A personal update

It’s September 1, and because I’ve spent 35 of my 47 years in educational institutions of one sort or another, the start of the school year seems like the start of the year. So, time for a personal update.

Yesterday was my last day at MIT, directing the Center for Civic Media. It’s been a wonderful ride over the last nine years, and I will be forever grateful to MIT for giving me the chance to advise Masters and PhD students for the first time in my career, to work on my own research (including Media Cloud) and to help students and colleagues with their research, from the wonderful Make the Breast Pump Not Suck hackathon to the important and inspiring work of the Algorithmic Justice League.

Oh, and I grew a pandemic beard. You probably did too.

We held a wake for the Center last week and agreed that we had to think of the end of Civic as a diaspora rather than a death, as so many of our graduates have gone on to lead Civic projects elsewhere in the world. I am especially proud of the many people who came through the lab and have gone on to academic careers – Nathan Mathias at Cornell, Erhardt Graeff at Olin College, Catherine D’Ignazio at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Mols Sauter at UMD, Rahul Bhargava, Matt Carroll and Laura Perovich at Northeastern. For a guy who dropped out of grad school almost three decades ago, I’ve helped lure an awful lot of people into academia. (The r0 for Civic Media is a frightening number, and in terms of my lab, the replacement rate calculation leads to a division by zero error…)

Some friends on Twitter have asked why Center for Civic Media won’t continue beyond this year. The decision is consistent with how the Media Lab handles the departure of professors. Research labs are tied to a specific professor or researcher’s work and ends when she or he leaves the Lab. The unusual exception to the rule was what allowed me to be hired into MIT in the first place – when I came on board, two of the three founders of Center for Future Civic Media had left MIT, but funding for the Center from the Knight Foundation continued, necessitating the hire of someone to lead the research. And while Civic won’t have a dedicated group in the Media Lab, Sasha-Costanza Chock will be visiting the Lab this coming year, and Eric Gordon, a pioneer in the Boston Civic Media community is visiting at CMS/W. Add in Catherine’s new lab at DUSP and Civic is still a very strong presence at MIT.

Media Cloud is alive and well, too – we have been operating as a partnership between MIT and Harvard for the past several years, and that partnership is going to expand to include Northeastern, UMass and perhaps others. I’m finding the tools we’ve been building especially useful for understanding the twin effects of the pandemic and the late Trump administration on the news agenda, which have managed to almost silence the 2020 election cycle.

So what’s next for me? This fall, I am a visiting scholar at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. This was my brilliant plan to spend time with all the friends in New York, at Columbia and elsewhere, who I don’t see enough when my center of gravity is in Boston. Of course, now I’m not seeing anyone outside of my narrow corner of the Berkshires, and my new colleagues are yet more Zoom boxes. But they’re awesome Zoom boxes, and I’m excited to get the chance to work through some of the ideas about Digital Public Infrastructure I’ve been exploring with people who are deeply thoughtful about the policy environment around social media platforms and the open internet.

The idea I’ll be working on with my Knight friends is the one I will be bringing with me to UMass Amherst this January, when I start as Associate Professor of Public Policy, Communication and Information. Over the next year, I plan to launch the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, a research group focused on imagining and building alternatives to an internet built around the logic of surveillance capitalism. Instead, we’re working on a vision of digital public spaces that are optimized for civic ends, not for profits. I started writing about this idea prompted by friends at Columbia, and have been working to translate a pretty complex set of concepts into something that fits in a brief article. More to come on that front in the next couple of weeks.

I’m excited to be teaching at UMass, an excellent university that’s been on a tear lately, hiring smart people and building new programs. My “tenure home” is in the School of Public Policy, which has a great faculty of folks affiliated with other departments – I am part of the first cohort of professors who are based within SPP. My first course this spring will be Fixing Social Media, which I taught at MIT this fall – excited to bring it to a mix of policy, communication and CS students.

When I announced that I was moving to UMass, any number of folks commented that my commute would be better. That’s certainly true – UMass is about an hour and fifteen minutes away from my home, while MIT was three hours on a good day. But of course, no one actually goes anywhere anymore. Beyond that, it was important to me to teach at a state university, and especially one in the west of the state, where I’ve spent my entire adulthood. It’s very strange to be joining a new school and a new community at a moment where we’re mostly interacting with each other virtually, but I am excited for the moment I can meet colleagues and students in person.

If that wasn’t enough change, I’ve got a new book coming out in January. It’s called Mistrust, and it’s my attempt to draw a line from the Nixon administration to QAnon, though Reagan and Trump… but it’s also an optimistic book about the ways we can still make social and civic change even when we may have lost faith in political institutions. I’ve been working on it through much of my time at MIT, and it’s been hard to finish because current events (the pandemic, QAnon, the late Trump administration) have demanded inclusion at the last moment. I don’t know what a book tour looks like in the age of COVID, but I’m looking forward to one.

So that’s what’s ahead. 2019-2020 has been one of the more challenging years of my life – yours too, I bet. 2020-2021 is likely to be another memorable year, and not for the happiest of reasons. We’re all in it together, though, and I am at least as excited as I am scared, which is saying something at this particular junction.

Posted in ideas | Leave a comment

To the future occupants of my office at the MIT Media Lab

To the occupant(s) of E15-351
Re: About the window.

Hi. My name is Ethan Zuckerman. From 2011-2020, I enjoyed working in this office. I led a research group at the Media Lab called the Center for Civic Media, and I taught here and in Comparative Media Studies and Writing. I resigned in the summer of 2019, but stayed at the lab to help my students graduate and find jobs and to wind down our grants. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, I left campus and came back on August 14 to clean out my office and to leave you this note.

photo by Lorrie LeJeune

I’m leaving the note because the previous occupant left me a note of sorts. I was working here late one night. I looked up above my desk and saw a visegrip pliers attached to part of the HVAC system. I climbed up to investigate and found a brief note telling the MIT facilities department that the air conditioning had been disabled (using the vice grips, I presume) as part of a research project and that one should contact him with any questions.

That helped explain one of the peculiarities of the office. When I moved in, attached to the window was a contraption that swallowed the window handle and could be operated with red or green buttons attached to a small circuitboard. Press the green button and the window would open very, very slowly. Red would close it equally slowly. I wondered whether the mysterious researcher might be able to remove it and reattach the window handle. So I emailed him.

He was very happy to hear from the current resident of our office, and explained that it should be no problem to get the window up and running. I’d need to set up a dedicated Linux box and download some Python to control the climate logic, but it shouldn’t be that hard to debug. He was willing to help.

I wrote back and explained that I was looking for something much simpler. Since he was in Cambridge, I wanted him to come to our office, remove the apparatus and the vice grips and return the window to normal functioning. He wrote back, somewhat annoyed, and explained that the aircon in that office had never worked, and that his rersearch at the Media Lab had focused on regulating the temperature in our office. In his vision, building A/C systems would adjust to the personal preferences of the individual, adjusting windows and cooling systems to optimal settings to maximize everyone’s comfort. He seemed quite put out that I’d want to toss his work out the proverbial window and return to a simple hand crank.

So I read a few of his papers and contacted his advisor in the hopes that he’d have some advice on how to proceed. His advisor emailed me back and noted that the former student in question was “very passionate”. Thus advised, I emailed the researcher again and asked if he wouldn’t mind coming by my office and removing his system.

Ultimately he agreed to do so, but only between the hours of 2 and 5 in the morning, and he requested I leave him a key. I did so. The next day, I came to the office and found no visible changes: the vice grips were still attached to the plumbing, the pushbuttons still attached to the window. He left a note explaining that the system was disabled, but since he didn’t know where the window crank was, he left the very slow pushbutton system in place so I’d have a way to open and close the window.

After that, I tried going through official channels. When the very nice and very competent new facilities manager came on board a few years ago, she set up a meeting with me to discuss my office needs. I asked for a window crank. She tried to find me one, tried to order me one, and gave up after a few months. This is an Architecturally Significant I. M. Pei building, after all. It couldn’t be any old window crank to open our window.

I realized at this point that there was an appropriate Media Lab solution to this problem. I should borrow my next-door neighbor’s window knob, scan it, built it in a 3D modeling program and cut out a replica using one of our fine water jet metal cutters. I even scheduled time to work on the problem: the summer of 2020, where I would use my last few months at the Media Lab to do all the projects with the cool tools in the shop that I’d meant to do over the past nine years.

And then, Covid. No shop for me.

So here is your window knob. I cut it from a block of Vermont maple – some call it “rock maple” because of its hardness – that I had lying around my shop out here in western MA. It’s stained, but not varnished – it would probably benefit from a coat of polyurethane, if you had a moment. It’s somewhat misshapen because I made it in a hurry the night before moving out of the office. I like it. It looks a little like a homemade biscuit.

I’m installing the knob on my last day at the Media Lab, which means I’ll never get the chance to use it. But it was important for me to make it for you because I wanted to leave the Media Lab better than when I found it, if only in this one small way. And now, with some distance from the Lab, I understand that the researcher who previously worked here wanted the same thing: to make something broken work slightly better, in an unorthodox and creative way.

Sitting in this office, I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things. I watched two brilliant students organize two massive hackathons to improve the breast pump, challenging assumptions about who gets to invent the future and what problems are worth solving. Another student launched a remarkably successful movement against facial recognition technologies by demonstrating that they often embed significant racial biases. Five students and one staff member left this lab and became professors at terrific universities. (One teaches at MIT.)

And late one night, I saw a young woman walk past my door wearing a massive pair of delicate, filigreed copper angel wings. When I stopped her to inquire, she explained that the wings were attached to a Peltier junction, which rested between her shoulders. As she radiated heat, the Peltier junction cooled her off and generated electric power in the process. The copper wings served as a heat sink. It was one of the most beautiful projects I’ve ever seen. Only tonight, writing this note to you, did I realize that she’d solved the same problem our roommate was obsessed with, albeit more poetically.

The young woman left the Media Lab after two years here to pursue a startup. But she also left because a man in her lab began working on the same problem she was fascinated by. He ran his own lab here for a while, gained a lot of attention, then got thrown out for research fraud. I’ve lost track of her. There’s so many beautiful and brilliant people who pass through here – and so many frustrated and broken people too – that it gets hard to keep tabs on everyone.

So, this is just to say: sorry about the window. If you don’t like my solution, build your own. But please try to leave the Media Lab a little better than you found it, if only in a small way. And let me know if there’s anything I can do to help: ethanz@gmail.com

PS: About the geiger counter on the wall: that’s part of a project run by Safecast, an NGO Joi Ito helped found in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. We installed it here because I was the faculty member least likely to object to it. The pancake sensor is attached to the wall outside our window. The box under the whiteboard needs to be plugged into wifi and power. If it start beeping, either it’s malfunctioning and needs to be rebooted, or there’s a significant radiation leak on campus. When sleeping in this office, I found it helpful to cover the blue light on the box with a post-it note.

PPS: There’s amazing stuff stored in the subflooring. I recommend gently peeling off some carpet squares, removing some floating floor tiles and exploring. I left you a circuit board that Andy Lippman claims to have wired by hand. Watch out for mice.

Posted in Media Lab, Personal | 30 Comments

#iftheygunnedmedown Six Years Later, and Just as Vital – an interview with activist C.J. Lawrence

My new book, Mistrust: Why Losing Faith In Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them, comes out from W.W. Norton this November. In it, I share the stories of dozens of activists who are finding new ways to make social change even when many of the institutions appear to be failing us. Just as I was turning my final draft over to my copy editor, I heard from C.J. Lawrence, an activist I deeply admire for his Twitter campaign, #iftheygunnedmedown.

In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, C.J. asked his Twitter followers, “Which photo does the media use if the police shot me down? #IfTheyGunnedMeDown” It was accompanied with two photos. In one photo he’s wearing a graduation gown, speaking at a podium to an audience that includes a laughing Bill Clinton, and another in which he’s wearing sunglasses and holding a bottle of Hennessy cognac. The message was simple: how the media chooses to represent Black men – in this case, a young man who had been killed by the police – matters, and affects the safety of Black people everywhere.

#iftheygunnedmedown went viral, and thousands of people posted their own pairings of photos, taken from their social media feeds, much as media outlets were publishing photos of Michael Brown taken from his Facebook feed. What impressed me the most was its efficacy. A photo of Michael Brown standing on his front stoop, scowling and flashing a peace sign (which many misread as a gang sign) was the dominant photo of the victim online when C.J. started his campaign; after the campaign was reported on in outlets like the New York Times, journalists began using different photos of Brown, primarily one in his graduation gown.

The images we use to portray victims of crimes may seem like a minor detail. It’s not. Racism in America is reinforced every day in how Black and Brown people are portrayed in words and images. In this interview, C.J. explains why it was so important to fight images with images, and why the success of #iftheygunnedmedown changed his approach as an activist and led him to found Black With No Chaser, an activist news outlet focused on racial justice.

We spoke on May 30, 2020, days after George Floyd had been asphyxiated by a Minneapolis police officer, and as people around the country were coming out of COVID-19 quarantine and out in the streets in an uprising against police misconduct and abuse of Black and Brown communities. As I was editing our conversation to post today, C.J. reminded me over Twitter that all too often photos of a Black victim are the moments when Black people appear in the newspapers. We need to work not only to end systemic racism and overpolicing that lead to deaths like George Floyd’s, but to transform our culture so we see our Black and Brown brothers and sisters every day, not just at moments of tragedy.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Ethan Zuckerman:
I have been teaching your work, actually, for years now. I’ve probably given 40 or 50 lectures where I’ve used #iftheygunnedmedown as a central example. And I have to say, I’m just heartbroken that we’re back here again, talking about some of the same issues.
The reason I teach that example is that I felt like you took on a way that the media often frames the death of black men, which is that a black man must be a thug in waiting. That every black male is somehow a dangerous individual and that somehow violence is always understandable. And as a result, we end up with an epidemic of the death of black men.
And I thought that your gesture was the beginning of a way of changing social attitudes that I actually use as an example of how people are using media to build movements. So, first of all, thank you. It is a pleasure to get to talk to you. What was going through your head those days immediately after Mike Brown?

C.J. Lawrence:
I guess for just a little backstory first. And I’ll say thank you to you for continuing to teach and spread the message of #iftheygunnedmedown. I think that it’s important. I also appreciate your acknowledgement, because that’s not something that has happened a lot of times. I know that #iftheygunnedmedown is being taught a lot around the country, but it’s rare that many of the teachers of the campaign have reached out to the creator to have a frame of reference with regard to that.

So I do appreciate you reaching out to me, Ethan. With regard to my sentiments, I would have to take it back a little further than Mike Brown to Trayvon Martin, the impetus for where this really started with me. And simply looking at the assassination of his character during the George Zimmerman trial. The fact that it was highlighted that he once smoked marijuana in eighth grade.

That somehow a situation where a strange man with a gun could follow a child with that gun at night, in the dark, and somehow a jury could be more fixated with the fear of the strange man with the gun than they could be of the child. So it was really a psychoanalysis beginning there of, how could a jury of Trayvon’s “peers” somehow find themselves more aligned and empathetic with the position of the man following with a gun than of the other fears of the boy who literally said to his friend that this person is creepy to me.

And the only thing that I could reconcile is that people who are not in proximity to you, who are only exposed to you through media consumption and things of that nature would have to begin to form those opinions based on that perception that began to be developed. It was then furthered during the situation. And so full disclosure, I marched for the Trayvon rallies. I was in Sanford, Florida. We were down there on the City Hall steps demanding that simply for George Zimmerman to be arrested.

So this is something that has been brewing inside of me for quite some time. The Michael Brown incident happens and I literally see a tweet of Michael Brown’s dead body on the ground. A photo of it floating around is jarring, but that the tweet that is attached to this photo states, “Looking at him, laying on the ground with his pants sagging. I don’t feel sorry for him at all.” That coupled with the image that I began to see going around with the Nike jersey and a peace sign for me began to really just have me to make sense of again, how people’s minds were working around this issue.

At that point in time, I was trying to figure out a way. Because of what I was noticing in my own work as an attorney was a pattern of assassination of the body, a subsequent assassination of the character to justify the deaths or actions of armed men against unarmed boys, girls, and men and women.

Ethan Zuckerman:
So two things I just want to draw out of that, C.J.: The first is this idea that when George Zimmerman is finally charged in Trayvon Martin’s death, that somehow it’s easier for people to identify with his fear of an unarmed black man with a bag of Skittles and iced tea than it is for us to identify with Trayvon, who is wondering what this creepy dude with the gun is doing. That’s some serious societal construction of racism. And then you’re drawing that out further and saying, look, as an attorney in court, I’m watching physical actions taken against black men. When someone’s held accountable for it, it comes down to this sort of justification. That somehow if we can demonstrate that this person is a thug, is somehow living up to this dangerous stereotype, whether they were smoking marijuana, whether they were wearing their jeans bagging one way or another. And so it’s that sense of assassination of character leading to black men actually being a target of assassination.

What made you think about challenging this through imagery? Because I felt like imagery was the aspect of #iftheygunnedmedown where you were so effective in building a campaign. What made you think about images as the place for intervention around this?

C.J. Lawrence:
Well, again, I think that the image of Mike Brown on the ground, the statement of, “Look at him with his pants sagging,” Literally that they were more focused on his pants than the fact that this boy’s brains were on the ground in a photograph.

The questions began to resonate in my mind that, how are people being convinced that the prey is the predator? How is it that people are seeing the gazelle as the lion and the lion as the gazelle? How is it that they’re able to be convinced of that? And then I decided that it has to be directly attached to appearance

Because for me, as you can see how I’m dressed right now, [C.J. was wearing a black hoodie] I’m dressed how Trayvon was dressed. And this is how I dress. You know what I mean? This is me on a normal basis. When I’m not in a courtroom, I’m usually in a hoodie or athletic wear or something like that.

So I began to think about, what type of social commentary can be jarring to the extent that we can begin to challenge the narrative, that whether I look one way or the other, you cannot capture or embody who I am as a human being on a snapshot, one way or the other. For me, the picture that I wound up choosing as the “bad picture” was actually one that it was the worst picture of me I could find it.

It was Halloween and I was making fun of Kanye West during the MTV Awards when he snatched the microphone from Taylor Swift. The Hennessy bottle actually had tea in it. So I wasn’t even drinking alcohol. It was that juxtaposed against this black boy smiling with the former President of the United States in the background, speaking at his graduation.

The point was to disrupt people mentally. And I used the two most dramatic photos that I could find of me in order to challenge people to think about one way or the other when I can no longer tell my story to myself. But the media begins to take this red meat of racial violence against extra judicial killings and racial violence against young black men and women that results in this. How is the audience that is just beginning to hear my story going to be introduced to me?

Ethan Zuckerman:
I think that notion of that moment of introduction is so powerful. I mean, that’s what happens in these horrific moments. Law enforcement, or in the case of Trayvon Martin, a vigilante, is making decisions through some combination of what they see, with this really thick lens of bias and social construction. We’ve been taught for generations that black men are dangerous and that somehow, as you said, the gazelle is the lion. I don’t know a lot of people who feel particularly comfortable when they’re stopped by the police, and certainly it’s a much more serious issue for people of color. But there is always an immediate power dynamic and it’s hard to understand how someone who is armed, who is in that position of power suddenly feels like they are threatened. I’m thinking Tamir Rice, I’m thinking of a 12-year-old boy, and what is it that’s gone so wrong in individual minds and in societal minds that turns that immediate first impression into something so different.

One of the things that you did so incredibly with #ifthey gunnedmedown is you built a participatory meme. Anybody could jump in and do it. There were some ill-advised white teenagers who did it, but there were many, many more very thoughtful people of color who picked it up and ran with it, including this extraordinary photo of a U.S. Marine in full dress gear and paired with an image of him flipping off the camera. Did you know that participation was going to be a piece of it? Was this your statement? Did you think about the remix?

C.J. Lawrence:
When I say, “Yes, let’s do that,” my intention was that people would participate. I had no idea that people would participate to the extent that they ultimately wound up participating, because you just never know with these things. But the fact that it took off the way that it did was truly powerful. Some of the images and juxtapositions that we got the chance to see were truly amazing to see.

Ethan Zuckerman:
Do you have a favorite?

C.J. Lawrence:
I have a few that I really like. I do like the one with the Marine flipping off the camera. I like the one of another military brother that was in the military reading to children. I believe it was reading to children in one and in the other I forget what they were doing. But that was an image that I found pretty incredible. There are so many, and it’s been a while now that I don’t recall them all. But those two definitely immediately come to mind as some of the first ones that really took it to another level. It was interesting to start seeing even celebrity types either participate in it or retweet it and things like that. So that was interesting as well.

Ethan Zuckerman:
How do you think it spread?

C.J. Lawrence:
Black Twitter. Our Black Twitter is strong. And as you probably see from following me, I am part of that. You know what I mean? I distinctively remember Reagan Gomez being one of the people who retweeted it and her having a pretty significant following. And Jeffrey Wright from Westworld was one that retweeted it; he may even have participated.

When those two retweeted it, it began to catch a fire. And I think that that’s one of the true powers of Twitter, is really about sparking conversations and about average everyday people being able to connect with these larger networks and something truly becoming an avalanche of social commentary against a multitude of things.

I think that it was just right on time, because all of us were feeling rowdiness from seeing Michael Brown’s body on the ground. Ferguson had not even really become Ferguson yet, at the time that we tweeted this out. They were saying Michael Brown’s name, but it was not “hashtag Ferguson”.

It was literally just us still trying to make sense of what had occurred. This was within the first one or two days after Michael Brown had been shot. But I followed quite a few people from the St. Louis area and they were talking about him. So the natural thing was to go and try to see what it was that was going on. And when I saw it, it was a lot. And so that was my way of responding.

Ethan Zuckerman:
Have you built other meme campaigns before? I mean, this was a very personal expression that turned into a meme through amplification. You’re now complementing your legal work with activist and media work through your firm “Black With No Chaser.” Have you sort of moved into the meme engineering space? How are you thinking about that as far as the media you’re making as a form of activism?

C.J. Lawrence:
So just full disclosure, I’ve been involved in activism for a long time, even before Twitter. Jena Six, the Scott sisters here in Jackson, Mississippi; Edward Johnson, who was a young boy was lynched in 2000 in Columbia, Mississippi. So for me, my upbringing is deeply rooted in activism. I would speak about civil rights issues and speak out on these issues and write about these issues all the time before #iftheygunnedmedown.

But I had never attempted to do anything like this campaign before #iftheygunnedmedown. As a result of the meme and the subsequent chain of events that occurred, an indictment by the media subsequently challenged the media to hold itself accountable in these narratives. That was amazing.

When I saw that result, I certainly saw a need for narratives to be controlled by the people that are most impacted by those narratives. I saw a responsibility to not let the power of something like #iftheygunnedmedown die. And I saw that other people were embracing the power of #. And so I kind of became okay with it, even if it was my baby, being something that as long as other people were being responsible with and challenging others with, not feeling the need to hold on to it in that way.

Instead, I was feeling the need to continue the fight towards controlling our narratives, to fighting for Black people, Brown people, underserved people and marginalized people. And Black With No Chaser (https://blackwithnochaser.com/) is really the child of #iftheygunnedmedown and the social commentary that began to come out of that space.

Ethan Zuckerman:
So it’s been really transformative for you. Are you still practicing law?

C.J. Lawrence:
I do practice. I still am an attorney, and I do practice law. But what I found is that my desire with Black With No Chaser is to do social advocacy in addition to media. I found that I could do more and impact more by being someone who took on issues in a broad sense and began to become more focused with it like a top down approach, rather than being an individual case work. Individual case where it can be frustrating. It was something that I was good at, both litigation and trial court, but it was something that was highly stressful to me. Black With No Chaser is something that I find enjoying even in the hard days.

Ethan Zuckerman:
Were you doing criminal law?

C.J. Lawrence:

I was doing criminal and civil rights. As you know, those are both two really difficult places to be in, both as an attorney in the South in Mississippi, but also as a Black man, experiencing and seeing your people herded in the court daily like cattle and literally seeing that disproportionate number of people in community in the criminal justice system.

We make up 13% of the population, but 80% of the courtroom, and that’s a very frustrating thing. I wasn’t representing everybody in court that day. And I was beginning to say, how can I do more for the 80% of the people that are in here? Because they would see me fighting for my client in the courtroom. Sometimes I would win, sometimes I wouldn’t, but I would always fight as hard as I possibly could for the people. And by the time I leave, the 75% of the people that weren’t represented by me in that courtroom will be trying to see if I could help them. And just emotionally I couldn’t, physically I couldn’t, for so many reasons I couldn’t. I was trying to figure out, what more could I do?

Ethan Zuckerman:
How does Black With No Chaser help you do that?

C.J. Lawrence:
Black With No Chaser is an unapologetic black platform that is designed at amplifying like voices, literally creating safe spaces for us to begin to tell our stories, control our narratives. We’re not a traditional media in the sense that we stick strictly to journalistic principles like objectivity. We’re willing to go places that some media outlets aren’t willing to go, but we’re also willing to become involved in ways that traditional media outlets aren’t always involved. I believe that investigative journalism can be activism, but we literally get out in the streets with the people who are protesting.
We broke the story of what was occurring in Parchman Prison (https://blackwithnochaser.com/4-dead-20-injured-according-to-sources-amid-parchman-prison-unrest-a-timeline-of-current-events-behind-mdoc-walls/). It went national. We saw the type of power that we could have with this type of coverage. And so we ran with that. But in addition to that, we were out there on the front lines and helping to advance the policy side of things as it relates to prison reform and decarceration.

The goal of Black With No Chaser is to be an all-encompassing media outlet, social advocacy space, and consulting space to help others to learn how to utilize social media and other mediums to advance advocacy. But we help a lot of black businesses use these techniques as well.

Ethan Zuckerman:
Is the focus primarily Mississippi? Is it primarily Jackson? Is it nationwide?

C.J. Lawrence:
Black With No Chaser has a global reach. We reach about 15 million people a month across platforms. So between Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, our website, and YouTube, we can reach normally around 15 million people a month. We have about 500,000 followers across those platforms.

As for the geographic scope: To be honest, what I thought about Mississippi is sometimes Mississippi doesn’t always know the power of what it has in state sometimes until it’s recognized out of state. Almost the same way with #ifyougunnedmedown, if you will. I mean, it was the national media reached out to me before the local media with #ifyougunnedmedown.

Ethan Zuckerman:
It makes a lot of sense. So we’re having this conversation on a very tough day. We’re a couple of days beyond the killing of George Floyd, by police officer Derek Chauvin, who has just been indicted for a third degree murder, a second degree manslaughter.
We’ve seen activism on the streets. We’ve seen President Trump threatening to shoot people for looting. We’ve seen Minnesota call out its National Guard. And of course, we’ve got this all on the backdrop of a global pandemic where police reactions to armed white protestors demanding to go get a haircut is a very different reaction to what we’re seeing to Black, Brown people and their allies, going out in the streets to demand their rights. What do we do?

C.J. Lawrence:
Ethan, that’s a great question. What I would say is that what we’re seeing with regard to the responses, that Trump’s statements evoked Governor George Wallace’s type statements to me or Bull Connor statements when I hear them, or even here in Mississippi with Ross Barnett during the desegregation of Ole Miss. The thing that’s frustrating to witness is that we see that much of what has been happening historically is continuing to happen as far as the powers that be are concerned.

But we also understand that in many ways, the response of an Amy Cooper to a Christian Cooper in Central Park is one that goes directly towards what we are speaking of, you and I, as it relates to #iftheygunnedmedown, the way that police are responding to Black people in the streets who are breaking windows, but not taking lives.

Some are outraged at the notion that someone could break or take something from Target, but not outraged as it relates to someone taking the life of George Floyd. It was Dr. King that said a riot is the language of the unheard. I call it an uprising or a revolt.
What we’re seeing right now are the raw emotions of the combination of being caged inside for three months, some even longer, from quarantine and the psychological impact that that can have on us as human beings, coupled with, in that time, witnessing the death of Ahmed Aubrey, Briana Taylor’s life being taken during a 1:00 AM no-knock raid and her boyfriend subsequently being arrested for attempting to defend her life when he didn’t know who these intruders in their home were. To Christian Cooper, to George Floyd, seeing all of these things back to back to back, in addition to being basically in our own types of solitary confinement, with no disrespect to those who are actually incarcerated currently and are suffering in those conditions. I think that what we’re saying is a natural powder keg that was always going to explode. Or as Malcom X said, “This is the chickens coming home to roost.”

Ethan Zuckerman:

And of course, with COVID-19, this is a disease that we’ve seen disproportionately affect Black and Brown people. When we see people not taking precautions, not wearing a mask, they may not be the ones who are most affected by the disease. In many cases, the people who may be affected are people who are doing low wage work, who are essential workers, and particularly incarcerated people, where we’ve seen in some prisons up to three quarters of people infected with this disease. It feels in some way like this lifting of the lockdown has some of the disrespect for human life writ large that I think we’re also seeing as far as disrespect for individual lives.

C.J. Lawrence:
Right. In a lot of ways, we’re being told we don’t value your life, and that we value green more than we value Black and Brown. The moment that it was discovered that this mostly impacts Black and Brown people, native people, indigenous people, this is when the narrative began to change and it was like, “Oh, well, it’s time to open back up.”
You imagine being Black or Brown, Muslim in this country right now and Donald Trump is your president. 41 million people are unemployed. You are being killed. You are being stopped and profiled. You are struggling economically. You don’t have access to healthcare in the event that you do get sick.

You’ve seen people throw caution to the wind in a lot of ways, because when you literally are fighting for your life, then perhaps it doesn’t really matter how you die, whether it’s COVID-19 or police. I am literally fighting to not drown at this point. And so I’m thrashing.
When you asked the question, where do we go from here? I believe that there has to be accountability. I saw that Target came out and made a statement. It wasn’t a lecture to the people who were a part of the uprising. I think it’s important for corporations that are couched in communities like Minneapolis to take a position on issues like this, because ultimately they’re going to suffer if the community suffers.

Yesterday the autopsy comes out and suggests Floyd’s death was accidental. Anybody who had the stomach to be able to witness the seven minutes or eight minutes that Derek Chauvin had his knee on the neck of George Floyd as people pleaded with him, as Floyd pleased himself to be released, to be told that this was an accidental death when we saw the life leave his body, is to basically be pissed on and told it is raining.

I think people are tired of that. I think that America has to become real with itself about what it is, just like any of us do. Anytime we are attempting to improve ourselves, we have to do some soul searching. And that soul searching begins with us being honest with ourselves about who we are and who we are trying to be.

We continue to convince ourselves that we are who we say we are. Tupac said America eats its babies, and that’s a true statement. America eats its babies, and right now it doesn’t treat us as its babies. But America created this environment, this climate. It imposed these conditions through redlining, gerrymandering and so many other policies that are still being perpetuated today.

Ethan Zuckerman:
Hundreds of years of bureaucratic violence as well as physical violence. C.J., one thing I noticed was you mentioned that Target made a statement about the uprising. Nowhere in here have we talked about any hope of changing Trump’s mind. I’ve noticed that as an activist, you’re focusing on the media, you’re thinking about corporations and other institutions. It doesn’t sound like you’re as focused on government. And this is something that I’m finding with a lot of the activists that I’m talking to, is that my impression is that people are moving whatever lever they feel like that can move. And that if it’s the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas school pressuring Dick’s Sporting Goods not to carry assault rifles anymore because they can’t get the Florida legislature to listen to them. We move what levers we can move. Does that sound accurate to you? And as someone who is part of the civil rights movement of our time, what are the other differences that you see in sort of our movement now versus the one Martin and Malcolm led in the 1960s?

C.J. Lawrence:
A fight for your life is a fight by any means necessary. Martin, Malcolm, Medgar, Rosa, Harriet, we can go on and on. I see all of them as revolutionary leaders. I’m not one that pits one’s philosophies or ideologies against the other.

Chokwe Lumumba is our mayor here in Jackson. He’s my former law partner. So I know that I have an ally there. Jackson is a very unique city: we’re the second blackest city in the country. It’s very different experience here than what a lot of people are experiencing outside this city. But we’ve got [Governor] Tate Reeves in power, who is one of the most staunch Trump acolytes. Those feelings that you experience with Trump are being compounded. And you have a state legislature and a state Senate that… well, just imagine a bunch of Mitch McConnells being your state legislature. When you understand that that’s the case, then you understand that you have to fight by whichever means you can and however you can.

To be totally honest with you, one of the purposes of building up platforms like Black With No Chaser and amplifying voices and becoming more powerful in our own right. Being more visible and more present and having a louder voice is for the purpose of being able to command the respect that’s necessary. I want politicians to know if they’re in a room with me or anyone, if they had a moment with me and I’m the CEO of Black With No Chaser, then I have the ability to snap my fingers like this, and what you see in Minnesota, what you see in Louisville, what you see in Columbus, what you see in Atlanta can happen.

And it’s not for the purpose of intimidation, but it’s important when we talk about our Malcolms, our Medgars, our Martins, our Hueys, to understand that the one thing that they all had was something behind them. When they were in the room with white men and women who would not otherwise respect anything that they had to say, they respected it because of who and how many were behind them and what they were willing to do when those men and women said it’s time to do that.

During the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s, you had the Black Power movement. You had the Civil Rights movement. You had the Malcolm X and the nation of Islam movement. You had the Freedom Riders. You had so many different things taking place at once that you could find a way to begin fighting towards the same struggle, even if you were fighting different ways.

I think it was necessary to have a Martin speaking in the way that he was about economic justice, about inclusion, and necessary to have a Malcolm who was speaking on self-defense and self-determination. Because to me, they were both fighting for the same things, and that was for black people to have both the autonomy to exist in this world and in this country, and for us to have the ability to truly rise in this place.

Ethan Zuckerman:
You had the Black Panthers building an alternative system and essentially saying, if we’re not going to have social services in Oakland, if no one’s going to supervise the police, if no one’s going to provide healthcare…

C.J. Lawrence:

Yeah, we’re going to provide our own services. And I think that’s where a lot of us are coming back to. I think that social media and technology has helped to transform the way in which we fight. The iPhone has changed the game with our abilities. Again, Twitter and Facebook. Not so much Facebook anymore.

Some of these spaces like YouTube have given us the opportunity to be able to have these conversations differently. A lot of times in the past we’ve utilized social media passively. I think we’re beginning to utilize it actively, and not just with hashtags, but with actual action. My dream one day is to literally have a community of black and Brown folk allies from everywhere convening and conversing about moving policy right there on Twitter. I believe that’s possible. Whether it’s policy that is implemented outside of the federal government, policy that is adopted by local or state Government, what’s key is that it’s policy that allows us to begin to build systems. System building is the next stage in the state of things for black people, not just organizations. We need new systems in place to advance as a people and to have transferable power from one generation to the next.

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Next steps

Thrilled to be announcing a big next step: I will be joining the faculty of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this coming year, and launching a new research center. My friends at UMass have created a unique position for me. I will be an associate professor of public policy, communication and information, with my tenure home in public policy, but teaching in all three departments. My first class at UMass will be in the spring of 2021, the Fixing Social Media class I’ve been teaching this semester at MIT.

In addition to teaching and advising students, I am launching a new research center at UMass Amherst, the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure. DPI will be exploring the idea that the digital services we rely on – social networks, search, media hosting – might serve us better as citizens if they were public services and not for-profit corporations. Think of it as a project designed to see whether the platforms we rely on could be made more like Wikipedia and like public broadcasting, and less rooted in the surveillance economy. I’ve written about this idea here and here, and will be writing lots more in the next few months.

I am grateful to my friends at UMass Amherst who’ve been wonderfully creative in recruiting and welcoming me to their home during a difficult time for all of us. I just met many of my colleagues via a Zoom faculty meeting today, and I completed my interview process virtually – it helps that I have lived in western Massachusetts since 1989 and know the Pioneer Valley well. I am hugely looking forward to seeing my new colleagues in person, whenever such thing becomes feasible.

I am also grateful to MIT, the Media Lab and the program in Comparative Media Studies and Writing for giving me a great environment in which to work, teach and learn over the past nine years. The years at MIT have helped me discover who I want to be as a teacher and as a researcher, and I am grateful to everyone who’s been a student at Center for Civic Media, taken or taught a class with me, or supported our work. Civic alumni are now teaching at remarkable universities around the world, and leading great research focused on civic media and the relationship between technology and social change – I am glad to join their ranks as a Civic alum.

Lots more to tell as the new work begins. I’m grateful for the opportunity and excited for new challenges.

Posted in Media Lab, Personal, UMass | 2 Comments

Digital Public Infrastructure… and a few words in defense of optimism

My friends at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia have just published a new paper from me on the topic of digital public infrastructures. This is an idea I started talking about in an article for the Columbia Journalism Review late last year, and presented at a terrific conference called “The Tech Giants, Monopoly Power, and Public Discourse”.

Panel at Columbia where I presented the abstract of the paper, November 2019

The paper is not a quick read – it’s about 11,000 words – so I’ll offer a quick TL:DR; here:

– Social media is often not very good for us as citizens in a democracy. That shouldn’t surprise us, as it wasn’t designed to be a space for civic discourse – it was designed to capture our attention and our personal data for use in targeting ads.

– If we wanted media that was good for democratic societies, we’d need to build tools expressly designed for those goals.

– Those tools probably won’t make money, and won’t challenge Facebook’s dominance. That’s okay. The current state of the online world is the result of market failure: there’s tools and services we need for a democratic society to function that markets won’t pay for, which means we need to decide to pay for those services via taxpayer dollars or voluntary contributions.

– There’s a lot to be learned from the history of public media – specifically the formation of the BBC in the 1920s and NPR in the 1970s – that should inform our thinking about digital public infrastructure. Specifically, they invite us to think about what we want new technologies to do for us as a society.

– While there are great models for digital public infrastructure in projects like Mozilla and Wikipedia – and arguably, open source software as a whole – there’s lots of key infrastructures we need, including social media platforms designed to encourage discussion between people who disagree with one another; ad networks that focus on context, not surveillance of users; search engines designed for transparency and auditability. We also need a set of tools that help us study the civic, social and psychological effects of these new platforms as well as existing platforms.

– One way we could get there is by taxing surveillant advertising, both as a way of discouraging the business model and raising money. The funds raised could go towards national projects focused on innovation around digital public infrastructures.

That’s the jist of it, though the whole paper includes some great historical tidbits from the 1910s (a phenomenally cool moment in time) and Taylor Swift makes an appearance in the footnotes. So read the whole thing if that sounds like your idea of an enjoyable long read.

Much as I’ve spent the last several years thinking about civic media and the ways making and disseminating media can be a way of making social change – my new book, tentatively titled “Mistrust” comes out this fall and provides an overview of that work – I’m hoping digital public infrastructure will be a major focus of my work for the next five to ten years. I’m teaching a new course this spring at MIT called “Fixing Social Media”, which is an attempt to get some of the smart folks in and around Cambridge thinking about what better models for social media might be. And I’m in the early stages of planning a conference to convene some of the remarkable people out there trying new models for building digital platforms.

Some early reactions to the paper have commented on its optimism. I feel oddly defensive about that word. In the community of folks who study the internet and society, optimism is often seen as a naïve and insufficiently critical stance. Indeed, some of the best work in our field is profoundly critical of existing systems It’s my hope that this criticism informs and improves new work in the world of technology. I hope that anyone designing technologies for government services reads Virginia Eubanks, that anyone designing algorithmic decisionmaking systems reads Cathy O’Neil, that anyone working on moderation reads Mary Gray and Siddarth Suri. But I also hope that people keep designing new systems, rather than accepting the bad, broken ones we’re stuck with today.

One of the great benefits of teaching at an engineering school for the past eight years has been the inexhaustable energy of young people convinced that their energy and expertise can change the world. As someone who teaches about the negative social and environmental consequences of technologies, I often feel like my work in complicating people’s hopes for technology is the process of crushing people’s dreams. And honestly, that sort of imagination – tempered by the critical lessons we’ve learned thus far about digital media – is what we need to work towards futures better than the dystopian, Black Mirror ones we too often seem to be living through these days.

So, inasmuch as imagining futures beyond our crappy present is optimism, I’m guilty as charged. But there’s nothing wrong with working to imagine and build better systems so long as we understand that what we build won’t necessarily be better because it’s new, and almost certainly won’t work in all the ways we expect. Core to the argument of this paper is that we need to recognize that the ways the world works today are not inevitable, that the realities we face are the product of political and economic systems, and that those systems won’t change without a conscious effort to put something better in that place.

Looking forward to your thoughts, reactions, criticisms and imaginings, optimistic or otherwise.

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Whose deaths matter? New research on Black Lives Matter and media attention

What influences do social movements like Black Lives Matter, MeToo or Occupy have on society as a whole?

One hope movement leaders express is that a successful movement can change how we think and talk about key social issues. Champions of Occupy argue that one of the movement’s achievements was getting Americans to talk about economic issues in terms of inequality and the power of the 1%. But it’s difficult to quantify claims like this: how do we know when language, news coverage and public dialog about an issue shifts?

There’s excellent work already done in this field with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). Deen Freelon and colleagues have examined the relationship between BLM’s use of twitter and media coverage of police brutality. To further investigate these approaches, my colleagues and I have just published a paper – Whose Death Matters? A Quantitative Analysis of Media Attention to Deaths of Black Americans in Police Confrontations, 2013–2016 – in the International Journal of Communications. Our paper examines coverage of individual police-involved deaths and the following media coverage. We used the Media Cloud toolkit to examine US media coverage of 343 deaths between 2013 and 2016: deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the police. By analyzing the attention US media outlets paid to these deaths, we were able to describe a “media wave” of attention to the phenomenon of police violence affecting Black Americans. Critical to this wave of attention was the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the police and community’s reaction to his death.

The period of time we studied includes the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice and others who’ve sadly become household names. Implicit in our study is the question, “Why did these deaths gain attention when so many other deaths of black people are ignored?” Data compiled by Fatal Encounters, which tracks police-involved deaths, saw a slight decrease in these deaths during the years we studied, and Frank Edwards used data from the National Vital Statistics System to demonstrate that black men and boys are almost three times as likely as white men and boys to die in an encounter with police. The danger and injustice of death from a police encounter isn’t new, though the attention paid to these deaths after Michael Brown’s death was.

Before Michael Brown’s death in August 2014, a 33-year-old Black man killed by police in a city with the median population had, on average, a 39.34% chance of having at least one article published about him. In our data, after Brown’s death, a similar person had a 64.25% chance of his death being covered by the media. Not only were deaths more likely to be covered at all, they were more likely to be covered in detail, as the chart above – which measures total sentences in the media about a specific death – demonstrates. Because Media Cloud lets us analyze the content of a story, we were also able to demonstrate that before Michael Brown’s death, only 2% of stories about a victim of police violence included mention of another victim. After Brown’s death, 21% of stories mention another victim, suggesting that stories were no longer treating the death of unarmed Black people in police encounters as tragic, isolated instances but as part of an ongoing pattern.

Unfortunately, our data shows that this news wave crested roughly a year after Brown’s death, and that by the end of our study, media (in)attention to Black deaths was at the same level in late 2016 as it was in early 2013. We examined the sharing of these articles on Facebook and found a less pronounced drop-off in attention – we see the wave crest and ebb, but levels in 2016 have not dropped to the 2013 levels, which suggests that there is still a social media audience willing to amplify these stories, even when the stories are less numerous. However, we found that the framing effects we found persisted: stories at the end of our study period were much more likely to mention multiple victims than at the beginning of the period, suggesting that these deaths continue to be understood as part of a pattern.

Our paper does not demonstrate that Black Lives Matter was primarily responsible for this shift in media coverage. In examining media coverage of the BLM movement, we found that BLM received the most media attention in the context of Micah Xavier Johnson, a Black man who killed five Dallas police officers. Johnson was incorrectly linked to Black Lives Matter – he was briefly a member of the New Black Panther Party’s Houston chapter, but the organization threw him out because of his extreme views. Still, Johnson’s concerns for police violence against Black people led many media organizations to frame the Dallas police officer’s death as a possible consequence of the BLM movement.

However, because the movement helped lift up a narrative that connected individual events into a broader story of racism and its dangerous effects, it’s reasonable to connect this news wave with the movement’s efforts. At the same time, the wave of news likely helped Black Lives Matter gain attention and prominence – the relationship between the news wave and the movement was likely reciprocal. One implication of our research is that these news waves represent an opportunity for social movement leaders to introduce new narratives into media coverage. When journalists compete to cover the same story, there’s a competition to cover the same facts in a new and interesting way. Understanding Walter Scott’s murder by officer Michael Slager not just as a horrific instance of police brutality but as part of a larger, nationwide narrative of a crisis in policing gave journalists a chance to distinguish their stories and movement leaders a chance to reframe the story.

My hope is that our research offers both an opportunity to understand how media attention can move in waves, and how social movements might harness and benefit from those waves. My suspicion is that we are seeing similar dynamics around MeToo, where stories about sexual harassment are being understood as part of a broader social trend to condemn unacceptable behavior… but where attention to sexual harassment is also encouraging more women (and men) to tell their stories. Media attention feeds movements, and movements drive media attention. It’s hard to replicate this specific study with MeToo – thanks to efforts from The Guardian, The Washington Post, Mapping Polive Violence, and others, we have a fairly comprehensive database of people killed by police, and no similar database of sexual harassment exists. But the methods we outline here, of examining media coverage before, during and after a social movement, should be applicable elsewhere.

This research would not have been possible without the incredible efforts of my colleagues. Rahul Bhargava helped us refactor Media Cloud to make it possible to count and compare coverage of hundreds of different people, a usage we never considered when the tool was initially built. Allan Ko worked tireless on the challenging task of crafting searches for each of the victims and cleaning our data. Nathan Matias did the statistical analysis to give us confidence in our findings, and Fernando Bermejo offered the communication scholarship that helped us contextualize our findings within broader thinking about news agendas. I’m immensely grateful to be able to work with such thoughtful, passionate and compassionate people.

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On me, and the Media Lab

(Please be sure to read the addendum at the end of this post.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum, August 21, 2019:

* A friend of Marvin Minsky’s objected to this sentence opening this post, noting that Marvin, who died in 2016, cannot respond to these accusations. While that is true, the accusations made by Virginia Giuffre are a matter of public record and have been widely reported. I mention these accusations both because they were what motivated me to speak with Joi about Epstein and, more importantly, because unanswered questions about Minsky are part of the horror of this situation for some of my colleagues at the Media Lab. To be clear, I have no knowledge of whether any of these charges are true – they happened long before my time at the Media Lab.

I changed the word “implicate” to “accuse” as a result and added “of involvement” before the phrase about Epstein’s crimes.

** My original version of this post had two additional sentences here, describing my dismay about the implications of the Epstein revelations for one of my students and her research. She is not ready to talk about that subject, and I’ve withdrawn those sentences at her request.

*** A friend pointed out that I was able to choose to step away from the Media Lab because of my privilege: I’ve got money in the bank, I’ve got a supportive partner, I am at a stage of my career where I can reasonably believe I’ll find another high prestige job, I’m a cis-gendered straight white dude. She wanted me to be clearer about the fact that not everyone is going to be able to make the same decision I did.

She’s right. There are people who are going to remain working at the Media Lab because they sincerely believe that we finally have the opportunity to fix some of the deep structural problems of the place – I respect them and I will work hard to support them. But there’s also people who are going to continue at the lab because it’s the best opportunity they have to develop their own careers and reach a point where they’ve got more flexibility to make decisions like the one I made. I respect them too – they are the people doing the work that makes institutions work, but they rarely have the power to make decisions that steer an institution towards its values.

So thank you for all the kind words about bravery. Truth is I’m privileged enough to afford to be brave. For those of you who love the Media Lab and want to see it sail through these rough waters, please take time to reach out to people who may not be able to be as visible in their next steps. Make sure they’re doing okay. Support them whether their decision is to leave or to stay. So many of my colleagues at the Media Lab right now are hurting, and they need your support and love too. Hope we can redirect some of that love folks are sharing with me to them too.

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Training the next generation of ethical techies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beyond the Vast Wasteland: briefing Congresspeople for the Aspen Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social media can be a space for mobilization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the vast wasteland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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