We Have Met the Problem. Guess Who?

Here is chapter I contributed to the Hackademic 2018 book, Anti-Social Media?: The Impact on Journalism and Society. I’ve used various ideas in this in other posts recently. I’m leaving the British  spelling because it just might make me seem smarter. 

In all the urgent debate about regulating, investigating, and even breaking up internet companies, we have lost sight of the problem we are trying to confront: not technology but instead human behaviour on it, the bad acts of some (small) number of fraudsters, propagandists, bigots, misogynists, and jerks.

Computers do not threaten and harass people; people do. Hate speech is not created by algorithms but by humans. Technology did not interfere with the American election; another government did.* Yet we demand that technology companies cure what ails us as if technology were the disease.

When before have we required corporations to monitor and mediate human behaviour? Isn’t that the job — the very definition — of government: to define and enforce the limits of acceptable acts? If not government, then won’t parents, schools, clergy, therapists, or society as a whole — in its process of negotiating norms — fill the role? But all that takes time. In the face of the speed and scale of the invention and dissemination not only of technology but of its manipulation, government has no idea what to do. So in their search for someone to blame, government outsource fault and responsibility, egged on by media (whose schadenfreude constitutes a conflict of interest, as publishers wish to witness their new competitors’ comeuppance).

Why would we ever expect or want corporations to doctor us? Indeed, isn’t manipulation of our speech and psyches by technologists what critics fear most? Some argue this is the platforms’ problem because it’s the platforms that screwed us up. I disagree. It’s not as if before the net the world was a choir of angels. To argue that the internet addicts the connected masses, makes them stupid, turns them into trolls, and transforms them into agents of society’s ruin is elitist and fundamentally insulting, denying people their agency, their intelligence, their goodwill or lack thereof. The internet is not ruining humankind. Humankind is still trying to figure out what the internet can and should be.

It is true that internet technology has provided bad actors with new means of manipulation and exploitation in the pursuit of money and lately political gain or demented psychology. It’s also true that the technologists were too optimistic and naive about how their powerful tools could be misused — or rather, used but for bad ends. I agree that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and company must exercise more responsibility in anticipating and forestalling manipulation, in understanding the impact they have, in being transparent about that impact, and in collaborating with others to do better. There’s no doubt that the culture of Silicon Valley is too isolated and hubristic and must learn to listen, to value and empower diversity, to move fast but think first. Do I absolve them of responsibility? No. Do I want them to do more? Yes.

The terms of the conversation

But what precisely do we expect of them? For a project underwritten by the How Institute for Society, founded by Dov Seidman, I interviewed and convened discussions with people I respect as leaders, visionaries, and responsible voices in journalism, technology, law, and ethics. What struck me is that I heard no consensus on the definition of the problems to be solved, let alone the solutions. There is general head-shaking and tsk-tsking about the state of the internet and the platforms that now operate much of it. But dig deeper in search of an answer and you’ll find yourself in a maze.

At Google’s 2018 European journalism unconference, Newsgeist, I proposed a session asking, “What could Facebook do for news?” Some journalists in the room argued that Facebook must eliminate bad content and some argued that Facebook must make no judgments about content, good or bad. Sometimes, they were the same people, not hearing themselves making opposing arguments.

In my interviews, Professor Jay Rosen of New York University told me that we do not yet have the terms for the discussion about what we expect technology companies to do. Where are the norms, laws, or regulations that precisely spell out their responsibility? Professor Emily Bell of the Columbia School of Journalism said that capitalism and free speech are proving to be a toxic combination. Data scientist Deb Roy of the MIT Media Lab said capitalistic enterprises are finely tuned for simple outcomes and so he doesn’t believe a platform designed for one result can be fixed to produce another, but he hopes innovators will find new opportunities there. Technologist Yonatan Zunger, formerly of Google, argued that computer scientists must follow the example of engineering forebears — e.g., civil engineers — to recognise and account for the risks their work can bring. Entrepreneur John Borthwick, founder of Betaworks, proposed self-regulation to forestall government regulation. Seidman the ethicist insisted that neutrality is no longer an option and that technology companies must provide moral leadership. And philosopher David Weinberger argued that we are past trying to govern according to principles as society is so divided it cannot agree on those principles. I saw Weinberger proven right in the discussion at Newsgeist, in panels I convened at theInternational Journalism Festival, and in media. As Rosen says, we cannot agree on where to start the conversation.

The limits of openness

In the web’s early days, I was as much a dogmatist for openness as I am for the First Amendment. But I have come to learn — as the platforms have — that complete openness invites manipulation and breeds trolls. Google, Facebook, and Twitter — like news media themselves — argue that they are merely mirrors to society, reflecting the world’s ills. Technology’s and media’s mirrors may indeed be straight and true. But society warps and cracks itself to exploit these platforms. The difference between yesterday’s manipulation via media (PR and propaganda) and today’s via technology (from trolls to terrorists) is scale; the internet allows everyone who is connected to speak — which I take as a good — but that also means that anyone can become a thief, a propagandist, or a tormentor at a much lower cost and with greater access than mass media permitted. The platforms have no choice but to understand, measure, reveal, and compensate for that manipulation. They are beginning to do that.

Good can come of this crisis, trumped up or not. I now see the potential for a flight to quality on the net. After the 2016 elections and the rising furore about the role of the platforms in nations’ nervous breakdowns, Google’s head of search engineering, Ben Gomes, said that thenceforth the platform would account for the authority, reliability, and quality of sources in search ranking. In a search result for a query such as ‘Is climate change real?’ Google now sides with science. Twitter has recognised at last that it must account for its role in the health of the public conversation and so it sought help from researchers to define good discourse.

For its part, Facebook downgraded the prominence of what it broadly considered public (as opposed to social) content, which included news. Now it is trying to bring back and promote quality news. At The Newmark J-Schools Tow-Knight Center at CUNY, I am working on a project to aggregate signals of quality (or lack thereof) from the many disparate efforts, from the Trust Project to the Credibility Coalition and many others. We will provide this data to both platforms and advertisers to inform their decisions about ranking and buying so they may stop supporting disinformation and instead support quality news. [Disclosure: This work and that of the News Integrity Initiative, which I started at CUNY, are funded in part by Facebook but operate with full independence and I receive no compensation from any platform.]

Are these acts of self-regulation by the platforms sufficient? Of course, not. But I argue we must view this change in temporal context: We are only 24 years past the introduction of the commercial web. If the net turns out to be as disruptive as movable type, then in Gutenberg terms that puts us in the year 1474, years before Luther’s birth and print-sparked revolution, decades before the book took on the post-scribe structure we know now, centuries before printing and steam technology combined to create the idea of the mass.

Causes for concern

We don’t know what the net is yet. That is why I worry about premature regulation of it. I fear we are operating today on vague impressions of problems rather than on journalistic and academic evidence of the scale of the problems and the harm they are causing. I challenge you to look at your Facebook feed and show me the infestation of nazis there. Where is the data regarding real harm?

I worry, too, about the unintended consequences of well-intentioned regulation. In Europe, government moves aimed at challenging the power of the platforms have ended up giving them yet more power. The so-called right to be forgotten has put Google in the uneasy position of rewriting and erasing history, a perilous authority to hold. Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht (ancillary copyright) gave Google the power to set the terms of the market in links to news. Spain’s more aggressive link tax led to the exit of Google News from the country. I shudder to think what a pending EU-wide version of each law will do. Germany’s hate-speech law, the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz or NetzDG law, is all but killing satire there and requires the devotion of resources to killing crap, not rewarding quality. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will leave Google and Facebook relatively unscathed — as they have the resources to deal with its complex requirements — but some American publishers have cut off European readers, balkanising the web. Anticipated ePrivacy regulation will go even farther and I fear an extreme privacy regime will obstruct a key strategy for sustaining journalism — providing greater relevance and value to people we know as individuals and members of communities and gaining new revenue through membership and contribution as a result. Thus this regulation could artificially extend the life of outmoded mass media and the paternalistic idea of the mass.

I worry mostly that we may be entering into a full-blown moral panic, with technology — internet platforms — as the enemy. Consider Ashley Crossman’s definition: “A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fuelled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.” Sound familiar? To return to the lessons of Gutenberg’s age, let us recall that Erasmus feared what books would do to society. “To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?” he complained. “The very multitude of them is hurtful to scholarship, because it creates a glut and even in good things satiety is most harmful.” But we managed.

When I was invited to contribute this chapter, I was asked to write “in defence of Facebook.” With respect, that sets the conversation at the wrong level, at the institutional level: Journalism vs. Facebook. Thus we miss the trees for the forest, the people for the platforms. No matter what we in journalism think of Facebook, Google, or Twitter as companies, we must acknowledge that the public we serve is there and we need to take our journalism to them where they are. We must take advantage of the opportunity the net provides to see the public not as a mass but as a web of communities. We cannot do any of this alone and need to work with platforms to fulfill what I now see as journalism’s real job: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. If society is a polarised world at war with itself — red vs. blue, white vs. black, insider vs. outsider, 99% vs. 1% — we perhaps should begin by asking how we in journalism led society there.

* I expect someone on Twitter to respond to this paragraph with a picture of the bumper sticker declaring that guns don’t kill people; people do. The sentence structures may be parallel but the logic is not. Guns are created for one purpose: to kill. The internet was created for purposes yet unknown. We are negotiating its proper and improper uses and until we do — as we are learning — the improper will out.

A Rising Moral Panic

This is just what I fear: fear itself. See that exchange above. Nick Thompson, the very impressive editor-in-chief of Wired, touted a column by one of his writers who idly wondered whether the #10YearChallenge meme could be a conspiracy created by Facebook to get us chumps to provide it with photos and data to enable facial recognition over time.

Just maybe. What if?

Except that’s ridiculous, on its face. At its public I/O developers conference more than three years ago, Google demonstrated that it could identify the same person in photos from infancy to elderly. And Facebook hardly needs two random photos from a smattering of people when it has huge stores of dated photos of people who identify themselves. (Disclosure: I raised money for my school from Facebook but we are fully independent and I receive no funds personally from any platform.)

pointed out this logic on Twitter, and Nick — who, I want to emphasize again, has done wonders with Wired and made it better than it has been in years and who is often on the same, sane, calm side of the debate over #technopanic with me — immediately acknowledged in response that Facebook said it did not start the #10YearChallenge meme (reporting that, in my opinion, would have best been done before the column was posted). So, to quote the immortal Emily Litella:

Nonetheless, Nick’s original tweet to his 100k followers lives on and we know that people reach conclusions from a tweet or a headline without always reading on. Then today Keith Olbermann repeats this to his more than 1 million Twitter followers. What if? becomes WTF!! becomes OMG!!! A meme is born, a doubt is raised, paranoia is spawned. What’s my fear? Regulation will follow and the internet will suffer. See, as one of many examples, this tweet calling all regulators.

See also this presentation I gave to Munich Media Days on the unintended consequences of regulation. In a nutshell: Regulators and courts wanted to take power away from the platforms but ended up giving them more.

  • Germany’s ancillary copyright (Leistungsschutzrecht) was intended to make Google pay for snippets but gave Google greater negotiating power because publishers needed the eggs.
  • With the stricter Spanish link tax, publishers cut off their nose to spite their face and Google cut off Google News and with it much traffic to them.
  • The right to be forgotten court ruling gave Google the power of God (a power it did not want) to decide what should and should not be remembered and set a precedent Europe should beware of rewriting and erasing history.
  • Germany’s NetzDG hate-speech law gives Facebook similar power and all but kills satire in Germany. (I provide the straight line, you provide the joke.)
  • Europe’s sweeping privacy regulation, GDPR, did good things but also balkanized the news web with thousands of US publishers cutting off European readers and made expensive requirements that are burdens for small companies in Europe but are nothing to Google and Facebook, which could end up being even more competitive as a result.
  • And now we have the the noxious new EU copyright law with Articles 11 and 13 threatening our ability to quote and share what was formerly known as content and now is known as conversation.

That is what I fear. The atmosphere created by paranoid memes such as the one I write about here — and it’s just one and one of the more minor of many examples — empowers media to raise alarms, which empowers politicians to pass more such legislation.

Am I opposed to all regulation? No, of course not. Every human activity on the internet is already subject to law and regulation and it’s human activity — lies, fraud, manipulation, hate, misogyny — that is causing us trouble today, not so much the underlying technology. It is too soon to say that we know what the internet is and what its impact will be and so it is too soon to define and limit and regulate it as if we can be sure of the consequences of our actions. We risk cutting off opportunities we cannot anticipate, especially from people who were never well-represented and served by the old power structures.

Thanks to research I’m doing lately, I just reread James Dewar’s prescient 1998 RAND paper, The Information Age and the Printing Press. Learning lessons from Gutenberg’s disruption, Dewar sees parallels to the disruption we face now. “The future of the information age will be dominated by unintended consequences,” he says. “It will be decades before we see the full effects of the information age.” I might argue that could be centuries. He concludes: “The above factors combine to argue for: a) keeping the Internet unregulated, and b) taking a much more experimental approach to information policy.” He cautions: “This is speculation of the highest order.”

I emailed Dr. Dewar and he said that two decades on he still thinks its too early to say what the internet’s impact is or even what the internet is. I agree. In his paper, Dewar warns: “Countries that failed to take advantage of the printing press fell behind Europe. Those that strictly suppressed the printing press … were eclipsed on the world stage. Even in Europe countries that tried to suppress ‘dangerous’ aspects of the printing press suffered. This strongly suggests that the advantages of the printing press outweighed the disadvantages. Further, it suggests that, in retrospect, it was more important to explore the upside of the technology than to protect against the downside.”

Scholars Elizabeth Eisenstein and Adrian Johns and many others have debated about the printing press and technological determinism and thus about its alleged impact. Six centuries from now scholars will feud about the same questions regarding our networked age. At this moment, we are arguing about that impact of the net on our daily lives. Some have said to me that this fuss about the #10YearChallenge meme is helpful because people are talking about the issues at hand.

I have one response: Let that debate be based on facts and evidence, not on baseless provocations and what-if worries, which fuel a moral panic that comes to blame all our troubles on technology and assume malign motive for every action the technologists take. Journalists do not have license to relax their standards of fact and evidence and should be informing the debate, not fueling the panic.

Just to show you how fearless I am, I went into Flickr to save my photos from ages past and found this one of me 10 years ago. I look like a dork. Now Facebook, Google, and every one of you knows that. And no one is surprised.


The kids are alright. Grandpa’s the problem.

NYU and Princeton professors just released an important study that took a set of fake news domains identified by BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman and others and asked who shares them on Facebook. They found that:

Sharing so-called fake news appears to be rare. “The vast majority of Facebook users in our data” —more than 90 %— “did not share any articles from fake news domains in 2016 at all.”
Most of the sharing is done by old people, not young people. People over 65 shared fake news at a rate seven times higher than young people 18–29. This factor held across controls for education, party affiliation and ideology, sex, race, or income.
It is also true that conservatives — and, interestingly, those calling themselves independent — shared most of the fake news (18.1% of Republicans vs. 3.5% of Democrats), though the researchers caution that the sample of fake news was predominantly pro-Trump.
Interestingly, people who share more on Facebook are less likely to share fake news than others, “consistent with the hypothesis that people who share many links are more familiar with what they are seeing and are able to distinguish fake news from real news.”
Compare this with accepted wisdom: That fake news is everywhere and that everyone on Facebook is sharing it. That Facebook users can’t tell fake from true. That young people are sharing this stuff and don’t understand how media work and thus are in need of news literacy training. Not so much.

Instead, we need other interventions: start by worrying about Grandpa. But I will argue this is not about dealing with Grandpa’s inability to discern facts. Fact-checking won’t enlighten Gramps. Instead, we have to examine Grandpa’s misplaced sense of anger, victimhood, paranoia, and general grumpiness. Grandpa grew up in a great time in this country and saw tremendous progress. So what’s making Grandpa into such an angry, loud-mouthed jerk?

Well, there’s another external factor that this study could not deal with. The factor I want to examine is how many fake-news sharers — how many Grandpa’s — are influenced by media, namely Fox News and talk radio.

I’d love to see more research such as this. I want to see Facebook and the platforms cooperate and hand over more data.

The researchers — Princeton’s Andrew Guess and NYU’s Jonathan Nagler and Joshua Tucker — point out that they lack data on what these older users are seeing in their feeds. To get perhaps some insight on that, go to Facebook’s new, open political ad archive, search on any contentious topic — say, “wall” — and you will see how money vs. money is battling for the minds of America. Look at Trump’s latest ads and I found in many of them that they were directed mostly at people over the age of 65.

Research such as this is critical to inform our discussion and fend off stupid interventions and decisions fueled by bad presumption and moral panic. More, please.

* Thanks to Josh Tucker for alerting me to this research — and for the joke in the headline.

Hot Trump. Cool @aoc.

I’ve been rereading a lot of Marshall McLuhan lately and I’m as confounded as ever by his conception of hot vs. cool media. And so I decided to try to test my thinking by comparing the phenomena of Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at this millennial media wendepunkt, as text and television give way to the net and whatever it becomes. I’ll also try to address the question: Why is @aoc driving the GOP mad?

McLuhan said that text and radio were hot media in that they were high-definition; they monopolized a sense (text the eye, radio the ear); they filled in all the blanks for the reader/listener and required or brooked no real interaction; they created — as we see with newspapers and journalism — a separation of creator from consumer. Television, he said, was a cool medium for it was low-definition across multiple senses, requiring the viewer to interact by filling in the blanks, starting quite literally with the blanks between the raster lines on the cathode-ray screen. “Low-definition invites participation,” explains McLuhan’s recently departed son Eric. (Thanks to Eric’s son, Andrew McLuhan, for sending me to this delightful video:)

Given that McLuhan formulated his theory at the fuzzy, black-and-white, rabbit-ears genesis of television, I wonder how much the label would be readjusted with 4K video and huge, wrap-around screens and surround sound. Eric McLuhan answers that hot v. cool is a continuum. I also wonder — as does every McLuhan follower — what the master would say about the internet. That presumes we can yet call the internet a thing unto itself and define it, which we can’t; it’s too early. So I’ll narrow the question to social media today.

And that brings us to Trump v. Ocasio-Cortez. Recall that McLuhan said that Richard Nixon lost his debate with John F. Kennedy because Nixon was too hot for the cool medium of TV. He told Playboy:

Kennedy was the first TV president because he was the first prominent American politician to ever understand the dynamics and lines of force of the television iconoscope. As I’ve explained, TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to TV. Any political candidate who doesn’t have such cool, low-definition qualities, which allow the viewer to fill in the gaps with his own personal identification, simply electrocutes himself on television — as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy in the 1960 campaign. Nixon was essentially hot; he presented a high-definition, sharply-defined image and action on the TV screen that contributed to his reputation as a phony — the “Tricky Dicky” syndrome that has dogged his footsteps for years. “Would you buy a used car from this man?” the political cartoon asked — and the answer was no, because he didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.

As TV became hotter — as it became high-definition — it found its man in Trump, who is as hot and unsubtle as a thermonuclear blast. Trump burns himself out with every appearance before crowds and cameras, never able to go far enough past his last performance — and it is a performance — to find a destination. He is destruction personified and that’s why he won, because his voters and believers yearn to destroy the institutions they do not trust, which is every institution we have today. Trump then represents the destruction of television itself. He’s so hot, he blew it up, ruining it for any candidate to follow, who cannot possibly top him on it. Kennedy was the first cool television politician. Obama was the last cool TV politician. Trump is the hot politician, the one who then took the medium’s every weakness and nuked it. TV amused itself to death.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not a candidate of television or radio or text because media — that is, journalists — completely missed her presence and success, didn’t cover her, and had to trip over each other to discover her long after voters had. How did voters discover her? How did she succeed? Social media: TwitterFacebookInstagramYouTube….

I think McLuhan’s analysis here would be straightforward: Social media are cool. Twitter in particular is cool because it provides such low-fidelity and requires the world to fill in so much, not only in interpretation and empathy but also in distribution (sharing). And Ocasio-Cortez herself is cool in every definition.

She handles her opponents brilliantly on social media, always flying above, never taking flack from them. Some people say she’s trolling the Republicans but I disagree. Trolling’s sole purpose is to get a rise out of an opponent, to make them angry and force them to react. She does not do that. She consistently states her positions and policies with confidence; let the haters hate. Yes, she shoots at her opponents, but like a sniper, always from her position, her platform.

She uses the net not only to make pronouncements but to build a community, a constituency that is larger than her district.

 

And her constituents respond.

 

Now I know some of you will argue that Trump is also a genius at Twitter because, after all, he governs by it. But I disagree. Trump’s tweets get the impact they get only because they are amplified by big, old media making stories in print and TV every single time he hits the big, blue button. Trump treats cool Twitter like he treats cool TV: with a flamethrower. On Twitter, he doesn’t win anything he hasn’t already won. Indeed, in his desperation to outdo himself, I think (or hope), it is by Twitter that he destroys himself through revealing too much of his ignorance and hate. That’s not cool.

Trump and his allies don’t know how to tweet but Ocasio-Cortez does — and that’s what so disturbs and confounds the GOP about @aoc. They think it should be so simple: just tweet your press releases — your “social media statements,” as their leader recently said — plus your best lines from speeches that get the loudest, hottest applause and rack up the most followers like the highest TV ratings and you will win. No. Twitter, Facebook, et al are not means to make a mass, like TV was. They are means to develop relationships and trust and to gather people around not just a person but also an idea, a cause, a common goal. That’s how Ocasio-Cortez uses them.

I want to be careful not to diminish Ocasio-Cortez as merely a social-media phenom, nor to build her up into some omniscient political demigod who will not stumble; she will. She is a talented, insightful politician who has the courage of her progressive and socialist convictions. Even when old media tries to goad a fight — because old media feed on the fight — over Ocasio-Cortez’ college dancing video, she still manages to bring the discussion back to her stands, her agenda. That is what drives them nuts.

 

And then:

 

Everyone ends up dancing to her tune. But they don’t talk about the dancing. They talk about the policy — her foes and her allies alike. She suggests a 70% tax rate for the richest and here come her enemies and then some experts, who have her back:

 

So what lessons do we learn from the early days of @aoc as possibly the first true, native politician of social media, not old media?

I think the GOP will eventually learn that anger is a flame that runs out of fuel. Anger stands against everything, for nothing. Anger builds nothing, not even a wall. Oh, anger is easy to exploit and media will help you exploit it, but that takes you nowhere. Lots of people might want to scream with the screamy guy, but who wants to invite him home for dinner? Trump is the angry celebrity and you end up knowing everything you want to know about him by watching him; there is nothing to fill in because he is so hot. “If somebody starts screaming at you, you don’t move in closer, you back up a little. And if they get a little rowdy and scream a little louder, you back up a little more. You don’t move in closer and start hugging,” Eric McLuhan explains in the video above. “A really hot situation like that… doesn’t require or even invite involvement.”

@aoc is a little mysterious, someone you want to know better; she is cool. The GOP has no cool politicians. The Democrats do not need their Trump, their celebrity, their hot personality. They should be grateful they have someone like Ocasio-Cortez to teach them how to be cool, if they are smart enough to watch and learn.

Media, too, have much to learn. We in journalism must see that our old, hot media — text and TV — are of the past. They won’t go away but they probablywon’t be trusted again. If we journalists have any hope of meeting our mission of informing the public, we have to use our new tools of the net to build relationships of authenticity and trust as humans, not institutions. We need to measure our success not based on mass but instead based on value and trust. Then we have to find a place to stand — on the platform of facts would be a lovely spot — and stay there, relying on principle and not on a mushy foundation built of fake balance or fleeting popularity or our own savvy. This is social journalism.

Oh, and we also need to learn that the next politician worth paying attention to won’t come to us with press releases and press people trying to get them on TV as that won’t matter to them. They are already out there building relationships with their constituents on social media and we need new means to listen to what is happening there.

There is one more confounding McLuhan lesson to grapple with here: that the medium is the message, that content is meaningless but it’s the medium itself that models a way to see the world. McLuhan argued that linear, bounded text by its very form taught us to how to think. The line, he said — and this sentence is an example — became our organizing principle. Books have borders and so do nations. This, I’ll argue, is why Trump wants to build his wall: a last, desperate border as all borders crumble.

McLuhan said electricity broke that linearity and he saw the beginnings of what could happen to our worldviews with the impact of television upon us. But that was only the beginning. Imagine what he would say about Twitter, Facebook, et al. I think he would tell us to pay attention not to the content — see: fake news! — but instead to learn from the form. What does social media teach us to do? What does the net itself teach us to do? To connect.

The Spiegel Scandal and the Seduction of Storytelling

“Everyone who writes knows the seduction of the narrative.”
— Bernhard Pörksen in Die Zeit

The German journalism world is grappling with the implications of a shocking scandal at Der Spiegel: An award-winning, 33-year-old reporter — no, a fabulist and a fraud — named Claas Relotius made up article after article with stunning and audacious contempt for truth, as this fact-checking of his account of the rural American psyche makes clear.

German journalists are questioning Der Spiegel’s process and Relotius’ own psyche (he told his editors that he was motivated by a fear of failure) — as occurred in comparable American scandals of Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Janet Cooke at The Washington Post. But the Germans are digging deeper into the essence of journalism, questioning the perils of the seduction of the narrative form; the misplaced rewards inherent in professional awards; the risk to credibility for the institution in the time of “f*ke news;” the need for investigative self-examination in media; and more.

As best as ubiquitous paywalls and my very, very bad (sehr, sehr schlecht) German will allow [and I do hope my German friends will correct me where I’m wrong], I want to look at what the German journalists are talking about to see what lessons there are for journalists everywhere.

The perils of the story and storyteller

“A beautiful lie.” That is the headline on the essay in Zeit Online quoted above, in which Pörksen, a professor of media studies, discusses the form of the story: “What shows up here is called the narrative distortion, story bias. You have the story in your head, you know what sound readers or colleagues want to hear. And you deliver what works.” And it worked. Relotius was so well-known for his style that his magazine had a label for it: “the Relotius sound.”

In journalism, the story too often becomes a self-fulfilling creation. Early in my career at the Chicago Tribune, I watched a managing editor write a headline — complete with victim and drama — and then direct his investigative task force to go get that story. I worry when I sit in journalism classes and hear talk of getting quotes to fill in “my story,” with the emphasis on the reporter’s control of the narrative. I dislike that our process too often starts — in newsroom and classroom — with pitching a story people will want to read.

This has long been my heresy. Back in 2011, I was questioning the article as the atomic unit of journalism in a time when we were playing instead with flows and streams: journalism as process; the article deconstructed. That roiled storytellers.

The Spiegel affair cuts deeper into our presumptions and makes us ask whether our compulsion to make news compelling (yes, entertaining) leads us astray. In various of the German reactions I read, some wondered whether we should in essence make news duller: just the facts, mein Herr. “At last, don’t we need a new objectivity, a return to stricter form,” Pörksen asks, “or instead an absolute and open declaration of subjectivity, which identifies specific description as purely personal perception?” Do we need to admit that journalism is not a mirror to the world (“Spiegel” means mirror) — adhering to the Prime Directive of noninterference — but instead by its work is an actor in the world? (Internet platforms are grappling with exactly this conundrum as they cope with compensating for manipulation while grasping for neutrality.)

The real problem, of course, is that we have let our means of production determine our mission rather than the other way around (something I’ve heard Jay Rosen reflect upon often). I hear journalists say their primary role is as storytellers. No. I hear them say their task is to fill a product — a newspaper or magazine or show. No. Our job is to inform the public conversation. And now that we can hear people talking and join in with them, I’ve updated my definition of journalism to this: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. This means our first job is not to write but to listen to that conversation so we can find what it needs to function. Then we report. Then we write — or convene or teach or use other forms now available to us. First listener, not storyteller. This is the thinking behind the new degree in Social Journalism we started at the Newmark J-School.

These lessons are not easily taught, for the addiction to storytelling as art — vs. journalism as service — is fierce. Journalist and media critic Stefan Niggemeier illustrates this challenge neatly in his critique of Spiegel editor-in-chief Ulrich Fichtner’s mea culpa for the fall of Relotius. “The harm begins in the first sentence,” Niggemeier says, then quoting Fichtner’s lede: “Just before the end of his career, splendor and misery came together in the life of Claas Relotius.” Thus Fichtner makes the story of the storymaker into a lovely story itself; he can’t help himself. His prose gets yet purpler when he writes of Relotius’ subjects, his characters: “…they are not human beings of flesh and blood, they live only on paper, and their creator is called Claas Relotius. Sometimes he lets them sing, sometimes cry, sometimes pray.”

Oh, according to everyone writing about him, Relotius could write. SaysAnnette Ramelsberger in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “He wrote stories that were larger than life, bigger and more beautiful than life, with perfect protagonists, with dramaturgy a director could not have made better. His writing had the pull of a novel. That’s exactly what they were: stories from a storyteller posing as a journalist.”

Niggemeier quotes Fichtner’s explanation of the cause: “Anyone who has such material as a reporter, anyone who has a talent for drama, can spin gold out of it like in a fairy tale. Relotius has the talent. He invents the material.” So Niggemeier says Fichtner sees the problem as the material — the falsified facts — rather than the form, the storytelling, “the spinning and exaggeration of this craft by journalists and their prizes.”

The perils of prizes and self-congratulation

Relotius has already returned his four awards from the German Reporter Forum and some are questioning the value of such awards. That is another long-held heresy of mine: that our Pulitzers are bad for American journalism as they motivate us to impress each other, more than to serve the public. Of course, that’s not always the case, just too often it is.

“What happens when an industry is characterized by its vanity?” asks a headline in the trade publication Meedia, admitting it freaks out at the profession’s “rampant prize-giving fever.” Meedia says a portal for journalism prizes — its existence says much — counts more than 700 trophies awaiting winner.

The larger problem here is that our measurements of success are royally fucked up. On the business side, we value volume for volume’s sake — circulation, audience, pageviews, clicks, CPM — which, as I like to say, inevitably leads to cats and Kardashians and ultimately to clickbait made flesh, Donald Trump. On the editorial side, we value attention to us — most read, most clicked, most emailed, time spent. All of these metrics are mediacentric, egocentric. Our measures of success should instead be set by the public against its needs and goals. If anyone’s going to give journalism prizes, let it be the communities we serve.

As for the artful, rich, perfect story that is made to win awards: Leave it behind. Says Holger Stark in Die Zeit: “The Relotius affair is not the end of reportage. But the artform of flawless, over-perfumed reportage, which deceives readers and pretends it can tell the fate of the world in one person with the figure of the omniscient-authoritative narrator, which pops and smokes and sparks — that cinematic artform must now, at last come to an end…”

A failure of fact-checking

Der Spiegel’s fact-checking process is renowned — like The New Yorker’s still or like Time Inc.’s back in the day — so how could it fail? In this time of dis- and misinformation, fact-checkers are our last, best defenders of the truth.

Monika Bauerlein, a German journalist and now CEO of Mother Jones, who in her youth was inspired by Der Spiegel’s investigative reporting (“I do what I do today because of them”), laments that Spiegel’s 60 fact-checkers simply did not do as good a job as Mother Jones’, which number only a fifth as many. Bauerlein says it so happens that a story that helped alert Spiegel to Relotius’ fraud was one of MoJo’s own.

I point you again to the wonderful job of fact-checking of Relotius’ “report” from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, by two people who live there. Any amount of real fact-checking in Der Spiegel would have revealed the fraud. So why didn’t it work? Perhaps because…

Indeed. In another piece, Niggemeier says Der Spiegel’s fabled Dok — documentation (research or fact-checking) department — too often relied on the credibility of the reporter. He says these systems are built to pick up the error of the busy reporter who’s sloppy or hurried or merely human, not the work of a fraud. This is an indicator of a closed system that verifies trust by trusting itself.

As an aside, I have been part of a process by an organization outside the U.S. that is trying to set standards for trust in journalism and I’ve been dispirited that in this effort, there is no opening to listen to the public and its concerns (‘Why don’t you trust us?”), to test its standards with the public (“Would this help you trust us?”), and even to enshrine in those standards the need to hear the public (“We begin by listening to you”). So an untrusted institution thinks it builds trust by systematizing the processes that made it untrusted in the first place? Garg!

To be clear: Facts are the essence of journalism. Fact-checking is vital. I’ve been arguing that in J-schools, we need to do more to teach as a skill verification of both facts and of what people are saying in social media. But in the end, we must remember that facts themselves are a system that can be manipulated. See Kellyanne Conway’s inadvertent epiphany about alternative facts. Then see danah boyd’s brilliant SXSW EDU talk about news literacy and the real problem: warring epistemologies.

Yes, of course, we need fact-checking. But in this age, facts are insufficient. We need education. We need a new Enlightenment. That requires a wiser journalism.

Fake news, fake reporter

What hurts so much about this case is, of course, its moment in time. Just as journalism is being attacked in the United States from the top of government as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people” and as it is being attacked in Germany as die Lügenpresse (a revived Nazi slur meaning the lying press), here comes a scandal brimming with journalistic lies.

Not surprisingly, the conservative boulevard (that is, tabloid in spirit if not in size) newspaper Bild, reveled in poking at the liberal Der Spiegel, remolding Trump’s phrase to call Relotius, in English, the “fake reporter.” Bild’s so-called columnist (his columns are barely longer than tweets) Franz Josef Wagner accused Spiegel “of printing lies for years.” And Trump’s own ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, jumped at the opportunity to slam journalists anywhere, having the temerity to demand an investigation into Der Spiegel for anti-American bias. The magazine apologized for the lies, not any bias. As Niggemeier points out, Spiegel is apologizing to everyone now. The magazine apologized to readers, fellow journalists, prize juries, journalism schools, business partners, customers, and the family founder of its founder, Rudolf Augstein. “Seriously?” Niggemeier exclaims. “To the Augstein family? Should you then not seek forgiveness from Gutenberg’s descendants — after all, Relotius’ articles have been printed on paper!”

Such is the weakened, defensive state of Der Spiegel and journalism now.

Investigate thyself

Had it not been for the diligence of one of Relotius’ Spiegel colleagues, Juan Moreno, the fraudster might still be quoting unicorns. Working alongside Relotius on a story, Moreno’s spidey sense prickled and he tried to alert his editors. They all but threatened Moreno with firing if his allegations did not pan out. Dogged, as a reporter should be, Moreno took a trip to the U.S. and, without the company’s approval, found some of Relotius’ sources, who all said they’d never been interviewed. After risking his own job, Moreno is now a hero.

In Die Zeit, Prof. Pörksen says Moreno engaged in something too rare in Germany (and I’d say anywhere): investigative media reporting. If the Spiegel affair leads to the birth of such an undertaking, Pörksen says, then perhaps it would not have been suffered in vain. Perhaps. I wrote just yesterday that journalists should be demanding of themselves what they are demanding of Facebook and Silicon Valley: transparency, ethical self-examination, criticism of the moral hazards of our business models and metrics, and honesty about our loss in trust.

Out of obvious necessity, Germany has made a skill out of blunt self-examination. As they have done with their history, I hope they do with their journalism and I hope we can learn from them. In the age of America’s Trump, the United Kingdom’s Brexit, Germany’s AfD, Russia’s Putin, France’s gilets jaunes, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the Philippines’ Duterte, Turkey’s Erdoğan, Hungry’s Orbán, Venezuela’s Maduro, Saudi Arabia’s MBS, China’s Xi — and on and on — we can agree that we need journalism more than ever and journalism needs to be tougher on itself and more accountable to its public than ever.

Says Ramelsberger in the Süddeutsche: “We can learn from all this. First of all: Journalists are not artists, they are mostly ordinary craftsmen. Second, they must serve the truth and not their own glory. Third, they have a task. They are the … so-called garbage collectors of the fact world who document, question, and doubt. From this come no articles that glitter on all sides like disco balls. But the reputation of journalism and the mission it has in society helps the solid story more than stories that are too good to be true.”

Oh, I hear some saying, but because of the internet, we have fewer resources and so doing good work becomes only harder; we can’t afford fact-checking and investigation and wisdom. No. This is why we must prioritize our work with our mission. Give up the fluffiest of our fluff. Stop copying each other just to churn out our own page views. End our quest for the perfect compelling, attention-grabbing, prize-winning narrative. Put our resources behind the job that matters: doing our part to assure a civil, informed, and productive public conversation.