Future of News: The View from Accra

I’m in Accra for roughly 60 hours, long enough to remember why I love this country so very much, but not long enough to see all the people I want to see, to visit the markets and streets that I miss, and most challenging, to eat all the marvelous food this country has to offer. (After landing last night, I went straight to Osu night market for a plate of omo tuo at Asanka Local. Closed, so it was charcoal chicken and fried rice at Papaye, not a bad second choice.)

I’m here for a board meeting for PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian NGO I’ve helped advise for years, which has recently transformed from a group of trainers helping Ghanaian journalists practice computer-assisted reporting, to one focused on the challenging task of using technology to hold governments accountable and responsible. Because my fellow board members include luminaries like open source pioneer Nnenna Nwakanma and journalist Dan Gillmor, we’re using the excuse of a meeting to throw a quick conference on the future of news.

Asked to think about the future of news in the context of digital media, changes to existing business models and Ghana’s particular role in the world of news, here’s what I offered this morning at the Future of News event at the Alisa Hotel.

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Kwami Ahiabenu, president of PenPlusBytes, leading our event

My friends on the panel have mixed emotions about this moment in time for the news. I suspect in the context of this conversation, I may turn out to be the optimist in the room. I want to suggest that there are three really good reasons to be excited about this moment of time in news, particularly from a Ghanaian point of view. But I also want to argue that that Ghanaian organizations face two special challenges in navigating this new age.

First, the good news. When I was a student in Ghana in 1993 and 94, I often felt like I was a character in a movie because there was a soundtrack playing at all times… as you walked down the street, every radio was tuned to the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, which had a monopoly over what everyone heard. The most noticeable change when I came back to Accra in the late 90s to start an NGO was the explosion of commercial radio. Ghana already a strong free press, and radio emerged as a powerful and often political medium that reaches all Ghanaians, whatever their level of education and whatever language they speak.

We’re at a moment in time where Ghana is recognized internationally for its free press – Reporters without Borders press freedom rankings put Ghana #22 in the world, ahead of the UK at #34 and the US at #49. The only other African nation in the top 25 is Namibia at #17. Those of us who love Ghana have gotten used to the idea that this country is in a remarkable position in terms of democratic elections, having enjoyed uneventful transitions since 2000, including the seamless transition after a leader died in office. Ghana is an exemplar to the region and to the continent, showing neighbors how it can be done, a stable democracy where the opposition comes in and out of power, a free press where we can debate, often fiercely, the problems of the day. When Ghana is experiencing problems like dumsor (a Twi word meaning “on/off”, a reference to the frequent power cuts that Ghana currently suffers from), we know that citizens can make their voices heard in the press, on the air and online, and that leaders will hear those frustrations.

Here’s another piece of good news. Middle income nations, nations where a middle class is growing, are the most promising new commercial markets for media. Global media companies are making huge investments right now in India, where hundreds of millions of new readers are becoming newspaper subscribers, and where younger ones are skipping the paper and becoming consumers of news on their smartphones. The smart companies are looking past India and towards Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya – nations with a strong, educated middle class hungry for news.

The open question is whether nations like India and Ghana can overcome the “print dollar, digital dimes” problem that’s threatening news in the US and Europe. Basically, in the US, online ads are much, much cheaper than ads in print media – as readers give up their newspaper subscriptions and read online, news organizations lose revenue. There’s no reason it has to be this way. African newspapers have the opportunity to figure out what it means to build a newsroom that’s digital first. This doesn’t just mean a newsroom that makes as much money from online subscriptions, sponsorships and memberships than it does from advertising. It also means a newsroom that expects its readers to report and participate as well as read, that sees itself as having a duty to its readers as citizens, not just as customers. I think Ghana has an amazing opportunity to pioneer new models for media that recognize the potentials of this new medium.

Here’s a third piece of good news, a statement I expect to cause some controversy. There has never been a better time to be a reader of news. And in many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I commuted regularly between Accra and where I live in western MA. I ended up feeling like a magazine smuggler. I would come to Kotoka laden with the Economist and the New York Times Sunday magazine, and come back to the states with BBC Africa, the Graphic, the New African. Now we are all able to read from all over the world, limited only by the choices we make about what we choose to pay attention to. Writers need to be thinking this way, too – whether you’re Ghanaian or American, you need to work from the belief that you can write anywhere. An NGO I helped found a decade ago, Global Voices, serves almost as a labor matching service, helping international networks like Al Jazeera find great correspondents in Africa, Central Asia, other places where global news networks are having trouble finding local voices. There is enormous demand for good writing and for different perspectives, and not just by professional journalists. Some editors and many readers are realizing that they want and need to hear from people in other countries so they get a more accurate, nuanced and fair picture of the world. And as I argued in a piece in the Graphic last week, there are politically important reasons for Ghanaians to represent themselves on a global stage.

So, this is a pretty optimistic picture so far. Lest you think I’m completely sanguine about the future, let me mention two serious challenges, one which should be obvious and one that’s less so.

Yes, it’s a great time to read, and a great time to write, but a hard time to make a living writing and reporting. Newspapers have helped many writers find their voice, writing for a modest salary while learning the craft. In the US, at least, this is getting harder to do – shrinking local newsrooms mean that fewer people are getting that ability to engage in apprenticeship and learn on the job. Instead, young writers are finding themselves jumping into the deep end of the pool. One question we should be asking as more people in a country like Ghana are able to afford newspapers, as more radio stations are doing excellent journalism, as the economy continues to expand and advertising is a believable model to support journalism, how are we training a next generation professional journalists? Beyond that, how are we training a generation of citizens who write in public, who contribute to dialogs and make their point to their countrymen and to the rest of the world.

I would beg media outlets to think very carefully about their revenue models. As news organizations move from having a primarily offline audience to one that’s primarily online, it’s critical to look for ways of making money that aren’t purely about advertising or purely about subscription. When you rely too heavily on advertising, you end up with a temptation to put users under surveillance, to sell what you know about them to advertisers, which is unhealthy for society as a whole. But if you depend entirely on subscriptions and lock up your news only for paying readers, you lose your influence, your ability to help shape public debate. We’re starting to see public media models in some countries that rely on membership – they give special privileges for those who support a publisher, but they rely on a small number of members to make the content free for others. Finding models like this, that recognize the people who can support your work and give them special benefits, while letting your work have broad social influence, is a critical balance for news organizations.

A second, and maybe less obvious challenge. I said that it was a great time to be a reader because there’s so much to read, and a great time to be a writer, because there are so many places to share your writing. But certain kinds of writing are in very short supply. It has always been hard to find well-researched writing that criticizes powerful people and governments, what we call “accountability journalism”. It’s expensive to do, and often requires not just reporters but lawyers to make sure you’re able to publish what you find, and increasingly computer programmers to help you sort through piles of financial data or text. That’s not the only hard type of reporting – it’s incredibly difficult to get stories from certain parts of the world. When Boko Haram attacks in Baga State in Nigeria killed as many as 2000 people in january of this year, the world heard far more about a dozen people killed at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. What was really disturbing is that even Nigerian newspapers did this – in the days after Charlie Hebdo and the Baga massacre, Nigerian papers paid more attention to the highly visible deaths in France than to invisible deaths closer to home. So it’s not just a matter of having more news – it’s a matter of getting the right news, getting the news we need.

What’s the right news? What’s the news we need?

To explain, I want to go back to Ghana’s hard-earned reputation for a free press and for fair elections. The economist Paul Collier warns that it’s possible to have elections that are free, fair and bad – these are elections where voters don’t decide based on the issues or based on the performance of those who are in office. Instead, we decide based on tribe, or based on who we think is likely to give us a job or other benefits. These free, fair and bad elections are pretty common in nations that have an electoral democracy, but don’t have the other institutions of an open society. If you have elections, but you don’t have a free press – as in Zimbabwe, for instance – it’s not hard to predict how those elections are going to turn out.

Journalism is a business, but it’s not just a business. It’s a profession, like medicine or law, which means it has a responsibility to society as a whole, not just to the bottom line. We need news that helps us take action as citizens. Sometimes that’s journalism that exposes corruption and holds powerful people responsible. But sometimes it’s journalism that creates a space for us to debate the world we want, the society we want to build. Sometimes it’s journalism that’s not afraid to take a stand, to advocate for great news ways to solve important social problems.

To be very clear, I’m not talking about what people usually demand when they ask media to be professional – they ask for it to be objective, which tends to mean that it strives for false balance, and that it amplifies the voices of powerful people. I’m asking for journalism to do something much harder and much braver – to ask the question of what news we need to be more powerful, more effective and better citizens. This is a place where Ghana has an opportunity to lead the region, the continent and the world. Ghana has the political climate to permit real debate, real disagreement about the way forward, where individuals and institutions can raise their voices about what they think needs to be done. We need journalism that’s fair, that looks to amplify voices we rarely hear from, that’s brave enough to advocate for new ideas that could change the world for the better. We need to make sure that Ghana’s free press and free and fair elections escape the trap of free, fair and bad – instead, we need media that helps make us more powerful as citizens.

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Digital Media, and Ghana’s Place on the Global Stage

I head to one of my favorite cities, Accra, later this week, to participate in a conference on “The Future of News” and to attend a board meeting for PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian NGO that trains journalists in computer-assisted reporting, and operates Accra’s New Media Hub.

In preparation for the conference, The Daily Graphic – Ghana’s leading daily newspaper – asked me to write about Ghana and the contemporary media environment. My piece ran in the paper today, and follows below in a slightly different form. It’s written for a Ghanaian audience, so please assume that the references you don’t get are ones Ghanaians will understand.


Digital Media, and Ghana’s Place on the Global Stage

If you know where to look, it’s not hard to find Ghana online. Take #233moments as an example. At 2:33pm each afternoon, a handful of Ghanaians share a photo of what they’re up to on Twitter, a glimpse of daily life, marked with the “hashtag” #233moments so those in the know can find them. From church posters to the backs of tro-tros, from business conferences to roadside sellers, from beach resorts to lazy lunches (especially on “WaakyeWednesday”, when it’s customary to post from your favorite chop bar), #233moments celebrates what’s colorful, wonderful and unique about this remarkable nation, and shares it with anyone willing to hear. Follow the tag, as I do, and you’ll have visibility into a fascinating and diverse nation.


A sample #233moment

It wasn’t always so easy to learn about Ghana.

When I came to Ghana for the first time in 1993, as a student at Legon, I knew virtually nothing about the country that would be my home for the next year. While I had studied with Ghanaian musicians in the United States, I knew almost nothing of Ghana’s politics, history or daily life. My ignorance wasn’t unusual for an American – we hear very little about sub-Saharan Africa in the news, and when we do hear about Africa, we hear a relentless litany of bad news.

Twenty two years later, Ghana is a very different place. It’s the region’s poster child for democratic elections, an emerging economic powerhouse, but also a nation where unequal development and divides between rich and poor are showing strains in the social fabric (not to mention strains on the electric grid).

Some of the nation’s most dramatic transformations are in the world of news and media. Walking in Osu, where I lived in 1994, every radio was tuned to GBC, for the simple reason that there was nothing else to tune to! The explosion of radio journalism, talk radio, new glossy magazines and newspapers as well as digital services delivering news to our phones have led to a diverse and open media environment that Reporters Without Borders classifies as more free than the press in my country, the US, or the press in the UK.

Yet the rest of the world still doesn’t hear much about Ghana.

My research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focuses on global media coverage. Our system, called Media Cloud, collect stories from half a million publications from all over the world so we can understand what topics, what people and what nations are capturing the attention of the press. I checked our database this year to find out how many times Ghana had been mentioned in the US’s 25 largest media outlets, in comparison to two nations with similar population: Taiwan and Australia. Taiwan appeared almost three times as often as Ghana, while Australia was mentioned almost thirty times as often.

And when Americans read about Ghana, we mostly read about football. American media’s interest in Ghana peaked during the semifinal match in Malabo, when Ghana’s fans were attacked by their hosts in Equatorial Guinea. The tragic explosion at the Circle GOIL station received only a third as many stories as the semifinal victory.

To be clear, this isn’t Ghana’s fault. The US has a massive blind spot about the African continent, despite having a president with deep roots in Kenya, and increasing trade with the continent. The long legacy of slavery and the racism it has engendered in American society also helps explain why very few African nations receive much notice in the American press.

But this disparity in attention is one Ghanaians should take seriously, as it has implications for investment, for trade, and for tourism. Investors who can’t find Ghana on a map are unlikely to buy bonds or invest in startup companies. Travelers who don’t know about Ghana’s music, food, culture, color, castles and beaches won’t schedule holidays here.

Ghana’s comparative invisibility is an American problem – my countrymen are the ones missing out, choosing to live in a narrower world – but it’s a problem ordinary Ghanaians could help solve. The rise of social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other tools – mean that anyone who is online, or has a sufficiently powerful phone, can be a publisher. We’re used to using Facebook to stay in touch with schoolmates, or using Twitter to share stories and tell jokes. But these tools can also be a powerful way to challenge the way Ghana is understood by the rest of the globe.

But when people use social media to offer their own narratives and perspectives, does anyone listen? Slowly but surely, the world is starting to. When President Obama visited Kenya, CNN reported on the dangers of the visit, characterizing Kenya as “terror hotbed”. Kenyans took to Twitter to complain, using the hashtag #someonetellCNN: “#someonetellCNN the Hotbed of Terrorism is the fastest growing economy in the world”; “#SomeoneTellCNN that we now have @AlJazeera for reliable news. @CNNAfrica @CNN is so last century…” Tony Maddox, CNN’s managing director, eventually flew to Nairobi to apologize and admit the network should have handled the story differently.

Challenging media coverage directly can work. The “Black Lives Matter” movement in the US, a reaction to the alarming trend of unarmed black people killed by US police, has used social media to demand coverage of protests and to challenge how media has portrayed police killings. When Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, many newspapers and television stations portrayed him using a photo that made the 18 year old look taller and older than he actually was, instead of another readily available photo, where his age was more apparent. Black activists began posting pairs of photos to Facebook, asking “If they gunned me down, which photo would the media use”, showing two photos of themselves taken from Facebook, one showing them in a positive light, another in a more negative light. The activists called attention to the fact that the images we choose have political significance and weight – in choosing a photo where Brown looked threatening, the media was siding with the police. The campaign was successful – the troublesome photo of Brown disappeared from most newspapers, and the other photo was widely circulated.

Social media gives Ghana a chance to talk back to the rest of the world. And Ghana has a great deal to talk about: the nation is facing the opportunities and challenges associated with becoming a middle-income nation. It’s never been easier for people to write about these issues online, using free blogging sites like Medium.com, or connecting with sites like Fair Observer, or my organization Global Voices, who are always looking for new perspectives from the African continent.

Ghanaians are never shy with their opinions in drinking spots, in shared taxis and tro-tros, on talk radio. Maybe it’s time that Ghanaians start sharing their perspectives with the world as a whole. Perhaps a few more #233moments, shared with the rest of the world, can help Americans and others see Ghana, and Africa as a whole, in a clearer light.

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Harnessing Mistrust for Civic Action

Yes, it’s international press day here on my old, creaky blog. Friends at Süddeutsch Zeitung asked whether I could turn my Re:publica Keynote on mistrust and civics into a newspaper op-ed. Here’s what I came up with, which ran in yesterday’s newspaper.


On Monday, British comedian Simon Brodkin pelted outgoing FIFA leader Sep Blatter with a stack of dollar bills as Blatter spoke at a press conference. Brodkin’s dollar shower expressed the boundless anger football fans feel about the corruption within football’s world governing body.

When Swiss police arrested senior leaders of FIFA at a posh hotel in Zurich in late May, football fans around the world were shocked. Unfortunately, very few were shocked to learn of corruption in the world governing body of football. Instead, they were surprised that the leaders of an institution with a long reputation for malfeasance might be held responsible for their misdeeds.

This misplaced surprise is characteristic of the current popular mood in many nations. We are so accustomed to news of institutions acting incompetently or unethically that we are less surprised by their misbehavior then that such misbehavior has consequences. Whether we consider the disastrous failures of the US and UK in Iraq from 2003 to the present, the near collapse of the global banking system in 2008 or the discovery of widespread sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church over the past two decades, it’s easy to understand why there is pervasive mistrust in many institutions: governments, big business, churches and the press have failed us time and again.

In the US, mistrust in government has deepened over the past 50 years, with 24% of Americans now reporting that they trust their government all or most of the time, down from 77% in 1964. But it’s not only government that Americans mistrust: polls show a steady decline in trust in corporations, banks, newspapers, universities, nonprofit organizations and churches. The only institutions that Americans trust more than they did a generation ago are the military and the police. And while specifics of mistrust differ between the US and Europe, the general pattern is similar. Public relations firm Edelman surveys a thousand citizens in 33 nations each year to build a “trust barometer”, measuring public trust in government, business, nonprofit organizations and the media. According to their survey Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Ireland all have lower levels of institutional trust than the United States.

One predictable consequence of mistrust in institutions is a decrease in participation. Fewer than 37% of eligible US voters participated in the 2014 Congressional election. Participation in European parliamentary and national elections across Europe is higher than the US’s dismal rates, but has steadily declined since 1979, with turnout for the 2014 European parliamentary elections dropping below 43%. It’s a mistake to blame low turnout on distracted or disinterested voters, when a better explanation exists: why vote if you don’t believe the US congress or European Parliament is capable of making meaningful change in the world?

In his 2012 book, “Twilight of the Elites”, Christopher Hayes suggests that the political tension of our time is not between left and right, but between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists believe we can fix the world’s problems by strengthening and revitalizing the institutions we have. Insurrectionists believe we need to abandon these broken institutions we have and replace them with new, less corrupted ones, or with nothing at all. The institutionalists show up to vote in elections, but they’re being crowded out by the insurrectionists, who take to the streets to protest, or more worryingly, disengage entirely from civic life.

Conventional wisdom suggests that insurrectionists will grow up, stop protesting and start voting. But we may have reached a tipping point where the cultural zeitgeist favors insurrection. My students at MIT don’t want to work for banks, for Google or for universities – they want to build startups that disrupt banks, Google and universities.

The future of democracy depends on finding effective ways for people who mistrust institutions to make change in their communities, their nations and the world as a whole. The real danger is not that our broken institutions are toppled by a wave of digital disruption, but that a generation disengages from politics and civics as a whole.

It’s time to stop criticizing youth for their failure to vote and time to start celebrating the ways insurrectionists are actually trying to change the world. Those who mistrust institutions aren’t just ignoring them. Some are building new systems designed to make existing institutions obsolete. Others are becoming the fiercest and most engaged critics of of our institutions, while the most radical are building new systems that resist centralization and concentration of power.

Those outraged by government and corporate complicity in surveillance of the internet have the option of lobbying their governments to forbid these violations of privacy, or building and spreading tools that make it vastly harder for US and European governments to read our mail and track our online behavior. We need both better laws and better tools. But we must recognize that the programmers who build systems like Tor, PGP and Textsecure are engaged in civics as surely as anyone crafting a party’s political platform. The same goes for entrepreneurs building better electric cars, rather than fighting to legislate carbon taxes. As people lose faith in institutions, they seek change less through passing and enforcing laws, and more through building new technologies and businesses whose adoption has the same benefits as wisely crafted and enforced laws.

“Monitorial citizens” are activists whose work focuses on watching and critiquing the work conducted by institutions. The young Italians behind Monithon.it, a project that invites citizens to visit, investigate and review projects paid for with European cohesion funds are monitorial citizens. So are the civilians who review complaints against the police, holding commanders accountable for mistreatment of the citizens. The rise of new tools and techniques, including video sharing and crowdsourced reporting, are helping mitigate the power imbalances between established institutions and the citizens who want to hold them accountable.

Some of the most radical thinking about a post-institutional future comes from proponents of systems like bitcoin, a virtual currency designed to free its users from trusting in central banks and the governments that back them. Internet advocates have a long track record of supporting decentralized systems, from mesh networks that provide internet connectivity without a central internet service provider, or Eben Moglen’s “Freedom Box“, a system for serving webpages that mirrors content around the internet, rather than centralizing it on a single server. But decentralization is a difficult technical problem. Technical systems like Google and Facebook have become powerful institutions not just due to the ambitions of their founders, but from the difficulty of building search engines and social networks in a decentralized way.

Could citizen monitors of FIFA have kept Qatar from hosting the 2022 World Cup? Would decentralized social networks have resisted NSA surveillance? Maybe so, maybe not. But the citizens finding ways to challenge institutions and engage in politics through other means are the ones to watch in this age of mistrust.

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Who benefits from doubt? Online manipulation and the Russian – and US – internet

I was asked by an editor at RBC, one of Russia’s best respected independent news organizations, to offer my thoughts on the Russian/US infowar. It was a great chance to think about Adrian Chen’s provocative tale about Russia’s Internet Research Agency (a topic that Global Voices RuNet Echo has done a terrific job of covering) and broader questions about skepticism, mistrust and who benefits from doubt. The piece ran on RBC today in Russian, but my English language text follows below.


In early June, the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a story by investigative reporter Adrian Chen about a Russian “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, linked to Evgeny Prigozhin, reported to have close ties with Vladimir Putin. In the article, Chen interviewed Lyudmila Savchuk, a whistle blower who is suing the Internet Research Agency, her former employer, in hopes of shutting down their operations of posting pro-Kremlin comments on social media sites in English and Russian.

Until Chen’s story, many American readers had never heard of paid Russian propagandists writing online. But followers of the RuNet, Russia’s online spaces, have seen the Russian internet as one of the world’s most fiercely contested online spaces. In 2011, internet researchers in the US and Canada published a book, “Access Contested”, which suggested that battles over online spaces were progressing from censorship – preventing the posting of controversial content or preventing a nation’s citizens from reading that content – to a more complex model of contestation, where governments used a wide range of methods to disrupt dialog online: harassing users with frivolous lawsuits, rendering sites unavailable via denial of service attacks, and flooding comment threads. While these tactics have become popular worldwide, anywhere governments wish to disrupt online speech, many of them were pioneered in Russian cyberspace. My coauthors and I documented some of these early attacks, including attacks on Novaya Gazeta, in a 2010 study published by the Berkman Center at Harvard University.

What was surprising about Chen’s story was not that people were producing pro-government comments in Russian, but that this same Internet Research Agency appeared to be responsible for a set of fabricated news stories, released in English and intended to mislead US audiences. These stories have fascinated and baffled American media scholars. They are complex hoaxes, involving dozens of social media accounts, fake websites and fake YouTube videos, all towards the apparent goal of making American social media users believe that a chemical plant in Louisiana had been attacked by ISIS terrorists, or that there had been an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. These hoaxes were not successful in fooling many people for very long – they were quickly dismissed after mainstream news reports made clear that these tragedies had not occurred.

These hoaxes suggest an interesting new chapter in the ongoing infowar between the US and Russia. The goal of the infowar may no longer be to promote or discredit either the Kremlin or the White House. The goal may be to destroy trust in the internet, in social media and in news.

For decades, nations have worked to produce news that reflects their specific point of view. The United States Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti (for Cuban audiences), Al-Hurra TV and Radio Sawa (for Arabic-speaking audiences), Radio Free Asia, and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, which includes Radio Svoboda, aimed at Russian audiences. Defenders of these projects see them as providing objective news reporting in countries where press freedom is constrained. Others – including some US legislators – see these stations as pro-US propaganda. Until 2013, Voice of America was banned from broadcasting in the US because Congress believed that these broadcasts, played in the US, would function as pro-government propaganda. In recent years, BBG has broadened its remit beyond broadcasting, and proposed spending $12.5 million in 2016 to support internet anti-censorship technologies, intended to allow citizens of countries that censor the internet to access blocked content.

It should not have been a surprise that Russia would take to international broadcasting to promote a national agenda, joining stated sponsored channels France24 (France), CCTV (China), and Al Jazeera (Qatar). These channels have experimented with different mixes of news reporting and public diplomacy, sometimes coming under fire for compromising journalistic standards in favor of national interests.

Russia Today (RT) has taken some unusual and surprising approaches in deploying this tool of soft power. The network promotes a view of Russia as defender of the principle of international sovereignty in the face of relentless US-led globalization, a viewpoint that turns not only protests in Armenia into a US-led grab for power, but the arrest of FIFA officials for corruption into a plot to strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup. While Al Jazeera, in particular, has worked hard to gain respect as a journalistic outlet rather than a government mouthpiece, Russia Today seems content to take an explicitly pro-Russian, anti-US stance.

And then there’s the weird stuff. As Ilya Yablokov of the University of Leeds has observed, Russia Today seems to be trying to cultivate a US audience of conspiracy theorists. Yablokov notes that one of the first stories RT ran after launching RT America in 2010 was titled “911 Reasons Why 9/11 Was (Probably) an Inside Job”. The idea that the US government killed over 3000 of its own citizens, including 500 police officers and firefighters, as a pretext to invade Iraq, is deeply offensive to most Americans, and unlikely to win RT a broad US audience. But as Yablokov notes, that may not be the point.

There’s a long history in American politics of conspiracy theories gaining wide audiences. Historian Richard Hofstadter identified this in 1964 as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, a tendency for those who feel alienated and dispossessed to see America as controlled by a secret cabal. Knowing that it is unlikely to persuade the majority of Americans to see their government as a global hegemon and Russia as the tireless defender of sovereign nations, perhaps RT is appealing to those who are predisposed to “Question More”, as the network’s slogan suggests. While that approach won’t work for most Americans, it may work for the 19% of Americans who believe the government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev suggests that a Russian focus on conspiracy theories, especially about outside agitation in creating “color revolutions” is consistent with Russia’s preferred framing of the world – sovereignty versus agitation – rather than the US’s preferred framing – democracy versus authoritarianism. Brian Whitmore, a senior correspondent for RL/RFE, argues that conspiracy theories suggest a government incapable of taking citizen movements seriouslydocumented attempts by the government of Azerbaijan to portray the internet as a dangerous and lawless space, linking internet usage to sexual abuse of children, trafficking of women, breakdowns of marriages and mental illness. The campaign has been quite successful, keeping 86% of Azeri women offline, and helping ensure that internet penetration in Azerbaijan has stayed far behind of its neighbors, Georgia and Armenia. Turkish media scholar Zeynep Tufekci suggests that Erdogan’s government has deployed similar tactics in Turkey, working to demonize social media in the hopes of keeping his large support base off these networks, which are heavily used by opposition organizers.

Raising doubt in online media as a whole might help explain why a Russian firm would start easily dismissed rumors on American social networks. The net effect of these rumors has been to remind American Internet users that everything they read online should be doubted before being vetted and verified. And RT’s main brand message is that Americans shouldn’t trust their government or their media, as both are hiding the “other side” of the narrative, and the secrets behind far-reaching conspiracies.

But the question remains: who benefits from doubt?

Historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway have a possible answer. Their book “Merchants of Doubt” looks at techniques used by energy industry lobbyists in the US to create uncertainty and doubt about climate change. They trace these techniques back to the tobacco industry, which used similar tactics for decades to prevent tobacco from being regulated as a drug. Their key weapon was doubt. Tobacco companies sponsored legitimate medical research on other causes for cancer and heart disease. The net result was that they kept alive the appearance of a debate about whether tobacco use was the primary cause of lung cancer for far longer than there was an actual scientific debate. Similarly, climate scientists sponsored by energy companies insist that there is a diversity of opinion about humans’ role in creating climate change, relying on the media’s tendency to tell both sides of a story and keep a “debate” alive years beyond when it would otherwise be settled.

Who benefits from doubt? Ask instead who benefits from stasis. So long as there was doubt that cigarettes caused cancer, regulators were less willing to label packages, restrict their sales or ban them altogether. So long as there is doubt about humanity’s role in climate change, governments are less likely to pass carbon taxes, ban the burning of coal or subsidize the shift to renewable energy. It’s not necessary to persuade people that cigarettes are safe to smoke or that we can burn coal indefinitely without raising global temperatures – it’s enough to raise sufficient doubt to lead to paralysis.

Stasis benefits the Russian state. People baffled by claims and counterclaims over whether Russian troops are in Ukraine or whether the US toppled the Yanukovych government are less likely to demand NATO military intervention in Crimea. Russian citizens who wonder whether Alexei Navalny is an embezzeler are less likely to support his candidacy. Internet users who doubt whatever they see online are less likely to use social media to organize and topple those who are currently in power.

It’s expensive to persuade someone to believe something that isn’t true. Persuading someone that _nothing_ is true, that every “fact” represents a hidden agenda, is a far more efficient way to paralyze citizens and keep them from acting. It’s a dark art, one with a long past in Russia and in the US, and one we’re now living with online.

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Instaserfs: Precarious Employment in the New – and Old – Economy

(This summer, I’m going to publish some of my work on FOLD, the beautiful platform my student Alexis Hope is building. There’s a graphically enhanced version of this story there.)

Benjamen Walker makes some of the best radio around. (Okay, it’s mostly digitally-delivered audio storytelling these days, but who’s counting?) His finest work tends to come out in series of podcasts, exploring a complex issue through interviews and stories that unfold over two or more sequential weekly episodes.

The most recently concluded series is called “Instaserfs” and it focuses on the “sharing economy”, aka “the 1099” economy, the “gig economy” or as Ben offers, “the demand economy” or “the exploitation economy”. Struck by the ability to outsource virtually any task, Benjamen hires San Francisco native Andrew Callaway to make three episodes of his podcast as an “Instapodder”. The working method? Andrew’s task is to take on as many sharing economy jobs as he can and to report Benjamen about the experience, and whether he can pay his San Francisco rent with the money he earns. (Spoiler alert: he can’t.)

There’s no shortage of articles out there with titles like “I spent a week as a Lyft driver/ Taskrabbit/ Instacart shopper“, so this experiment is hardly original. But following along as a listener as Andrew goes through the process of deciding where to work, becoming a contractor, trying out the work arrangement and hearing the frustrations and small joys makes for some excellent listening. We get a taste of the horribly repetitive onboarding sessions, where the main point is to ensure the contractor knows that the company absolutely, positively won’t be responsible for anything bad that happens. We learn about the unpredictability of earning on the platforms, the radical difference between a good day and a bad day as a Lyft driver. We get a sense that some of these platforms treat their workers well – Taskrabbit and Wash.io are ones Andrew expresses particular fondness for – though even good platforms change the rules of the game, and these changes always make things harder for the contractor. We learn that an alarming number of San Franciscans pay a sharp premium to have Chipotle burritos delivered to them.

Ben and Andrew identify the ways that these services create a conceptual gap between the haves and have nots, those who can afford a $9 delivery charge for a burrito, and those who wait in line to earn their share of the delivery fee. Losing that collective experience of waiting in line, the leveling effect of shared inconvenience, Andrew speculates, is making the wealthy into nastier people… and the behavior of some of the oafish tech bros he encounters as a Lyft driver makes the case that these services are somehow unhealthy for society as a whole.

There’s utility in this insight, and in the shame that Andrew sees in the wash.io users, who seem embarrassed that they’re paying people to do their laundry. Outsourcing your routine tasks to a poorly-paid contractor is good for efficiency, but likely bad for something else. And some of the services Andrew works for seem designed to create class warfare. In the third episode, Andrew begins working for ManServants, a company whose core premise is so uncomfortable, I spent an enjoyable hour trying to determine whether the company is real or a splendid art piece. (Yes, it’s a service to let women rent well-dressed men, at $125 per hour, to act as “personal photographer, bartender, bodyguard, and butler all in one.” Yes, it appears to be real – Lane Moore tried it out and wrote about it for Cosmo – and doesn’t appear to be stripper rental in disguise.) But the main point of Instaserfs, for me at least, was not that rising inequity is turning America into Downton Abbey, but how badly the service economy is stacked against its participants.

Near the end of the second episode, as Andrew settles into his new lifestyle, he begins interviewing other 1099 workers. Andrew confesses to a driver for Luxe, a company that provides valet parking services, that he’s terrified to try working for the company out of fear of damaging a client’s car. The Luxe driver tells him that he’s right to be worried – he dinged a client’s truck the other day and is now on the hook for the damages. Luxe insures customer’s vehicles, but contractors are liable to pay the $500 deductible if they damage the car. The Luxe contractor explains that the company will deduct the deductible from his paycheck automatically and break it up over the course of months, if need be.

Given the modest amounts these jobs pay, a $500 payment is a major, potentially crippling, setback (something that wouldn’t have been clear to me, had I not listened to two episodes of Andrew figuring out whether his jobs had paid enough to cover gasoline for his car.) This practice of limiting liability and transferring it to the “contractor” is routine for this emerging industry, and seems like the core sin of this business model. Yes, the work and pay are unpredictable, the workplace rules arbitrary and sometimes demeaning. But a job where it’s common to end up owing the employer more than when you started working sounds like something out of the days of the company store.

Benjamen and Andrew have fun exploring this question of capital and of risk. Andrew can’t get a job as an Uber driver because of a dent in his bumper, which will cost thousands to fix, and Benjamen is unwilling (and probably unable as a podcast producer) to invest that capital in Andrew’s “business”. Later, ManServants cuts Andrew off until he can upgrade his shoes, which don’t meet their high standards – in this case, Benjamen is willing to dip into his own funds in the hopes of obtaining tape of Andrew on the job. Benjamen interviewed Mansur Nurullah, a San Francisco grad student and cabbie, who became an Uber driver when the startup disrupted the taxi business to the point where he could no longer profitably drive a cab. Nurallah needed a car to become an Uber driver, but balked when the company steered him towards a 27% interest auto loan. (Uber’s lending partner, Santander, is under investigation for predatory lending. And Uber loans explicitly prohibit the vehicles purchased this way from being used for personal use… or for a competing service.)

The capital’s all yours to provide, and the risk is all yours to assume. Benjamen and Andrew never discuss whether the podcast will pay legal fees if Andrew’s arrested for solicitation while working his Manservants gig. But the rules within the 1099 economy are well established: if you park illegally while making a delivery for Postmates, the fine is yours to pay. Andrew shares a great exchange he has with his Postmates dispatcher as they try to calculate the smallest parking ticket he could risk to make an order. (Dispatch suggests he park in a driveway, because it will take longer for the homeowner to call the police or a tow truck, but makes clear that he can’t offer advice, as it’s the driver’s problem, not the company’s.)

Contractors provide the capital and assume the risk, while the companies collect the profits and the investments. But that’s not the core insight of Instaserfs – it’s that this blatantly unfair arrangement isn’t news to most working people.

Andrew interviews Brooklyn, a Taskrabbit worker and advocate for the sharing economy, who tells him she left a six figure job to have more control, freedom and flexibility. He’s hired Brooklyn to help him make a viral video protesting the 1099 economy. Instead, she sets him straight. As they talk, Andrew realizes, “What I find horrible about the sharing economy is what most Americans have been dealing with in the workplace for decades.” And Brooklyn replies, “Welcome to life. As a black, gay female, I have been dealing with this since I was born.”

Uncertain work hours, unpredictable income, onerous workplace rules, no benefits and zero job security? That’s a reality of the American workplace that Barbara Ehrenreich documented in Nickeled and Dimed, which Benjamen evokes in Instaserfs, hoping to extend her critiques to this proposed future. But if the working conditions and uncertainty of the 1099 economy aren’t new, the aspirational tone is. For the most part, low wage jobs don’t ask you to consider yourself an entrepreneur. They have their own ways of transferring cost and risk to you, but at least they don’t transfer blame. When you fail as a low wage worker, you fail because you’re living in a country that doesn’t mandate a living wage, and until recently, didn’t provide basic universal healthcare. Slowly, all too slowly, Americans are waking up to the reality that the deck is stacked against the working poor, that paying rent would require 80-120 hours a week of minimum wage work in most states.

But in the 1099 economy, you’re an entrepreneur. Your success or failure depends on your skill, your hustle and your drive. That company offering predatory loans and flooding the streets with drivers competing for your passengers is valued at $50 billion (larger than 80% of the top 500 S&P companies) and will be the hottest IPO in years when it inevitably goes public.

Instaserfs is the tale of two well-educated white guys discovering what people with fewer advantages have knows for decades: the game is rigged. Fortunately, Andrew is not going to be a Wash.io delivery man for much longer – he’s a talented video producer whose skills should lead him to a less precarious freelance existence. The question is whether listeners to this excellent series will see the connections between the new exploitation economy and the old exploitation economy, and work towards a future of work where fewer people can rent manservants at $125 an hour, and fewer people need new shoes to work those servant jobs.

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Pattern recognition: racism, gun violence and Dylann Roof

When you read about Dylann Roof, the man who killed nine black men and women as they prayed, think about the patterns he represents.

Over the next few days, we’re going to hear about mental illness. We’re going to hear about troubled loners. We’ll hear about a young man’s racist fantasies, so outrageous that he would
celebrate the apartheid regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia. We’ll hear from family, neighbors and high school friends, and the picture that will emerge is of a young man who was strange, disturbed, sick, abnormal. The message will be that the massacre in Charleston was an unpredictable, unavoidable tragedy carried out by an individual madman.

Don’t lose sight of the patterns.

When Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African Americans at a bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, it was a hate crime. We know, because Roof told the survivors precisely why he had come to this historic church to commit mass murder: “You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.” It was an act of domestic terrorism. Roof has reportedly told investigators that he wanted to start a race war with his actions. Shooting nine black people as they prayed was a way to terrorize all black people and to destroy the safety and comfort of what should be the safest of spaces.

Attacking black Americans was also part of a pattern.

The United States is a dangerous place to be a black person. Black Americans are twice as likely to die from gun violence than white Americans are. Hispanic and Asian Americans are less likely to die from gun violence than white Americans. Gun violence is a tragedy that disproportionately affects Black Americans.

So is murder. In 2012, blacks represented 13% of the US population and represented 50% of homicide victims. Black men were 8.5 times more likely to be the victim of a homicide than white men. Politicians and commentators – notably Rudy Giuliani – are fond of pointing out that most black men who die of homicide are killed by other black men. That’s true. But it’s also true that most white men are killed by other white men. Most murder – 78% between 1980-2008 – is committed by someone the victim knew well, a family member, friend or other acquaintance. Given high rates of homophily in American society, it’s not surprising that black people know – and kill – black people and white people know – and kill – white people.

What is surprising is how police handle these murders. In New York City, the “clearance rate” for homicides with white victims is 86%. For homicides with black victims, the rate is 45%. In other words, in the majority of homicide cases where the victim is black, the case is unsolved and the murderer remains on the streets. Yes, investigating homicides of black people is often complicated by a culture that discourages cooperation with the police, the result of decades of mistrust between police and the communities they serve. But they are also the result of police decisions about resource allocation, and a culture of underpolicing black neighborhoods, in which police have demonstrated that they’re more likely to harass individuals at random through racial profiling than they are to investigate serious crimes.

And while we’re talking about the police, let’s remember that at least 101 UNARMED black people were killed by law enforcement in 2014. That includes Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley and Darrien Hunt, but it includes dozens you probably haven’t heard about, like Justin Griffin, a 25 year old basketball coach who had an argument with a referee – the referee was an off-duty sheriff’s deputy and he and another deputy beat Griffin to death. From 2010-2012, teenage black men were 21 times more likely than teenage white men to be killed by police.

We need to learn to see these patterns, some of us more than others. The pattern of police violence against black lives is much easier to see if you’re personally affected by it than if you’re not a member of a targeted community. In that case, it can be hard to see patterns from single incidents. We read about the death of a black man in police custody and are likely to see it as an isolated incident, unless someone points out the larger pattern of undue force applied by police to black suspects.

Thanks to Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, we have a narrative – #blacklivesmatter – that helps draw connections between Walter Scott’s death at the hands of the police in North Charleston, and the slaughter of nine of Charleston’s finest citizens at the hands of Dylann Roof. As Cullors has explained, #blacklivesmatter is not just about the death of black people at the hands of police or vigilantes: “The media really wants to say ‘This happened in Ferugson, this happened in Baltimore, this happened in New York. Are they the same?’ Yes, they’re the same. Black people are not a monolithic group, but what we are facing is something that’s extreme – and that’s poverty, that’s homelessness, that’s higher rates of joblessness, that’s law enforcement invading our communities day in and day out – and we are uprising.”

Cullors talks about a “Black Spring”, a parallel to the Arab Spring, where black people and their allies start uprising and demanding a more just nation. People who knew Roof tell us that he was obsessed with the protests resulting from the Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray deaths – a Black Spring is exactly what he appears to have feared the most. Those he killed, notably the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who as a state senator was a key figure in the fight to bring body cameras to South Carolina police, were precisely the people working to better the lives of the black community – and the community as a whole – in Charleston, SC.

Was Dylann Roof a troubled loner? Yes. But he was also resident of a state where a segregationist flag flies above the State Capitol and can’t be taken down or lowered to half mast without approval by the state assembly. To reach the scene of his crime, he drove on highways named for confederate generals. He lives in a country where black people are disproportionately the victims of official and unofficial violence. Dismissing him as a uniquely sick individual ignores the pattern.

Roof also lives in a nation with a unique and problematic relationship with guns. Reflecting on the murders in Charleston, President Obama pointed out, “At some point, we as a country, will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.” Rates of private gun ownership are higher in the US than anywhere else in the world – it’s twice as high as in Yemen, a conflict-torn nation in the throes of a domestic insurgency.

Our gun murder rate is off the charts in comparison to high-income nations – to find adequate comparisons, we need to look at countries like Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Parts of Latin America greatly outpace the US in gun murders per capita, but some of our most dangerous cities for gun violence – New Orleans, Detroit – have as high a rate of gun violence as the world’s most dangerous countries.

Not only were Dylann Roof’s crimes part of a pattern of gun violence that’s near-unique to the US, they are part of a pattern of mass shootings. Mother Jones, tracking shootings by single killers in public places in which four or more people were killed, has identified more than 70 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Like most mass killers, Roof used a handgun, and like the vast majority of mass killers, he obtained his weapon legally.

We have a pattern of mass gun killings in the US, and we have a pattern of doing nothing about them. Two years after the massacre of elementary school students in Newtown, CT, The New York Times has tracked gun laws passed in the year after the Newtown shootings. 39 laws tightened gun restrictions; 70 loosened them. If the pattern continues, South Carolina – a state where you do not need a permit to own any sort of handgun – is more likely to legalize concealed carry without a permit than it is to significant restrictions on handgun ownership.

We didn’t have to wait long to hear the argument that more guns would have saved lives in Charleston. Fox and Friends managed to find a pastor who argued that religious leaders should preach while armed, so that they could defend the flock from attack. NRA Board member Charles Cotton found a way to blame Roof’s crimes on a man he slaughtered, Reverend Pinckney: “he [Rev. Pinckney] voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

American resistance to sane gun control laws is based on fantasy. We fantasize that guns will protect us from being victims of crime. They don’t. Gun owners are five times more likely to be shot than non-owners. Women who live in a house containing one or more guns are 3.4 times more likely to be killed than women who live in gun free homes. For each instance someone used a gun to kill in self defense, more than fifty people were killed with guns. We fantasize that we will stop crimes with guns, if only pastors or teachers or any brave civilian were allowed to carry concealed weapons. We’d do well to remember Joe Zamudio, a bystander at the rally where Representative Gabby Giffords was shot, who had a concealed weapon and narrowly missed killing not the gunman, but the man who wrestled the weapon away from the gunman.

These fantasies keep us from seeing the pattern. We live in a country where it’s far too easy for anyone – a disturbed individual, a criminal, or an ordinary untrained citizen – to obtain a gun, and where gun violence is an endemic public health problem. People in other countries think we’re crazy. As the Economist wrote today, “Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass killings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.” These fantasies are constructed and marketed by people who don’t want us to see the pattern, people who believe, sincerely or cynically, that America would be a safer place if everyone was armed.

Here’s why patterns matter. So long as we treat each mass shooting, each black death as an isolated tragedy, there’s nothing we can do. We’re the victim of the law of large numbers, the reality that in any large group of people, there are those that will harm others, abuse positions of power, do crazy and horrific things. Every news report that focuses on Roof’s mental state, that tries to unpack the biography that led him to his crimes is a distraction from these patterns. There’s nothing we can do to bring back the lives of the nine people Roof killed. But there’s work we can do to make sure black lives matter. There’s work we can do to help Americans see our neighbors as people, not targets.

If it’s hard to see patterns, it’s really hard to see how they intersect. Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to explain how forms of oppression reinforce and compound each other, that understanding the challenges black women face involves considering not just racism and sexism, but the intersections of the two. The killings in Charleston are the product of intersectionality as well, of a society where racial hatred makes it possible for a young man to want to kill black people and where the ready available of weapons makes it possible for him to kill a lot of black people. America’s obsession with guns is a big part of what makes this nation so dangerous for black people. America’s endemic racism is a big part of what makes American buy, own and lobby for guns, to protect ourselves from an “other” that we fear.

Jon Stewart did a wise thing in reacting to the shootings in Charleston – he admitted that there were simply no jokes that could be made. But he also articulated a sense of hopelessness that’s easy to feel, and hard to fight: “I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack shit.”

We’ve got to do better than that.

Help people see these patterns. When you talk about Dylann Roof, don’t talk about a sick. sad young man. Talk about the lines that link Charleston to Ferguson and Charleston to Newtown. Rail at the confederate flag flying over South Carolina, but rail at the less obvious ways we disrespect black lives – over-incarceration, underinvestment in education, the disappearance of economic mobility and the rise of economic inequality – that prevent black people in America from having a fair chance. Understand that fighting gun violence is a way to fight racism. Help build a narrative to understand and combat gun violence in America the way that #blacklivesmatter helps us work for a Black Spring.

Mourn, but act. Support the people working at the intersection of these patterns, as the Brady Center is in campaigning against “bad apple” gun dealers, the 5% of dealers responsible for selling guns used in 90% of crimes. Look for new patterns, like the emergence of anti-government “Patriot” groups, heavily armed and often racially motivated, whose actions get far less media attention than protests against police violence.

We can’t bring back the nine people Dylann Roof killed. But we can and we must work to fight the patterns that make these killings possible.

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Listening Machines, and the whether, when and how of new technologies

One of my great pleasures in life is attending conferences on fields I’m intrigued by, but know nothing about. (A second pleasure is writing about these events.) So when my friend Kate Crawford invited me to a daylong “Listening Machine Summit” this past Friday, I could hardly refuse.

What’s a listening machine? The example of everyone’s lips was Hello Barbie, a version of the impossibly proportioned doll that will listen to your child speak and respond in kind:

…a Mattel representative introduced the newest version of Barbie by saying: “Welcome to New York, Barbie.”

The doll, named Hello Barbie, responded: “I love New York! Don’t you? Tell me, what’s your favorite part about the city? The food, fashion or the sights?”

Barbie accomplishes this magic by recording your child’s question, uploading it to a speech recognition server, identifying a recognizable keyword (“New York”) and offering an appropriate synthesized response. The company behind Barbie’s newfound voice, ToyTalk, uses your child’s utterance to help tune their speech recognition, likely storing the voice file for future use.

And that’s the trick with listening systems. If you can imagine reasons why you might not want Mattel maintaining a record of things your child says while talking to his or her doll, you should be able to imagine the possible harms that could come from use, abuse or interrogation of other listening systems. (“Siri, this is the police. Give us the last hundred searches Mr. Zuckerman asked you to conduct on Google. Has he ever searched for bomb making instructions?”)

As one of the speakers put it (we’re under Chatham House rules, so I can’t tell you who ), listening machines trigger all three aspects of the surveillance holy trinity: they’re pervasive, starting to appear in all aspects of our lives; they’re persistent, capable of keeping records of what we’ve said indefinitely, and they process the data they collect, seeking to understand what people are saying and acting on what they’re able to understand. To reduce the creepy nature of their surveillant behavior, listening systems are often embedded in devices designed to be charming, cute and delightful: toys, robots and smooth-voiced personal assistants.

Proponents of listening systems see them as a major way technology integrates itself more deeply into our lives, making it routine for computers to become our helpers, playmates and confidants. A video of a robot designed to be a shared household companion sparked a great deal of debate, both about whether we would want to interact with a robot in the ways proposed by the product’s designers, and how a sufficiently powerful companion robot should behave. If a robot observes spousal abuse, should it call the police? If the robot is designed to be friend and confidant to everyone in the house, but was paid for by the mother, should we expect it to rat out one of the kids for smoking marijuana? (Underlying these questions is the assumption that the robot will inevitably be smart enough to understand and interpret complex phenomena. One of our best speakers made the case that robots are very far from having this level of understanding, but that well-designed robots were systems designed to deceive us into believing that they had these deeper levels of understanding.)

Despite the helpful provocations offered by real and proposed consumer products, the questions I found most interesting focused on being unwittingly and unwillingly surveilled by listening machines. What happens when systems like ShotSpotter, currently designed to identify shots fired in a city, begins dispatching police to other events, like a rowdy pool party (just to pick a timely example)? Workers in call centers already have their interactions recorded for review by their supervisors – what happens when Uber drivers and other members of the 1099 economy are required to record their interactions with customers for possible review? (A friend points out that many already do as a way of defending themselves from possible firing in light of bad reviews.) It’s one thing to choose to invite listening machines into your life, confiding in Siri or a cuddly robot companion, and something entirely different to be listened to by machines installed by your employer or by local law enforcement.

A representative of one of the US’s consumer regulatory agencies gave an excellent talk in which she outlined some of the existing laws and principles that could potentially be used to regulate listening machines in the future. While the US does not have comprehensive privacy legislation in the way many European nations do, there are sector-specific laws that can protect against abusive listening machines: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, HIPA and others. She noted that electronic surveillance systems had been the subject of two regulatory actions in the US, where FTC protections against “unfair and deceptive acts in commerce” led to action against the Aaron’s rent to own chain, which installed privacy-violating software in the laptops they rented out, capturing images of anyone in front of the camera. The FTC argued that this was a real and concrete harm to consumers with no offsetting benefits, and “>Aaron’s settled, disabling the software.

I found the idea that existing regulations and longstanding ideas of fairness could provide a framework for regulating listening machines fascinating, but I’m not sure I buy it. Outside of the enforcement context, I wonder whether these ideas provide a robust enough framework for thinking about future regulation of listening systems, because I’m not sure anyone understands the implications of these systems well enough to anticipate possible futures for them. A day thinking about eavesdropping dolls and personal assistants that can turn state’s evidence left me confident only that I don’t think anyone has thought enough about the implications of these systems to posit possible, desirable futures for their use.


Dr. Doolittle meets the Pushmi-Pullyu

Over the past thirty or more years, we’ve seen a particular Pushmi-Pullyu pattern of technology regulation. Companies invent new technologies and bring them to market. Consumers occasionally react, and if sufficient numbers react loudly enough, government regulators investigate and mandate changes. There’s a sense that this is the correct process, that more aggressive regulation would crush innovation before inventors could show us the benefits of their new ideas.

But this is a model in which regulation is a very modest counterweight to market forces. So long as a product is on the market, it’s engaged in persuading people that a new type of behavior is the new normal. When Apple brough Siri to market, it engaged in a multi-front campaign to persuade people that they should regularly speak to a computer to make appointments, order dinner, check traffic conditions and seek advice. Apple was able to lower barriers to adoption by making the product a pre-installed part of their very popular phone, making it available for free, and heavily advertising the new functionality. Even the wave of jokes about the limits to Siri’s speech recognition capabilities and feature films that seek to complicate our relationships with digital entities serve the purpose of calcifying “the new normal” – people talk to their phones and share sensitive information with them, and that’s just the way things are now.

Perhaps at some point, we’ll see a lawsuit challenging Apple’s use of Siri data. Perhaps Apple will offer different financing packages for a future iCar with lending rates determined by a personality profile generated, in part, by a purchaser’s interactions with Siri. Empowered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, regulators might get involved and demand that credit decisions be made only using transparently disclosed, challengeable fiscal data, not correlations between one’s taste in takeout food and creditworthiness. Fine. But in the ensuing years, Apple has already won – we’re talking to our phones, sharing our lives, generating terabytes of data in the process.

The problem with this approach to regulation is that we rarely, if ever, have a conversation about the technological world we’d like to have. Do we want a world in which we confide in our phones? And how should companies be forced to handle the data generated by these new interactions? (We’ve got smart policy people in the room, and they’ve got suggestions, including “robot privilege” which behaves like attorney/client privilege, prohibitions against letting law enforcement lure robots into making you testify, in-line “visceral” notice of privacy risks in these systems, banning price discrimination based on privacy protected data, and reform of the “third party directive”.)

These questions, a friend points out, aren’t regulatory questions, but policy ones. The challenge is figuring out how, in our current, barely functional political landscape, we decide what technologies should trigger pre-emptive conversations about whether, when and how those products should come to market. If my example of Siri affecting your credit score seems either fanciful or trivial, consider the NSA’s expansive data collection programs as revealed by Edward Snowden. Again, we’re seeing pushmi-pullyu regulation in which branches of the intelligence community got out way ahead of popular opinion and congressional oversight, and is only now being modestly pulled back.

There’s encouraging news from the world of synthetic biology, where a powerful new technology for gene manipulation called CRISPR is promising to revolutionize the field. CRISPR makes it vastly easier to cut the DNA within an organism, which allows biologists to remove genes they don’t want and add genes they do. (Turns out that the cutting is the hard part – DNA’s self-repair mechanisms mean you can introduce sequences you’d like incorporated within DNA and the cell’s DNA-patching systems will include your sequence as a patch.)

By itself, CRISPR is provoking lots of thought about what sorts of genetic manipulation are appropriate and desirable. But a further idea – the gene drive – is leading to impassioned debate within the scientific world. It’s possible to make CRISPR inheritable, which means that not only can you change the genome in an organism, but you can make it virtually certain that its offspring will inherit the genomic change. (Inherited changes generally propagate slowly through a population, as only half the offspring inherit the change. But if you make a change on one half the chromosome and put CRISPR on the other half, the offspring either inherits the changed gene, or CRISPR, which will then make the change.) The upshot is that it could well be possible to engineer a species of mosquitoes that couldn’t pass on malaria, or that simply couldn’t reproduce, ending the species as a whole.

Who gets to make these decisions? The good news is that there’s both a precedent of executive authority to ban certain lines of research, and a robust tradition of debate within the scientific community that seeks to influence this policymaking. Smart people are making cases for and against gene drive, and I’ve had the pleasure of talking to scientists who are researching gene drive, trying to make it possible, who are genuinely thrilled to be having public conversations about whether, when and how the technology should come into play.

We need a better culture of policymaking in the IT world, a better tradition of talking through the whether, when and hows of technologies like listening machines. I’m grateful to Microsoft Research and the New York Times for hosting this conversation and hope it might be a first step towards more conversations that aren’t about what’s possible, but what’s desirable.


Note – I edited my blog post at 5:57PM to change the wording in two paragraphs, based on corrections from a speaker at the event.

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Mystery Show is the new Serial. Kinda. (But it’s an awesome moment for radio.)

Hey guys, Mystery Show is the new Serial!

Well, sorta. Not quite. Actually, it’s almost the antidote to Serial. But in a way that acknowledges the awesomeness of both shows.

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I have a long commute, a serious walking habit, and an apparently endless need for distraction. The list varies, but heavy rotation currently includes Reply All, Love and Radio, StartUp, Song Exploder, the memory palace, Welcome to Night Vale, Theory of Everything, 99% Percent Invisible, The Moth, On the Media, This American Life, and Story Collider. All of which ended up taking a back seat when new episodes of Serial came out.

You remember Serial, right? The podcast by Sarah Koenig that spun out of This American Life, the one so popular that Slate ran its own podcast commenting on each episode? Serial brought podcasts to a much wider audience (specifically, the NPR listening audience) and helped demonstrate that podcasts didn’t need to resemble existing radio shows, but could tell very different types of stories.

I was thoroughly addicted to Serial until it became clear that we weren’t going to get the satisfying resolution we were looking forward to, a convincing explanation of Hae Min Lee’s final hours, giving us clarity as to whether Adnan Syed was a victim of terrible injustice, or whether he was a phenomenal liar. I still think the show was a brilliant example of storytelling, and I think Koenig took an amazing risk in telling a story without knowing how it ended. But I ended up feeling both disappointed and vaguely creeped out as it became clear that Koenig’s reporting wasn’t going to clear Syed of a crime. Instead, we were exhuming the worst days of people’s lives as a form of entertainment and contemplation, not righting a wrong or solving a mystery.

And despite the feeling that we were intruding where we shouldn’t, I listened to the end, fascinated. And I think the meta-lesson Serial told about the perils of investigative reporting, of digging deep and not being able to unearth Truth are invaluable. But Serial left me feeling implicated in a project I’m not entirely comfortable with.

So now here’s Starlee Kine, who like Koenig has featured prominently on This American Life (Koenig was a staff producer for TAL, and Serial is an official TAL spin-off, while Kine was a frequent guest producer on the show, and Mystery Show is unaffiliated with TAL) with another podcast about mysteries. And that’s roughly where the similarities end.

The mysteries explored by Koenig in the first season of Serial were as important as they get, matters of life and death. Those explored by Kine on Mystery Show couldn’t be more trivial. The three episodes thus far have explored a video store that unexpectedly closed, a novel that might have been read by Britney Spears, and a lost belt buckle. With the stakes so laughably low, Kine sets up a fascinating storytelling problem: how does she get listeners to care about mysteries so banal that the parties to the mystery barely even care?

The answer is that Kine is an otherworldly interviewer, capable of drawing people down conversational paths they never expected to tread. After all, this is a woman who persuaded Phil Collins to help her write a love song about breaking up with her boyfriend. She’s got chops. In early episodes of Mystery Show, Starlee gets a bar owner talking about Fellini films and his fear of love, and turns an informational phonecall with a Ticketmaster customer service representative into a counseling session, helping him recover his self confidence. If I saw Kine at a cocktail party, I would run in the opposite direction, afraid that I’d immediately reveal my deepest hopes and fears, then hear them a week later in my headphones, over a bed of tastefully twee indie pop.

It’s the third episode of Mystery Show that’s got me hooked. It’s the story of a belt buckle, found in a ditch, inscribed to “Hans Jordi”, from “Bill Six”. And lest you worry that Kine will leave you hanging, by the end of the episode, I promise that you’ll know who those people are and why a simple story of lost and found stopped me in my tracks with its emotional weight.

This is a remarkable moment for “radio”, a term that’s increasingly archaic as much of the best stuff is never broadcast over the airwaves. But that’s the term the producers at Gimlet, Radiotopia and other purveyors of fine podcasts use, despite the fact that 10 of the 12 shows I’m following exist only in the digital realm. Podcasting appears to have found a business model, and with phones increasingly integrated with other devices, like cars and home audio systems, there’s a large and growing audience for time-shiftable audio content. What’s great is that despite the fact that audiences are large and growing, the field seems to be getting weirder and more adventurous, rather than safer and more dull.

Take The Truth, part of the Radiotopia family of storytelling podcasts. Jonathan Mitchell makes “audio movies”, contemporary radio dramas that use all the affordances of audio, not just the human voice, to tell powerful and profound stories. It’s not my everyday listening because I find so many of the stories so affecting that they’re often disorienting. For example, “Can You Help Me Find My Mom?” is probably the best thing I’ve heard this year, but so powerful that I’m reluctant to play it for some of my favorite people… and I can’t even craft a proper trigger warning without giving away the best part of the story.

When Chris Anderson and other prophets of the long tail predicted the future of cultural products online, there was a lot of talk about finding markets for the previously obscure. What wasn’t as obvious, to me at least, was the ways that changing the distribution and revenue equation for content could spark a renaissance in creativity. Much of what I’m listening to on podcasts is much, much better than what I routinely hear on NPR or commercial radio. It’s as well produced (sometimes ludicrously better produced, in the case of Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder), more intellectually challenging and at least as likely to spark conversation around the proverbial watercooler (or, these days, on Twitter.)

Turns out that there was a massive backlog of talented radio producers who couldn’t get their content on the air. Turns out that some producers who were often on the national stage, like Koenig and Kine, had ideas big enough to be successful shows. Turns out that this is a very exciting moment for those of us with time to listen and ears to hear.

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The death of Tidbit and why it matters

The New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs announced today that they had settled their complaint with the developers of “Tidbit”, a prototype piece of software developed by four MIT undergraduates as part of a hackathon. It’s about time. New Jersey made a boneheaded decisions to subpoena these students, and got what they deserved after wasting tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money: nothing.

Oh, the release from the state makes it sound like they’ve made a major step forward in consumer protection. But it’s worth unpacking what the Tidbit developers did, what they didn’t do, why New Jersey pursued the case, and why this matters, even though the case has now been settled.

What was Tidbit?

Tidbit was a prototype system and a thought experiment, designed to challenge the dominant model of supporting content providers online: targeted advertising. Instead of trying to capture your attention with an ad, with resulting revenue supporting the content provider, Tidbit captured spare cycles of your CPU and used them to mine bitcoins. While reading a story, your CPU would become part of the global pool of computers running SHA256 double round hash verification processes to verify and maintain the global transaction ledger, the blockchain, that makes bitcoin a non-duplicative currency. Close the window and you’d stop mining.

Would it have worked? Maybe not – mining bitcoins in the browser isn’t a very efficient process. (If you want to try it, read this article from Quartz, which includes a browser-based ap that allows you to mine. In the unlikely event that you mined a bitcoin, I suspect Quartz would own it through much the process Jeremy Rubin and his colleagues were proposing.) But it’s a very cool challenge to existing, problematic models that monetize your attention. In his blog post explaining the aftermath of the NJ subpoena, Jeremy explains that there were VCs interested in the idea and willing to fund further developments. Or perhaps Tidbit would have turned into a payment system using dedicated hardware, he speculates. We can’t know because the New Jersey subpoena led the students to stop all work on the project.

What Tidbit wasn’t was a system that hijacked people’s computers and forced them to mine bitcoins. The code Jeremy and colleagues released was a proof of concept which was not capable of actually mining bitcoins. New Jersey alleges that the Tidbit code was found running on three websites registered in New Jersey – Jeremy and his counsel note that the Tidbit code could not actually mine bitcoins, and was available online briefly. It’s possible to imagine scenarios where Tidbit’s code was downloaded and modified to hijack people’s computers, but it’s hard to see how that modified code could be blamed on Jeremy and his team.

So why did New Jersey take action against a student project?

New Jersey’s acting attorney general, insisting that his intention was not to stifle innovation, offered this reason for issuing the subpoena: “No website should tap into a person’s computer processing power without clearly notifying the person and giving them the chance to opt out – for example, by staying away from that website.”

It’s not hard to imagine scenarios in which unethical website operators run Tidbit-like scripts to hijack unsuspecting browsers into giving up CPU cycles. You don’t have to imagine – it happened. New Jersey prosecuted E-Sports Entertainment, which used malicious code to hijack 14,00 computers and use them to mine bitcoins. The company settled with the state for $1 million dollars. It’s possible that New Jersey thought Tidbit was heading down the same path and saw a chance to carry out a similar prosecution.

But there’s no evidence that the Tidbit team intended to hijack anyone’s system. In fact, the acting director of New Jersey’s consumer affairs director states clearly, in his press release about the settlement, “We do not believe Tidbit was created for the purpose of invading privacy.” (Indeed, New Jersey’s concerns seem to be about user autonomy.) Still, New Jersey subpoenaed the Tidbit team, and suggested that Rubin and others might face charges under the state’s Computer Related Offenses Act and Consumer Fraud Act, evidently because they believed “This potentially invasive software raised significant questions about user privacy and the ability to gain access to and potentially damage privately owned computers without the owners’ knowledge and consent.” Further, the press release states, “A New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs investigation has found that, despite initial assertions by Tidbit’s developer, the software was used to gain access to computers owned by persons in New Jersey, without the computer owners’ knowledge or consent.” Rubin, in his post about the settlement, insists that a five minute inspection of his code by a competent investigator, would have determined that his code could not have been used in this way.

What happened once the subpoena was issued?

Faced with the possibility of serious fraud charges, Rubin and his team stopped working on the project and sought support from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where Hanni Fakhoury led Tidbit’s defense. Fakhoury’s argument centered on the idea that the New Jersey AG was engaged in jurisdictional overreach, seeking information on a Massachusetts-based project based on the assertion that the tool had been downloaded and (mis)used in New Jersey. MIT faculty, graduate students and administration wrote to the New Jersey Attorney General raising concerns about the ways the New Jersey subpoena could harm innovation on university campuses around the country.

Judge Gary Furnari of the Essex County Superior Court declined the EFF’s motion to quash the subpoena, but expressed strong reservations and “serious concerns” that the state’s actions might discourage the development of new technologies. Judge Furnari expressed his opinion that
it appeared “the Tidbit program and other similar creative endeavors serve a useful and legitimate purpose” and had no inherent malicious intent.

Perhaps the judge’s caution led New Jersey to settle with Rubin and his colleagues. Despite the triumphal language of the New Jersey AG’s press release, Rubin and his team admitted no wrongdoing, paid no fine, and released a minimum of information (a total of two domain names). Basically, the settlement binds the students to obey the law, at the risk of a significant financial penalty… the situation they, and all other citizens, faced before New Jersey issued this subpoena.

Why does this matter?

First, it matters because Rubin and his colleagues went through a terrible experience. Once the team faced possible legal action, investors backed away from the project and the students were no longer willing to work on the project, fearing further complications. In addition to working through MIT’s notoriously demanding undergraduate curriculum, the students spent their “free time” working with the EFF and other lawyers, worried that their work on Tidbit would lead to fines and fraud charges. Their reward for thinking outside the box was a year-long trip through a Kafka-esque bureaucratic morass.

Second, it matters because New Jersey’s actions have likely chilled development along the lines Tidbit was exploring. Whether or not browser-based bitcoin mining was a viable replacement for advertising-supported content, New Jersey sent a signal that they might lash out at any technology that attempted to enlist a user’s machine in mining, even if the user consented to the exchange. Acting Attorney General Hoffman’s insistence that New Jersey is not trying to hobble innovation cannot be taken seriously, as the direct result of the state’s overreach was the death of the Tidbit project and the clear sign to other innovators that this line of thought was a dangerous one to follow.

Third, the Tidbit case matters because it revealed a situation most universities are ill-prepared to handle: the moment when an innovative project puts students into serious legal trouble. Much of our federal and state legislation around computer crime is so badly written and vague that any number of student projects could conceivably lead to criminal charges. My students routinely scrape websites to collect analyzable data sets – as we learned at tragic cost in the case of Aaron Swartz, an overzealous prosecutor can argue that this sort of data collection is theft on a massive scale.

What should universities do?

What should a university do if a project like Tidbit were created as a class project? (Tidbit was created at a non-MIT hackathon by MIT students.) What are the responsibilities of faculty and administrators if students get into legal trouble in the course of their educational work? Rubin sought the EFF’s support with guidance from the MIT general counsel, as the counsel represents the Institute, not students or faculty at the university. Colleagues and I were concerned that MIT had no direct way to support students in situations like Jeremy’s and brought our concerns to President Reif. He responded quickly and the Institute is working towards creating a new set of legal resources for students around the freedom to innovate. (I’ve been involved with the process, and can report that there’s been a great deal of progress, which I hope will be announced soon.)

Other universities need to start building strategies to defend their students… and soon. The combination of badly written computer crime laws and the spread of entrepreneurial culture to campuses suggests that more students will put forward ideas that lead towards legal challenges. Whether these are ideas designed to be explored solely within the classroom, or in the entrepreneurial/VC/startup space, I think it’s important for academic advisors to think about how we can protect and advise students on the legal challenges that may arise. As someone who teaches and advises students, I don’t want to encourage students to climb high without a legal safety net.

Furthermore, universities need to take the lead in protecting the freedom to innovate and combatting overbroad laws like the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and New Jersey’s Computer Related Offenses Act. As we encourage students to invent and create, we have a responsibility to ensure that they are operating in a legal environment that encourages creativity rather than shutting down promising lines of research before their impact is clear. We’re convening a discussion at MIT on this topic on October 10th and 11th, 2015. If you want to take part, please let me know via email or via the comment section of the blog.


For further reading on the Tidbit case, please see:

Posted in Media Lab | 1 Comment

Re:publica Keynote: The System is Broken – That’s the Good News

I’m at the wonderful Re:publica conference for a single day, racing home to teach tomorrow… and thus far I’ve given a keynote and done over 12 interviews, so I haven’t gotten the whole feel of the conference yet. Still, it’s one of the most wonderful and high energy venues I’ve ever spoken at, and I’m having a great time.

My talk this morning focused on civics in the age of mistrust. The organizers (wisely?) put a different title on it, but the audience clearly got the core idea: we’re at a moment in time where mistrust in institutions is at a very high level, and any approaches to revitalizing public life or fixing civics needs to start from understanding mistrust and harnessing it productive.

At some point soon, I hope to annotate my speakers notes, likely on FOLD. But here are the rough ones now, for those who missed the talk, or for those who are interested and want to know what I meant to say.


I want to begin my talk by showing you a christmas gift I received in 2012 from my friend, journalist Quinn Norton.

quinnsbrick

I received the postcard a few weeks after she published an essay that was both brilliant and troubling. It was titled “Don’t Vote” and it was, in part, an apology to her great-grandmother, who had marched in the streets to demand women’s right to vote, the right Quinn was now urging us to stop exercising. She writes “I have decided that I am on strike as a voter, until voting means something.”

Quinn is opting out of voting not out of ignorance, but out of knowledge and frustration: with gerrymandering, with legalized corruption, and with her growing sense of impotence at changing these problems through the ballot box. She closes the essay by urging us to “let your body be your ballot” – to make change in how you act in the world, what you stand for, for how the organizations you work with or companies you work for treat people.

Her postcard is a much simpler statement: it’s an elegant essay reduced to a cartoon. The picture is of a brick with a logo that’s unmistakeable to any American voter – it’s the sticker you receive when you vote. It’s like the ash they smear on your forehead on ash wednesday – visible, public evidence that you’ve done your civic duty. The postcard is a cartoon, not a concrete suggestion: it’s not an encouragement to riot so much as it is a reminder that participating in a system that’s badly broken is an endorsement of it

Quinn wrote her essay after spending much of a year reporting on Occupy, while embedded within the movement, visiting 14 of the camps, and wrote a moving eulogy for Occupy in Wired. In her reporting, she is clear that she was in, but not part of, Occupy, covering it as press and treating it with the seriousness that it deserved, as clear evidence of people dissatisfied with how systems are working and looking for ways to change them, or replace them with something different.

I pinned Quinn’s brick above my desk so that I would look at it every day.
represented a tension between two sorts of civic engagement that I have been losing faith in: electoral, representative democracy and public protest.

I’m certainly not the only one losing faith in democracy’s ability to make change. We are seeing falling voting rates in the United States, with 2014 registering the lowest turnout in history for a US congressional election.

And the US is not alone. 2014 also saw the lowest turnout for an EU parliamentary election, and while EP elections always have lower turnout than national elections in Europe, both have been trending down in Europe since 1979, much as they have been in the US.

Lots of reasons have been offered for why participation in voting is decreasing. Many of these explanations blame the ignorance or laziness of voters: if only we weren’t so distracted by our phones and the internet, if only we weren’t so lazy, we’d take part in our critical civic duty. But this argument misses the critical fact that while participation in elections is shrinking, we’re experiencing a golden age of protest. And say what you will about people who take to the streets to protest their government, they may be many things, but they’re not lazy.

Protests are an essential part of democracy. They can be deeply effective as a way of demanding immediate change from those who are in power. Last week, my country watched people come out into the streets in Baltimore, NYC, Boston to protest death of Freddie Gray, a young man fatally injured after he was arrested by local police. After a week of protests, six police officers are now facing murder and manslaughter charges. Certainly doesn’t always work, but it can be powerful in forcing institutions to do the right thing

Protest gets more complicated when you’re not protesting a single incident and demanding a response, but protesting against a larger system that’s broken.

2011 was a pivotal year for protest with the arab spring protests, a wave of popular protests legitimately seeking to change oppressive governments. They’ve had a mixed outcome, as governments have gotten better at fending them off. The current tally gives us one clear success (Tunisia), three civil wars (Syria, Libya, Yemen), violent repression (Bahrain, Sudan), and the deeply complicated case of Egypt, where a successful revolution led to election of Islamist government, popular protests led to a military coup.

We’ve learned that protests are good at counterpower, at ousting a surprised and unaware government, but that protests have a much harder time building governments than toppling them. Even though it’s philosophically more easy to be excited about protests leading to revolution in monarchies than in democracies, by the middle of 2011, democratic movements in Europe, North and South America had picked up the spirit of the Arab Spring and turned it into an anti-politics movement – protesting against repressive and disempowering systems, not against singular injustices.

In Spain, the Indignados movement brought people into the streets, starting on May 15, 2011. Activists protested unemployment brought on by austerity policies, lack of opportunities for young people, and a general sense that Spain was being run on behalf of a wealthy elite at the expense of ordinary citizens. While the movements in the streets ended within a year, some supporters of the movement have build the political party Podemos, which is the second largest in Spain by number of members, but finished 4th in recent elections with only 8% of the vote.

The Occupy movement, began in NYC on September 17, 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. The movement focused on inequality, financial corruption, housing and college debt burdens, and had some measurable successes on local scales, fighting eviction and buying back outstanding debt. It has brought discussions of inequality into the political dialog in the US, and has helped establish a template for protest globally, with movements like Occupy Central in Hong Kong adopting tactics and rhetoric… but even its most ardent supporters will concede that the movement has not led to major changes to the US political or economic system.

These protest movements throughout Europe, North and South America have demonstrated huge energy and enormous popular support. But it’s hard to point to tangible, systemic changes that parallel the scale of mobilizations that have taken place. This may point to a paradox of these broad, anti-political protests in democracies. Unless you’re going to overthrow a democratically elected government, the likely outcome of a protest is that you’re going to get invited into government to try to fix things. And as activists throughout history have figured out, fixing the problems of inequality, corruption and lack of opportunity is a lot harder than motivating people to protest against them.

I want to offer two other reasons to be skeptical of systemic change through protests.

Zeynep Tufekci is a brilliant scholar of social change and of protest. She conducted fieldwork focused on the Gezi Park protests, which brought at least 3.5 million Turks into the streets of 90 Turkish cities from May to August of 2013. Zeynep reports that the rallies featured an incredibly diverse group of protesters – from ultranationalists to gay and lesbian rights activists – and that they fell apart very quickly. While they were dramatic, they were also incredibly ineffective. The one shared objective of the movement – ousting Erdoğan – failed utterly, as Erdoğan was elected president in 2014 without need for a run-off.

Why? Zeynep argues that it’s much, much easier to bring people out to protest than in years before – you can organize on Facebook, report on Twitter, livestream on UStream and now on Periscope. Combine all these channels for mobilization with a message behind the protests that was maximally inclusive – quoting a poem by Rumi, the movement’s motto was “Sen de gel” – You come, too! But in years past, took months of organizing behind the scenes to bring 50,000 people in the streets. Bringing 50,000 meant that you’d held meetings with different groups and made deals and compromises to find a common agenda. Now you can bring out 50,000 people by announcing what you’re against and inviting people to join you. But when the authorities crack down, or when it comes to turn from mobilization to making demands and setting an agenda, movements split and dissipate much more easily – and political leaders know this, and are less threatened by a million in the streets today than they were by 50k a decade ago. What we may be building in the wake of the Arab Spring and the Occupy protests, Zeynep warns, is a form of protest that can mobilize but can’t set an agenda or build a movement.

If that sounds like bad news, here’s some worse news from another scholar, Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, in Sofia, Bulgaria.
He worries that even if protests like the Indignados or Occupy succeed in ousting a government, much of what protesters are asking for is not possible. “Voters can change governments, yet it is nearly impossible for them to change economic policies.” When Indignados grows into Podemos, Krastev predicts that it’s going to be very hard for them to truly reverse policies on austerity – global financial markets are unlikely to let them do so, punish them by making it impossibly expensive to borrow

Krastev offers the example of how Italy finally got rid of Silvio Berlusconi – wasn’t through popular protest, but through the bond market – the bond market priced italian debt at 6.5%, and Berlusconi resigned, leaving Mario Monti to put austerity measures in place. You may have been glad to see Berlusconi go, but don’t mistake this as a popular revolt that kicked him out – it was a revolt by global lenders, and basically set the tone for what the market would allow an Italian leader to do. As Krastev puts it, “Politics has been reduced to the art of adjusting to the imperatives of the market” – we’ve got an interesting test of whether this theory is right with Syriza, a left-wing party rooted in anti-austerity protests now in power, and facing possible default and exit from the Eurozone this month. What Krastev is saying is really chilling – we can oust bad people through protest and elect the right people and put them in power, we can protest to pressure our leaders to do the right things, and they may not be powerful enough to give us the changes we really want.

If you’re feeling depressed at this point in the talk, that’s a good thing – it means you’re listening. But it also means that you may be looking for a new way forward, a third path between elections and protest. And for a lot of people – particularly for people like those in this room – we’ve hoped the way forward is through technology, through the mobile phone and the internet and the ways they might make engaging with society more fair, more participatory, make governments more responsive and closer to the will of the people.

I’m part of the first generation to use and build the world wide web – I dropped out of graduate school in 1994 to help found one of the world’s first social media companies. Like a lot of people who were working on the internet in the mid-1990s, I wasn’t there for the money, because frankly, no one was making money online at that point. I was there because people believed that the internet was going to change the world.

We believed that the internet was going to oust powerful companies that dominated markets with monopolies and make it impossible for other monopolies to take their place, because it was so easy to create new businesses online that no one would ever control the whole market for something as essential as search or online messaging.

We believed that the internet routes around censorship and that publishing online would allow people to speak freely, that censoring the internet was like nailing gelatin to the wall, as President Clinton once said, and that when countries like China encountered the internet, their governments would fall as people learned how they were controlled and manipulated.

We believed that the internet would let people interact with each other in new and honest ways, because no one knew who we were online. In a space where no one knew whether you were male or female, black or white, European or African, we would overcome the prejudices of the offline world and have conversations that were fully inclusive of all perspectives.

We believed that governments didn’t care what happened online, that they weren’t paying attention to it, and that if they were, the internet was far too vast to monitor all of it, and that even if they did, the companies we were using to communicate would protect our privacy, and that we could use unbreakable encryption to protect anything that truly needed to be secret.

In other words, we believed a lot of dumb stuff

It turns out that the internet doesn’t magically make the world a better place. We’re starting to wake up to that now – when the inventor of the World Wide Web launches a campaign to build “the web we want”, a web that’s very different from the one we’ve all built over the last twenty five years, it’s a pretty clear sign that this remarkable technology alone doesn’t transform the world in the ways we might hope

Of all the missed opportunities and wrong turns, the most disappointing may be the way the internet has failed to transform politics and government.

Some hoped that the internet would transform elections, making it easier for exciting new and unknown candidates to build a political base and take power. It works, sometimes – I had lunch yesterday with my favorite German politician, Malte Spitz of the Green Party, and it’s hard to imagine him getting elected without the internet. But it turns out that existing political parties have gotten very good at using the internet to raise money and disseminate propaganda, and to target advertising to persuade us how to vote for candidates who aren’t using the internet to solicit ideas and input.

We hoped that by demanding transparency, we would expose waste and corruption and make government more responsive and efficient. But it turns out that it’s a long path from releasing data sets to exposing systemic flaws in governance, and that it’s a task that requires not just coders, but journalists, artists, storytellers and activists. Even when we’re confronted with a trove of secrets, leaked diplomatic and intelligence documents, it takes enormous work to turn leaks into revelations and into actions. Transparency is a neccesary but not sufficient requirement for change.

We hoped that we as citizens might take on the work of actually crafting and shaping legislation, stepping back from the compromise that is representative democracy to participating directly in writing the laws that govern our societies. And while we’ve had precious few successes, it’s worth celebrating those victories we have, like the Marco Civil Do Internet in Brazil, written not only by professionals, but by a thousands citizens. Ronaldo Lemos and his colleagues at the Institute of Technology and Society in Rio are releasing a new platform, Plataforma Brasiliana, which will make it easier to collectively author legislation, but questions remain: yes, surpremely geeky Brasilians were willing to take time to author laws about the internet, but will anyone show up to write better tax policy?

Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, is one of the smartest people thinking about the internet and politics, and he’s recently published a brave and terrific book, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet). It’s brave because Micah thoroughly acknowledges that we haven’t gotten what we wanted from twenty years of bringing the internet to politics – indeed, in the US, our politics on a federal level are far worse than they were two decades ago. Fixing this is going to require us to build some tools that are very, very difficult to build. We need to solve the hardest problem in politics – how do you let people deliberate at scale, so that people can work together to build movements, to advocate for issues, to work together with elected officials to bring new solutions into the world. And he’s hopeful that people may be starting to build these tools, looking to people like Pia Mancini, the leader of Argentina’s Net Party, which is building Democracy OS, a set of tools that let citizens vote on policy proposals and work with legislators in the Net Party to promote new legislation.

I think Micah’s right that we need new tools. But I think the problem is even deeper than he imagines. When you ask Americans whether they trust their government to do the right thing most of the time, 24% answer yes. That’s down from 77% in 1964. For my entire lifetime, there’s been only one moment when a majority of the American people trusted the government to do the right thing… and that’s the moment George W. Bush was leading us into a disastrous war in Iraq.

But it’s not just confidence in government that’s dropping in the US – it’s trust in institutions of all kinds. From the 1960s to now, Americans tell you that they have less trust in newspapers, in churches, in non-profit organizations, in corporations, in banks, in the medical establishment. The only institutions where trust is increasing in my country are in the military and the police (though trust in the police is changing very quickly right now.)

I don’t have data at the same granularity for European nations as I do for the US, and I don’t want to make the mistake of treating European nations as a group, but I want to note that one survey sees several European nations has having a bigger problem with institutional mistrust than the US. Edelman’s Trust Barometer is built annually by asking 1000 citizens in each of 33 nations questions about whether they trust the government, NGOs, business and the media. They found that trust is at an all time low, and that Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Ireland all have a lower level of trust in institutions than we are experiencing in the US.

I don’t know what’s causing this increase in mistrust in the US and Europe – I don’t think it’s a single thing, but a combination of factors. Inequality is on the rise, globally, as Thomas Piketty has been telling us, and it’s easy for trust to decline when we feel like very few people are getting rich and we’re getting poorer – whether we blame government, corporations or banks, we lose trust in those institutions. Transparency, for all its benefits, means that we know more about the failings of institutions, about corruption or just sheer incompetence – it’s hard to learn about the causes of the 2008 financial crisis and come out with trust intact in the global financial system and those responsible for regulating it. The professionalization of politics has something to do with mistrust – once we start seeing politicians as a different class of people rather than as people like us, representing our interests, we don’t trust them to have our best interests at heart. I think mistrust can come from a sense of powerlessness – if governments and corporations and the media can’t rally together and make real progress on a critical issue like global warming, are they really as powerful as we think they are?

I fear that mistrust has something to do with globalization, and increasing diversity in our societies. Mistrust began to rise in the US during the reforms of the civil rights era that began ensuring equal rights for African-American citizens… and it’s possible that people started trusting governments and universities less when they were providing services not just to people like them, but to people of other ethnic or national backgrounds. This might be a way to think about euroskepticism and rising nationalism, as some people mistrust institutions that are redistributing wealth across the continent to people they identify as “other”

Political scientist and economists are generally pretty scared of mistrust. There’s a low level of mistrust that you need to have a liberal democracy function: the legislative, executive and judicial branches all look at each other with a low-level of mistrust so that they’re able to act as checks and balances to each other. But high levels of mistrust end up being corrosive. If people don’t trust banks, they don’t deposit money and eventually the bank can’t make loans. If people don’t trust governments, they don’t pay taxes and the government can do less and less. Institutional mistrust is corrosive in large doses – it leads to societies where we interact and trade only with people we trust deeply, like family or tribe.

Many of my friends around the world who are trying to revitalize interest in civics are working to increase the trust in institutions. Whether they’re encouraging people to monitor elections, releasing government data sets or helping cities find and fill potholes, they’re working to lower the cost of civic participation and give people a better chance to have a positive experience with the institutions they’re affected by. I think this work is important and admirable, but I also think it’s not nearly enough to tackle the problems we face today.

The radical idea I want to put forward is that we can’t reverse the rise of mistrust. Instead, we’ve got to figure out how to channel it productively. We have to start treating mistrust, our deep skepticism of the institutions in our lives and in our communities into a civic asset.

I’m seeing at least three different ways people are learning to harness mistrust. In our research at Center for Civic Media, we’re seeing a great deal of civic activism that’s unfolding outside of government institutions. People who have a high degree of frustration and mistrust, but who are finding ways to make change outside of winning elections and passing laws.

In his book Code, Lawrence Lessig observed that there are at least four ways we regulate behavior in our societies. We pass and enforce laws to prohibit certain behaviors; we use markets to make some behaviors expensive and others cheap; we use code and other architectures to make some behaviors technically possible or impossible; and we use norms to make some behaviors socially desirable and others taboo. When we lose faith in some kinds of institutions, say in governments’ abilities to pass and enforce good laws, we see people channeling their desire for change towards code, towards markets and towards norms.

I’d like to see European governments take action to prevent the massive violations of privacy we’ve seen committed by the NSA, but I have very little faith that the American government will make significant changes to prevent the sorts of violations revealed by Edward Snowden. And since I don’t have very much faith in my government to make these changes, it’s exciting to see projects putting their faith in code to make surveillance far more difficult by making use of strong encryption routine. Mailpile, Mailvelope, Tor, Whisper Systems, The Guardian Project – these are all people channeling their frustration and mistrust into making change through code.

I’d like an international binding carbon tax, but it’s hard to have faith that the UN and other international institutions will find balance between countries like China and India, that want to give billions of citizens a better lifestyle, fossil fuel producing nations, and nations like mine where a remarkable percentage of people aren’t convinced that human beings have a role in causing climate change. But even if I’m skeptical of governments and international institutions, I can look to the market, to companies like Tesla, trying to build beautiful and exciting electric cars, and to entrepreneurs around the world working to make solar power not only the most sensible way to produce power, but the cheapest.

Many of the hardest problems we face worldwide are problems of human rights, of protecting the rights of minorities from the actions of majorities. It’s critically important that we legislate to protect the rights of all people, but it’s not enough when we lose trust in the institutions designated to protect those rights, as is happening with Americans and our police forces today. Protecting the rights of minorities, whether it’s African Americans in my country, or the Roma in Europe, requires us to change norms, to address our basic beliefs. Around the world, we’re seeing people working to change norms by making media and building movements – the #blacklivesmatter movement has created a narrative that is forcing American law enforcement to face that they’ve got a real and persistent problem with racial bias and may be the first step towards making real change.

So one way to harness mistrust is to try new theories of change, to look for ways we can make change through markets, code and norms. Another way to harness this mistrust is to become engaged, careful critics of the institutions we mistrust.

Luigi Reggi was working for the Italian government, building a massive open data system so that people could see where EU funds were being spent in his community. He built a gorgeous open data portal, but found that not only did most people ignore the data he worked to present, but they also had a general sense that Italy wasn’t getting its money’s worth from these EU projects. So, working outside the government, he started something new. Monithon is a project that invites people to monitor an EU funded community project, to ask hard questions about whether the project ever got completed, whether it’s working well or at all, whether the project meets a community’s needs. Their biggest partner is Libera, a group that works to identify and resist the role of the mafia in Italy, and they’re mobilizing not just seasoned activists to monitor the effectiveness of EU projects around Italy, but high school students, who are now taking on evaluating these projects in their community as a hands-on lesson in citizenship.

I call this idea “monitorial citizenship”, and my students and I have been working on ways we can make it work at scale, inviting thousands of people to take on the task of monitoring their government not just as a one-time thing, but as essential and important a task of citizenship as voting. We’ve launched a project in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the mayor, Fernando Haddad, started his term by publishing 100 concrete promises – I’ll put this many streetlamps in this neighborhood, build this many new low-income housing units. He held elections for over 1000 citizen monitors whose job it is to see that the mayor lives up to these goals. And we’ve built a tool that lets citizens meet and decide what infrastructures they want to monitor in their communities – schools, playgrounds, sidewalks – and quickly build a survey that anyone with a smartphone can take. The data they collect – the photos, GPS locations, questions they answer – get posted to a shared map which can be shared with the government or with the press, or used by the community to self-organize and take on these challenges directly. We launched it three weeks ago in Sao Paulo and it’s popular enough that we’ve expanded projects into nine Brazilian cities, working with neighborhood and community groups.

Here’s the interesting thing about monitorial citizenship – sometimes you find that your mistrust of institutions is deserved, and you’ve got data to back up your suspicions. And sometimes you discover that the people who represent you are doing a better job than you’d imagined. It’s a model that can turn mistrust into advocacy for change or can lessen mistrust, and it works as well if you’re auditing the promises a company, a university or a government makes.

Some of the most exciting mistrust-fueled work I’m seeing looks at the idea that we could eliminate institutions altogether, building systems designed from the ground up to be decentralized. One of the first times I was in Berlin, more than ten years ago, I watched the folks from Freifunk build a mesh network that spanned the entire city, a network with no single point of failure and no single internet service provider in charge of it. This same impulse, to build systems that have no center, is what’s animating the interest in Bitcoin, a currency that doesn’t force us to trust central banks or currency policies, whose faith is in algorithms and distributed computation, not in the institutions that failed so badly in 2007.

These three approaches – building new institutions, becoming engaged critics of the institutions we’ve got, and looking for ways to build a post-institutional world – all have their flaws. We need the new decentralized systems we build to work as well as the institutions we are replacing, and when Mt. Gox disappears with our money, we’re reminded what a hard task this is. Monitorial citizenship can lead to more responsible institutions, but not to structural change. When we build new companies, codebases and movements, we’ve got to be sure these new institutions we’re creating stay closer to our values than those we mistrust now, and that they’re worthy of the trust of generations to come.

What these approaches have in common is this: instead of letting mistrust of the institutions we have leave us sidelined and ineffective, these approaches make us powerful. Because this is the middle path between the ballot box and the brick – it’s taking the dangerous and corrosive mistrust we now face and using it to build the institutions we deserve. This is the challenge of our generation, to build a better world than the one we inherited, one that’s fairer, more just, one that’s worthy of our trust.

Thank you.

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