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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Media and provenance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Six or Seven Things Social Media Can Do For Democracy

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


Photo by Tim Green, Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social media can inform us.

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

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

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

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

Social media can amplify important voices and issues.

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

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

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

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

Social media can be a tool for connection and solidarity.

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

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

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

Social media can be a space for mobilization

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

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

Social media can be a space for deliberation and debate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social media can be a model for democratically governed spaces.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in ideas | Comments Off on Two Bens and a Mark: a talk at Ben Franklin Hall in Philadelphia

Because America’s Family Leave Policy Sucks, Too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Media Lab | Comments Off on Because America’s Family Leave Policy Sucks, Too.

Who Filters Your News? Why we built gobo.social

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Gobo?

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

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

How does it work?

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

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

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

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

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

Who built it?

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

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

Where’s Gobo going in the future?

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

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

Can I help make Gobo better?

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

Why the name?

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

Posted in ideas, Media, Media Lab | 5 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the key takeaways from the summit for me:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stop killing protesters, including those protesting violence against protesters!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Africa, Human Rights | Comments Off on Stop killing protesters, including those protesting violence against protesters!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of several English language signup screens for Pixiv

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

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

Community guidelines for mastodon.cloud, August 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in ideas, Media, Media Lab | 34 Comments