Media – … My heart’s in Accra http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003 Thu, 16 Nov 2017 19:33:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.3 Who Filters Your News? Why we built gobo.social http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/11/16/who-filters-your-news-why-we-built-gobo-social/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/11/16/who-filters-your-news-why-we-built-gobo-social/#respond Thu, 16 Nov 2017 18:35:46 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5471 Continue reading ]]> 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.

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Mastodon is big in Japan. The reason why is… uncomfortable http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/08/18/mastodon-is-big-in-japan-the-reason-why-is-uncomfortable/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/08/18/mastodon-is-big-in-japan-the-reason-why-is-uncomfortable/#comments Fri, 18 Aug 2017 19:58:46 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5445 Continue reading ]]> 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.

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Stop saying “fake news”. It’s not helping. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/01/30/stop-saying-fake-news-its-not-helping/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2017/01/30/stop-saying-fake-news-its-not-helping/#comments Tue, 31 Jan 2017 01:32:33 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5372 Continue reading ]]> One bit of good news for those thoroughly freaked out by the Trump presidency: there’s anger, passion and drive on the left that’s unprecedented in recent memory. Two weekends ago, my girlfriend, a veteran of Occupy Houston, warned me that it was difficult to mobilize people in that car-centric city and thought we might find a few hundred marchers for the post-inauguration march. The crowd we joined was 22,000 strong, and as we assembled in front of Houston city hall, the chief of police told us that we were the largest protest in the city’s history. And the Houston protest was a small one compared to massive protests in Boston, New York, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, LA and DC.

This weekend featured a wave of demonstrations at airports around the US against the racist and unconstitutional Muslim ban. The ACLU, leaders in fighting the ban, raised more than $24 million over the weekend, demonstrating that activists are willing to put money where their hearts are. And an army of lawyers is occupying airport food courts, offering legal representation to anyone prevented from entering the US. The outpouring of progressive efforts has been so massive that journalists are beginning to refer to it as “the surge”.

Here’s the bad news: thus far, we’re not very good at channeling that energy. There’s so much to react to, from fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the election to concern about concrete steps Trump is taking in office that it’s hard to know what to proactively work on. And there’s a danger in reactive activism: your opponent gets to choose and frame the issues for you. For all its weaknesses, the Trump administration is masterful at framing issues to its advantage, as the left is just now beginning to understand how powerful a tool this can be.

Immediately after the US election, “fake news” emerged as a major story, a partial explanation for Trump’s surprise electoral victory. Within a week, I’d been invited to four different conferences, brainstorms or hackathons to combat fake news, done a dozen media interviews and briefed the heads of two major progressive foundations on the issue. Fake news was a problem for American democracy and progressive leaders were on it!

Unfortunately, so was the Trump administration. On January 11th, Trump offered his first press conference since the election, and refused a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, criticizing the network and declaring “You are fake news.” This week, the President expanded the fake news camp to include the nation’s “paper of record”.

Media Cloud, the tool we developed at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center to track the spread of ideas in news media, shows that “fake news” was associated primarily with Facebook in the months of November and December. Coverage of fake news focused on Buzzfeed’s excellent reporting on for-profit news sites in Macedonia that created “news” out of whole cloth in hopes of attracting US right-wing eyeballs and ad dollars by designing news stories likely to be spread on Facebook. In January, the fake news narrative has shifted to CNN as a result of the President’s adoption of the term, wielded against CNN in revenge for their decision to cover (though not reproduce) the Steele dossier.

Mentions of “fake news”, November and December 2016

Mentions of “fake news”, January 2017

The President’s embrace of the term “fake news” should be reason enough for the left to stop organizing conferences and projects on the topic. It’s a vague and ambiguous term that spans everything from false balance (actual news that doesn’t deserve our attention), propaganda (weaponized speech designed to support one party over another) and disinformatzya (information designed to sow doubt and increase mistrust in institutions) – I wrote at length about the complexities of the term for Deutsche Welle last week.

But that’s not the real problem. The problem is that the very concept of fake news helps the Trump administration.

Many pundits complained that Trump campaigned without a platform, just a set of audience-tested applause lines. While that may be true, the campaign was not without a strategy. Trump and his advisors realized that the dominant political mood of the moment is one of mistrust. The primary locus of this mistrust is the government in Washington – in 1964, 77% of Americans trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time. By 2011, that number was down to 19%. But this collapse in trust affects all large, bureaucratic systems, from universities and hospitals to the military and churches. And people really mistrust media: in 1979, 51% of people trusted newspapers all or most of the time. By 2013, only 24% of people trusted newspapers, and 21% trusted television news.

It’s deeply uncomfortable when the President refers to the media, a constitutionally-protected institution critical to monitoring a representative democracy, as the “opposition party”.

But it shouldn’t be that surprising – in many ways, Trump ran against the media as much as he ran against Hillary Clinton. The chant of “CNN Sucks!” was a common feature of his rallies, one he encouraged by railing against the unfairness of the coverage he was receiving.

Elected as a revolutionary, Trump is governing as an insurrectionist, moving to sideline or disable much of the federal government. For those of us uncertain as to whether Trump was a conventional Republican with inflammatory rhetoric or a genuine rebel, his cabinet choices made things very clear. The nominees he has proposed are a wrecking crew, in many cases explicitly dedicated to the destruction of the agencies they oversee. This is strategy, specifically Steve Bannon’s strategy. As Ronald Radosh reported last summer, Bannon identifies as a Leninist, dedicated to the destruction of establishment institutions through Tea Party populism.

Some of the mainstream Republicans who supported Trump because it was a way to defeat Clinton are feeling very uncomfortable about how the President is governing. But many in Trump’s base are pleased to see that he genuinely wants to overturn and abolish institutions they feel have not served them well. (Uncomfortably, they have a point. Rising inequality means that the economic recovery under Obama hasn’t reached many households. Not that voting in a plutocracy is an especially good way to combat this.)

The best way to defeat insurrectionism is with strong institutions. We’ve got to celebrate the ones that are working well and reform the ones that are broken. We may even need to tear some down and replace them with something better. And we have to humanize all of them, identifying and celebrating the people who are working hard to make these institutions function, and to fix them when they decay. It’s easy to hate an institution – it’s harder to hate the people within it. That’s the power of Twitter accounts like @RogueNASA and @AltUSNatParkService. They remind us that real people work within government institutions, that they’re proud of what they do, and that we need to get beyond our understandable mistrust of agencies, bureaucracies and hierarchies, and celebrate the things they do well.

That’s the problem with a focus on fake news. By adopting the frame, we remind people of the difficulty of reporting in a digital age, the real problems of verifying information and the times our journalistic institutions have failed. We should fix our failures, we should get better at stopping misinformation before it starts to spread, but we can’t do this in a way that supports a Trump attack on the very notion of independent media institutions.

There’s another thing, too. Fake news is not the problem. My colleagues at Harvard are releasing a study of news during the 2016 election next month. They looked at how influential thousands of different news outlets had been during the cycle. They found dozens of news outlets that have been flagged by academics as purveyors of fake news, publishers that create stories from whole cloth for profit. While those sites exist, they were not very influential in the 2016 election – the most influential don’t even rank in the top 100 sites in the analysis. Far more people have been influenced by talk about fake news than by fake news itself.

Why? Because progressives love the idea of fake news. Most progressives – myself included – find it hard to understand how fellow Americans can view the world so differently. By blaming the results of the election on fake news, we have an easy explanation for an incomprehensible situation. If we could just eliminate misinformation, everyone would agree with us!

As Michael Schudson points out in his brilliant The Good Citizen, central to the progressive movement was the idea of the informed citizen. Crusading newspapers reported on malfeasance, and citizens were expected to spend hours informing themselves on candidates and propositions. The net result? The voting rate dropped by 50%. Unfortunately, political decisions are seldom rational, fact-based ones as much as we’d like them to be.

The uncomfortable truth is that support for Trump’s insurrectionist agenda is real, and that there’s a ferocious appetite for news that confirms our existing biases – on both sides of the aisle. Yes, we should find a way to battle deceptive misinformation. But we need to work harder on building media that pushes us to see different perspectives and helps us understand the complex political reality we live in. The answer is not to fight fake news – it’s to build wide news, media that helps us understand people we disagree with and people we seldom hear from.

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Race, Fame and Ability: untangling media coverage of NFL QBs http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/12/24/race-fame-and-ability-untangling-media-coverage-of-nfl-qbs/ Sat, 24 Dec 2016 16:43:48 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5351 Continue reading ]]> Some research from our lab, the Center for Civic Media, because it’s fun and something I’m glad we produced.


In the US, NFL football is more than a sport – it’s a stage on which broader national dramas play out. In the past years, the NFL has brought to national attention conversations about domestic violence, about cheating and fairness and about the ethics of loving a sport that is likely killing its players. With Colin Kapernick’s decision not to stand for the singing of the national anthem during a pre-season football game, starting a wave of similar protests by athletes, a national debate about endemic racism in the US has now become a debate about race, protest, politics and NFL football.

Some years ago, journalist and activist, the late Dori Maynard posed a question to the Media Cloud team: Does sports media use different language to talk about black and white athletes? The question, Dori told us, came from basketball player Isaiah Thomas, who had observed that journalists often described black athletes as physically talented but talked about the intelligence of white athletes. While both descriptions are laudatory, they focus on different aspects of a player’s talents, and enforce long-standing racial stereotypes about intellect and physicality. Could Media Cloud, Dori wondered, put some numbers to these anecdotes?

This isn’t a new research question. Scholars have analyzed the language play-by-play announcers use and have seen the patterns in which white players are praised for intelligence and black players for physical attributes. (See also Rainville and McCormick, 1977 and Rada 1996) Media Cloud gives us the chance to analyze a different corpus, sports stories written after the game, and to examine this possible phenomenon on a different scale. We focused our study on the attention paid to and language used to discuss NFL quarterbacks, the most highly paid and most discussed players on the field.

So do we talk about white quarterbacks as intelligent and black quarterbacks as athletic? Well, like almost everything involving media and race, it’s complicated.

First, we talk a great deal about football in the US media. We analyzed tens of thousands of  stories from 478 publications (including US sports websites like NFL.com as well as national and regional sources) over 4 months of NFL regular season coverage in 2015.Despite the prominence of stories like , the vast majority of writing about football discusses this week’s results, next week’s matchup and teams’ strategies for success. As a result, the table of word frequencies when we talk about quarterbacks is heavy on two kinds of words: words that describe gameplay, and words that describe injuries.

We’ve classified each of the 53 quarterbacks who played in NFL games last season as white, black or hispanic (using data from the besttickets unofficial NFL player census, acknowledging that these categories are socially constructed, complex and overlapping.) We then examined what words are associated with coverage of white QBs and QBs of color. In general, white QBs were slightly more associated with action words – ran, threw, leapt – and non-white QBs with words about their health and bodies, their off-field lives and descriptive words, like “dominant” or “judgement”. (Our handcoding of the top 250 words associated with QBs, and synonyms for those words, is here.)

We further examined what words were disproportionately associated with white and non-white QBs. For instance, the words “Heisman” and “trophy” were more than three times as likely to appear in stories about black QBs than about white QBs, likely because Heisman winning black QBs Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston played more last year than white Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Some of those terms do suggest a focus on the physicality of black QBs:

Word used more with black QBs Usage note
“Mobile” 2.48x
“Threat” 2.46x (aka: “dual threat” to run or pass)
“Legs” 2.03x
“Runner” 2.00x
“Scrambling” 1.97x
“Rushing” 1.92x
“Sliding” 1.87x
“Speed” 1.84x
“Balance” 1.84x (may refer to a “balanced offense” as well as to the physical characteristic)

Words disproportionately associated with white quarterbacks tend to characterize specific scandals and controversies. In most cases, these words describe only one or two quarterbacks, whereas the words disproportionately associated with black QBs often describe multiple players:

Word used more with white QBs Note
“Deflated” only associated with Tom Brady
“Charter” only associated with Ryan Mallett missing a charter flight
“Court”
“Hormone”
“HGH”
“Jazeera” An Al Jazeera story about possible use of human growth hormone in the NFL

Words associated with both white and black quarterbacks, but disproportionately with white QBs also include “domestic” (ie., domestic violence) and partying.

Before concluding that US media is somehow biased against white QBs and their scandals, it’s worth keeping in mind that these terms disproportionately associated with white QBs are highly idiosyncratic – they’re more the portrait of a single player’s struggles than the way a whole group of players are characterized. Moving down in the frequency table to words that appear 1.5x to 5x more with white QBs than black QBs, we find some evidence to support the “white brains, black bodies” hypothesis, but less than we expected.

Word used more with white QBs Usage Note
“Slipped” 4.3x
“Slow” 4.2x
“Prepared” 2.3x
“Practice” 2.1x
“Caller” 1.9x (“signal caller”)
“Steady” 1.7x

If there’s no racial smoking gun in looking at word frequencies, it may be because, as John Caravalho put it, “No broadcaster or sportswriter this side of Rush Limbaugh is so self-destructive as to blatantly muse on the suitability of a black quarterback.” Reporters may be increasingly sensitive to issues of word choice. But the amount of attention paid to white versus black QBs tells a somewhat different story.

We analyzed how much media attention each of the 53 quarterbacks in our study received. To adjust for the fact that some quarterbacks in our set played very few minutes, we calculated words per minute played, a statistic that ranged from 25.5 words/minute for Titans backup Zack Mettenberger, to 471.4 words/minute for the Cowboys Tony Romo, who suffered a shoulder injury and missed most of the season, to the great dismay of the Dallas press. While Romo is the largest outlier in the set, five other quarterbacks – all white – received unusually high words per minute scores: Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel, Landry Jones, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The first three – Weeden, Manziel and Jones – played very few games – Jones was a substitute in a single game, while Weeden and Manziel started fewer than 3 games in a 16 game season – skewing these counts. Manning and Brady are “name-brand” quarterbacks, who received additional attention in 2015, Brady for the ongoing “Deflategate” saga and Manning for winning the Super Bowl and retiring.

Comparing a quarterback’s passer rating to his words of coverage suggests that “name brand” quarterbacks are at a distinct advantage in terms of media attention. Six quarterbacks – five white, one black – appear as outliers in this chart. (Romo, who we code as “Hispanic”, didn’t play enough minutes in 2015-16 to have a QB rating.) Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are all elite quarterbacks who are also recognizable public figures, endorsing products and commanding media attention. (All receive more than $6m in endorsements per year, and rank #1, #4 and #5 in the list of QBs ranked by endorsement money in 2015.) Manziel’s disproportionate attention springs from notoriety – he was benched after videos surfaced of him partying during a bye week – while Andrew Luck had an injury-plagued season that was both poor and widely discussed. The only black quarterback who is an outlier in this set is Marcus Mariota, who outperformed expectations for the Titans, and generated widespread hand-wringing in Tennessee when he was injured late in the season. Notably, the year’s best-rated quarterback – the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson – is black, and received significantly less attention than worse-rated “brand name” quarterbacks, though average attention for his rating as predicted by our model. Like Manning, Rodgers and Brady, Wilson makes more than $6m a year in endorsements, but his financial success doesn’t lead to disproportionate coverage. Nor does it lead to overcoverage of Drew Brees and Eli Manning, white QBs who were #2 and #3 on the endorsement list in 2015.

Given the messy relationship between performance and attention, we asked whether a naive hypothesis – that sportswriting coverage tracked actual performance – might help answer Dori and Isiah’s question. If black quarterbacks tend to be described as “athletic”, might it be in part because their athleticism is more impressive than that of white quarterbacks?

We looked at two statistics to try to calculate “athleticism”: the 40 yard dash and rushing yards gained by the quarterback. White quarterbacks averaged a little over 4.8 seconds on the 40 yard dash, while black quarterbacks averaged a little below 4.6 seconds. In the NFL, that .25 second gap is an eternity – black quarterbacks, on average, run nearly as fast as receivers, the fastest players on the field, while white quarterbacks are closer to linebackers. That speed apparently matters, as black quarterbacks averaged a little over 200 rushing yards in a season, while white quarterbacks generally had fewer than 50.

This finding about differences in athletic ability by race is obviously heavily loaded, given the long history of racist speech that portrays blacks as fundamentally physically different than whites.  We note that the system that results in the presence of more athletic black quarterbacks than white quarterbacks in the NFL is a highly complex one that is deeply embedded in the racial mores of our society.  This piece on how modern NFL quarterbacks are made finds that the top 15 quarterback prospects in the 2016 draft overwhelmingly: started playing quarterback by age 9, came from stable families in homes worth at least the median home value, had outside coaching starting in high school, and participated in year round formal 7v7 programs.  This kind of intense, adult driven athletic experience is much more common in suburban communities than urban communities.  For one example, his piece on the “Hidden Demographics of Youth Sports” lists the five states with the lowest rate of high school sports participation, and four of those five are among the states with the most black households.  All of this is to say that this data on the athletic advantage of black over white quarterbacks may or may not say anything about inherent athleticism of black people but almost certainly says something about the deeply racially infused cultural systems that produce modern professional athletes.

Given all of the above, there’s an argument that black quarterbacks are genuinely more athletic – at least in terms of foot speed – than white quarterbacks, and the differences we see in language about quarterbacks may correlate to their performance. That may run counter to suspicions that led Dori to ask her question. But we did find a way in which there’s an apparent racial disparity in coverage: sheer attention.

Only eight quarterbacks broke the 40,000 word barrier in our set, two black, one hispanic, five white. Set the bar at 50,000 and we’re down to four white QBs and Tony Romo. At the highest levels of attention, four “name-brand” quarterbacks (Rodgers, Brady, Manning, Romo) and one screw-up (Manziel) dominate discussion of football in 2015-6. Elite black QBs – Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariotta, Cam Newton – received more attention than mediocre quarterbacks, but less than name brand, endorsement laden white QBs, despite in Wilson’s case, significantly superior performance.

Is there a racial bias in sportswriting about the NFL? Probably.That bias may be related to which NFL players gain endorsement contracts and widespread celebrity, and which ones fall short of expectations to reach that elite level. It’s difficult to entangle causality, though – all but one of these “name brand” QBs are white, and we may pay attention to them because of their celebrity, which correlates only partially to their superior athletic performance, and may correlate more closely to their race.

We will be updating our study at the close of the 2016-7 NFL season, and are looking forward to seeing whether Kapernick’s protest challenged the attention patterns we saw in the previous season.

This post was written by Ethan Zuckerman in collaboration with Allan Ko, Rahul Bhargava, and Hal Roberts. Allan Ko produced the graphics and conducted the quantitative research.

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This crazy election: Denial of Service attacks on Democracy http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/11/01/this-crazy-election-denial-of-service-attacks-on-democracy/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/11/01/this-crazy-election-denial-of-service-attacks-on-democracy/#comments Tue, 01 Nov 2016 20:31:13 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5330 Continue reading ]]> Reading Facebook before bed last night, amidst the Halloween costumes and candy haul photos, I saw this headline: “How to choose between the most corrupt, least popular candidates of all time”. Given that I’m researching a book on mistrust and its effects on politics and civic life, this seemed like something worth reading.

relevant-to-my-interests

Alas, instead of examining the peculiarities that have led us to an election between two candidates that might have otherwise been unelectable, the article is a humor piece. It offers “offensive and misdemeanors” for each candidate and advises you to use your own moral compass to make the choice. For Clinton, it lists “Poor email server management”. For Trump, there’s a list of 230 sins. I made it through about 90 before falling asleep.

So… I voted for Clinton. I did so because I think Trump is an especially hideous human being, and voting for Clinton lets me vote against him twice (denying him my vote, and voting for the candidate most likely to beat him, instead of for Stein, Johnson or my favorite, Vermin Supreme.) And while I feel great about voting for our first female president, I voted for Clinton with some misgivings. I’m not thrilled about how little access she’s given the press through formal press conferences. I’d like to understand her relationship with Wall Street better and how this might affect support for the sorts of consumer protections Elizabeth Warren has fought so hard for. And I’m really pissed off about the ways in which the Clinton Foundation appeared to use access to the State Department to raise money.

Weirdly enough, despite 18 months of non-stop election coverage, I feel like these stories are somewhat undercovered. But it’s not actually coverage – it’s a shortage of attention. While there’s been good reporting on them, these stories haven’t taken over the news cycle in the way we would expect them to. There’s three reasons for this, and none are that the mainstream media is in the tank for Clinton.

First, the sheer amount of shit and scandal that Donald Trump generates every time he opens his mouth has overwhelmed the mainstream press to the point where it’s surprisingly difficult to pay attention to any specific piece of it. Scandals that would sink another candidate – a personal foundation that doesn’t actually give any money, for one – simply become part of the noise and the haze.

Just today, the New York Times is reporting that Trump used tax avoidance strategies that have subsequently been ruled improper, and were deeply dodgy when he engaged in them. Slate reports on speculation from the computer security community that a server run by the Trump Organization may have had secret communications with a server owned by a bank connected to Russian oligarchs, raising the possibility of a secret email channel between the Trump campaign and Russian groups. (There’s good arguments that the evidence discovered isn’t a smoking gun, but evidence that email is weird and wonky.) And while Democrats wonder why James Comey chose Friday to reopen an investigation of the Clinton email scandal based on emails found in an investigation of Anthony Weiner’s solicitation of a 15-year old girl (if you wrote this stuff for telenovelas, you’d get fired), Mother Jones wonders whether there’s video evidence of Donald Trump at a Russian orgy that gives the FSB leverage over Trump in a kompromat operation.

The sheer flood of craziness makes it hard to focus on any single issue. If this is the result of brilliant oppo research from the Clinton campaign, they should just fucking stop already. A Trump orgy tape, or Trump saying the “n-word” (the other rumored November surprise), isn’t going to persuade undecided voters (though it might contribute to the collective demoralization of staunch Republicans and keep them from the polls.) But the flood of negativity is also giving ammunition for those who support Trump because they believe our electoral system and media are rigged and that he faces a massive political and media conspiracy that’s keeping him from the presidency.

The sheer volume of Trump scandals means that journalists have to answer questions about false balance and equivalency when they look into Clinton scandals. Report on concerns about the Clinton Foundation and you face reasonable questions about whether the sins of the Clinton Foundation are as rotten as those of the Trump Foundation, or whether influence peddling rises to the same level of importance as sexual harassment.

Report on Clinton missteps and you also run the danger of being lumped in with the vast right wing conspiracy that’s been generating “Hillary is the Devil” stories since the late 1990s. These stories have reached truly astounding levels of complexity and paranoia – Google “Clinton Death Count” for a quick dive into the world where the Clintons have ruthlessly killed dozens of friends and associates who’ve had the misfortune to cross their paths. When you report on a “legitimate” Clinton scandal, you run the risk of being considered one of those who believes Hillary strangled Vince Foster with her bare hands to satiate her naked blood lust, and you know the story you’re publishing gives more ammunition for those who blame Clinton for everything from Benghazi to the lack of a headphone jack on the iPhone 7.

hillary-clinton-enemies-database1-457x500

With the death of Blackberry, Clinton has moved to Apple products and is worried that the phone jack leaves her vulnerable to FBI tapping. So she pressured Tim Cook into a product change he knew would tank the business so she could protect her nefarious communications. (I just made that up, but I expect to see it on Infowars by this evening.)

The net result of this batshit crazy election cycle is a Distributed Denial of Service attack on democracy. Like a webserver brought to its figurative knees by an endless flood of malformed requests, we are beginning to melt down under the avalanche of craziness. We’re left with the impression that this is an election between the possibly shady but unfairly attacked versus the truly unhinged… or between the thoroughly corrupt insider whos managed to undermine both government and the media versus the rough, offensive and often outrageous outsider who’s the only man she couldn’t bring down. We can’t move beyond those impressions because we are drowning in controversies and conspiracies, with very little help in understanding which matter and which we should take seriously.

That’s not good for us in the long run. I anticipate that Clinton will win the election, not in a landslide, but in a surprisingly close race. Almost immediately after taking office, she will be impeached, both because it’s a great way for the right to slow down any policy steps she might take (“Obviously, we can’t consider a candidate for the Supreme Court while the President is being impeached!”) and because there’s tons of data from Wikileaks and elsewhere that raises uncomfortable questions about the Clintons’ foundation and her service as secretary of state. Given the increasing polarization and paralysis of the government combined with the three ring circus of impeachment, the Hillary Clinton presidency will be historically unproductive, giving the Republicans a great chance to reposition themselves as the party of revolution, promising to blow up a broken system and replace it with something new that works. And this time around, they probably won’t nominate a serial molester who dodges taxes.

We need an oppositional press that vets candidates before we get this far in an election cycle. We needed investigations of Trump and Clinton’s foundations many months before the election. And we need new strategies, both as press and as voters, for navigating political cycles in which information is in surplus and attention is scarce.

screen-shot-2016-11-01-at-4-29-19-pm

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When attention matters: Ethiopia crushes dissent in Oromia http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/08/11/when-attention-matters-ethiopia-crushes-dissent-in-oromia/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/08/11/when-attention-matters-ethiopia-crushes-dissent-in-oromia/#comments Thu, 11 Aug 2016 18:58:34 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5307 Continue reading ]]> As an advocate for Americans to pay more attention to international news, I often get the question, “Why bother? What can I do?”

It’s a good question. Most of the time, there’s very little actionable in international news. Understanding the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff might be useful if you’re an investor in emerging markets, but it’s unlikely that your attention can change the shape of events in Brazil.

That might not be the case in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is Africa’s third most populous nation, and is near the top of the league table in repression as well, with at least ten journalists in prison for exercising their rights to report freely. The former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, ruled from 1995 to his death in 2012, and his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, looks awfully secure in his job as the ruling EPRDF and its allies won all 546 parliamentary seats in the last election.

Oromo protesters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

While Ethiopia is populated by dozens of ethnic groups, most senior members of the ruling party are of Tigray origin, a group that represents about 6% of the population, but which led the guerrilla war that defeated the Derg, the communist military junta that ran Ethiopia from 1975 to 1991. Many Oromo (34% of the population) and Amhara (27% of the population) feel marginalized by the Tigrayan government, a situation that has grown more tense as the government has announced plans to expand the capital Addis Ababa into traditional Oromo lands and farmers feared their lands would be seized.

Protests have been ongoing since November, but they turned bloody this weekend as the Ethiopian security forces used live ammunition to disperse crowds, killing as many as 100. (This, unfortunately, is standard procedure in Ethiopian crowd control – sadly, I’ve been writing about it for more than a decade.) Human Rights Watch reports that up to 400 have been killed by the government and tens of thousands arrested in protests thus far.

Of course, it’s hard to know what’s actually going on in Ethiopia. As protests have heated up, Ethiopia shut down the internet in provinces where people have taken to the streets, hoping to disrupt organizers. (This isn’t hard, as there’s one ISP and one telephone company in Ethiopia.) A shutdown earlier this year, which coincided with protests spreading into the north of the country, was evidently done for the benefit of university students, to keep them from cheating on exams. Given the government’s tendency to arrest reporters or bloggers and imprison them for years (Ethiopian bloggers affiliated with Global Voices were held for 18 months in prison), the exact details of what’s happening in Ethiopia can be very hard to pin down.

So here’s where you ask, “So what? What can I do?”

Well, international opinion actually matters to Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a military ally of the United States, and we send nearly a billion dollars in aid, mostly development and food aid per year. Shamefully, Addis Ababa is the diplomatic capital of Africa, home to the African Union. As human rights abuses get out of hand in Ethiopia, the US has limited aid in the past, and the AU occasionally threatens to grow a spine. The UN is now asking to put observers in Ethiopia, which the government is resisting.

The biggest help the world can give the Ethiopian government is ignoring what’s going on. It’s summer, it’s hot, the Olympics are on, and Trump says something insane every other day. There’s not a lot of space in the daily newspaper for a crackdown in Ethiopia. But international attention is one of the few ways to keep Ethiopia’s insanely repressive government in check.

So please follow what’s going on in Ethiopia. We’re writing lots about it on Global Voices. OPride offers moment to moment updates on protests in Oromia. NPR, BBC and Al Jazeera are all actively covering the story, even if most US media has adopted the “all Trump, all the time” format. Reward their stories with your attention, talk about Ethiopia on social media and help other people pay attention to this story. There’s not much you can do to prevent Ethiopia from crushing a rebellion, but you can make it hard for them to do it silently, unwitnessed by the rest of the world.


Global Voices author Endalk is mapping protest deaths in Oromia on this interactive map. Warning, some of the images are disturbing.

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Lessons from Letterlocking: a serendipitous academic encounter http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/05/10/lessons-from-letterlocking-a-serendipitous-academic-encounter/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/05/10/lessons-from-letterlocking-a-serendipitous-academic-encounter/#comments Tue, 10 May 2016 19:21:35 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5275 Continue reading ]]> Here’s a quick experiment – I’ve been publishing stories on FOLD and replicating the text here on this blog. But FOLD now supports embedding – let’s see how well my blog supports it… Otherwise, please feel free to go read this story on FOLD.cm

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Ben Franklin, the Post Office and the Digital Public Sphere http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/02/26/ben-franklin-the-post-office-and-the-digital-public-sphere/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2016/02/26/ben-franklin-the-post-office-and-the-digital-public-sphere/#comments Sat, 27 Feb 2016 02:29:29 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5254 Continue reading ]]> My dear friend danah boyd led a fascinating day-long workshop at Data and Society in New York City today focused on algorithmic governance of the public sphere. I’m still not sure why she asked me to give opening remarks at the event, but I’m flattered she did, and it gave me a chance to dust off one of my favorite historical stories, as well as showing off a precious desktop toy, an action figure of Ben Franklin, given to me by my wife.


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.

Being in charge of the postal system had a lot of benefits for Ben. He had ample opportunities to hand out patronage jobs to his friends and family, and he wasn’t shy about using franking privileges to send letters for free. 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, but one that was uniquely well suited to the American experiment. It was a distributed public sphere of newspapers and letters. And 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 physical coffee houses.

Franklin died in 1790, but physician and revolutionary 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.

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 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 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. But it’s a story I teach 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 (not universal, of course, limited to property-owning white men), it needed to be a distributed, participatory public sphere.

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.

So I’m not here as a scholar of US press and postal history, or a researcher on algorithmic shaping of the public sphere. I’m here as a funder, as a board member of Open Society Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event. OSF works on a huge range of issues around the world, but a common thread to our work is our interest in the conditions that make it possible to have an open society. We’ve long been convinced that independent journalism is a key enabling factor of an open society, and despite the fact that George Soros is not exactly an active Twitter user, we are deeply committed to the idea that being able to access, publish, curate and share information is also an essential precursor to an open society, and that we should be engaged with battles against state censorship and for a neutral internet.

A little more than a year ago, OSF got together with a handful of other foundations – our co-sponsor MacArthur, the Ford Foundation, Knight, Mozilla – and started talking about the idea that there were problems facing the internet that governments and corporations were unlikely to solve. We started asking whether there was a productive role the foundation and nonprofit community could play in this space, around issues of privacy and surveillance, accessibility and openness, and the ways the internet can function as a networked public sphere. We launched the Netgain challenge last February, designed to solicit ideas on what problems foundations might take on. This summer, we held a deep dive on the question of the pipeline of technical talent into public service careers and have started funding projects focused on identifying, training, connecting and celebrating public interest technologists.

The NetGain Challenge: Ethan Zuckerman from Ford Foundation on Vimeo.

We know that the digital public sphere is important. What we don’t know is what, if anything, we should be doing to ensure that it’s inclusive, generative, more civil… less civil? We know we need to know more, which is why we’re here today.

I want to understand what role algorithms are really playing in this emergent public sphere, and I’m a big fan of entertaining the null hypothesis. I think it’s critical to ask what role algorithms are really playing, and whether – as Etyan Basky and Lada Adamic’s research suggests – that echo chambers are more a product of user’s choices than algorithmic intervention. (I argue in Rewire that while filter bubbles may be real, the power of homophily in constraining your access to information is far more powerful.) We need to situate the power of algorithms in relation to cultural and individual factors.

We need to understand what are potential risks and what are real risks. Much of my current work focuses on the ways making and disseminating media is a way of making social change, especially through attempting to shape and mold social norms. Algorithmic control of the public sphere is a very powerful factor if that’s the theory of change you’re operating within. But the feeling of many of my colleagues in the social change space is that the work we’re doing here today is important because we don’t fully understand what algorithmic control means for the public sphere, which means it’s essential that we study it.

danah and her team have brought together an amazing group of scholars, people doing cutting edge work on understand what algorithmic governance and control might and can mean. What I want to ask you to do is expand out beyond the scholarly questions you’re taking on and enter the realm of policy. As we figure out what algorithms are and aren’t doing to our civic dialog, what would we propose to do? How do we think about engineering a public sphere that’s inclusive, diverse and constructive without damaging freedom of speech, freedom to dissent, freedom to offend. How do we propose shaping engineered systems without damaging the freedom to innovate and create?

I’m finding that many of my questions these days boil down to this one: what do we want citizenship to be? That’s the essential question we need to ask when we consider what we want a public sphere to do – what do we expect of citizens, and what would they – we – need to fully and productively engage in civics. That’s a question our founders were asking almost three hundred years ago when Franklin started turning the posts and print into a public sphere, and it’s the question I hope we’ll take up today.

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Renormalizing hitchhiking http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/09/02/renormalizing-hitchhiking-2/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/09/02/renormalizing-hitchhiking-2/#comments Wed, 02 Sep 2015 20:39:09 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5138 Continue reading ]]> I’m publishing lots of my new writing on other platforms as well as here. It’s a good chance to reach larger audiences, and often to see how my writing benefits from editing. Inevitably, whatever I submit ends up shorter after an editor works with it – often that leads to stronger work, but it sometimes means that something I loved ends up cut. So I’m using the blog to publish the original pieces, which I sometimes think of as the extended dance remixes (rather than the director’s cut). So here’s a longer version of “Could the Sharing Economy Bring Back Hitchhiking?” published on The Conversation yesterday, and now on Fair Observer and Gizmodo AU.


On August 1st, hitchBOT, a robot that had successfully hitchhiked more than 10,000km across Canada and northern Europe, was destroyed by unknown vandals in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. For a week, the robot’s violent decapitation was a favorite “news of the weird” story, a chance for commentators to reflect on the Philadelphia’s public image, to muse about human empathy for robots and, of course, to warn of the dangers of hitchhiking. As one commentator put it, “With hitchhiking so rare today, especially among non-sociopaths, it has increased the chance that a sociopathic hitchhiker will get picked up by a sociopathic driver.”

At the risk of revealing any hitherto-unrealized sociopathic tendencies, I want to speak in defense of hitchhiking.

I started picking up hitchhikers during my brief stint in graduate school. I was living on the border of New York and Massachusetts in a town so tiny that it was seven miles drive to buy milk or gasoline. It was, as they say, centrally isolated – a half hour drive from my girlfriend (now my wife), and 45 minutes from Troy, NY, the county seat and home to Rensselaer Polytechnic, the school I would soon withdraw from.

Anyone hitchhiking during the upstate NY winter was doing so out of necessity, not on a lark. I began to discover that some of my neighbors didn’t have cars or couldn’t afford to keep theirs on the road, and so relied on rides to Troy for groceries or essential medical services. Giving rides was a low-cost way of meeting people in my community, getting a better sense of where I lived, and doing a good deed.

It’s something I continue doing now on the Massachusetts side of the border, in Berkshire County, where I now live. I’ve learned a great deal from my riders: how easy it is to lose your driver’s license and how expensive it can be to get it back; the state of manufacturing where we live, which employers fire workers before employees are eligible for benefits and who helps blue-collar workers build careers; what being without a car does to your financial, health and romantic prospects when you live in a rural area. I’ve had a lot of good conversations and a fair share of stilted ones. But I’ve never had a ride that made me feel uncomfortable or endangered. No one has attempted to take my keys, phone or money, soiled my car, made sexual advances or even complained about what was on the radio.

(Let me pause for a moment so I can acknowledge the privileged position that I hold to be able to offer these rides. I’m male, large enough to be physically intimidating, wealthy enough that I can afford whatever extra fuel an extra passenger costs, secure enough in my employment that I can take a few minutes to drop someone at a destination. I live in a safe place. I’m not arguing that everyone should pick up hitchhikers, just explaining why I do and why I wish more people who are similarly privileged would do so.)

Hitchhiking used to be a normal thing to do. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of American men hitchhiked from their hometowns to the bases where they shipped off to war – picking up hitchhikers was a patriotic duty. But this began to change in the 1950s, and by the mid-1970s, hitchhiking was nearly extinct.

Historian Ginger Strand argues that hitchhiking didn’t die a natural death – it was killed. As early as the mid-1950s, the FBI ran campaigns designed to convince American motorists that hitchhikers were risking their lives in getting into strangers cars, and that drivers picking up riders were in equal danger. Advertisements like the one above connected hitchhiking with Communism, and given J. Edgar Hoover’s distaste for American counterculture, it’s possible that the FBI’s war on hitchhiking was a reaction both to books like Kerouac’s On the Road, and to the tendency of civil rights activists and other student radicals to use hitchhiking as their primary means of travel.

A second blow to hitchhiking came from the visibility of serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s. Widely publicized in the news media, the “Freeway Killer” – later revealed to be three serial killers operating independently – claimed to have killed more than 100 people in California, mostly hitchhikers. While these spectacular and brutal killings captured public attention and led municipalities to pass laws against hitchhiking, a California Highway Patrol study in 1974 found that hitchhiking was a factor in 0.63% of crimes, hardly an epidemic. But the apparent connection between hitchhiking and murder, combined with law enforcement campaigns to end the practice, succeeded in de-normalizing hitchhiking.

Now, with the rise of the so-called “sharing economy”, we’re seeing the renormalization of the practice of catching rides from strangers. When “ridesharing” service Lyft launched in 2012, it encouraged passengers to exchange a fist bump with their driver, and to sit in the front seat, making Lyft more like hitchhiking for a fee than taking a taxi, distinguishing it from Uber. (By late 2014, Lyft had phased out the fist bump and the front seat, perhaps realizing that it wasn’t such a bad idea to look like the clone of a business valued at $50 billion.)

Of course, neither Lyft nor Uber are promoting hitchhiking – they’re promoting unlicensed taxi services where ambitious startup companies charge users a commission to be matched with an “independent contractor”. But the language used to promote these services could be as easily used to make a renewed case for hitchhiking. Uber advertises itself as an environmentally friendly way to take private cars off the road and to reduce solo rides with its Uber pool service. Lyft no longer advertises itself as “your friend with a car”, but it offers a “profile” service to encourage passengers and drivers to meet each other, positioning a ride as a way to make a new friendship. Ridesharing companies want the benefits of social practices like hitchhiking – they just want us to pay for them, and take a cut of the revenues.

Behind the “sharing economy” is massive effort to reshape social norms around trust, work, ownership and personal space. Most of us are used to entering a car driven by a stranger – a taxi – but sleeping in the spare bedroom or couch of a stranger is less familiar, and deeply uncomfortable for some. The front page of AirBnB’s website features a video designed to address these concerns on an emotional level. A baby in a diaper walks down a sunlight hallway while a woman’s voice asks, “Is man kind? Are we good? Go see.” The service’s tagline – “Belong Anywhere” – is a direct response to the anxiety many of us would feel about sleeping in a stranger’s house: “No, this isn’t transgressive – you belong anywhere.”

In a world where it’s too dangerous to hitchhike, why are women willing to let strange men sleep in their spare bedroom? Why are people willing to get in a vehicle driven by a stranger whose background may have been only cursorily checked?

One possible reason for this increase in trust is the technology that enables it. Since eBay made it commonplace for individuals to sell goods to one another outside the traditional retail system, technologies to track user reputation have become the norm in peer to peer marketplaces. Uber, Lyft and AirBnB all rely on mutual reputation systems: you rate your driver or host, they rate you as a passenger or guest. Develop anything other than a stellar reputation and it becomes difficult to use the system: passengers won’t ride with you, owners won’t rent to you. With economic consequences attached to reputation systems, there are consequences for bad behavior, and a strong disincentive to cheat (or worse, kidnap and rape) the other party in the transaction.

In theory. In practice, these reputation systems don’t work very well. The reciprocal rating systems have a strong social pressure towards positive ratings – because ratings are public, there’s a strong tendency towards both collusion and towards revenge. Either passenger and driver give each other top marks, or if you rate a driver unfavorably, she is likely to rate you poorly as a passenger. The net effect, as Tom Slee discovered analyzing publicly available ride sharing data, is that the overwhelming majority of ratings are the highest possible, providing no meaningful way to distinguish between great and mediocre participants. It’s not even clear that these systems deter bad actors. Despite its celebrated reputation systems, eBay was so ripe with fraud that PayPal was able to develop a lucrative business as an escrow service, holding funds until both parties in a transaction reported themselves satisfied with the outcome.

If we were really concerned about our safety when entering a car or an apartment, reputation systems wouldn’t provide much reassurance. Rapists don’t attack everyone they meet. And the real disincentive against attacking a passenger in your car or a guest in your house is not the danger to your online reputation but the legal and moral consequences of your actions.

A less generous explanation for why we trust Uber and not hitchhiking is that class-based discrimination is at work in these systems. Last year, Wired writer Jason Tanz interviewed freelance yoga teacher and Lyft driver Cindy Manit for an article about trust in the sharing economy. Asked whether she was scared to pick up riders, she explained, “It’s not just some person from off the street”, distinguishing smartphone-equipped, credit-card holding technology early adopters from the hitchhiking riffraff. While technological assurances, like the connection to a Facebook account and the guarantee of a payment via credit card offer one level of reassurance, the economic, technical and social barriers to using the service offer another assurance, that the user likely belongs to a middle to high economic class. By contrast, in my experience, people hitchhiking are not doing so as a hip alternative to Uber – they often have no other economically viable way to get from point A to point B.

Questions about discrimination in systems like Uber and AirBnB are multilayered and complicated. Writer and editor Latoya Peterson celebrated Uber in late 2012 as offering an (often expensive) escape from the frustrating and humiliating experience of trying to hail a cab as a black person. In contrast, Law professor Nancy Leong worries that the ability to see the name and photo of a passenger before choosing to pick her up could lead to conscious racial discrimination, or simply to discrimination through unconscious bias. Using data from Airbnb in New York City, Harvard Business School professors Ben Edelman and Michael Luca were able to demonstrate that black hosts are paid 12% less for their properties, suggesting that renters consciously or unconsciously discriminate against black hosts, leading to market pressure for those hosts to lower prices on their rentals. It’s unclear whether the rise of Uber and Lyft will alleviate or aggravate racial discrimination. In the meantime, though, these services signal that a user is a person of means, an assurance that may lead to increased levels of trust.

Perhaps the most optimistic answer to the question of why we trust transaction partners in the sharing economy is that most people are trustworthy. The message AirBnB is paying handsomely to promote is, ultimately, true. In 2013, 1.16 million violent crimes were reported in the US, the lowest number since 1978, when 1.09 million violent crimes were reported. But the US population in 1978 was 222.6 million, versus 318.9 million now. Bureau of Justice statistics paint the picture of nation getting steadily safer since 1994, with adults now 3x less likely to be victims of violent crime than a generation ago.

Our perceptions have not caught up to this new, safer world, which is part of why activities like hitchhiking still seem so transgressive. 68% of Americans polled by Gallup believed that crime was on the rise in the US, though only 48% believed crime in their local area was worsening. The picture that emerges is one where many Americans perceive the world as a dangerous, crime-ridden place even if they’ve not personally experienced crime in their communities, an image reinforced by media coverage of incidents of violent crime that don’t talk about larger, statistical trends.

There are technological reasons as well to believe hitchhiking is safer now than in the 1970s. 91% of American adults carry mobile phones, enabling them to call 911 if a driver or passenger becomes threatening, something that simply wasn’t possible in the 1970s. The 64% of American adults with smartphones could take a picture of the driver (a possible disincentive against sexual assault) or look up a driver’s license plate to ensure there’s not an active bulletin about a stolen vehicle or a fleeing criminal.

But while hitchhiking has become safer, it hasn’t had the advantage of a well-funded campaign to renormalize it as a behavior. And while AirBnB has the resources to encourage people to trust strangers, it’s not clear that their campaign will have benefits for pro-social, non-revenue generating activities like carpooling, couchsurfing, or hitchhiking.


Graphic and slogans credited to Dennis Nyhagen,for The Stephanie Miller Show in 2004, reproduced by Al Haug

That’s a missed opportunity. Whether or not the giants of the on-demand, peer economy believe their own rhetoric about sharing and social connection, or are simply using it as a marketing strategy, realizing that we live in a nation where it’s safe to trust other Americans, for a ride or just for a conversation, is a first step in addressing inequality, racism and political division. Picking up hitchhikers, for me, has been one of the best ways to understand the community I live in and the problems my neighbors face. Whether or not it’s the right way for you to make connections is something I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that social serendipity is too important a task to hope that sharing economy startups will accomplish it as a side benefit.

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For further reading:

A helpful Reddit thread on the death of hitchhiking in the US

An excellent piece by Molly Osberg on the history and stigmatization of hitchhiking

Ginger Strand’s Killer on the Road, which is remarkably pro-hitchhiking despite a focus on the connection between interstate highways and serial killers in America

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Future of News: The View from Accra http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/08/28/future-of-news-the-view-from-accra/ http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/08/28/future-of-news-the-view-from-accra/#comments Fri, 28 Aug 2015 09:16:38 +0000 http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/?p=5134 Continue reading ]]> I’m in Accra for roughly 60 hours, long enough to remember why I love this country so very much, but not long enough to see all the people I want to see, to visit the markets and streets that I miss, and most challenging, to eat all the marvelous food this country has to offer. (After landing last night, I went straight to Osu night market for a plate of omo tuo at Asanka Local. Closed, so it was charcoal chicken and fried rice at Papaye, not a bad second choice.)

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

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

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Kwami Ahiabenu, president of PenPlusBytes, leading our event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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