Journalism is the conversation. The conversation is journalism.

An illustration of Edward Lloyd’s coffee house, which served as a headquarters for marine underwriters. The business eventually evolved into Lloyd’s of London insurance company.

I am sorely disappointed in The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo, CNN’s Brian Stelter, and other journalists who these days are announcing to the world, using the powerful platforms they have, that they think journalists should “disengage” from the platform for everyone else, Twitter.

No. It is the sacred duty of journalists to listen to the public they serve. It is then their duty to bring journalistic value — reporting, facts, explanation, context, education, connections, understanding, empathy, action, options— to the public conversation. Journalism is that conversation. Democracy is that conversation.

In a moment, I will quote from the late James Carey’s eloquent lessons on the primacy of the conversation in journalism. But first I want to observe, as I’ve written before, that these journalists’ pronouncements come from a position of extreme privilege. Manjoo has a column, Stelter a show where they can expose their worries to the world. If you are an African-American who is shopping or barbecuing or eating lunch or going into your own home when a white person calls the police on you, you do not have a newsroom of journalists who look like you who will tell your story because they, too, have lived it. The outlet you have is a hashtag on Twitter. These stories are now, finally, making it into mainstream media only because #livingwhileblack exists as a tool for those forever unrepresented and unserved by mass media.When journalists delete, dismiss, or disengage from Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or Instagram or Reddit or blogs, they turn their backs on the people who finally — like the journalists — have a printing press to call their own. For too long — since Habermas’ alleged birth of the public sphere in the coffee houses and salons of London and Paris — that sphere has excluded too many people, whom social media finally can include. Listen to them.

In fairness to Manjoo, he does not suggest killing Twitter entirely. “Instead, post less, lurk more,” he advises. No. Two problems with that: It means that journalists continue to rob and exploit the stories of people for their articles without giving them the respect of conversation and collaboration. And it means that journalists are not doing what they can to bring journalism to the public conversation where it occurs — which they can finally do, thanks to the internet. I learned this at Vidcon: In some cases, we need to remake news as social tokens packed with fact and context that people can share in their own conversations. The public conversation is indeed in need of help. We cannot help that conversation by disengaging from it.

Manjoo also suggests, rightly, that journalists get their acts together and not be jerks and bozos online. Who can argue with that? But to be clear, that is entirely up to journalists — and everyone on Twitter. I do not subscribe to the technological determinism and moral panic that blames the tool. “Twitter is ruining American journalism,” says Manjoo. No, journalists are responsible for the state of American journalism. They have no one to blame but themselves when they jump on a story too soon with unconfirmed information and rash conclusions, when they insist on joining in with their own needless and repetitive hot takes, when they match snark for snark.When I’m a jerk on Twitter it’s because I’m being a jerk, not because Twitter made me on. “Everything about Twitter’s interface encourages a mind-set antithetical to journalistic inquiry,” Manjoo argues. “It prizes image over substance and cheap dunks over reasoned debate, all the while severely abridging the temporal scope of the press.” No, I find plenty of very smart people on Twitter who share information and perspective and wisdom. If you haven’t found them, you haven’t tried hard enough; you haven’t done your reporting. A poor craftsman blames his Twitter.

In the discussion about this over the last week or so, I’ve seen people responding to my arguments by saying that Twitter is not representative of the population. Well, neither is The New York Times. I’ve seen them complain that Twitter has assholes. Well, so does the world; don’t follow them. And I’ve seen them say that Twitter is too small to bother with. That is an outmoded, mass-media worldview — inspired by the commercial demands of advertisers — that values and recognizes only scale. Stop thinking of people as masses; start recognizing them as individuals and members of communities and you will begin to appreciate the people you can meet, hear, and learn from on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and in tools not yet imagined, tools that connect people (which is the value of the net) rather than merely manufacture content (which is the value of old, dying, mass media).

Now I’d like to call class to order and invite the spirit of the too-soon-departed Columbia professor, James Carey from his essay, “A Republic, If You Can Keep It”: Liberty and Public Life in the Age of Glasnost. (Sadly, that link is behind a paywall. I heartily recommend the book James Carey: A Critical Reader,especially including Jay Rosen’s introduction to this essay.) Here Carey teaches us about the true nature of journalism and democracy.

But I believe we must begin from the primacy of conversation. It implies social arrangements less hierarchical and more egalitarian than its alternatives. While people often dry up and shy away from the fierceness of argument, disputation, and debate, and while those forms of talk often bring to the surface the meanness and aggressiveness that is our second nature, conversation implies the most natural and unforced, unthreatening, and most satisfying of arrangements.

A press that encourages the conversation of [the public’s] culture is the equivalent of an extended town meeting. However, if the press sees its role as limited to informing whoever happens to turn up at the end of the communication channel, it explicitly abandons its role as an agency for carrying on the conversation of the culture.

That is to say, if the press serves only those who come to its destinations and pay to get past its paywalls then it is serving only a tiny elite. Talk about echo chambers, that is an echo chamber.

Carey continues even more sternly:

A press independent of the conversation of culture, or existing in the absence of such a conversation, is likely to be, in practical terms, whatever the value of the right the press represents, a menace to public life and an effective politics. The idea of the press as a mass medium, independent of, disarticulated from, the conversation of the culture, inherently contradicts the goal of creating an active remembering public. Public memory can be recorded by but cannot be transmitted through the press as an institution. The First Amendment, to repeat, constitutes us as a society of conversationalists, of people who talk to one another, who resolve disputes with one another through talk. This is the foundation of the public realm, the inner meaning of the First Amendment, and the example the people of Eastern Europe were quite inadvertently trying to teach us. The “public” is the God term of the press, the term without which the press does not make any sense. Insofar as the press is grounded, it is grounded in the public. The press justifies itself in the name of the public. It exists, or so it is said, to inform the public, to serve as the extended eyes and ears of the public. The press is the guardian of the public interest and protects the public’s right to know. The canons of the press originate in and flow from the relationship of the press to the public.

This is about respecting more than journalism. It is about maintaining democracy:

Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places. That conversation has to be informed, of course, and the press has a role in supplying that information. But the kind of information required can be generated only by public conversation; there is simply no substitute for it. We have virtually no idea what it is we need to know until we start talking to someone.Conversation focuses our attention, it engages us, and in the wake of conversation we have need not only of the press but also of the library. From this view of the First Amendment, the task of the press is to encourage the conversation of the culture — not to preempt it or substitute for it or supply it with information as a seer from afar. Rather, the press maintains and enhances the conversation of the culture, becomes one voice in that conversation, amplifies the conversation outward, and helps it along by bringing forward the information that the conversation itself demands.

We say we in the press are guardians of the First Amendment as we are guarded by it. Carey tells us what the First Amendment really means:

We value, or so we say, the First Amendment because it contributes, in Thomas Emerson’s formulation, four things to our common life. It is a method of assuring our own self-fulfillment; it is a means of attaining the truth; it is a method of securing participation of members of society in political decision making; and it is a means of maintaining a balance between stability and change.

This is why I value social media and how it gives us the ability to hear people too long not heard. This is why I started a degree in Social Journalism at the Newmark J-School, where my colleague Carrie Brown and our students constantly explore new definitions, new obligations, and new opportunities for journalism that the net enables. This is why I so admire Spaceship Media, a journalistic startup that embodies my revised definition and mission of journalism: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. This is why I argue for a post-content, relationship-based strategy for the future of journalism. It starts with listening.

Manjoo ends declaring: “Twitter will ruin us, and we should stop.” No, that attitude of snobbery and willful ignorance of the world around us and moral panic about technology is what will la-la-la the news business into oblivion.

But don’t listen to me. Go to Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere and find new people you don’t know who experience things you don’t experience who have perspectives you don’t have and listen to them. That is journalism.

Carey concludes:

We must turn to the task of creating a public realm in which a free people can assemble, speak their minds, and then write or tape or otherwise record the extended conversation so that others, out of sight, might see it. If the established press wants to aid the process, so much the better. But if, in love with profits and tied to corporate interests, the press decides to sit out public life, we shall simply have to create a space for citizens and patriots by ourselves.

He wrote that in 1991, 15 years before Twitter was created because the press didn’t create it and someone else had to.

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.