, journalism is usefully understood as another name for democracy.” For Schudson, this was a step too far. Journalism may be necessary for democracy to function well, but journalism by itself is not democracy and cannot produce democracy. Instead, we should work to understand the “Six or Seven Things News Can Do for Democracy”, the title of an incisive essay Schudson wrote to anchor his book, Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press.

The six things Schudson sees news currently doing for democracy are presented in order of their frequency – as a result, the first three functions Schudson sees are straightforward and unsurprising. The news informs us about events, locally and globally, that we need to know about as citizens. The news investigates issues that are not immediately obvious, doing the hard work of excavating truths that someone did not want told. News provides analysis, knitting reported facts into complex possible narratives of significance and direction.

Schudson wades into deeper waters with the next three functions. News can serve as a public forum, allowing citizens to raise their voices through letters to the editor, op-eds and (when they’re still permitted) through comments. The news can serve as a tool for social empathy, helping us feel the importance of social issues through careful storytelling, appealing to our hearts as well as our heads. Controversially, Schudson argues, news can be a force for mobilization, urging readers to take action, voting, marching, protesting, boycotting, or using any of the other tools we have access to as citizens.

His essay closes with a seventh role that Schudson believes the news should fill, even if it has yet to embrace it. The news can be a force for the promotion of representative democracy. For Schudson, this includes the idea of protecting minority rights against the excesses of populism, and he sees a possible role for journalists in ensuring that these key protections remain in force.

This is perhaps not an exhaustive list, nor is the news required to do all that Schudson believes it can do. Neither does the list include things that the news tries to do that aren’t necessarily connected to democracy, like providing an advertising platform for local businesses, providing revenue for publishers, or entertaining audiences. And Schudson acknowledges that these functions can come into conflict – the more a news organization engages in mobilization, the more likely it is that it will compromise their ability to inform impartially.

In this same spirit, I’d like to suggest six or seven things social media can do for democracy. As with Schudson’s list, these functions are not exhaustive – obviously, social media entertains us, connects us with family, friends and any advertiser willing to pay for the privilege, in addition to the civic functions I outline here. Furthermore, as with news media, these civic purposes are not always mutually reinforcing and can easily come into conflict. (And because I’m much less learned than Schudson, my list may be incomplete or just plain wrong.)

Social media can inform us.
Many of us have heard the statistic that a majority of young people see Facebook as a primary source for news , and virtually every newsroom now considers Facebook as an important distributor of their content (sometimes to their peril.) But that’s not what’s most important in considering social media as a tool for democracy. Because social media is participatory, it is a tool people use to create and share information with friends and family, and potentially the wider world. Usually this information is of interest only to a few people – it’s what you had for lunch, or the antics of the squirrel in your backyard. But sometimes the news you see is of intense importance to the rest of the world.

When protesters took to the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, they were visible to the world through Facebook even though the Tunisian government had prevented journalists from coming to the town. Videos from Facebook made their way to Al Jazeera through Tunisian activists in the diaspora, and Al Jazeera rebroadcast footage, helping spread the protests to Tunis and beyond. The importance of social media in informing us is that it provides a channel for those excluded by the news – whether through censorship, as in Tunisia, or through disinterest or ignorance – to have their voices and issues heard.

Places don’t need to be as far away as Tunisia for social media to be a conduit for information – when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, many people learned of his death, the protests that unfolded in the wake, and the militarized response to those protests, via Twitter. (And as news reporters were arrested for covering events in Ferguson, they turned to Twitter to share news of their own detention.) Social media is critically important in giving voice to communities who’ve been systemically excluded from media – people of color, women, LGBTQIA people, poor people. By giving people a chance to share their under-covered perspectives with broadcast media, social media has a possible role in making the media ecosystem more inclusive and fair.

Finally, social media may be in helping replace or augment local information, as people connect directly with their children’s schools or with community organizations. This function is increasingly important as local newspapers shed staff or close altogether, as social media may become the primary conduit for local information.

Social media can amplify important voices and issues.
In traditional (broadcast or newspaper) media, editors decide what topics are worth the readers’ attention. This “agenda setting” function has enormous political importance – as Max McCombs and Donald Shaw observed in 1972, the news doesn’t tell us what to think, but it’s very good at telling us what to think about.

That agenda-setting power takes a different shape in the era of social media. Instead of a linear process from an editor’s desk through a reporter to the paper on your front porch, social media works with news media through a set of feedback loops . Readers make stories more visible by sharing them on social media (and help ensure invisibility by failing to share stories). Editors and writers respond to sharing as a signal of popularity and interest, and will often write more stories to capitalize on this interest. Readers may respond to stories by becoming authors, injecting their stories into the mix and competing with professional stories for attention and amplification.

Amplification has become a new form of exercising political power. In 2012, we watched Invisible Children use a carefully crafted campaign, built around a manipulative video and a strategy of sharing the video with online influencers. Within an few days, roughly half of American young people had seen the video, and US funding for the Ugandan military – the goal of the campaign – was being supported by powerful people in the US Congress and military . (That the organization’s director had a nervous breakdown, leading to the group’s implosion, was not a coincidence – Invisible Children managed to amplify an issue to a level of visibility where powerful backlash was inevitable.)

Amplification works within much smaller circles that those surrounding US foreign policy. By sharing content with small personal networks on social media, individuals signal the issues they see as most important and engage in a constant process of self-definition. In the process, they advocate for friends to pay attention to these issues as well. Essentially, social media provides an efficient mechanism for the two-step flow of communication, documented by Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz , to unfold online. We are less influenced by mass media than we are by opinion leaders, who share their opinions about mass media. Social media invites all of us to become opinion leaders, at least for our circles of friends, and makes the process entertaining, gamifying our role as influencers by rewarding us with up to the second numbers on how our tweets and posts have been liked and shared by our friends.

Social media can be a tool for connection and solidarity.
The pre-web internet of the 1980s and 1990s was organized around topics of interest, rather than offline friendships, as social networks like Facebook organize. Some of the most long-lasting communities that emerged from the Usenet era of the internet were communities of interest that connected people who had a hard time finding each other offline: young people questioning their sexuality, religious and ethnic minorities, people with esoteric or specialized interests. The spirit of the community of interest and identity continued through Scott Hefferman’s meetup.com, which helped poodle owners or Bernie Sanders supporters in Des Moines find each other, and now surfaces again in Facebook Groups, semi-private spaces designed to allow people to connect with likeminded individuals in safe, restricted spaces.

Social critics, notably Robert Putnam, have worried that the internet is undermining our sense of community and lessening people’s abilities to engage in civic behavior. Another possibility is that we’re forming new bonds of solidarity based on shared interests than on shared geographies. I think of Jen Brea, whose academic career at Harvard was cut short by myalgic encephalomyelitis , who used the internet to build an online community of fellow disease sufferers, a powerful documentary film that premiered at Sundance, and a powerful campaign calling attention to the ways diseases that disproportionately affect women are systemically misdiagnosed. Brea’s disease makes it difficult for her to connect with her local, physical community, but social media has made it possible to build a powerful community of interest that is working on helping people live with their disease.

One of the major worries voiced about social media is the ways in which it can increase political polarization. Communities of solidarity can both exacerbate and combat that problem. We may end up more firmly rooted in our existing opinions, or we may create a new set of weak ties to people who we may disagree with in terms of traditional political categories, but with whom we share powerful bonds around shared interests, identities and struggles.

Social media can be a space for mobilization

The power of social media to raise money for candidates, recruit people to participate in marches and rallies, to organize boycotts of products or the overthrow of governments is one of the best-documented – and most debated – powers of social media. From Clay Shirky’s examination of group formation and mobilization in Here Comes Everybody to endless analyses of the power of Facebook and Twitter in mobilizing youth in Tahrir Square or Gezi Park, including Zeynep Tufekçi’s Twitter and Tear Gas, the power of social media to both recruit people to social movements and to organize actions offline has been well documented. It’s also been heartily critiqued, from Malcolm Gladwell, who believes that online connections can never be as powerful as real-world strong ties for leading people to protest, or by thinkers like Tufekçi, who readily admit that the ease of mobilizing people online is an Achilles heel, teaching leaders like Erdogan to discount the importance of citizens protesting in the streets.

It’s worth noting that mobilization online does not have to lead to offline action to be effective. A wave of campaigns like Sleeping Giants, which has urged advertisers to pull support from Breitbart, or #metoo, where tens of thousands of women have demonstrated that sexual harassment is a pervasive condition, not just the product of a few Harvey Weinsteins, have connected primarily online action to real-world change. What’s increasingly clear is that online mobilization – like amplification – is simply a tool in the contemporary civic toolkit, alongside more traditional forms of organizing.

Social media can be a space for deliberation and debate.
Perhaps no promise of social media has been more disappointing than hope that social media would provide us with an inclusive public forum. Newspapers began experimenting with participatory media through open comments fora, and quickly discovered that online discourse was often mean, petty, superficial and worth ignoring. Moving debate from often anonymous comment sections onto real-name social networks like Facebook had less of a mediating effect that many hoped. While conversations less often devolve into insults and shouting, everyone who’s shared political news online has had the experience of a friend or family member ending an online friendship over controversial content. It’s likely that the increasing popularity of closed online spaces, like Facebook groups, has to do with the unwillingness of people to engage in civil deliberation and debate, and the hope that people can find affirmation and support for their views rather than experiencing conflict and tension.

Yet it is possible to create spaces for deliberation and debate within social media. Wael Ghonim was the organizer of the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, one of the major groups that mobilized “Tahrir youth” to stand up to the Mubarak regime, leading to the most dramatic changes to come out of the Arab Spring. After the revolution, Ghonim was deeply involved with democratic organizing in Egypt. He became frustrated with Facebook, which was an excellent platform for rallying people and harnessing anger, but far less effective in enabling nuanced debate about political futures. Ghonim went on to build his own social network, Parlio, which focused on civility and respectful debate, featuring dialogs with intellectuals and political leaders rather than updates on what participants were eating for lunch or watching on TV. The network had difficulty scaling, but was acquired by Quora, the question-answering social network, which was attracted to Parlio’s work in building high-value conversations that went beyond questions and answers .

Parlio suggests that the dynamics of social networks as we understand them have to do with the choices made by their founders and governing team. Facebook and Twitter can be such unpleasant places because strong emotions lead to high engagement, and engagement sells ads. Engineer a different social network around different principles, and it’s possible that the deliberation and debate we might hope from a digital public sphere could happen within a platform.
Social media can be a tool for showing us a diversity of views and perspectives.

Social media could serve as a tool to increase diversity of our networks
The hope that social media could serve as a tool for introducing us to people we don’t already know – and particularly to people we don’t agree with – may seem impossibly cyberutopian. Indeed, I wrote a book, Rewire, that argues that social media tends to reinforce homophily, the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. Given the apparent track record of social media as a space where ethnonationalism and racism thrive, skepticism that social media can introduce us to new perspectives seems eminently reasonable.

Contemporary social networks have an enormous amount of potential diversity, but very little manifest diversity. In theory, you can connect with 2 billion people from virtually every country in the world on Facebook. In practice, you connect with a few hundred people you know offline, who tend to share your national origin, race, religion and politics. But a social network that focused explicitly on broadening your perspectives would have a tremendous foundation to build upon: networks like Facebook know a great deal about who you already pay attention to, and have a deep well of alternative content to draw from.

Projects like FlipFeed from MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines and gobo.social from my group at the MIT Media Lab explicitly re-engineer your social media feeds to encourage encounters with a more diverse set of perspectives. If a network like Twitter or Facebook concluded that increased diversity was a worthy metric to manage to, there’s dozens of ways to accomplish the goal, and rich questions to be solved in combining increased diversity with a user’s interests to accomplish serendipity, rather than increased randomness.

Social media can be a model for democratically governed spaces.
Users in social networks like Twitter and Facebook have little control over how those networks are governed, despite the great value they collectively create for platform owners. This disparity has led Rebecca MacKinnon to call for platform owners to seek Consent of the Networked, and Trebor Scholz to call us to recognize participation in social networks as Digital Labor. But some platforms have done more than others to engage their communities in governance.

Reddit is the fourth most popular site on the US internet and sixth most popular site worldwide, as measured by Alexa Internet, and is a daily destination for at least 250 million users. The site is organized into thousands of “subreddits”, each managed by a team of uncompensated, volunteer moderators, who determine what content is allowable in each community. The result is a wildly diverse set of conversations, ranging from insightful conversations about science and politics in some communities, to ugly, racist, misogynistic, hateful speech in others. The difference in outcomes in those communities comes in large part to differences in governance and to the partipants each community attracts.

Some Reddit communities have begun working with scholars to examine scientifically how they could govern their communities more effectively. /r/science, a community of 18 million subscribers and over a thousand volunteer moderators, has worked with communications scholar Nathan Matias to experiment with ways of enforcing their rules to maximize positive discussions and throw out fewer rulebreakers . The ability to experiment with different rules in different parts of a site and to study what rulesets best enable what kinds of conversations could have benefits for supporters of participatory democracy offline as well as online.

Beyond the vast wasteland

It’s fair to point out that the social media platforms we use today don’t fulfill all these functions. Few have taken steps to increase the diversity of opinions users are exposed to, and though many have tried to encourage civil discourse, very few have succeeded. It’s likely that some of these goals are incompatible with current ad supported business models. Political polarization and name-calling may well generate more pageviews than diversity and civil deliberation.
Some of these proposed functions are likely incompatible. Communities that favor solidarity and subgroup identity, or turn that identity into mobilization, aren’t the best ones to support efforts for diversity or for dialog.

Finally, it’s also fair to note that there’s a dark side to every democratic function I’ve listed. The tools that allow marginalized people to report their news and influence media are the same ones that allow fake news to be injected into the media ecosystem. Amplification is a technique used by everyone from Black Lives Matter to neo-Nazis, as is mobilization, and the spaces for solidarity that allow Jen Brea to manage her disease allow “incels” to push each other towards violence. While I feel comfortable advocating for respectful dialog and diverse points of view, someone will see my advocacy as an attempt to push politically correct multiculturalism down their throat, or to silence the exclusive truth of their perspectives through dialog. The bad news is that making social media work better for democracy likely means making it work better for the Nazis as well. The good news is that there’s a lot more participatory democrats than there are Nazis.

My aim in putting forward seven things social media could do for democracy is two-fold. As we demand that Facebook, Twitter and others do better – and we should – we need to know what we’re asking for. I want Facebook to be more respectful of my personal information, more dedicated to helping me connect with my friends than marketing me to advertisers, but I also want them to be thinking about which of these democratic goals they hope to achieve.

The most profound changes Newt Minow inspired in television happened outside of commercial broadcasting, in the new space of public broadcasting. I believe we face a similar public media moment for social media. Achieving the democratic aims for social media outlined here requires a vision of social media that is plural in purpose, public in spirit and participatory in governance. Rather than one social network that fills all our needs, we need thousands of different social networks that serve different communities, meeting their needs for conversation with different rules, norms and purposes.

We need tools that break the silos of contemporary social media, allowing a citizen to follow conversations in dozens of different spaces with a single tool. Some of these spaces will be ad or subscription supported, while some might be run by local governments with taxpayer funds, but some subset of social media needs to consciously serve the public interest as its primary goal.

Finally, farming the management of online spaces to invisible workers half a world away from the conversations they’re moderating isn’t a viable model for maintaining public discussions. Many of these new spaces will be experiments in participatory governance, where participants will be responsible for determining and enforcing the local rules of the road.

We accept the importance of a free and vibrant press to the health of our democracy. It’s time to consider the importance of the spaces where we deliberate and debate that news, where we form coalitions and alliances, launch plans and provide support to each other. The free press had defenders like Thomas Jefferson, who declared that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”.

The health of our digital public spheres is arguably as important, and worth our creative engagement as we imagine and build spaces that help us become better citizens. Social media as a vast wasteland is not inevitable, and it should not be acceptable. Envisioning a better way in which we interact with each other online is one of the signature problems of modern democracy and one that demands the attention of anyone concerned with democracy’s health in the 21st century.

Categories: Blog

Thinking in Solid

July 29, 2019 - 12:18pm

“Why does Amazon ask me to review something the day it arrives?” Amy asks. “I usually don’t know if it’s any good for a couple of weeks. They should email you again a hundred days later.”

We’re walking the dog on the Ashuwillticook rail trail, which runs along side Cheshire Lake, a few miles from our house. When we manage to get our schedules in sync, this is one of my favorite rituals. We walk four miles in a little more than an hour. The doggo gets properly exercised and we get the chance to talk about whatever’s on our minds.

Amy has been sewing new cushions for our patio furniture since the previous ones decayed. Her mind is on reviews of patio furniture. You have no idea if your patio furniture is any good until you’ve had it for at least one season, and it should be possible to sort reviews on Amazon and find only the ones by folks posting after they’ve owned things and lived with them for a while.

What’s on my mind is a talk Tim Berners-Lee gave about Solid, and decentralized models for rebuilding the web. And because we’re walking the dog, these trains of thought merge on the rail trail, and we start designing a new product review site based on Solid.

Amazon reviews work by keeping track of what products you’ve ordered and when they’ve been delivered. A day or two after Amazon believes they’ve been successfully delivered, they ask you to review the product, giving it between 1-5 stars and a short review.

There’s all sorts of things wrong with this system. Only 3-10% of consumers rate any given purchase, and only about 40% of consumers rate at all. We’re more likely to review a product that we loved, or one we really, really hated, so reviews tend towards binary extremes – ones and fives, with very few twos, threes and fours. And while Amazon requires you to purchase an item before it will let you review it, there’s still a vast ecosystem of review fraud, in which sellers refund the cost of an item and send a bonus in exchange for five star reviews. This practice is so common that as many as one in three online reviews may be fake in some product categories (inexpensive electronics, in particular), and a group of watchdogs, including ReviewMeta and FakeSpot have sprung up to combat fake reviews. Amazon reports that it’s putting significant resources into combatting review fraud.

These are real problems, and none of these are the problem Amy wants to fix. Amazon could implement her suggestion – it knows when you purchased outdoor cushions and could email you in 100 days and then again at 400 days for “lifetime” reviews of a product. It’s not clear whether they would. Imagine that reviews submitted months later were more negative than those made at time of purchase. Amazon needs some negative reviews – most consumers are smart enough to grow suspicious when they encounter only positive reviews – but a consistent pattern in which purchases become more disappointing over time might retard sales. Independent review sites like TrustPilot – which has its own serious review fraud problems – could build this service, but they lack key pieces of information: the date that you purchased something, and the ability to verify that you actually paid for it.

Turns out Amy’s service is very easy to build in a Solid world. In Solid, you store data in a “pod”, a data store you control either on your own server at home, or cloud space you control. When you buy something from Amazon, you make a record in your pod of the transaction; Amazon does the same, so they can update their inventory, send you your shipment, etc. Because you have access to your transaction records, you can write a simple tool to ping you 100 days after you’ve bought something to review it. You could write the review on Amazon, TrustPilot, or a new Solid-compliant LifetimeReviews, which would allow you to keep the contents of your review in your Pod, but would include it in a search on the LifetimeReviews.solid site for reviews of patio furniture (with your permission, of course.) In fact, LifetimeReviews.solid would invite you to share a subset of the data stored in your pod so it could prompt you 100 days later about every purchase you’ve made on any different Solid-compliant platform and collect reviews on any product you were willing to evaluate. You’d own those reviews – they’d be stored on your pod – but it would provide a useful service in indexing those reviews and making them available to the rest of the web.

Building a novel product review service in the contemporary Web can feel both impossible and futile. If it were worth building, Amazon would have a massive advantage in building it, given the amount of transactional data they already control… and they’d probably block you from using “their” (your) data to build such a service. And if you succeeded, they’ll just implement their own version of your feature, putting you out of business. And if it were widely used, it would almost certainly be filled with fraud much as Amazon’s system already is. Why bother?

I’m trying to remember what the web felt like in the early 1990s, when there was so much left to build and such low barriers to building it. We built silly and frivolous shit all the time, and occasionally, it turned out to be useful and important. The homepage builder, the product that ultimately attracted users to Tripod, was built essentially on a lark. It took months for us to realize that it was going to be popular and years to realize it would become the heart of our business.

I think Solid has me thinking about those early days because it promises a world of permissionless innovation. Obtaining Amazon’s permission to build a new type of review site feels essentially impossible; the idea that I might build something new – possibly cool, possibly frivolous – and only need the permission of the people who want to use it feels liberating.

Here’s what I really want to build: a news-factchecking tool that lets me control what’s considered a reliable source, rather than giving Facebook that control. And I know how to build it. And I can’t.

Gobo.social lets you integrate posts from different social media – Twitter, Mastodon and parts of Facebook – into a single feed, which you can sort and filter as you’d like. A team in my lab built it so we could experiment with two ideas:
– People should have the ability to filter their newsfeeds as they choose, not as Facebook chooses.
– We need social media browsers that let us manage our different identities, communities and preferences with a single tool, instead of through dozens of incompatible silos.

In one sense, Gobo has been a success – it’s generated some robust discussion about how social media could work better for its users. But in another sense, it’s been an uncomfortable reminder that innovation these days is anything BUT permissionless. Thus far, Gobo has played by the rules – we’ve used the documented APIs offered by social media platforms, which has meant we have full access to Twitter and Mastodon content, but only very limited access to Facebook. The Facebook API gives us access to the Pages you follow, but not to the posts from any of your friends. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t follow a lot of pages, which tend to be run by marketing departments, not by real people.) It could be worse – we just spent six months trying to get permission from LinkedIn to access their API and were flat-out denied.

We could – and may – integrate social media another way. We could ask you to give us your Facebook or LinkedIn username and password. Using those credentials, we could then access your unfiltered timeline, scrape it and present it to you to filter as you’d like. But that’s a terrible idea – it makes us responsible for managing your credentials, which has all sorts of dangers. (We can create a Tinder account for you, for instance…) And Facebook would demand we shut the service immediately, citing Facebook vs. Power Ventures as precedent.

I’d love to hook Gobo up to Factmata, a very cool new company that evaluates online content and provides scores for believability based on nine different signals. Rather than giving a compound score, or a binary “fake/true” distinction, Factmata offers scores on the different signals, so we could give you – through Gobo and Factmata – the ability to filter out news it thinks is clickbait, or thinks is politically biased, insulting or sexist. Would Factmata do a perfect job of filtering out bogus news? Almost certainly not, but Facebook is extremely unlikely to do the job perfectly either, and while you’d know the ways in which Gobo and Factmata failed, the inner workings of Facebook are entirely opaque.

Would Solid solve this problem? Not immediately, of course. In a world where Facebook, LinkedIn and everyone else chose to make their services Solid-compatible, it would be trivial to pipe these services together. But Sir Tim has made it clear that his goal is not to challenge Facebook, but to invite innovators to experiment with a new way of building websites.

My fear is this – that we need to experiment with tools like Solid and start working to pry open Facebook at the same time. There’s immense amounts of human effort going into closed, silo’d, non-interoperable platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. I’m not comfortable ceding that accumulation of creativity to those who’ve moved fast and fenced off their corner of the web. We need to create new social media platforms, but we need to understand that 99% of what people want to do at present is communicate with friends on existing platforms, and we need tools that bridge that gap. We need the ability to innovate around huge, existing services like Amazon, if only so Amy can stop sewing couch cushions and start her new review business.

Categories: Blog

Sir Tim versus Black Mirror

June 6, 2019 - 3:44pm

On a sunny summer morning in June, professor Jonathan Zittrain is hosting Sir Tim Berners-Lee in a Harvard Law School classroom. The audience is a smattering of visiting scholars at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a few local techies involved with open source software development. I’d come to the room half an hour early to snag a seat, but I needn’t have bothered, as the crowd to see the man who invented the World Wide Web is attentive, but thin.

Jonathan Zittrain, one of the world’s leading scholars of creativity in an internet-connected universe, points out that Sir Tim’s current work is attempting to make a second correction in the arc of the internet. His first innovation, thirty years ago, was “the conceptualization and the runaway success of the World Wide Web.” Sir Tim’s current idea is a protocol – Solid – and a company – Inrupt – which want to make the Web as it is now significantly better. Just what are Solid and Inrupt? That’s what a smattering of us are here to find.

Sir Tim draws an arc on the chalkboard behind him. “People talk about the meteoric rise of the web – of course, meteors go down.” Referencing internet disinformation expert Joan Donavan, sitting in the audience, he notes “If you study the bad things on the web, there’s hundreds and thousands to study.” Almost apologetically, he explains that “there was a time when you could see things that were new [online], but not the ways they were bad.” For Sir Tim, the days of blogs were pretty good ones. “When you made a blog, you tried to make it high quality, and you tried to make your links to high quality blogs. You as a blogger were motivated by your reading counter, which led to a virtuous system based on custodianship as well as authorship.” Wistfully, he noted, “You could be forgiven for being fairly utopian in those days.”

What came out of this moment in the web’s evolution was a “true scale-free network, based on HTTP and HTML.” (Scale-free networks follow a Pareto distribution, with a small number of highly connected nodes and a “long tail” of less-connected nodes.) “It was extraordinary to discover that when you connect humanity, they form scale-free networks at all different levels. We put out HTTP and HRTML and ended up with humanity forming scale-free networks on a planetary – okay, a tenth of a planet – scale.”

Sir Tim noted that much of what was most interesting about the web was in the long tail, the less connected and less popular nodes. Zittrain invokes philosopher David Weinberger’s maxim, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people” to acknowledge this idea, and Sir Tim pushes back: “That’s not scale free. What’s possible is that for n people on the planet, we might have root-n groups. We’re not trying to make one network for everyone, not trying to design something for Justin Bieber tweeting.”

So why doesn’t blogosphere still work? Sir Tim blames the Facebook algorithms which determine what you read, breaking network effects and leading to a huge amount of consolidation. Zittrain wonders whether Facebook’s power is really all that new – didn’t Google’s search algorithm have similar effects? Sir Tim demurs – “Google just looks at all links and takes an eigenvector – it’s still using the web to search.” There’s a fascinating parenthetical where Sir Tim explains that he never thought search engines were possible. “Originally, we thought no one would be able to crawl the entire web – you would need so much storage, it wouldn’t be possible. We hadn’t realized that disk space would become ridiculously cheap.” Jonathan Zittrain likens the moment when Google comes into being as a science fiction moment, where our ability to comprehend the universe as limited by the speed of light suddenly allows us to transcend those barriers – prior to search, we might only know our local quadrant of the web, while search suddenly made it possible to encounter any content, anywhere.

Sir Tim brings us back to earth by discussing clickbait. “Blogging was driven by excitement around readership. But eventually ads come into play – if I am writing, I should have recompense.” What follows is content written specifically to generate money, like the fake news content written by Macedonian bloggers that might have influenced US elections. Zittrain generously references my “The Internet’s Original Sin” article, and Sir Tim notes that “some people argue that if you start off with advertising, you’re never going to have a successful web.”

The consequence of a monetized web, Sir Tim believes, is consolidation, designed to give advertisers larger audiences to reach. That consolidation leads to silos: “My photos are on Flickr, but my colleagues are all on LinkedIn? How do I share them? Do I have to persuade all my friends to move over to the platform I’m on?”

Zittrain offers two possible solution the problem: interoperability, where everything shares some common data models and can exchange data, or dramatic consolidation, where LinkedIn, for instance, just runs everything. Sir Tim isn’t overly optimistic about either, noting that totalitarian societies might be able to demand deep interop, but that it seems unlikely in our market democracy. And while consolidation is easier to work within, “consolidation is also incredibly frustrating. If you want to make a Facebook app, you need to work within not only the Facebook API, but the Facebook paradigm, with users, groups, and likes. Silos are very bad for innovation.”

Returning to the arc he’s drawn on the blackboard, Sir Tim notes that the meteor is crashing into earth. “We don’t need to imagine future web dystopias. We’ve got a television show where every single episode illustrates a different form of dysfunction.” The arc of the Web is long and it leads towards Black Mirror.

In March of this year, Sir Tim launched the #ForTheWeb campaign to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Web. For Tim, the campaign was meant to feature the web worth saving, not to demand that either governments or Facebook fix it for us. “We need to fix networks and communities all at once, because it’s a sociotechnical system,” he explains. “We need to work inside the companies and inside the government. Some things are simple to fix – net neutrality, cheaper broadband, those were relatively simple. This isn’t simple. Free speech and hate speech are complicated and need complex social processes around them.” And while #ForTheWeb is a space for articulating the key values we want to support for a future direction of the web, that new direction needs a technical component as well. We need a course correction – what’s the White Mirror scenario?

Sir Tim pushes up the blackboard featuring the web as a meteor crashing back to earth. On the board below it, he starts drawing a set of cylinders. Solid is based around the idea of pods, personal data stores that could live in the cloud or which you could control directly. “Solid is web technology reapplied,” Sir Tim explains. “You use apps and web apps, but they don’t store your data at all.”

Returning to his photo sharing scenario, Sir Tim imagines uploading photos taken from a digital camera. The camera asks where you want to store the data. “You have a Solid pod at home, and one at work – you decide where to put them based on what context you want to use them in. Solid is a protocol, like the web. Pods are Solid-compatible personal clouds. Apps can talk to your pod.” So sharing photos is no longer about making LinkedIn and Flickr talk to each other – it’s simply about both of them talking to your pod, which you control.

“The web was all about interoperability – this is a solution for interoperability,” explains Sir Tim. “You choose where to store your information and the pods do access control, There’s a single sign on that leads to a WebID. Those WebIDs plus access controls are a common language across the Solid world.” These WebIDs support groups as well as individuals… and groups have pages where you can see who belongs to them. Apps look up the group and deliver information accordingly. The content delivery mechanism underneath Solid is WebDAV, a versioning and authoring protocol that Sir Tim has supported from very early on as a way of returning the Web to its read/write roots, though he notes that Solid plans on running on protocols that will be much faster.

Zittrain picks up the legal implications of this new paradigm: “Right now, each web app or service has custody of the data it uses – LinkedIn has a proprietary data store behind it. But there might also be some regulations that govern what LinkedIn can do with that data – how does that work in a Solid world?”

Ducking the legal question, Sir Tim looks into ways we might bootstrap personal data pods. “Because of GDPR, the major platforms bave been forced to create a way for people to export their content. You’d expect that Google, Facebook and others would fight this tooth and nail – instead they’re cooperating.” Specifically, they’re developing the Data Transfer Project, a common standard for data export that allows you not only to export your data, but to import it into a different platform. “They’ve gone to the trouble of designing common data models, which is brilliant from the Solid point of view.”

Zittrain suggests that we can think of Solid’s development in stages. In Stage 0, you might be able to retrieve your data from a platform, possibly from the API, possibly by scraping it, and you might get sued in the process. In Step 1, you can get your data through a Data Transfer dump. In Step 2, companies might begin making the data available regularly through Solid-compatible APIs. In Step 3, the Solid apps start working off the data that’s been migrated into personal pods.

Sir Tim notes that exciting things start to happen in Step 3. “My relationship with a bank is just a set of transactions and files. I can get a static copy of how the bank thinks of my current relationships. What I would like is for all those changes to be streamed to my Solid pod.” He concedes, “I probably don’t want to have the only copy.” Much of what’s interesting about Solid comes from the idea that pods can mirror each other in different ways – we might want to have a public debate in which all conversations are on the record and recorded, or an entirely ephemeral interaction, where all we say to one another disappears. This is one of many reasons, Sir Tim explains, “Solid does not use Blockchain. At all.”

Zittrain persists in identifying some of the challenges of this new model, referencing the Cambridge Analytica scandal that affected Facebook. “If the problem is privacy, specifically an API that made it easy to get not only my data, but my friends’ data, how does Solid help with this? Doesn’t there need to be someone minding controls of the access lists?”

Solid, Sir Tim explains, is not primarily about privacy. Initially, people worried about their personal data leaking, a compromising photo that was supposed to be private becoming public. Now we worry about how our data is aggregated and used. The response shouldn’t be to compensate people for that data usage. Instead, we need to help combat the manipulation. “Data is not oil. It doesn’t work that way, it’s not about owning it.” One of Sir Tim’s core concerns is that people offer valuable services, like free internet, in exchange for access to people’s datastream.

Zittrain points out that the idea that you own your own data – which is meant to be empowering – includes a deeply disempowering possibility. You now have the alienable right of giving away your own data.

Sir Tim is more excited about the upsides: “In a Solid world, my doctor has a Solid ID and I can choose the family photo that has a picture of my ankle and send it to the doctor for diagnosis. And I can access my medical data and share it with my cousin, if I choose.” Financial software interoperates smoothly, giving you access to your full financial picture. “All your fitness stuff is in your Solid Pod, and data from your friends if they want to share it so you can compete.” He imagines a record of purchases you’ve made on different sites, not just Amazon, and the possibility of running your own AI on top of it to make recommendations on what to buy next.

A member of the audience asks whether it’s really realistic for individuals to make decisions about how to share their data – we may not know what data it is unsafe to share, once it gets collected and aggregated. Can Solid really prevent data misuse?

“The Solid protocol doesn’t tell you whether these services spy on you, but the spirit of Solid is that they don’t,” offers Sir Tim. Apps are agents acting on your behalf. Not all Solid apps will be beneficent, he notes, but we can train certified developers to make beneficent apps, and offer a store of such apps. Zittrain, who wrote a terrific book about the ways in which app stores can strangle innovation, is visible uncomfortable and suggests that people may need help knowing who to trust in a Solid world. “Imagine a party able to be designated as a helper with respect to privacy. Maybe a grandchild is a helper for a grandmother. Maybe we need a new role in society – a fiduciary whose responsibility is to help you make trust decisions.” Zittrain’s question links Sir Tim’s ideas about Solid to an idea he’s been developing with Jack Balkin about information fiduciaries, the idea that platforms like Facebook might be required to treat our personal data with the legal respect that doctors, lawyers and accountants are forced to apply to personal data.

Another question wonders who will provide the hardware for Solid pods. Zittrain points out that Solid could run on Eben Moglen’s “Freedom Box”, a long-promised personal web server designed to put control of data back into users hands. Sir Tim suggests that your cable or ISP router might run a Pod in the future.

My question for Sir Tim focuses on adoption. Accepting for the moment the desirability of a Solid future – and, for the most part, I like Sir Tim’s vision a great deal – how do we get from here to there? For the foreseeable future, billions of people are using proprietary social networks that surveil their users and cling to their data. When Sir Tim last disrupted the Internet, it was an academic curiosity, not an industry worth hundreds of billions. How do we get from here to there?

Sir Tim remembers the advent of the web as a struggle. “Remember when Gopher was taking off exponentially, and the web was growing really slowly? Remember that things that take off fast can drop off fast.” Gopher wasn’t free, and its proprietary nature led it to die quickly; “People seem locked into Facebook – one of the rules of Solid is not to disturb them.” People who will adopt Solid will work around them, and when people begin using Solid, that group could explode exponentially. “The billion people on Facebook don’t affect the people using a Solid community.”

Returning to the 80s, Sir Tim notes that it was difficult for the Web to take off – there were lots of non-internet documentation systems that seemed like they might win. What happened was that CERN’s telephone directory was put on the web, and everyone got a web browser to access that directory. It took a while before people realized that they might want to put other information on top of the directory.

“We don’t want everyone using Facebook to switch to Solid tomorrow – we couldn’t handle the scale.” Instead, Sir Tim offers, “We want people who are passionate about it to work within it. The reward is being part of another revolution.”

There’s something very surreal about a moment in which thousands of researchers and pundits are studying what’s wrong with social media and the Web, and surprisingly few working on new models we can use to move forward. The man who built the web in the first place is now working on alternative models to save us from the Black Mirror universe and the broader academic and professional world seems… surprisingly uninterested.

I can certainly see problems with Solid apps – your Pod will become a honeypot of private information that’s a great target for hackers. Apps will develop to collect as much of your Pod data as possible, unless they’re both regulated and technically prevented from doing so. Unless Pods are mostly on very fast cloud services, apps that draw from multiple pods will be significantly slower than the web as it operates today.

But there’s so much to like in Sir Tim’s vision. My lab and I are working now on the idea that what the world needs now is not a better Facebook, but thousands of social networks, with different rules, purposes and community standards. Like Sir Tim, we’re not looking to replace Facebook but to create new communities for groups of 5 to 50,000, self-governing and capable of different behaviors than the communities with hundreds of millions of users and central corporate governance are capable of. There’s no reason why the networks we’re imagining couldn’t live atop Solid.

It’s hard to remember how small and strange an experiment the web was in 1989, or even in 1994. I remember dropping out of graduate school to work on a web startup. My motivation wasn’t that I might make a lot of money – that seemed extraordinarily unlikely. It was that someone was willing to pay me to work on something that seemed… right. Like a plausible and desirable future. And for me, at least, Solid seems plausible and desirable in much the same way. It also seems roughly as hard to love as the Web was in 1994, with its grey backgrounds and BLINK tag – Solid.Community allows you to register an ID, which at present doesn’t seem to let you do anything, though you can read the Github repository and see how you might create a chat app atop Solid.

Can Sir Tim revolutionize the Internet again? I have no idea. But someone needs to, because a web that crashes to earth is a Black Mirror episode I don’t want to see.

Categories: Blog

Rest in peace, Binyavanga Wainaina

May 22, 2019 - 3:29pm

Binyavanga Wainaina died last night in a hospital in Nairobi at the age of 48. We lost him far, far too soon, but Bin spent his brief time on earth remarkably well, and packed more insight and discovery into his time than many people who survive twice as long.


Binyavanga Wainaina, photographed by Victor Dlamini for The JRB.

Like many people, I learned of Binyavanga’s work first from his remarkable and cutting essay, “How to Write About Africa”, a compendium of clichés that infect a great deal of writing about Africa, especially writing by well-meaning, liberal white westerners like myself. We met in person at TED Africa in Arusha in June, 2007, where he gave a funny and rollicking speech that touched on the rapid changes Kenya was going through, and the need for an African literary scene not centered around London or New York. (TED recently released his talk from the archives – it’s a wonderful picture of his thinking and his passions at the time.)

He and I found ourselves on the conference circuit together – searching around today, I found a video of us on a panel at PICNIC in the Netherlands in 2008. We got to know each other better that fall, when he came to Williams College – about ten miles from where I live – and was a scholar in residence for a year, and we met a few times for coffee and chats about politics. Looking back on his writing at that time, I can see his thinking move from the politics of the moment in Kenya to larger issues of the legacy of colonialism, the emergence of new pan-African identities, and the ways in which his own biography illustrated those themes. Writing in the Guardian, Helon Habila describes his autobiography, One Day I Will Write About This Place, as “subtle”, a coming of age story that helps explain how he became the brilliant and incisive commentator he was as a grown man.

What Helon and other readers didn’t know was that Bin had left a key part out of that autobiography: his identity as a gay man. In 2014, he came out in a “missing chapter” from that book, a letter to his late mother titled “I am a homosexual, mum”. In it, he explains that it took him until he was 39 to self-identify as gay, and until he was 43 to come out publicly. His coming out was a deeply brave act, as homosexuality is not recognized under Kenyan law, sexual acts between men are a felony, and there are no legal protections against discrimination for gay citizens. Over the last few years, he’s been an extremely visible LGBT activist, using the combination of his ever-sharp wit and his increasing fabulousness to bring the issue of LGBT equality to new levels of prominence and visibility in Kenya. It’s a terrible irony of his death that the Kenyan high court is about to issue a ruling that may recognize rights for LGBT Kenyans.

I sent Bin congratulations after his coming out, but the next exchanges I had with him were around his health, which took a sharp turn for the worse in 2015, with a series of strokes. Friends helped raise money for him to seek treatment in India, and he recovered well enough to tour and speak. Unfortunately, it was another stroke that felled him last night.

I am reaching the age where I am starting to lose peers. Not lots of them yet, thank god, but enough that I have noticed a pattern. I search my email and look at what we talked about and when. With Binyavanga, it’s logistics: where might we meet up and when? There’s a long exchange about Kenyan musicians Just a Band and helping find them gigs at US colleges, thoughts on what US schools are good places to spend a semester as a writer.

Today I realized that I am looking not just for memories, but for reassurance that I didn’t leave a last email unanswered. And while I’m glad that my last exchange with Binyavanga was one where he asked a question and I answered, I’m angry at myself that I hadn’t reached out in the last couple of years to ask him a question: how he was, what he was doing and thinking, his thoughts on the high court case.

Binyavanga was an inspiration as a thoughtful, brave, colorful, provocative, passionate and wise man. His transformation into a fuller, happier version of himself as he became an avatar of queer Africa was remarkable to watch, and an inspiration to think about what transformations I want to make in my own life as a mostly het, cis-gendered, middle-aged white dude. I regret that I didn’t have a last chance to talk with Binyavanga, waiting as he rolled a cigarette, collected his thoughts and declaimed his truths.

Rest in peace.

Daily Active Kenya has a fine collection of photos and quotes from Binyavanga.

Categories: Blog

Don’t use A. Briggs

January 13, 2019 - 10:49am

If you’re a frequent traveler, you probably have needed a visa expediter at some point. Good expediters can get you out of a serious jam, helping you get a visa or even a new passport in a short time. For over a decade, I used A. Briggs, a long-established expediter used by many large firms and institutions. They once helped me get a Nigerian visa and a new passport in under a week, which was pretty amazing.

But they’ve gone downhill. Way down. I’m enroute to Nairobi today and from there to Sierra Leone, and given some tight timing, I sent my paperwork to A. Briggs to get the Sierra Leone visa. I should have backed off once I noticed some significant changes to their website. They have been acquired by another firm, CIBT, and their application process is now loaded with hidden fees. By default, you’re signed up for a number of expensive extras, including a $25 fee for keeping a digital copy of the visa they obtain and $25 for registering you with the US State Department, a service the US government provides for free. The online process heavily upsells their “concierge service”, which promises handholding through the visa process for a mere $300 extra – in retrospect, I wonder whether my dreadful experience would have been better or worse after paying that extortionate fee.

People use visa expediters because they need a visa in a narrow window of time – you’re basically paying someone to carry your paperwork to the consulate, wait for it to be completed and send it back to you. The most critical piece of the application is the time by which you need the visa, which in my case was Friday, as my flight to Kenya left Saturday at noon. I spoke to Briggs several times through the process, as they needed even more documents for Sierra Leone than expected, and they assured me they’d have the visa by Wednesday to send it to me on Thursday. When I didn’t get word from a courier that it was enroute on Thursday, I called. Turned out they had gotten the wrong visa – a tourist visa instead of the much more expensive, multiple entry business visa I’d asked for. Instead of calling me and giving mr the choice of traveling with the tourist visa – which I would have chosen – they sent the passport back to the embassy. This meant I wouldn’t have the visa until Friday, and there was no way to get it before getting on my plane.

I got on the phone and got to a manager at Briggs who offered me the solution of a same day courier to deliver me the visa… for a mere $729. When I explained that this was their mistake not mine, she offered to have a courier meet me at the airport just before my flight, for only $200, which she rapidly reduced to $80. (It’s not clear what I might have been able to bargain the $700+ courier down to, but it strongly suggests that A. Briggs is marking up the cost of courier services as another revenue stream.)

I scheduled delivery of my passport to JFK for 10am the day of my flight, which left at noon. Tight but doable. The person I worked with gave me several numbers to try if there were any problems. Predictably, there were. When no courier contacted me by 10am, I started calling numbers. All went to voicemail boxes which hadn’t been set up, except one the woman had given me as her business cellphone, which went to a very confused woman in DC who had nothing to do with the company. Even though no one at A. Briggs or their parent company answered their phones, fortunately their courier did… who explained that A. Briggs had requested delivery at 11am, the time the flight would be closing. I begged the courier to come as fast as he could, tipped him generously when he made it by 10:40 and made my flight with a few seconds to spare.

So yes, I got the visa. I also vomited twice from stress, first when I discovered they’d resubmitted the passport, creating the crisis, and again when I discovered the courier wasn’t coming. Oh, and for such thoughtful service, A. Briggs charged me over $400 in handling fees on top of the $160 visa fee.

Don’t use them, or any company that’s part of CIBT. They won’t give you direct phone numbers to talk with whoever is processing your visa unless you pay an absurd extra fee. Their phone system is misconfigured, so if you’re in a jam, trying to reach someone, you’ll be sent to a broken voicemail inbox. I have no way of knowing whether my miserable experience was incompetence, or a new business strategy – I suspect the former – but I am now trying to get MIT to stop using A. Briggs as their visa expediter, and I would urge anyone, an individual or a corporate travel department, to find someone else to work with.

(Fun postscript – once I finally got my visa, I expected to see a cancelled tourist visa as well as a business visa. I didn’t – just a clean business visa. Given that there’s no pages missing from my passport, and no alterations to that visa page, it looks like A. Briggs just… lied. Either they got the visa on time and failed to send it to me in time, or they didn’t get it until a day late… or maybe they simply didn’t send it on time so they could charge fees on top of what they paid a courier to deliver it. Please, please don’t use this company’s services.)

Categories: Blog

Deceptive ads and the DRC election: help us document possible election fraud

January 7, 2019 - 10:01am

en français, ci-dessous

The Democratic Republic of Congo held presidential elections on December 30, 2018. Preliminary results were originally scheduled to be released yesterday, January 6th, but the head of the electoral commission has delayed reporting those results because as of Saturday the 5th, less than half of the votes had been transported to counting centers.

So why are ads on Google and Facebook, apparently targeted towards internet users in DRC’s neighbor, Congo-Brazzaville, declaring Emmanuel Shadary to be DRC’s new president?

The ads above were forwarded to me from an NGO worker in Brazzaville, across the river from Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC. There’s regular traffic between Brazzaville and Kinshasa, which may be one of the major ways information is getting into DRC, as election officials have shut off the internet, turned off SMS messaging, and ordered Radio France Internationale off the air.

These ads would be illegal in DRC, where it is prohibited to announce an election winner before the electoral commission releases results. Furthermore, there’s a good chance that they are fake news, designed to help the incumbent government remain in power. Unfortunately, Facebook and Google’s powerful ad systems may be being used to reinforce election fraud, either by targeting these ads to Brazzaville or to DRC itself, where a small number of people are still on the internet. (While 3G and 4G services are down, some businesses are reported to be online.)

Background: For the past 18 years, Joseph Kabila has been president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who took office after his father, President Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated in 2001. Elected to two terms in 2006 and 2011, Kabila was mandated to step down from his office in 2016. He didn’t. Instead, DRC’s electoral authority announced that an election couldn’t be held until 2018. This is that election, and Kabila eventually announced that he would not stand.

Instead, he threw his support behind Emmanuel Shadary, who served under Kabila as minister of the interior. During his time serving Kabila, Shadary controlled the police and security services, and is alleged to have used those forces to violently suppress protests and to arrest opposition politicians. He has been sanctioned by the European Union for human rights violations and is prohibited from entering the EU.

The Catholic Church, a powerful force in Congo, monitored the elections using 40,000 observers and states that it knows who actually won the elections. Given that businessman Martin Fayulu had led Shadary by more than 30 percentage points in recent polls, the Church’s call for the release of results is seen as an indication that they believe Shadary has lost the election.

If you are anywhere in DRC, or in Brazzaville, Kigali, Gabarone, Kampala or in other locations that border on DRC, and you’re seeing ads that declare any candidate the winner of the DRC elections, PLEASE TAKE SCREENSHOTS including the URL of the page. Please click on the ad, and screenshot the page it returns, including the URL. Send those screenshots to my team at MIT: ethanz AT mit DOT edu – we are collecting these images so we can ask Google and Facebook to prevent the transmission of false information that could be used to cement a stolen election.

Updates –
– translation in French follows below
– I have spoken with FB – they’ve identified the ad featured above and removed it. That said, there are likely more to come, and we could use help identifying others that appear.

# Publicités trompeuses et élections en RDC: aidez-vous à documenter une
éventuelle fraude électorale.

La République Démocratique du Congo a tenu des élections présidentielles
le 30 décembre 2018. Les résultats préliminaires devaient initialement
être publiés hier, le 6 Janvier, mais le président de la commission
électorale a reporté la publication de ces résultats car, [à la date du
samedi 5, moins de la moitié des votes avaient été transportés vers les
centres de comptage](https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-46771360).

Alors, pourquoi y avait il des publicités sur Google et Facebook,
apparemment destinées aux internautes du voisin de la RDC, le
Congo-Brazzaville, annoncant que Emmanuel Shadary est le nouveau
président de la DRC?

Les publicités ci-dessus m’ont été transmises par un employé d’une ONG à
Brazzaville, de l’autre côté du fleuve par rapport à Kinshasa, la
capitale de la RDC. Il y a un trafic régulier entre Brazzaville et
Kinshasa, ce qui pourrait être l’un des principaux flux d’information en
entrant en RDC, car [les responsables des élections ont coupé
l’internet, désactivé les SMS et bloqué la diffusion de Radio France
Internationale
(RFI)](https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/01/drc-electoral-fears-rise-as-internet-shutdown-continues).

Ces publicités seraient illégales en RDC, où il est interdit d’annoncer
un gagnant avant que la commission électorale ne publie les résultats.
En outre, il y a de fortes chances pour que ces informations soient
fausses, conçues pour aider le gouvernement en place à rester au
pouvoir. Malheureusement, les systèmes de publicité de Facebook et de
Google pourraient être utilisés pour crédibiliser la fraude électorale,
soit en ciblant ces publicités sur Brazzaville, soit sur la RDC même, où
un petit nombre de personnes se trouvent encore sur Internet. (Bien que
les services 3G et 4G soient coupés, certaines entreprises semblent
avoir accès à internet.)

Contexte: Joseph Kabila est président de la République démocratique du
Congo depuis 18 ans. Il a pris ses fonctions après l’assassinat de son
père, le président Laurent-Désiré Kabila, en 2001. Élu à deux mandats en
2006 et 2011, Kabila a été mandaté de quitter la présidence en 2016. Il
ne l’a pas fait. Au lieu de cela, les autorités électorales de la RDC
ont annoncé qu’une élection ne pourrait avoir lieu avant 2018. C’est
cette élection et Kabila a finalement annoncé qu’il ne se présenterait pas.

Au lieu de cela, il a apporté son soutien à Emmanuel Shadary, qui a été
ministre de l’intérieur sous Kabila. Au cours de ses années au service
de Kabila, Shadary contrôlait la police et les services de sécurité et
aurait utilisé ces forces pour réprimer violemment des manifestations et
arrêter des hommes politiques de l’opposition. Il a été [sanctionné par
l’Union européenne pour violation des droits de
l’homme](https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32017D0905&from=EN)
et il lui est interdit d’entrer dans l’UE.

L’Église catholique, une force importante au Congo, a surveillé les
élections à l’aide de 40 000 observateurs et a déclaré connaitre le
vainqueur des élections. Étant donné que l’homme d’affaires Martin
Fayulu avait plus de 30 points d’avance sur Shadary dans les derniers
sondages, l’appel de l’Église à la publication des résultats est [perçu
comme une indication qu’ils estiment que Shadary a perdu les
élections](https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/04/world/africa/fayulu-congo-presidential-vote-catholic.html).

Si vous vous trouvez n’importe ou en RDC, à Brazzaville, à Kigali, à
Gabarone, à Kampala ou dans quelqu’autre localité limitrophe de la RDC,
et que vous voyez des publicités déclarant un candidat vainqueur des
élections en RDC, VEUILLEZ FAIRE DES COPIES D’ÉCRAN, comprenant l’URL de
la page. Merci de cliquer sur la publicité et de prendre une copie
d’écran de la page affichée, ainsi que de l’URL. Envoyez ces captures
d’écran à mon équipe du MIT: ethanz AROBASE mit POINT edu – nous
collectons ces images afin de demander à Google et Facebook d’empêcher
la transmission de fausses informations qui pourraient être utilisées
pour cimenter une élection volée.

Categories: Blog

Protected: Fake News and the DRC election? Please help us find these rogue ads

January 7, 2019 - 7:20am

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Categories: Blog

We Make the Media – a recent speech at Freedom of Speech Online 2018

December 9, 2018 - 10:14am

I was honored to give the opening keynote this Friday at the Future of Speech Online, held at the beautiful Knight Conference Center atop the Newseum in Washington, DC. A few friends asked whether I’d share the remarks online, so here’s my best attempt, from my notes. Apologies for the differences between this and the talk I actually delivered – the perils of live performance, y’all.

It’s become necessary at gatherings about the future of media to start by banning the “f” word, a word that gets a lot of play in Washington, especially on the President’s Twitter feed. But there’s lots to talk about in the world of dis- and misinformation, that complicated space where words online can lead someone to “self-investigate” a DC-area pizzaria with a rifle to ensure that it isn’t hosting a pedophile ring in its non-existent basement. Online words have consequences, and we’re still trying to understand whether those consequences include swaying elections in the UK, the US or Brazil, or whether recent political surprises have causes other than the media environment.

There’s lots of people trying to solve the mis/disinformation problem with technology, and because I hail from a lab where people manufacture novel artificial limbs, 3D print buildings and design satellites to monitor African environments that I’m coming with a set of new tech solutions. You couldn’t be more wrong, because I’m bringing something far more powerful: history.

When people invoke history in journalism, they’re often talking about the “golden age” of broadcast media, sometime between the end of WWII and Watergate. We had a few authoritative voices – Edward Murrow, Walter Cronkite – and less doubt, perhaps, about what had actually happened in the world. “And that’s the way it is,” like Cronkite liked to say.

That model of media was the result of a very specific moment in technology and in economics that has more to do with the advertising industry depicted in Mad Men than it does with any specific view of how media and democracy work together. A small number of businesses did the very expensive work of producing news and packaged it with advertising on some of the very few channels that could reach a large public, a limited number of print publications and a tiny handful of broadcast television outlets. Those few outlets held a near monopoly over attention and sold slivers of that attention to advertisers for vast sums of money, which is a great business model as long as you can maintain it.

That concentration of power in the hands of a very few outlets meant that media wasn’t very representative. News was largely a white, male space – if you were Black, Latinx, Asian, female, queer or any other identity, news was often a space that wasn’t very open to you. I don’t want to return to a vision of 1950s news, where so many voices were missing from the conversation, even if that conversation was more coherent than the one we encounter today.

Our media now is dramatically more representative, for the simple reason that there are very few structural barriers to expressing yourself, even if there are massive barriers to being heard by an audience. Movements like Black Lives Matter and the gun control protests led by survivors of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida both leveraged the power of participatory media to be heard and to shift media narratives to stories that often go unreported. This, I would argue, is generally a good thing. But the results of this change (which An Xiao Mina terms the shift from “broadcast consensus to digital dissensus”) means media is more conflicted, confusing and hard to navigate than it was in the mid-20th century. For help understanding our current media, we need a different guide.

I propose Benjamin Franklin, the sort of guy we like to celebrate at MIT. We know him as a statesman, a diplomat and a scientist, but the job he held the longest was as postmaster, first as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737 and finally getting fired from his position as postmaster general of the Colonies in 1774, when the British finally figured out that he was a revolutionary who could not be trusted. (The dude literally used to post his letters by writing “B. Free Franklin” – as opposed to “B. Franklin – free” – it took the British a while to catch on that this was political propaganda as well as a way of getting free postage.)

Ben was a hustler, an entrepreneur who took full advantage of the various opportunities his position opened, including giving plum patronage jobs to many of the men in his family. His most profitable synergy came from printing newspapers and using the post to distribute them. Early in his career, he’d had difficulty distributing his writings because the postmaster disagreed with their political content and refused to transmit them. Franklin put forth a policy that was both progressive and profitable – neutral carriage. Under his leadership, the job of the post was to deliver letters and printed materials, not to prevent their transmission. This fact, combined with the fact that US presses were not required to reserve “caution money”, huge sums that might be drawn on if a paper was successfully sued for libel, led the US towards a new form of public sphere: a distributed public sphere of mail and print.

When we talk about the public sphere as scholars, we’re usually referring to Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, which was rooted in conversation of wealthy elites in coffeehouses. This dynamic of face to face conversation shapes much of how we traditionally think of the public sphere working, but that’s not how the public sphere evolved in the US. The colonies were physically huge, and in imagining a political conversation that included both Boston and Charleston demanded a creative way of envisioning how political debate could unfold. More than any of the founding fathers, Franklin was responsible for the shaping of this new space for policial discourse.

The founding father who picked up the torch from Franklin as he took over Jefferson’s work as ambassador to France was Dr. Benjamin Rush, a professor and public health advocate whose arguments about the role of the post and the press in the Continental Congress led to the most important piece of legislation you’ve never heard of, the Post Office Act of 1792.

The Post Office Act established the right of the government to control postal routes and gave citizens rights to privacy of their mail… which was deeply undermined by the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, but hey, who’s counting. The low cost of mailing newspapers as well as the absence of stamp taxes or caution money, which made it incredibly prohibitively expensive to operate a press in England, allowed half of all American households to have a newspaper subscription in 1820, a rate that was orders of magnitude higher than in England or France.

But what may be most important about the Post Office Act is that it set up a very powerful cross subsidy. Rather than charging based on weight and distance, as they had before Franklin’s reforms, the US postal system offered tiered service based on the purpose of the speech being exchanged. Exchanging private letters was very costly, while sending newspapers was shockingly cheap: it cost a small fraction of the cost of a private letter to send a newspaper. As a result, newspapers represented 95% of the weight of the mails and 15% of the revenue in 1832. This pricing disparity led to the wonderful phenomenon of cheapskates purchasing newspapers, underlining or pricking holes with a pin under selected words and sending encoded letters home for the price of a paper rather than a letter.

But the really crazy subsidy was the “exchange copy”. Newspapers could send copies to each other for free, with carriage costs paid by the post office. By 1840, The average newspaper received 4300 exchange copies a year — they were swimming in content, and thanks to extremely loose enforcement of copyright laws, a huge percentage of what appeared in the average newspaper was cut and pasted from other newspapers. This giant exchange of content was subsidized by high rates on those who used the posts for personal and commercial purposes.

This system worked really well, creating a postal service that was fiscally sustainable, and which aspired to universal service. By 1831, three quarters of US government civilian jobs were with the postal service. In a literal sense, the early US nation was a postal service with a small representative government and a tiny military attached to it. But the postal system was huge because it needed to be — there were 8700 post offices by 1830, including over 400 in my home state of Massachusetts alone, which is saying something, as there are only 351 towns in Massachusetts.

The key thing to understand about this is that it’s not a happy accident that we ended up with a public sphere that worked this way. Our founders built and regulated the postal system in such a way that its function as a sphere of public discourse was primary and its role as a tool for commerce and personal communication was secondary. They took on this massive undertaking explicitly because they believed that to have a self-governing nation, we needed not only representation in Congress, but a public sphere, a space for conversation about what the nation would and could be. And because the US was vast, and because the goal was to expand civic participation far beyond the urban bourgeois, it needed to be a distributed, participatory public sphere. To be clear, this was far than a universal public sphere – the founders saw this as a space for propertied white men – but the infrastructures of post and mail created powerful tools for abolitionists, for newspapers that helped free black men connect across vast distances, that helped carry the case for women’s suffrage.

All that said, I’m not going to argue for a return to the press of the late 18th and early 19th century any more than I would argue for a return to Murrow or Cronkite. Franklin’s press was littered with advertisements to a degree we’d find disconcerting today – as much as 90% of the text in these papers were commercial in nature, helping explain why so many of these early newspapers were called The Advertiser. The press was partisan, to an almost absurd degree. It wasn’t a party press – the political parties of the time emerged from the press, rather than the other way around. You read Hamilton’s New York Evening Post, and that, more than anything else, identified you as a Federalist.

Oh, and the 18th century press was LOADED with fake news. I don’t just mean Franklin’s habit of inventing personas like Silence Dogood, who he created because his brother’s paper, the New England Courtant, wouldn’t publish his letters until he began using a pen name. Franklin’s papers ran stories accusing the British of paying Indians to scalp settlers, a slander that both helped sell papers and turn colonists against the British. (Yeah, that part doesn’t get much play in his autobiography for some reason.)

Worse was Sam Adams – you know, the beer guy – who was a notorious propagandist whose articles in the Boston Gazette led a mob to sack the house of Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts Bay. The folks who attacked his house – “They were old men, young men, and boys barely old enough to read, all of them jacked up on ninety-proof Sam Adams prose,” – believed Adams that Hutchinson was responsible for the hated Stamp Act, a tax on newspapers. Actually, Hutchinson was against the stamp act and had warned his superiors in England that the colonists would never accept this restriction on their speech. (This story is from Eric Burns’s wonderful book, Infamous Scribblers)

Mis/disinformation isn’t a new phenomenon in American civic discourse. Nor is a disputatious, partisan press that veers into propaganda. But these shortcomings where counterbalanced by a carefully constructed ecosystem where diversity and free, inexpensive flow of information helped counterbalance the excesses that otherwise might have plagued the system.

The public sphere of the mid-20th century was carefully constructed as well. It was shaped by a strong professional norm, the firewall between the business and journalism operations of a newspaper, which allowed news organizations to investigate the politically powerful, and even the corporations that funded them. The introduction of the Fairness doctrine in 1949 somewhat heavyhandedly tried to assure equal representation of opposing viewpoints in the media. And after FCC commissioner Newt Minow declared the emerging space of television a “vast wasteland” in 1961, the philanthropic community responded by building the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and building public media as we know it in America.

The point is not that any of these interventions might be the right medicine for what ails us at present, but that the shape of our media is a choice. The media environment we live in is the most powerful factor that influences our civic and political life, and that these environments aren’t inevitable – they can be shaped by policy and by norms, as well as by technology.

We seem to have a strange sense of powerlessness when it comes to coping with the contemporary media environment. After stepping down from his role as VP of growth for Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya now warns us that social networks are bad for us, and tells us that “i don’t let my kids use that shit.” It might have been nice had he mentioned something while working to bring 2.2 billion people to the platform. And perhaps he could do something with the billion dollars he made working for the company beyond a mea culpa.

Much of the discourse about social networks doesn’t develop beyond critique. We’re told that social networks are addictive and bad for our psychological health. We’re told they’re killing journalism. We hear reporting that social networks are easily manipulated and used to sway elections. And we’re told that the ideological isolation and polarization they cause is destroying our democracy.

But as a scholar, I’ve got to be a bit cautious about these claims. My lab does a lot of research on the dynamics of social media. My smart friends just published a 500 page book on the use of social media in the 2016 elections using the tools built in my lab. Despite what we’re learning, I will freely admit that there is TONS we don’t know about how social media is influencing political discourse and opinion. My guess is that honest scholars will tell you that the jury’s out on the psychological impacts of social media as well. And it’s not clear whether the damage that’s been done to journalism’s business model is the fault of the internet, or even whether journalism – rather than the journalism business – is suffering at present.

When we accept these equations that blame the current political and cultural moment on social media as valid, we end up with simplistic solutions to the dilemmas we face. There are dozens of organizations – some of them excellent – working to factcheck social media and reduce the amount of misinformation online. Much as factchecking became a part of the journalistic mainstream over the past decade, I expect social media factchecking to spread. But I also don’t expect it to radically alter the media environment. The people who most need factchecks are the least likely to see them or to believe them. If factchecking radically changed public discourse, it’s hard to imagine that after a decade of excellent work the American public would have elected a serial fabricator to the nation’s highest office.

Another overly simple solution: It’s become popular to advocate for people to delete their Facebook accounts, both as a form of protest and a way of reclaiming their interactions with the world. There’s nothing wrong with deleting your Facebook account, but it’s a mighty thin form of protest that’s unlikely to have much impact. Albert Hirschmann talked about exit and voice as strategies for trying to influence corporate behavior – if a product decreases in quality, you can switch to another brand, sending a signal to the corporation that their behavior needs to be changed. But Hirschmann notes that some systems, particularly political systems, can’t be exited – instead, you’ve got to use voice to make an impact. And while you, personally, can get off Facebook, you can’t get away from what Facebook is (or isn’t) doing to society locally or globally.

Facebook has a lot to answer for, both in the US and around the world. In some countries, it is – for all practical purposes – the internet. In a country like Myanmar, where Facebook is the main resource people use for search and messaging as well as social networking, and where it’s been abused by the military government to conduct a genocide against the Rohingya people, there’s a deep need for international pressure on Facebook to act with far more care and caution. Asking almost 20 million Myanmar users of Facebook to quit is probably less practical than helping pressure Facebook to behave better.

I want to challenge people to move beyond these criticisms of social networks – including all the valid ones – and towards a vision of what we’d like social media to do for us in a democracy. I want us to stop asking whether social media is good for democracy and start asking “What do we want social media to do for democracy?”

My friend Michael Schudson took on this question a decade ago in a slightly different context. In his book, Why Democracies Needs an Unloveable Press, he offered a brilliant essay titled “Six or Seven Things the News Can Do For Democracy”. Some of these things are unsurprising – they’re what we expect the press to do, to inform us, to investigate stories that demand deep reporting, to analyze the news of the day and put it into context. Other possible functions are less well known. The news can create a public forum, a space where people discuss the events of the day. It can mobilize people into a movement, sending them out into the streets, something that US newspapers have a strong taboo against doing, but which European media is much more comfortable advocating for. News can help give us empathy for people distant from us who are suffering from tragedies preventable and otherwise.

Importantly, Schudson doesn’t argue that media does all these things well, or that any one news organization can or should do all these things. Some of these goals come into conflict – if you are using your news organization for mobilization, it may conflict with its believability as an investigative outlet, for instance. But these are possible, legitimate functions for news media in a democracy and we could optimize any media outlet for any of these goals. In a diverse, rich media landscape, we might cover all these democratic functions through a plurality of media, trying to achieve different goals but working together to provide a public sphere.

I’m lazy, so I stole Schudson’s framing and wrote an essay this summer called “Six or Seven Things Social Media Can Do for Democracy”. As in Schudson’s essay, I’m arguing that social media could do these things, not that it currently does. And as in Schudson’s model, there are aspects of social media that are contradictory – the platform that lets us connect with the likeminded, amplify ideas and mobilize – the sort of platform that led people to protest in the Arab Spring – is not the same platform that is going to provide a sane and safe space for deliberation or introduce us to a diversity of people and ideas. The point is that we can build a variety of platforms, some of which help us connect with friends we already know, others which introduce us to people we don’t know. Some could help us mobilize action around causes we care about, others could introduce us to people we disagree with and help us have meaningful conversations.

In imagining what this vision of social media could look like, I’m imaging media that’s under personal control, plural in purpose, public in spirit and participatory in governance. (Those four P’s are nice and explosive when you’re giving a speech. Secrets of the craft, people.)

Personal – The first steps we’ve taken towards this vision of media in our lab is the Gobo.social project. Gobo is a social media aggregator – it allows you to view multiple social networks through the same client, a precursor for the social media world I’m imagining. It’s also deeply personalizable – you control a set of filters that let you decide the gender balance of friends you’re hearing from, whether you want to hear posts that are funny or serious, widely shared or shared only with a small group. These are features we believe should be available within social networks like Facebook, which uses an opaque algorithm to decide whose posts you see and whose are suppressed. Gobo puts that power in your hands, and shows you why each post is included or excluded from your feed, a feature we believe should be true on every social network. If the networks won’t provide these services, we can build them into tools we use with all social networks and put that control back into our hands.

Plural in purpose – LinkedIn doesn’t have much of a problem with hate speech – the people who use it know their possible next employer is reading their profile and behave accordingly. It’s not that different in function from Facebook, but the norms that govern the community’s behavior are sharply different. There’s potential to create a great diversity of online spaces with different purposes, each of which have different behaviors and norms. One of the main problems with Facebook is its desire to be all things to all people. There’s not a simple set of norms that governs a platform that some use for sharing baby photos and others see as a space for political combat. A social media landscape that’s plural would allow different rulesets for different spaces.

Public in spirit – Wael Ghonim was one of the key organizers of the Arab Spring in Egypt. He administered the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, which organized Egyptian resistance in the name of a young man tortured to death by the police. When young people began occupying Tahrir Square, Hosni Mubarak contacted Ghonim and asked him to call his people off, something Ghonim explained he couldn’t do. But while Facebook helped lead people into the streets, Ghonim was disappointed with its limitations as a space for serious discussions for how the Egyptian people might govern after the revolution. After liberal Egyptians were shut out of the country’s politics, Ghonim created Parlio, a social network designed not to reach everyone, but to reach a small audience of current and future civic leaders. The network had strong rules requiring civility and polite discussion and wasn’t shy about kicking abusers off the network. While it was a private company, eventually acquired by Quora (another social media company with a different purpose and practices from either Facebook or Twitter), it was public in spirit and intent.

Some innovative new networks may be built by companies who see value in creating civic-minded public spaces. But I suspect others will be built by public-spirited actors, local governments that want to create conversations between neighbors, civil society organizations who want to increase understanding because people from diverse backgrounds. I’m particularly excited about the idea that European public broadcasters could see value in building new social media spaces devoted to amplifying marginalized voices and creating dialog about difficult local issues.

Participatory in governance – Networks like Facebook and Twitter are largely unaccountable to their users. In the spirit of Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked, they are unenlightened monarchs, constrained by no Magna Carta and influenceable only by public shaming or by market forces. That’s not how social media systems have to operate. Reddit has an enormous range of communities, from the toxic to the deeply informative. THe difference, again, is not technology, but governance – the /r/science community has thousands of volunteer moderators who follow a strict set of rules to keep conversations productive and rooted in peer-reviewed research. As we imagine a world with a plurality of public-spirited social media communities, there’s no reason most can’t be self governing. Indeed, since moderation is one of the most expensive tasks in moderating an online community, there may be no other way to build many of these online spaces.

It’s important that we start imagining a pro-democratic vision of social media for the simple reason that people are already imagining the alternative. As the ethnonationalist right gets kicked off platforms like Twitter, they are building a possible future of social media on sites like gab.ai, a short-messaging platform that builds on Twitter but adds some interesting community features. It’s a mistake to let the Nazis develop the future of online community. And while there’s innovation coming from the crypto-libertarian camp as well, with platforms like Steemit adding compensation for contributions in the form of reputational currency, there’s a shortage of large-scale experiments that treat the public sphere as a public good. Imagining a world in which our public spaces are controlled by large corporations that might, someday, be lightly regulated isn’t good enough.

My favorite Ben Franklin quote is “Well done is better than well said.” It’s time for us to move beyond critiques and conversations about what’s wrong with social media with the hard work of imagining and building something better. If we want social media that increases diversity, creates a space for civil discourse, we have to build it. At the very least, we need to build the environment where it can happen. We need to fight for interoperability, for transparency and for the right to build our own networks.

I am a firm believer that America is a nation of ideas. One of the most powerful of those ideas was that we could, as a nation, build am media ecosystem that allowed us to participate in our own governance. At a moment where there’s fear and doubt about the state of our democracy, it’s a good time to ask just what we’re going to build.

This talk draws heavily on one I gave some months back at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, which Vincent Stehle, who invited me, draws on in this recent essay. It also hails back to a talk I gave at Data and Society years back (and to a lecture I give each year in my News and Participatory Media class.)

The details of Franklin and Rush’s influence on the shape of US media are largely from Paul Starr’s excellent The Creation of the Media. The idea of an internet of print and letters is inspired by his work and by Winifred Gallagher’s How the Post Office Created America.

Categories: Blog

On Wednesday, June 20th, Matt Smith and

June 22, 2018 - 12:21pm

On Wednesday, June 20th, Matt Smith and Aura Bogado broke a harrowing story about the Shiloh Treatment Center, south of Houston, TX, one of the contractors the Trump administration is using to house migrant children who were separated from their parents. Their report for Reveal, a Center for Investigative Reporting publication, and The Texas Tribune is based on an analysis of federal court filings, which allege that children held at Shiloh have been forcibly subdued with powerful psychiatric drugs. Released at a moment when media attention has been focused on separation of children from their families at the US/Mexico border, the story was widely shared online – as of this morning, Reveal’s tweet about the story had been retweeted 22,000 times.

The story gained attention for reasons other than its harrowing revelations. When Reveal tried to “boost” their post on Facebook, the platform alerted them that they were “Not Authorized for Ads with Political Content”. This is a new safety feature implemented by Facebook in the wake of scrutiny towards the company’s role in the 2016, permitting over 3000 ads to be illegally posted by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency, with the goal of sowing discontent in the US. Facebook is in a tough bind – they need to vet purchasers of political ads far more carefully than they have been, but thus far, their algorithmic review process is flagging some stories as ads, and allowing some ads to pass through unscreened. And Facebook Ads VP, Rob Goldman, didn’t help clarify matters by telling Reveal “…this ad, not the story, was flagged because it contains political content.”

Last night, one of the authors of the Reveal story, Aura Bogado, pointed to another problem she and Matt Smith are experiencing:

I’m an immigrant woman of color. I’m also an investigative reporter for @reveal and the ONLY reporter who has talked to a child who was at Shiloh. We broke this story with the @TexasTribune. As this story goes viral, I’d appreciate it if fellow reporters credited us for our work.

— Aura Bogado (@aurabogado) June 21, 2018

One of the long-standing patterns of the news industry is the tendency to copy reporting someone has already done. In the days when most people subscribed to a single newspaper, this copying served a helpful civic function – it helped spread news to multiple audiences, helping citizens have a common basis of news to inform democratic participation. A very clear journalistic ethic emerged around this practice: you prominently credit the publication that broke the story. You’ll see even fierce competitors, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, do this with their biggest scoops.

The internet has changed these dynamics. On the one hand, there’s no longer any civic need to copy stories – you could simply link to them instead. But there’s also a powerful financial incentive to make any story your own – the ad clicks. This story, written by Andrew Hay and bylined “Reuters staff”, shows how easily original reporters and outlets can disappear – it contains original reporting, in that it has a novel quote from Carlos Holguin, a lawyer for the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, who’s cited in the Reveal piece… but it doesn’t mention Smith and Bogado, the Texas Tribune or Reveal. (Reuters is not the only outlet that’s scrubbed provenance from this story. But they are a publicly traded company with 45,000 employees, $11 billion in annual revenue, and have been in the news industry since 1851. They should know better.)

This is not only a shitty thing to do, it’s a profitable thing to do. Reuters gets the ad views from the story they largely rewrote, while the two non-profits responsible for the original reporting get nothing, not even credit.

I’ve been thinking about this problem for some time, because the origins of important news stories is one of the main uses for Media Cloud, the system we’ve been developing for almost a decade at Center for Civic Media and the Berkman Klein Center. One of our first publications, “The Battle for Trayvon Martin: Mapping a Media Controversy online and offline” is at its heart a provenance paper, trying to understand who first reported on Trayvon’s death as a way of understanding how the story turned into a national conversation on race and violence. (TL;DR: Trayvon’s family worked with civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump to pitch the story to Reuters and CBS: This Morning. It was well over a week before the internet began amplifying the story with petitions and protests.) Rob Faris and Yochai Benkler’s massive Media Cloud analysis of the 2016 US Presidential elections focuses on provenance, tracing influential stories in mainstream media publications to their origins in the fringes of the right-wing blogosphere that surround Breitbart, Gateway Pundit and others.

Media Cloud works by ingesting (usually via RSS, sometimes via scraping) all the stories from tens of thousands of media publications, multiple times a day. We can often trace the provenance of a story by identifying an appropriate search string – “Shiloh” AND (migrant* OR drug*) might work in this case – and looking to see what stories hit our database first. Often a story breaks in several places simultaneously – that’s often an indicator that it was written in reaction to a statement made by a public official or a corporate leader, not the result of long investigative reporting. This process is imperfect and requires the input of knowledgeable humans to create search strings. What if we could automate it?

We’re working on this problem, looking to create automatic signatures that identify clusters of related stories. Duncan Watts is working on it at MSR as well, generating “fingerprints” for these clusters that rely in part on named entities. And obviously Google has a clustering system working that they use to organize related stories in Google News. With automated signatures and clustering, combined with a deep database of stories collected many times a day, we might be able to identify the initial stream that leads to a later media cascade.


Attention in US mainstream media to “Larry Nassar” from January 2017 to present, via mediacloud.org

What then? Well, that would depend on what media platforms did with this data. Consider a major, ongoing story like Dr. Larry Nassar’s abuse of US gymnasts. That horrific story was uncovered by the Indy Star, who began a massive investigative series on sexual abuse within US gymnastics in August 2017, months before Nassar’s name became a household word. When platforms that aggregate, distribute and monetize news – Apple, Google, Facebook – share revenues with publishers, maybe they should check against a provenance service to find out whether they’re rewarding someone who did original journalism, or someone who’s simply chasing clicks. Perhaps one or more platform would end up sharing revenues between the publisher that captured the clicks and the one that initially sponsored the investigation.

Could this ever really happen? Yes, but it would require not only the technology to work, but for there to be pressure from readers for ethically sourced journalism. It took a great deal of work for consumers to demand that their coffee be sustainably grown and that Apple look into whether suppliers are using child labor. What Bogado and her colleagues are asking for is good for anyone who cares about the long-term future of journalism. We need more resources to investigate stories like the abuse of children at the hands of the US government. We don’t need hundreds of news outlets rushing to cover the same stories. Establishing – and rewarding – provenance of stories that start with investigative journalism could help shift the playing field for original reporting.

Categories: Blog

Six or Seven Things Social Media Can Do For Democracy

May 30, 2018 - 8:20am

Social media doesn’t work the way we think it should. That’s the conclusion many people have come to in the wake of revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s mining of Facebook data to build political profiles and sway elections. Perhaps the concerns go further back, to the election of a US president in 2016 who seems fueled by social media, the more polarizing and divisive the better. Or perhaps it was Brexit that broke you. Or a gunman “self-investigating” the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor, spurious accusations of crisis actors at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and the amazingly inventive web of conspiracies the internet seems to engender. The cyberutopians have retreated, the creators of the modern internet are doing penance and we’re all social media critics now.


Photo by Tim Green, Flickr

Those critics include (suddenly) self-reflective executives at social media platforms, who are desperate for ideas on how their tools can return to society’s good graces. Having learned that platforms manage to metrics, making business decisions to maximize revenues, pageviews or engagement, there’s a new urgency to create a metric that will give us better social media, tools less likely to isolate, polarize and radicalize us. Tristan Harris has preached the gospel of Time Well Spent to newly receptive audiences at Facebook. At Cortico, my MIT colleague Deb Roy is working to define measures of healthy online communities, so Twitter and other platforms can optimize to encourage these behaviors.

These are worthy projects, and I am following both with optimism and interest. But I am concerned that we’ve not had a robust conversation about what we want social media to do for us.

We know what social media does for platform companies like Facebook and Twitter: it generates enormous masses of user-generated content that can be monetized with advertising, and reams of behavioral data that make that advertising more valuable. Perhaps we have a sense for what social media does for us as individuals, connecting us to distant friends, helping us maintain a lightweight awareness of each other’s lives even when we are not co-present. Or perhaps it’s a machine for disappointment and envy, a window into lives better lived than our own. It’s likely that what social media does for us personally is a deeply idiosyncratic question, dependent on our own lives, psyches and decisions, better discussed with our therapists than spoken about in generalities.

I’m interested in what social media should do for us as citizens in a democracy. We talk about social media as a digital public sphere, invoking Habermas and coffeehouses frequented by the bourgeoisie. Before we ask whether the internet succeeds as a public sphere, we ought to ask whether that’s actually what we want it to be.

I take my lead here from journalism scholar Michael Schudson, who took issue with a hyperbolic statement made by media critic James Carey: “journalism as a practice is unthinkable except in the context of democracy; in fact, journalism is usefully understood as another name for democracy.” For Schudson, this was a step too far. Journalism may be necessary for democracy to function well, but journalism by itself is not democracy and cannot produce democracy. Instead, we should work to understand the “Six or Seven Things News Can Do for Democracy”, the title of an incisive essay Schudson wrote to anchor his book, Why Democracies Need an Unloveable Press.

The six things Schudson sees news currently doing for democracy are presented in order of their frequency – as a result, the first three functions Schudson sees are straightforward and unsurprising. The news informs us about events, locally and globally, that we need to know about as citizens. The news investigates issues that are not immediately obvious, doing the hard work of excavating truths that someone did not want told. News provides analysis, knitting reported facts into complex possible narratives of significance and direction.

Schudson wades into deeper waters with the next three functions. News can serve as a public forum, allowing citizens to raise their voices through letters to the editor, op-eds and (when they’re still permitted) through comments. The news can serve as a tool for social empathy, helping us feel the importance of social issues through careful storytelling, appealing to our hearts as well as our heads. Controversially, Schudson argues, news can be a force for mobilization, urging readers to take action, voting, marching, protesting, boycotting, or using any of the other tools we have access to as citizens.

His essay closes with a seventh role that Schudson believes the news should fill, even if it has yet to embrace it. The news can be a force for the promotion of representative democracy. For Schudson, this includes the idea of protecting minority rights against the excesses of populism, and he sees a possible role for journalists in ensuring that these key protections remain in force.

This is perhaps not an exhaustive list, nor is the news required to do all that Schudson believes it can do. Neither does the list include things that the news tries to do that aren’t necessarily connected to democracy, like providing an advertising platform for local businesses, providing revenue for publishers, or entertaining audiences. And Schudson acknowledges that these functions can come into conflict – the more a news organization engages in mobilization, the more likely it is that it will compromise their ability to inform impartially.

In this same spirit, I’d like to suggest six or seven things social media can do for democracy. I am neither as learned or as wise as Schudson, so I fully expect readers to offer half a dozen functions that I’ve missed. In the spirit of Schudson’s public forum and Benkler’s digital public sphere, I offer these in the hopes of starting, not ending, a conversation.

Social media can inform us.

Many of us have heard the statistic that a majority of young people see Facebook as a primary source for news, and virtually every newsroom now considers Facebook as an important distributor of their content (sometimes to their peril.) But that’s not what’s most important in considering social media as a tool for democracy. Because social media is participatory, it is a tool people use to create and share information with friends and family, and potentially the wider world. Usually this information is of interest only to a few people – it’s what you had for lunch, or the antics of the squirrel in your backyard. But sometimes the news you see is of intense importance to the rest of the world.

When protesters took to the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, they were visible to the world through Facebook even though the Tunisian government had prevented journalists from coming to the town. Videos from Facebook made their way to Al Jazeera through Tunisian activists in the diaspora, and Al Jazeera rebroadcast footage, helping spread the protests to Tunis and beyond. The importance of social media in informing us is that it provides a channel for those excluded by the news – whether through censorship, as in Tunisia, or through disinterest or ignorance – to have their voices and issues heard.

Places don’t need to be as far away as Tunisia for social media to be a conduit for information – when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, many people learned of his death, the protests that unfolded in the wake, and the militarized response to those protests, via Twitter. (And as news reporters were arrested for covering events in Ferguson, they turned to Twitter to share news of their own detention.) Social media is critically important in giving voice to communities who’ve been systemically excluded from media – people of color, women, LGBTQIA people, poor people. By giving people a chance to share their under-covered perspectives with broadcast media, social media has a possible role in making the media ecosystem more inclusive and fair.

Finally, social media may be in helping replace or augment local information, as people connect directly with their children’s schools or with community organizations. This function is increasingly important as local newspapers shed staff or close altogether, as social media may become the primary conduit for local information.

Social media can amplify important voices and issues.

In traditional (broadcast or newspaper) media, editors decide what topics are worth the readers’ attention. This “agenda setting” function has enormous political importance – as Max McCombs and Donald Shaw observed in 1972, the news doesn’t tell us what to think, but it’s very good at telling us what to think about.

That agenda-setting power takes a different shape in the era of social media. Instead of a linear process from an editor’s desk through a reporter to the paper on your front porch, social media works with news media through a set of feedback loops. Readers make stories more visible by sharing them on social media (and help ensure invisibility by failing to share stories). Editors and writers respond to sharing as a signal of popularity and interest, and will often write more stories to capitalize on this interest. Readers may respond to stories by becoming authors, injecting their stories into the mix and competing with professional stories for attention and amplification.

Amplification has become a new form of exercising political power. In 2012, we watched Invisible Children use a carefully crafted campaign, built around a manipulative video and a strategy of sharing the video with online influencers. Within an few days, roughly half of American young people had seen the video, and US funding for the Ugandan military – the goal of the campaign – was being supported by powerful people in the US Congress and military. (That the organization’s director had a nervous breakdown, leading to the group’s implosion, was not a coincidence – Invisible Children managed to amplify an issue to a level of visibility where powerful backlash was inevitable.)

Amplification works within much smaller circles that those surrounding US foreign policy. By sharing content with small personal networks on social media, individuals signal the issues they see as most important and engage in a constant process of self-definition. In the process, they advocate for friends to pay attention to these issues as well. Essentially, social media provides an efficient mechanism for the two-step flow of communication, documented by Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz, to unfold online. We are less influenced by mass media than we are by opinion leaders, who share their opinions about mass media. Social media invites all of us to become opinion leaders, at least for our circles of friends, and makes the process entertaining, gamifying our role as influencers by rewarding us with up to the second numbers on how our tweets and posts have been liked and shared by our friends.

Social media can be a tool for connection and solidarity.

The pre-web internet of the 1980s and 1990s was organized around topics of interest, rather than offline friendships, as social networks like Facebook organize. Some of the most long-lasting communities that emerged from the Usenet era of the internet were communities of interest that connected people who had a hard time finding each other offline: young people questioning their sexuality, religious and ethnic minorities, people with esoteric or specialized interests. The spirit of the community of interest and identity continued through Scott Hefferman’s meetup.com, which helped poodle owners or Bernie supporters in Des Moines find each other, and now surfaces again in Facebook Groups, semi-private spaces designed to allow people to connect with likeminded individuals in safe, restricted spaces.

Social critics, notably Robert Putnam, have worried that the internet is undermining our sense of community and lessening people’s abilities to engage in civic behavior. Another possibility is that we’re forming new bonds of solidarity based on shared interests than on shared geographies. I think of Jen Brea, whose academic career at Harvard was cut short by myalgic encephalomyelitis, who used the internet to build an online community of fellow disease sufferers, a powerful documentary film that premiered at Sundance, and a powerful campaign calling attention to the ways diseases that disproportionately affect women are systemically misdiagnosed. Brea’s disease makes it difficult for her to connect with her local, physical community, but social media has made it possible to build a powerful community of interest that is working on helping people live with their disease.

One of the major worries voiced about social media is the ways in which it can increase political polarization. Communities of solidarity can both exacerbate and combat that problem. We may end up more firmly rooted in our existing opinions, or we may create a new set of weak ties to people who we may disagree with in terms of traditional political categories, but with whom we share powerful bonds around shared interests, identities and struggles.

Social media can be a space for mobilization

The power of social media to raise money for candidates, recruit people to participate in marches and rallies, to organize boycotts of products or the overthrow of governments is one of the best-documented – and most debated – powers of social media. From Clay Shirky’s examination of group formation and mobilization in Here Comes Everybody to endless analyses of the power of Facebook and Twitter in mobilizing youth in Tahrir Square or Gezi Park, including Zeynep Tufekçi’s Twitter and Tear Gas, the power of social media to both recruit people to social movements and to organize actions offline has been well documented. It’s also been heartily critiqued, from Malcolm Gladwell, who believes that online connections can never be as powerful as real-world strong ties for leading people to protest, or by thinkers like Tufekçi, who readily admit that the ease of mobilizing people online is an Achille’s heel, teaching leaders like Erdogan to discount the importance of citizens protesting in the streets.

It’s worth noting that mobilization online does not have to lead to offline action to be effective. A wave of campaigns like Sleeping Giants, which has urged advertisers to pull support from Breitbart, or #metoo, where tens of thousands of women have demonstrated that sexual harassment is a pervasive condition, not just the product of a few Harvey Weinsteins, have connected primarily online action to real-world change. What’s increasingly clear is that online mobilization – like amplification – is simply a tool in the contemporary civic toolkit, alongsite more traditional forms of organizing.

Social media can be a space for deliberation and debate.

Perhaps no promise of social media has been more disappointing than hope that social media would provide the public forum function Schudson celebrated. Newspapers began experimenting with participatory media through open comments fora, and quickly discovered that online discourse was often mean, petty, superficial and worth ignoring. Moving debate from often anonymous comment sections onto real-name social networks like Facebook had less of a mediating effect that many hoped. While conversations less often devolve into insults and shouting, everyone who’s shared political news online has had the experience of a friend or family member ending an online friendship over controversial content. It’s likely that the increasing popularity of closed online spaces, like Facebook groups, has to do with the unwillingness of people to engage in civil deliberation and debate, and the hope that people can find affirmation and support for their views rather than experiencing conflict and tension.

Yet it is possible to create spaces for deliberation and debate within social media. Wael Ghonim was the organizer of the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, one of the major groups that mobilized “Tahrir youth” to stand up to the Mubarak regime, leading to the most dramatic changes to come out of the Arab Spring. After the revolution, Ghonim was deeply involved with democratic organizing in Egypt. He became frustrated with Facebook, which was an excellent platform for rallying people and harnessing anger, but far less effective in enabling nuanced debate about political futures. Ghonim went on to build his own social network, Parlio, which focused on civility and respectful debate, featuring dialogs with intellectuals and political leaders rather than updates on what participants were eating for lunch or watching on TV. The network had difficulty scaling, but was acquired by Quora, the question-answering social network, which was attracted to Parlio’s work in building high-value conversations that went beyond questions and answers.

Parlio suggests that the dynamics of social networks as we understand them have to do with the choices made by their founders and governing team. Facebook and Twitter can be such unpleasant places because strong emotions lead to high engagement, and engagement sells ads. Engineer a different social network around different principles, and it’s possible that the deliberation and debate we might hope from a digital public sphere could happen within a platform.

Social media can be a tool for showing us a diversity of views and perspectives.

If the idea of social media as a space for deliberation and polite dialog doesn’t convince you that I’ve been replaced with a cyberutopian dopplegänger of myself, this assertion might. I wrote a book, Rewire, that argues that social media tends to reinforce homophily, the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. Given the apparent track record of social media as a space where ethnonationalism and racism thrive, is it reasonable to hope for social media to operate as a tool for increasing diversity of views and exposure to alternative perspectives.

Yes, but not without conscious intervention to help social networks operate differently than they do now. Contemporary social networks have an enormous amount of potential diversity, but very little manifest diversity. In theory, you can connect with 2 billion people from virtually every country in the world on Facebook. In practice, you connect with a few hundred people you know offline, who tend to share your national origin, race, religion and politics. But a social network that focused explicitly on broadening your perspectives would have a tremendous foundation to build upon: networks like Facebook know a great deal about who you already pay attention to, and have a deep well of alternative content to draw from. Projects like FlipFeed from MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines and gobo.social from my group at the MIT Media Lab explicitly re-engineer your social media feeds to encourage encounters with a more diverse set of perspectives. If a network like Twitter or Facebook concluded that increased diversity was a worthy metric to manage to, there’s dozens of ways to accomplish the goal, and rich questions to be solved in combining increased diversity with a user’s interests to accomplish serendipity, rather than increased randomness.

Schudson’s suggestion that news could promote representative democracy was intended as a challenge to news organizations to take their democratic responsibilities more seriously. I offer my seventh suggestion for social media in the same spirit.

Social media can be a model for democratically governed spaces.

Users in social networks like Twitter and Facebook have little control over how those networks are governed, despite the great value they collectively create for platform owners. This disparity has led Rebecca MacKinnon to call for platform owners to seek Consent of the Networked, and Trebor Scholz to call us to recognize participation in social networks as Digital Labor. But some platforms have done more than others to engage their communities in governance.

Reddit is the fourth most popular site on the US internet and sixth most popular site worldwide, as measured by Alexa Internet, and is a daily destination for at least 250 million users. The site is organized into thousands of “subreddits”, each managed by a team of uncompensated, volunteer moderators, who determine what content is allowable in each community. The result is a wildly diverse set of conversations, ranging from insightful conversations about science and politics in some communities, to ugly, racist, misogynistic, hateful speech in others. The difference in outcomes in those communities comes in large part to differences in governance and to the partipants each community attracts.

Some Reddit communities have begun working with scholars to examine scientifically how they could govern their communities more effectively. /r/science, a community of 18 million subscribers and over a thousand volunteer moderators, has worked with communications scholar Nathan Matias to experiment with ways of enforcing their rules to maximize positive discussions and throw out fewer rulebreakers. The ability to experiment with different rules in different parts of a site and to study what rulesets best enable what kinds of conversations could have benefits for supporters of participatory democracy offline as well as online.

It’s fair to point out that the social media platforms we use today don’t fulfill all these functions. Few have taken steps to increase the diversity of opinions users are exposed to, and though many have tried to encourage civil discourse, very few have succeeded. It’s likely that some of these goals are incompatible with current ad supported business models. Political polarization and name-calling may well generate more pageviews than diversity and civil deliberation.

Second, as Schudson observed about the possible functions for media, these democratic functions for social media may be mutually incompatible. It’s likely that the communities that favor solidarity and subgroup identity, or turn that identity into mobilization, aren’t the best ones to support efforts for diversity or for dialog. The ways in which different networks may be necessary to accomplish multiple democratic goals points to the fact that we may not need One Network to Rule Them All, so much as we may need a diversity of networks for different purposes. The place where I swap war stories about continuous glucose monitors with fellow type 1 diabetics may not be the place I argue politics – and it may be a massive mistake to collapse those communities and functions into the same platform

Finally, it’s also fair to note that there’s a dark side to every democratic function I’ve listed. The tools that allow marginalized people to report their news and influence media are the same ones that allow fake news to be injected into the media ecosystem. Amplification is a technique used by everyone from Black Lives Matter to neo-Nazis, as is mobilization, and the spaces for solidarity that allow Jen Brea to manage her disease allow “incels” to push each other towards violence. While I feel comfortable advocating for respectful dialog and diverse points of view, someone will see my advocacy as an attempt to push politically correct multiculturalism down their throat, or to silence the exclusive truth of their perspectives through dialog. The bad news is that making social media work better for democracy likely means making it work better for the Nazis as well. The good news is that there’s a lot more participatory democrats than there are Nazis.

My aim in putting forward seven things social media could do for democracy is two-fold. As we demand that Facebook, Twitter and others do better – and we should – we need to know what we’re asking for. I want Facebook to be more respectful of my personal information, more dedicated to helping me connect with my friends than marketing me to advertisers, but I also want them to be thinking about which of these democratic goals they hope to achieve. Second, I don’t believe we should have only one or two social media networks. My hope is a world where we could have dozens of interoperable social networks focused on different goals and purposes. When I’ve proposed publicly-funded social media networks, it’s not because I believe taxpayers should pay for a replacement for Facebook. It’s because I think we need networks that take seriously problems like deliberation and diversity, and I don’t yet see those projects emerging from the market.

In suggesting the roles news has within a democracy, Michael Schudson had the support of Thomas Jefferson, who declared that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”. There’s no guarantee that our founders would have embraced social media as a critical pillar of democracy – though I’ve made the case that Franklin, at least, would have found it very familiar. But if our response to the shortcomings of contemporary social media is to move beyond the idea that we should burn it all down, it’s critical that we ask what social media can do for democracy and demand that it play its part.

As I mentioned early in this essay, I’m unconvinced that I’ve identified the correct seven functions for social media in a democracy, or that there’s six or seven. And while I have the intuition that our democracies are better with social media than without them, I’m interested in all arguments, including the argument to burn it all down. I hope you’ll take advantage of participatory media as a space for dialog to offer your thoughts in the comments on this, or in your own writing elsewhere online. Thanks for reading and engaging.

Categories: Blog

Two Bens and a Mark: a talk at Ben Franklin Hall in Philadelphia

May 10, 2018 - 8:03am

I’m speaking today in Ben Franklin Hall in Philadelphia for a conference of Media Impact Funders. And, at the request of the organizers, I’m cosplaying the great hustler himself. My talk builds on one I gave a couple of years ago at Data & Society, but veers in some different directions as I wonder what Franklin might have told an audience of folks with money and good intentions about how to fix some of the problems of our contemporary media environment.

The event is being livestreamed here, if you’d like to tune in.

This is a talk about two Benjamins and a Mark. The first one should be obvious to you. I’m a Franklin fan, and not only because people have observed a resemblance. (Personally, I don’t see it, but whatever.)

Actually, if you’re going to have a favorite founding father, Ben Franklin is not a bad choice. He wasn’t just an inventor, a scientist, a printer and a diplomat — he was a hustler. (As the scholar P. Diddy might have put it, he was all about the Benjamin.) Ben was a businessman, an entrepreneur, and he figured out that one of the best ways to have financial and political power in the Colonies was to control the means of communication. The job he held the longest was as postmaster, starting as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737 and finally getting fired from his position as postmaster general of the Colonies in 1774, when the British finally figured out that he was a revolutionary who could not be trusted.

(You’d think this might have tipped them off – because Ben had franking privileges he could send letters for free by writing Free – B. Franklin, as he did on this note to John Hancock. But more often, he wrote B. Free Franklin, a coded message to show his support for independence.)

But free and subversive letters weren’t the only privileges Ben got from the post office. He had ample opportunities to hand out patronage jobs to his friends. But his real genius was in seeing the synergies between the family business — printing — and the post. Early in his career as a printer, Franklin bumped into one of the major challenges to publishers in the Colonies — if the postmaster didn’t like what you were writing about, you didn’t get to send your paper out to your subscribers. Once Ben had control over the post, he instituted a policy that was both progressive and profitable. Any publisher could distribute his newspaper via the post for a small, predictable, fixed fee.

What resulted from this policy was the emergence of a public sphere in the United States that was very different from the one Habermas describes, born in the coffee houses of the european bourgeoise. It was a distributed public sphere of newspapers and letters, one that was uniquely well suited to the American experiment. For a nation that spanned the distance between Boston and Charleston, a virtual, asynchronous public sphere mediated by print made more sense that one that centered around meeting face to face.

Franklin died in 1790, but physician and revolutionary – and fellow Philadelphian – Benjamin Rush expanded on Franklin’s vision for a post office that would knit the nation together and provide a space for the political discussions necessary for a nation of self-governing citizens to rule themselves. In 1792, Rush authored The Post Office Act, which is one of the subtlest and most surprising pieces of 18th century legislation that you’ve never heard of.

The Post Office Act established the right of the government to control postal routes and gave citizens rights to privacy of their mail — which was deeply undermined by the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, but hey, who’s counting. But what may be most important about the Post Office Act is that it set up a very powerful cross subsidy. Rather than charging based on weight and distance, as they had before Franklin’s reforms, the US postal system offered tiered service based on the purpose of the speech being exchanged. Exchanging private letters was very costly, while sending newspapers was shockingly cheap: it cost a small fraction of the cost of a private letter to send a newspaper. As a result, newspapers represented 95% of the weight of the mails and 15% of the revenue in 1832. This pricing disparity led to the wonderful phenomenon of cheapskates purchasing newspapers, underlining or pricking holes with a pin under selected words and sending encoded letters home for the price of a paper rather than a letter.

The low cost of mailing newspapers as well as the absence of stamp taxes or caution money, which made it incredibly prohibitively expensive to operate a press in England, allowed half of all American households to have a newspaper subscription in 1820, a rate that was orders of magnitude higher than in England or France. But the really crazy subsidy was the “exchange copy”. Newspapers could send copies to each other for free, with carriage costs paid by the post office. By 1840, The average newspaper received 4300 exchange copies a year — they were swimming in content, and thanks to extremely loose enforcement of copyright laws, a huge percentage of what appeared in the average newspaper was cut and pasted from other newspapers. This giant exchange of content was subsidized by high rates on those who used the posts for personal and commercial purposes.

This system worked really well, creating a postal service that was fiscally sustainable, and which aspired to universal service. By 1831, three quarters of US government civilian jobs were with the postal service. In an almost literal sense, the early US state was a postal service with a small representative government and a tiny military attached to it. But the postal system was huge because it needed to be — there were 8700 post offices by 1830, including over 400 in my home state of Massachusetts alone, which is saying something, as there are only 351 towns in Massachusetts.

I should note here that I don’t really know anything about early American history — I’m cribbing all of this from Paul Starr’s brilliant The Creation of the Media. I also recommend Winnifred Gallagher’s How the Post Office Created America, which continues to modern day and looks at how the post office advances technologies like aviation and, indeed, the internet.

But I teach these stories about the 18th century every year to my students because it helps explain the unique evolution of the public sphere in the US. Our founders built and regulated the postal system in such a way that its function as a sphere of public discourse was primary and its role as a tool for commerce and personal communication was secondary. They took on this massive undertaking explicitly because they believed that to have a self-governing nation, we needed not only representation in Congress, but a public sphere, a space for conversation about what the nation would and could be. And because the US was vast, and because the goal was to expand civic participation far beyond the urban bourgeois, it needed to be a distributed, participatory public sphere. To be clear, this was far than a universal public sphere – the founders saw this as a space for propertied white men – but the infrastructures of post and mail created powerful tools for abolitionists, for newspapers that helped free black men connect across vast distances, that helped carry the case for women’s suffrage.

As we look at the challenge we face today — understanding the influence of algorithms over the public sphere — it’s worth understanding what’s truly novel, and what’s actually got a deep historical basis. The notion of a private, commercial public sphere isn’t a new one. America’s early newspapers had an important civic function, but they were also loaded with advertising — 50–90% of the total content, in the late 18th century, which is why so many of them were called The Advertiser. What is new is our distaste for regulating commercial media. Whether through the subsidies I just described or through explicit mandates like the Fairness Doctrine, we’ve not historically been shy in insisting that the press take on civic functions. The anti-regulatory, corporate libertarian stance, built on the questionable assumptions that any press regulation is a violation of the first amendment and that any regulation of tech-centric industries will retard innovation, would likely have been surprising to our founders.

An increase in inclusivity of the public sphere isn’t new — in England, the press was open only to the wealthy and well-connected, while the situation was radically different in the colonies. And this explosion of media led to problems of information overload. Which means that gatekeeping isn’t new either — those newspapers that sorted through 4300 exchange copies a year to select and reprint content were engaged in curation and gatekeeping. Newspapers sought to give readers what an editor thought they wanted, much as social media algorithms promise to help us cope with the information explosion we face from our friends streams of baby photos. The processes editors have used to filter information were never transparent, hence the enthusiasm of the early 2000s for unfiltered media. What may be new is the pervasiveness of the gatekeeping that algorithms make possible, the invisibility of that filtering and the difficulty of choosing which filters you want shaping your conversation.

Ideological isolation isn’t new either. The press of the 1800s was fiercely opinionated and extremely partisan. In many ways, the Federalist and Republican parties emerged from networks of newspapers that shared ideologically consonant information — rather than a party press, the parties actually emerged from the press. But again, what’s novel now is the lack of transparency — when you read the New York Evening Post in 1801, you knew that Alexander Hamilton had founded it, and you knew it was a Federalist paper. Research by Christian Sandvig and Karrie Karahalios suggests that many users of Facebook don’t know that their friend feed is algorithmically curated, and don’t realize the way it may be shaped by the political leanings of their closest friends.

And finally, fake news certainly wasn’t new. It certainly wasn’t new to Ben Franklin – in fact, fake news reached an early peak in the run up to the English civil war in the 1650s, a half century before Franklin’s birth. You remember, of course, that the English civil war broke out when Charles I married a Catholic, decided to rule without convening parliament, which basically tried to starve him out by denying him money to fight a war with Scotland, leading Charles to arrest five members of the House of Commons and the country to split into warring factions of royalists and parliamentarians, with led to a series of civil wars which the parliamentarians eventually won, executing Charles on 1649 and leading to Oliver Cromwell’s ascent as Lord Protector of the Realm and eventually to the restoration of the monarchy in 1661 by Charles’s son, Charles II. You know all that, of course.

What you may not know is that one of the causes of the civil wars was that Charles, broke and profoundly focused on his own survival, basically could no longer control the press. 1642 – the year the war broke out – “More printed material was published in the year 1642 than in the entire preceding 165 years since William Caxton set up the first London printing press in 1476.” What resulted was a fury of “obnoxious and unlicensed” publications which included satire, complaint literature, lots of radical religious texts. But perhaps the most important publications were “newsbooks”, irregular proto-newspapers, whose content was essentially user-generated, poorly sourced, highly partisan and often shockingly inaccurate. You had two rival orbits of newsbooks, with the parliamentarians in London and the Royalists in Oxford. You had reports of military defeats, reports that the king was dead, all of which were more or less impossible to verify in an age of slow travel on bad roads, long before the telegraph. And you had conspiracy theory – especially anti-Catholic conspiracies – ruling the day. Catholics, of course, were a small minority and an easy target for racial and ethnic hatred, convenient scapegoats for all that was wrong with the kingdom.

Basically, fake news was a significant cause of the English civil war. That’s the bad news. The good news is that England found some ways to recover from the avalanche of fake news. Some are methods we probably wouldn’t endorse – there’s amazing stories of pamphleteers being pilloried and having their ears removed – and the biggest factor in combatting fake news was probably the Great Fire of 1661… which would be like solving Facebook with a California earthquake. But there was also the establishment of the Royal Society.

Michael Hunter’s “Establishing the New Science”, makes the case that the Society was established in part to heal the country, to create a body of knowledge that wasn’t designed to promote either the royalists or the parliamentarians. Writing about the Royal Society, Stephen Marche points out that their motto was – and still is – “Nullius in verba” – take no man’s word for it. Marche suggests that we inscribe this motto on all the world’s cellphones.

When I think of a Royal Society for our age, I don’t think of a central body that checks our facts and tells us what’s true and what’s not – that’s absolutely not what the Royal Society was. Instead, it was a group of thinkers who through experimentation and careful study sought to understand the world how it actually was. This is awfully self serving, but when I look for parallels today, I look towards academics who are trying to build the tools and conduct the studies so that it’s not only the researchers inside Facebook and Twitter who understand these companies and can help hold them responsible.

I mentioned that this talk was about two Bens – Franklin and Rush – and a Mark. Much as we understand the decisions made in the founding of our democracy in terms of archetypical figures – Washington the noble warrior, Franklin the hacker entrepreneur – we think of our contemporary moment through similar personifications. Mark Zuckerberg is the techno-utopian geek we don’t quite trust. He’s very smart, and seems to truly believe that what he’s doing will make the world a better place, but he’s either shockingly naive or profoundly deceptive, because nothing else explains how many times he’s screwed up and how surprised he seems to be every single time something utterly predictable goes wrong.

I feel like the Bens have a lesson or two for Mark. Franklin was an entrepreneur, an inventor. a technical genius and a hustler, much like Mark. He was also a civic visionary, founder of libraries and volunteer fire companies, much as Mark seems to see himself becoming. Franklin ran many successful businesses, including those based around his inventions, but he also published widely, and his work was subject to vigorous public debate in Paris and London. Indeed, while Franklin was made one of the very few non-English members of the Royal Society, his work on lightning rods was the subject of a great deal of controversy, which Franklin followed closely. (As it turns out, he was wrong – pointy lightning rods, which he favored, don’t work as well as blunt ones. But it took over 200 years to figure that out.)

I’d like to see Mark – and the other tech pioneers he’s representing in this talk – do a better job of engaging with their critics, with civil society, with academia, with everyone who sincerely wants them to succeed in making the world a better place and worries they are badly off the mark. I’d like to see Mark learn from Parlio, a brilliant experiment from Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim, a social network build around rules that encourage polite, respectful and serious debate. Or from Mastodon, a decentralized social network that allows different nodes with different rulesets. Or even from Gobo, a project from my lab that lets users control aspects of their newsfeeds – how serious or funny it is, how diverse the political viewpoints are, whether you’d like all the men to shut up and let the women talk for a change.

But I also would like to see us learn from Benjamin Rush, who really brought to fruition Franklin’s vision of the public sphere of print, using the superpower of bureaucracy, regulation and government subsidy to build a public sphere that allowed the peculiar genius of American democracy to evolve. It’s not always enough for a single genius to envision the world – sometimes we need pressure from governments, from activists, from civil society to demand that we live up to aspirations of our tools. Sometimes the free market needs a hand from regulators who have a vision of how they want the world to be, a way that’s more consonant with our vision of how democracy works. With projects like Gobo, I’ve argued that we need many social networks, not just one, and that they can have different rulesets, different audiences and different purposes. I’d love for at least one of those networks to focus on helping us prepare to be citizens in a diverse and complicated world. That network probably needs public support, much as children’s television needs public support if we want it to work well.

So I leave you with a Franklin aphorism: “Well done is better than well said.” It’s well and good for folks like you and me to speculate about what social media is doing well and doing poorly. What we need is vastly more doing, more experiments, more attempts to build the worlds we want to see. I’m glad you’re hearing next from Eli Pariser, a friend who’s both a thinker and an experimenter. And I hope he and I can challenge you to make sure we move from saying to doing, from watching to experimenting, from worrying to making the world better. Thanks for listening.

Categories: Blog

Because America’s Family Leave Policy Sucks, Too.

April 29, 2018 - 7:21am

When my friends and colleagues began working on the first Make the Breast Pump Not Suck hackathon in 2014 (http://www.kanarinka.com/project/mit-breast-pump-hackathon/), they were focused on the machine itself. The breast pump has evolved very little from its hospital origins, and it’s widely hated as loud, painful, hard to clean, ugly and awkward. The hackathon they organized did amazing work to design better breast pumps, but it also revealed a larger problem: It’s not just the breast pump that sucks – America’s family leave policy sucks, too.

The breast pump often becomes such a problem because mothers don’t have paid family leave and some need to get back to work immediately after giving birth. This puts parents in impossible positions – they want to do what’s right for their baby, but everything in American society is stacked to prevent them from caring for their child.

When the hackathon team reloaded and started working on the 2018 hackathon, we added a policy summit, focused on questions of paid family leave policy, a two-day discussion focused on issues of equitable design of policy and practical strategies for winning paid leave at federal, state or company by company levels.

What’s remarkable to me as a newcomer to this movement is the coherence of the ask. The panelists we heard from today were unified on what family leave should include:

  • At least 12 weeks of paid leave
  • Robust coverage – at least 2/3rds of salary, up to $4000 a month
  • Universality – the benefit applies to everyone in the business, with no carve out for small employers. The same benefits apply to freelancers and self-employed people
  • Portable, so people in the gig economy can take the benefit from one job to another
  • Comprehensive – Family leave includes not just parental leave, but govers a wide range of issues. We need to care not just for new babies, but for aging parents or sick children
  • Secure against retaliation – we need to overcome the danger that someone loses employment for taking family leave

There’s also widespread support for the idea that family medical leave needs to happen at the federal level, if only because we know that many states won’t opt to offer the benefit, and those states are ones whose citizens need this support the most. The differences are around tactics. Vicki Shabo of National Partnership for Women and Families is seeking support for the FAMILY act, Co-sponsored by Senator Gillibrand and Representative DeLaura. 32 bipartisan senators are now on board, as are 154 House members. The bill accomplishes most of the goals stated above and is funded through a small payroll tax on employees and employers (0.4%, split between the employer and employee) and administered through a new federal agency.

Sherry Leiwant of Better Balance pointed out that states are often the laboratories for policy experimentation where new ideas get worked through. She sees potential to build family leave around temporary disability insurance, which was instituted through payroll taxes in some states in the 1940s and 50s, but excluded pregnancy and childbirth until the late 1970s. But while TDIs give states a framework they could use to implement family leave, they aren’t universal, usually cutting out agricultural workers, seasonal workers and part time workers.

Some of the most exciting moves towards family leave policies have come from businesses. Erik Rettig of Small Business Majority points out that 85% of his member companies support paid family leave. Small businesses tend to be like families, he explains – they don’t want to lose employees that they have personal relationships with and have spent time training. But he notes that small businesses, individually, have little political power. As advocates, we should be targeting chambers of commerce, business leagues and other groups that can influence at scale.

Brianna Cayo Cotter of PL+US and Girshriela “Gigi” Green, OUR Walmart had the most powerful story about making change at scale through influencing corporations. Gigi explains that she and other Walmart associates began pushing the company for reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers as early as 2011. When she and colleagues learned that salaried managers were receiving 10 weeks paid maternity leave, and hourly associates were receiving none, she and colleagues started a petition campaign that ended up with more than 100,000 signatures.

Petitioning the company directly didn’t work. Gigi and Our Walmart, with support from PL+US, spoke in front of the Walmart shareholder meeting, addressing an audience of 15,000, demanding that the company implement fairer policies. Shortly after, Walmart agreed to offer equivalent benefits to full time associates, though they insisted that they made this decision without outside pressure.

The scale of this change is hard to overstate: Walmart is the largest employer of women in the world. The victory is far from complete. This isn’t true family leave, but maternity leave, and it doesn’t address part time workers who work full-time hours. But it’s an amazing step forward. Gigi chokes up talking about it, telling us that she’d worked with women whose children had died on Walmart properties because they had inadequate leave and support.

Brianna from PL+US believes that shareholders can be the most powerful voice for change within corporations. She’s begun working with a firm that invests hundreds of billions of dollars, and is using their leverage to push for change within the companies they support. “They’ve become very powerful activist voices, pushing for these rights within the companies they invest in.”

Today’s conversation pivots to tactics to reach these common goals. What campaigns, pressures and strategies will bring family leave to more Americans. Erik argues that we work best when we understand what businesses need, and how our asks are consistent with business priorities and processes. Brianna reminds us that businesses care about customers, investors and their board – pressure them and you can win. Gigi puts it simply: “I know what didn’t work. Going to them politely and asking for what was right didn’t work. It wasn’t until we petitioned and sooke out that change really happened.”

More to come, on the new strategies emerging from the policy summit, and new inventions from the hackathon.

Categories: Blog

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?

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