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

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

    by Ethan


    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.

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

    by Ethan


    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 alleges – as 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?

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

    by Ethan


    A year ago, I had the opportunity to go to Colombia for the first time, as part of a delegation from Open Society Foundation. We were trying to understand the affects Colombia’s long guerilla war had on the society and what we might expect from the peace referendum planned for a few months later.
    The referendum failed, but the peace didn’t, and Colombia seems to be transforming. I returned to Bogota in November 2016 to speak at a national journalism event. My friends who’d judged the contest marveled that this was the first year where the best reporting was not about the war, but about social issues: homosexuality, drug use, women’s roles in the workforce. “It’s almost like we’re a normal country,” one of the judges told me, laughing.
    I wrote about my experiences visiting a small village where coca farming is the primary local industry. I’d hoped to sell the piece to one of my editors in the US, but I couldn’t get any traction. It’s sat open in a browser tab for a full year as I’ve felt guilty about not finding a way to share this story with a wider audience.
    Colombia is in the news again, with the demobilization of the FARC in its final steps. And coca, the center of the story I wanted to tell, is back in the news, with record levels of Colombian countryside planted with coca bushes. Once again, authorities are trying to lure coca farmers into growing substitution crops… and once again, the economics of the equation don’t make sense to the farmers.
    I re-read the piece today, and I still think it’s important for understanding some of the challenges Colombia still faces, especially in areas outside of the major cities. If you like it, please share it, so I can feel less badly about failing my friends in Lerma by not getting the New York Times or National Geographic to pick this up. :-)

    The village of Lerma, Colombia is 700 kilometers from Bogota, 150 kilometers from the border with Ecuador, and a long, long way from anywhere I’ve ever been before. My companions and I flew from Bogota to Popayán, a provincial capital of whitewashed houses, countless churches and cobblestone streets, then took a bus three hours down the Pan American highway, onto smaller roads and ultimately nine kilometers of dirt and gravel. I spent the trip losing my breath at the beauty of the mountain scenery and trying not to lose my breakfast, my nerve or my mind as our driver slalomed through bus-plungeworthy curves.
    We had come to Lerma for the reason outsiders ever come to Lerma: coca.
    I am a member of the global board of the Open Society Foundations and a team from our organization had come to Colombia to learn about the economic and social challenges the country is facing as it goes through a peace process at the end of a 50 year war with the FARC, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla army which has engaged in terrorism, kidnapping for ransom and drug production and trafficking. We’d come to Lerma to meet farmers who were cultivating coca not to sell for cocaine production, but for licit uses: a nutrient-rich flour, a medicinal tea, for chewing as their ancestors had for centuries.
    Posters advertising the festival of coca, and a coca-laced beverage in a home outside Lerma
    What we found was more surprising than licit coca. We found a community that had once descended into unimaginable violence and had remade itself into what residents proudly call “a village of peace”.
    Our hosts in Lerma met us with lemonade spiked with coca leaf powder and sweet local basil, and lead us into a covered town square, where we sat on concrete bleachers while schoolchildren played chirimía, a local musical style that features reed flutes and drums. After the performance, schoolteacher Tocayo offered a remarkable history of the town to us and to a group of elementary school students.
    Leader of the school Chirimía ensemble presents her group
    In his account, Lerma was a peaceful village where people cultivated plantains, yucca and chickpeas, as well as small coca crops, until the Peace Corps arrived in 1979. Yes, according to local legend, those idealistic volunteers were the agents of Lerma’s destruction, bringing to the rural community the chemical techniques for extracting cocaine from coca leaves. Once the Peace Corps volunteers had done their sinister work, Lerma farmers quickly realized they could make far more money growing and processing coca, so they abandoned subsistence farming and became narcotics providers.
    By the early 1980s, Lerma had attracted the attention of the Escobar network, Colombia’s most powerful drug cartel. The cartel bought Lerma’s coca leaves and paste, turning the village into a boom town. Lerma residents put new roofs on their houses, bought cars and motorbikes, and guns. They partied, drinking heavily and partaking of their new crop. The town’s population surged from 400 to 2,000. By 1983, the international market was glutted with cocaine and prices began to fall. Accustomed to their new wealth, Lerma’s residents began mugging each other to make ends meet, and those who hadn’t already arm themselves bought guns.
    If other villages in the region were terrorized by the FARC or by M-19, a Bolivarian guerrilla group, Lerma was terrorized by the people of Lerma. Over the course of five years, at least 20% of the town’s population was murdered. The murder rate sparked on Thursdays, the town’s market day, when farmers came in town to sell their crops and spend their money in local bars, where all-day drinking sessions often devolved into gunfights. According to Rudy Gomez, a schoolteacher in Lerma, “La gente decía que si se pusiera una lápida en cada sitio donde había caído un muerto, no habría por dónde caminar” (The people say that if there was a stone at every place where someone died, you wouldn’t be able to walk.)
    In 1988, a group of schoolteachers and widows intervened, pressuring bar owners and liquor stores to shut their doors in the hopes of ending the violence. For ten years, Lerma was a dry town, and citizens turned from drinking to rebuilding the town. One of the town’s few university graduates, Walter Giviría, returned to his hometown to teach and invited friends to join him. The young teachers turned empty bars into classrooms, eventually raising enough money to build a sprawling elementary and high school. By focusing on the next generation, the town followed the advice of an old proverb, which says, “For new birds, you need new eggs” – those who’d grown used to easy drug money might not be saved, but the new generation could be.
    Schoolteacher Tocayo presenting the local history and the town seal of Lerma. The “e” in the town’s name is a coca leaf.
    “We succeeded in making social change,” explained Tocayo, “but not in economic change.” Instead of two murders a week, Lerma experienced a decade without violent deaths. But the village was still desperately poor. Lerma tried to shift from coca to sugarcane, but the switch was economically disastrous. And so, at least 40 families in Lerma grow coca as part or all of their crop.
    Our tour guide, “Gato”, led us up a steep mountain path to a farm in the shadow of El Cerro de Lerma, a 2500m peak that dominates the local skyline. We’d been told we were meeting the largest local landholder, and I’d been expecting an elaborate hacienda. Instead, carefully tended low hedges led us to a small, tidy mud brick house surrounded by what appeared to be wild jungle. Once Celima, the farmer, began pointing out that this tree grew oranges, that one tangerines, a third bananas, did I began to understand that the jungle was the farm. To the trained eye, the apparently random explosion of green was a carefully planned garden. We walked past a shallow fish pond, covered with thick netting to deter birds, through thickets of coffee bushes, yucca and pineapple plants.
    Celimo, showing off the achiote harvest.
    Turning a corner past an achiote tree, we entered the coca fields, head-high bushes reaching up to strands of barbed wire strung at 2.5m above ground-level as a trellis for the plants. Planted at the feet of each bush were bean plants – the farmer explained that the beans would climb the coca plants. (Using legumes to fix nitrogen to fertilize other plans is a time-honored technique, reportedly taught to colonial farmers in New England by native Americans. Celimo confirmed that he used almost no commercial fertilizer, not out of a desire to seek organic certification, but because it’s expensive and hard to transport to his fields.)
    Local politician Gustavo Muñoz borrowed a machete from the farmer and cut chunks for fresh sugarcane for members of our group. I asked why sugarcane had failed as a commercial crop in Lerma, since it clearly grows well in local soils. The answer is complicated, and helps reveal why crop substitution, the coca-combating philosophy promoted by the Colombian government, is having trouble catching on. First, the farmer explained, the US government had sprayed the entire village with herbicides shortly after they’d converted to sugarcane, seeking to kill remaining coca crops. But beyond that frustrating setback, simple economics lead farmers to grow coca. Our host explained that sugarcane takes a year to mature before you can harvest it, while coca will begin producing harvestable leaves within four months. Sugarcane can be harvested once a year, while coca produces four crops a year. And while sugarcane does poorly in drought, coca is extremely drought-tolerant.
    We paused to eat cancherina, a mixture of roasted corn flour, quinoa flour, sugar and coca flour into a gritty powder that’s best eaten while drinking lots of water. It’s traditional traveling food in the Andes, and it was good preparation for the next leg of our trip, a 4km hike further into the mountains to another farm, where we saw a legacy of the failed experiment with sugarcane: an iron press designed to extract cane juice from sugarcane.
    The sugar press. All we need is horses. And a way to get the product to market. And a bigger press. And sugarcane that grows four times a year.
    The press is designed to be operated by horses who pull poles to turn the heavy gears, an unthinkable luxury for most people in the town. (Our group of twenty takes turns riding three horses on the rocky trails, apparently a large percentage of the local equine supply.) And even this press isn’t up to national standards – to sell cane juice to the national sugar company, Gato explains, the farmer would need a much larger, and much more expensive gas-powered press. And if the government provided funding for a gas-powered sugar press? The heavy, hard to transport cane juice is still 6km from town on a rough muletrack. “And so…” his explanation trails off. And so, we grow coca.
    And so, we eat coca. Lunch at the farm is a little like dinner with your hippie friends who insist in putting marijuana in everything they cook. Coca flour accents a rich achiote-driven stew full of sweet corn and potatoes. A coca leaf, carrot and lime salad accents guinea hen over rice, or, for the vegetarians, handmade noodles flecked with coca leaf. Unlike your hippie friends, the campesina women can cook, and we linger over a dessert of corn and pumpkin in coconut milk, talking about the role of farmers in Colombian society, who sometimes see themselves almost as an ethnic group distinct from urban Colombians.
    And then we pick coca.
    It’s really not hard – bushes grow all around the mud-brick buildings and picking involves stripping the leaves from a branch. In three minutes, we filled a huge basket with leaves, which were transferred to a clay oven over a slow fire. After roasting the leaves for half an hour, our hosts offered an explanation that characterized coca leaves as female and a white rock they’re consumed with is male, encouraging us to put bundles of leaves into our cheeks and slowly soften them with our jaws, then take a pinch of white rock and add it to the mass in our mouths. (It seems likely that the rock is sodium bicarbonate, which activates the alkaloids in the leaves.)

    In the coca bushes
    The leaves are bitter and tangy, but not unpleasant, and they almost immediately numbed my mouth and tongue. And while I didn’t feel high, I did feel surprisingly good, given that the hike back to town, in midday heat and high altitude, was brutal. Gato explained that the people of Lerma routinely walked to the PanAmerican highway, 20 kilometers from town, to demand services from the central government by blocking that critical route, chewing coca all the way.
    As my companions shopped for coca-derived souvenirs, I felt like the trip had opened more questions for me than it had answered. How had this village been spared guerrilla violence since conquering its own demons in the 1980s? Was the lovely and peaceful town we were visiting supported by subsistence farming, or was coca production driving the local economy? And where was all that coca going? We were the largest group of visitors the town had ever received, and Gato reported that small groups came roughly once a month – it doesn’t require all that much coca to produce the “hayu” cookies I took home. (Hayu is the local indigenous word for coca, and part of Lerma’s rebranding campaign involves celebrating the virtues of the local herb, Hayu.)
    Gustavo Muñoz, local counselor, sugar cane harvester, caballero.
    My translator Juan learned more of the truth talking to politician Gustavo Muñoz as we toured the high school’s computer lab. “I’m Colombian. I know that every place that has coca has a master. Who’s the master in Lerma?” he asked. The answer is both complex and encouraging. M-19, the guerrilla army influential around Lerma, demobilized and became a political party in the late 1980s. When a paramilitary – nominally opposed to the FARC and other guerrilla groups, but often just a front for narcotrafficking and extortion – tried to move into the village in the 1990s, the villagers resisted and the paramilitaries couldn’t get a foothold and moved on.
    Between its success story of moving beyond cocaine and alcohol towards peace, and its track record of chasing out paramilitaries, the guerrilla army powerful in southern Cauca – the ELN – tends to treat Lerma with some respect. While two ELN camps are within walking distance of the village, our hosts report that their presence in the village is limited to occasional visits by commanders who share their mobile phone numbers and ask villagers to call if “anyone unusual” – aka, paramilitaries – comes to town.

    ELN hasta siempre – ELN forever
    We got a sense for just how close the ELN is to Lerma as we left town. Shortly after the dirt road turned back to pavement, but before we hit the Panamerican, we passed a house emblazoned with the graffito “ELN hasta siempre” (ELN forever). Two kilometers later, we passed a government checkpoint.
    Just we left Lerma for Popayán, Muñoz pulled me aside for a negotiation, asking me to use my (non-existent) pull with Bogota to ensure the government paved the road into town. I explained that I didn’t have any political power, but that I would write about my visit to Lerma and explain that, with a better road, it would be a remarkable destination for ecotourism, for visitors who wanted to learn more about Colombian agriculture and the cultural use of coca.
    That’s all true. What’s also true is that the future of towns like Lerma is critical to the future of Colombia. For more than 50 years, Colombia has faced armed insurgencies whose powerbase is in rural areas hundreds of kilometers from Colombia’s cosmopolitan cities. As long as those villages feel invisible to Bogota, as long as they see no economic options beyond coca, they are likely allies to ELN and any other rebel movements outside the current peace negotiations.
    (While the national referendum on the peace process is only weeks away, the subject of the peace vote didn’t come up in Lerma until we brought it up. Our friends assured us that they’d all vote for peace, mostly because former president Uribe is urging his supporters to vote no, and they cordially loathe Uribe.)
    While the FARC has come to the table, the ELN has not, and there’s no guarantee that peace with the FARC will force ELN into negotiations. One possibility is that ELN may take in FARC dissidents who’ve rejected peace and become more active in kidnapping and cocaine production. Another is that ELN may remain a small force focused on local grievances and not on the national political process. While FARC’s Marxist politics incline it towards seeking political power in Bogota, ELN was founded by Catholic priests steeped in liberation theology who felt Bogota was not helping the poor. While ELN has become criminal organization engaged in kidnapping for ransom, it’s not hard to imagine sympathy for some of their positions from farmers who feel excluded from Colombia’s economic transitions.
    Riding, and limping, into Lerma after visiting a farm in the mountains.
    The Colombian state needs a much stronger presence in towns like Lerma if it wants to counter the influence of the ELN, and that presence needs to start with aggressive infrastructure-building and economic development efforts. As we navigated endless switchbacks on our return to the provincial capital, we passed farm after farm selling tangerines, a dozen for $0.30, because there’s no good way to bring their products to national and international markets. It’s just too easy for farmers to make coca paste (a crack-like substance smoked locally as “bazuco”) and sell it to guerrilla armies, paramilitaries or any other broker taking advantage of the consequences of America’s failed drug wars: an increase in price with little reduction of supply.
    Coca flour cookies and other Lerma souvenirs
    Can Lerma find a way to build an economy around legal coca? It seems almost impossible. But this is a town that kicked out guerrillas and paramilitaries, bars and guns while searching for peace. Don’t ever underestimate the people of Lerma.

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

    Should you go to Lerma? Absolutely, yes! And absolutely not!
    Let me explain. On the one hand, Lerma is one of the loveliest villages I’ve visited anywhere in the world, and I learned more about Colombian agriculture and rural development in a single day that I could have imagined. (And I almost tried to kidnap one of the cooks because the food was so good.) However, the roads to Lerma are often closed due to protests. And ELN attacks do still occur in the area. We traveled to Lerma by coordinating closely with CASA, a local organization that works on rural development in Cauca state. If you wanted to visit Lerma, it would be wise to coordinate with a local group that knows the area well.

  • Teens and Technology: Few Simple Answers

    by Howard Gardner


    Have smartphones destroyed a generation?
    Jean Twenge of San Diego State University asked this question in a widely-discussed article in the September 2017 edition of The Atlantic. She concludes that teens are on the verge of a mental health crisis due to the constant presence of these devices, which have been shown to have negative effects on well-being.
    However, Howard Gardner has responded to this argument with colleagues Katie Davis and Emily Weinstein in a piece on Medium.
    Davis, Weinstein, and Gardner warn that it is difficult to generalize an entire generation’s experience. Based on their research, they argue that the impacts of technology on teens are complex and not uniform. We should therefore be wary of oversimplified narratives or prescriptions for this perceived crisis.
    Click here to read the response in full.

  • Escape Games: The Latest Piece of the Classroom Puzzle

    by Noah Nelson


    The answer is right in front of you. (Creative Commons image by Blue Coat Photos)
    Amber Chandler, a middle school teacher in the Frontier Central School District in New York, has developed a love for escape rooms—the adventure games that involve locking a group of people in a room with a bunch of puzzles they must solve in order to get out.
    “I like the fact that when you’re in an escape room everyone starts taking on a role,” said Chandler, “You know, who’s going to read the clues or who’s going to do different things. And I do a whole lot with my students at the beginning of the year trying to get to know them. So it occurred to me that if I did it like a classroom — at a table, sort of a modified version — I would get to see who my leaders were, maybe who my slackers were.”
    Chandler’s teaching is almost paperless, relying on computers and physical items rather than worksheets and textbooks. She hopes that she will go completely paperless in the upcoming school year. Despite this, Chandler still believes that analog tools and creative activities are an important asset to teaching.
    “It taps into a different part of their brain, and I think it’s a part we neglect in schools now. I think we don’t spend enough time in that play and that freedom,” she said. “ So, I think even though I have this completely paperless classroom, high-tech kind of thing, I think it’s really cool that we can do something that’s very low-tech.”
    Over this summer, Chandler will work on escape game kits, making a different type of activity for her students than what is usually seen in classrooms. However, she isn’t alone with this goal. Adapting the popular game genre has become a small industry. One company, Breakout EDU, is a start-up dedicated to popularizing escape games as an educational tool.
    Source: BreakoutEDU
    “So obviously, legally, we learned that you can’t lock kids in classrooms,” said Breakout EDU co-founder Adam Bellows. That’s the central issue with adapting Escape Room games for educational purposes. “So we weren’t trying to replicate that experience where you lock someone in a room and they have to break out.”
    Bellows and his co-founder James Sanders started Breakout EDU in 2015. While playing an escape room with a few high school students, Sanders saw how determined and engaged all of the students were. With this knowledge, the two decided to work on a small project that consisted of just a backpack and a lock. Now they manufacture kits with a variety of items found in escape rooms: locks, ultraviolet markers for secret writing and a multitude of other tools.
    Both Bellows and his business partner have a background in the educational technology sector. “A lot of our games are a mix of physical and digital,” Bellow said. “So games could include things like a QR code, Google Forms and autoresponder e-mail.”
    But using technology just for the sake of it doesn’t appeal to entrepreneurs like Bellows nor teachers like Chandler. Whether it be physical or digital tools, each hopes to engage students in ways that deviates from standard classroom work.
    The main reason why Chandler finds this form of teaching appealing is that it gets students socially engaged and helps break down barriers with one another.
    “I will walk around the room with a clipboard all of their names on it, and I jot down notes about the kids,” she said. “So my goal is to just sort of gather information.”
    Chandler, who teaches English, is planning on making kits revolving on the books she teaches, like The Giver and The Outsiders. These types of activities encourage students to discover the information on their own in a fun, unique way while strengthening teamwork rather than forcing unwanted memorization and concepts in the usual ways.
    Another surprising thing is who is experimenting with escape games.
    “Originally we were saying this is perfect for high school,” said Bellows, “because you can make games that are ‘Escape the Zombie Lab’ or whatever. And that’s kind of where the platform started. But our director of games basically joined the team because she started creating games for her second-grade class.”
    Education technology has faced something of a backlash in recent years, with high profile deals to bring iPads into classrooms coming under fire, as critics question the value of technology for technology’s sake. Bringing analog and digital tools together, even in game form, suggest a way forward for a style of education that synthesizes a tech savvy approach with the personal touch, keeping tech in the toolbox without making it the centerpiece for its own sake.
    Escape games may not be the secret to creating a 21st Century, digital classroom but what’s happening with them now could end up being an important piece of the puzzle. 

  • Youth Radio Raw: Too Turnt Radio Episode 6

    by Youth Radio Raw



    Welcome to the 6th episode of Too Turnt Radio on Youth Radio Raw.
    Make sure you tune in every week on Fridays from 6:15 to 7:35pm!
    On this show, you’ll hear recent news, personal experiences, and a diverse selection of music.
    Youth Radio Raw is a weekly radio show produced by Bay Area high schoolers, ages 14-18. Students partner with professionals to learn the basics of journalism, music production, and multimedia.
    For photos of the show, go to Youth Radio’s Flickr page.
    Check out live coverage of the show by following @YouthRadioRaw on Twitter and @yr_raw on Instagram.
     

  • If I Had Known The Real Cost Of Living in San Francisco, I Would’ve Never Come

    by Maya Cueva


    Photo Courtesy of Brontë Sorotsky, Youth Radio
    In a time when native residents are being pushed out of San Francisco, it is a definitely a privilege to even be able to afford an apartment in the city. But you wouldn’t believe what I have to do to make it work.  I am a 19-year-old college student at San Francisco State University and I currently live in an apartment by my school with five others. There’s three of us in one room, one person lives in another, and two people stay in the living room. This apartment is only meant to fit four people at maximum. But we are six people altogether.
    Space is a big issue for the apartment. There is almost never any room in the fridge, and trying to put anything in the freezer is like playing a game of Tetris. Most of the living room space is taken up by the two living there, so there’s only a sliver of floor to walk on in order to get to my bedroom. I am in the bedroom containing three people, so I get to pay over $600 a month to live out of a small corner.
    Below are some photos to walk you through what my roommates and I live in for $3,500 a month.
    Photo Courtesy of Brontë Sorotsky, Youth Radio
    This is how small our bathroom is. It’s so tiny, I  had to stand on the shower to get this shot.
    Photo Courtesy of Brontë Sorotsky, Youth Radio
    An overview of the bedroom that I share with two others. My bed is the one in the middle.
    As of April 2017, the average price to rent an apartment in San Francisco is $3,703. According to SFGate, a  one bedroom apartment is on average $3,363 and a two bedroom on average is $4,539,  This is probably why San Francisco has recently been declared the most expensive city in the U.S, according to Business Insider. These insane housing prices are due to SF’s growing population and the recent boom of tech industries says Newsweek,  and aren’t really ideal conditions for college students and natives to the city.
    Photo Courtesy of Brontë Sorotsky, Youth Radio
    This is the hallway from the kitchen to my bedroom. There are two people living in our living room and tapestries are  hung up for privacy.
    Photo Courtesy of Brontë Sorotsky, Youth Radio
    Photo Courtesy of Brontë Sorotsky, Youth Radio
    With so many people living in such a small space, trying to fit everyone’s food into the freezer and refrigerator is like playing a real life game of Tetris.
    Photo Courtesy of Brontë Sorotsky, Youth Radio
    There is always an abundance of dirty dishes in our sink. Doing dishes is the least favorite chore for everyone in this apartment.
    Living in San Francisco had been my dream for a very long time. As soon as I accepted my offer of admission for San Francisco State University, I spent my final weeks at home daydreaming about visiting the Golden Gate Bridge and shopping in Union Square.
    But this is definitely not how I imagined my living situation to be when I moved to San Francisco. Although, with the insanely high price of housing, it’s the only way I’m able to afford to live here.

  • Why are High Schools Beefing Up Their Sexual Assault Policies? Pressure from Teens.

    by Teresa Chin


    Oakland Unified School District in California recently revamped their sexual harassment policy. I attended the school board vote with Andrea Zamora, 17, a rising high school senior who helped develop the new policy with local nonprofits, Alliance for Girls and Equal Rights Advocates.
    “I feel like all my hard work and everything that we’ve all collaborated together has paid off,” Zamora gushed to me.
    The new policy designates a point-person at each school to handle sexual assault and harassment, and lays out the reporting process transparently for students, teachers, and parents alike. Whereas before, Oakland Unified School District had just one person–Gabriel Valenzuela, the district’s ombudsperson–who was responsible for fielding sexual assault and harassment complaints from all 36,668 OUSD students.
    Putting such policies in place and training school staff can be expensive, running from $40 thousand to $250 thousand at larger school districts. No targeted funding from the federal government is set aside for Title IX compliance, so schools usually pay for it through their general funds.
    As we were sitting in the gym of La Escuelita, watching the school board pass the new policy, Zamora noticed her mom quietly wiping away tears. She, too, got choked up.
    Zamora became interested in how schools handle sexual harassment and assault after reflecting on an elementary school ritual,“Slap Ass Friday.”
    “The girls were hiding, putting their butts behind the wall. And then guys would try to hit them and get at them,” she said. “The whole time that the girls were trying to cover themselves. The guys were like sharks.”
    Actually, I’ve had a run-in with Slap Ass Friday, too. I told Zamora, “I just remember this little twerp sixth grader like running across to me with his hand going up to me and POW!”
    Rori Abernethy, former math teacher at Oakland High School, says inadequate support around claims of student sexual harassment left her and other teachers overburdened. Photo: Brett Myers/ Youth Radio
    I also spoke to a teacher, Rori Abernethy, a former math teacher at Oakland High School, who regularly addressed sexual harassment and assault between students.
    “So I got burned out. I felt like I was doing lawyering more than teaching,” Abernethy said. “And that’s a big reason why I left Oakland, because I really want to teach.”
    After almost a decade at Oakland High, Abernethy switched districts last year.
    “Just the day-to-day job of teaching is exhausting,” she said. “But then you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Because if another child comes and reports something, you can’t just let it go. You have to do something. That’s somebody’s life.”
    The Office of Civil Rights releases lists of K-12 school districts with open investigations their handling of sexual violence.
    In fact, federal law requires schools to look into sexual harassment and assault, which both fall under Title IX, a law most commonly associated with women’s access to sports.
    “Title IX actually covers a surprisingly wide range of activities. It’s an anti-discrimination statute. So for instance sexual harassment, sexual violence is covered by it. Creating a hostile environment could be covered by Title IX,” said William Koski, director of the Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford University.
    The threat of a “hostile environment” is a looming concern for sexual assault victims, especially elementary, middle, and high school students. Imagine sitting in second period history class next to a guy who assaulted you, or running into him alone in an empty hallway. The responsibility of creating a safe learning environment falls onto schools.  
    Title IX has been around since the 1970’s, but in recent years it has been increasingly applied to sexual violence. Under Title IX, schools may even be accountable for off-campus assaults.
    “So for instance, if there is sexual violence at a party or something like that, it’s entirely possible that the victim of that kind of sexual violence will feel quite uncomfortable at school,” Koski further explains.
    After reporting a sexual assault, if students and parents are unhappy with the actions of their school, they are able to file a complaint with the federal government. The Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education has the power to investigate schools for their handling sexual violence.  Since 2014 those investigations are up by nearly 500 percent. 
    In one high-profile case at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, a teen girl says she was sexually assaulted by another student in an empty classroom. In her complaint to the Office of Civil rights, she claims that she was questioned by a school security officer after reporting the alleged assault.
    He allegedly asked her, “What were you wearing? Why didn’t you tell your mom ASAP? Are you sure you didn’t want to have oral sex with him? Did you scream?”
    The Gwinnett County Public School district repeatedly declined our requests for an interview, but last year, a representative told local TV news reporters that the investigation was conducted “fairly, thoroughly, and promptly,” and that they believed the act was consensual. The district suspended both the accused and the accuser for having sex on campus.
    The full message emailed to Youth Radio by a student at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia who says she was sexually assaulted by another student in an empty classroom.
    For her part, the girl filed a complaint against the district to the Office of Civil Rights, arguing that her suspension amounts to retaliation for coming forward about her assault. In an email to Youth Radio, the girl has a message for schools:
    “My message is simple: It is your job to keep students safe. When a student comes forward and reports an assault, school officials must step up, provide support and take the report seriously.”
    This case is still under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights. Gwinnett County Public Schools has three open investigations for how they’ve handled sexual violence–among the highest of any school district in the country.
    However, the Trump administration is changing how they handle these complaints. The Department of Education didn’t respond to interview requests, but officials released a statement saying that the changes are meant to streamline investigations, which can take years. Critics argue that the administration is weakening requirements designed to protect school children and guard against systemic abuse, in a moment when sexual violence complaints in schools are on the rise.  

  • Spotlight: 20th annual Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Slam Festival

    by Maya Cueva


    On July 22nd 2017, Youth Speaks had their  20th annual Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival, which features youth voices from the Bay Area and all across the world.

  • Does ‘The Big Sick’ Deserve a Round of Applause or a Clap Back?

    by Youth Radio Interns


     

    After watching The Big Sick, I left the movie theatre with a smile on my face. Since the film was based on a real-life romance, I knew going into the movie that the two main leads would be together in the end–Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, wrote the screenplay after all.
    For those who haven’t heard of The Big Sick, here’s its premise. Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American man dates a white woman, Emily Gordon, after he meets her at his comedy show. Kumail comes from a traditional Pakistani and Muslim family who want to arrange his marriage to a Pakistani woman. The film revolves around the trials of interracial dating and overcoming their personal obstacles of their relationship.
    Despite the witty language and overall heart the film brought out of its characters, I couldn’t help but think about what it meant to see a brown man romance a white woman on the big screen. I’m not the only one thinking about this. Aditi Natasha Kini critiques the movie and talks about the idealization of white women in society in an essay for Jezebel.
    From Aziz Ansari’s Master of None to John Cho’s Selfie, Asian men receive this big hurrah when they are paired with white women. While the stereotype of “undesirable” Asian men is everywhere in mainstream media, having a South Asian actor play a romantic male lead isn’t enough for me to look past at another growing trend–the depiction of South Asian men rejecting South Asian women.
    This trend isn’t anything new. Master of None and Meet the Patels continue the trend as well. It’s almost as though in order to have a brown voice in media, it needs to have whiteness as a foundation to give it credibility. Because a question continues to tug at me. Would this story have been told if it were focused on interracial dating between two people of color?
    In The Big Sick, Kumail rejects brown women to get together with white women instead. And I understand that the movie is about two people falling in love despite overcoming challenges. I know that this particular story is about a real-life romance of two people. But when I see the parade of Pakistani women his mom introduces him to, I wonder why they are depicted as conventional and not good enough for a modern Pakistani man.
    Quick disclaimer, I’m going to point out that I liked the film as a whole. It did a great job incorporating elements of things like family expectations, portraying a Muslim family, and what it is like to be up against tradition. But I can’t love the film completely because it puts down South Asian women while putting white women on a pedestal. I want Hollywood to see what they are promoting with these stories, instead of patting themselves on the back for sprinkling more people of color into films.

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