Here comes the judge

The first decisions of Facebook’s independent Oversight Board make Facebook’s judgment look good by comparison. Who saw that coming?

The Board has in essence said that it is OK to insult Muslim men as a group — yet not Azerbaijanis — and that freedom of expression justifies spreading medical misinformation. How in any logic does that make for a better Facebook, a better internet, and a better world?

The problem is that the Oversight Board is interpreting Facebook’s community standards, which are intended to guide moderators and algorithms in their decisions on what posts to take down. The rules are not — as friend Jasper Jackson put it — fit for purpose to be used as the basis of interpretation and enforcement by a court of ultimate authority, the Board.

I have said again and again (and again and again and again) that Facebook — and other technology companies (and journalistic enterprises) — need to establish and be held accountable to Constitutions, Bills of Rights, North Stars (call them what you will) to act as a covenant of mutual obligation with users, customers, and the public, answering the fundamental question, “Why are we here?”

Because Facebook does not have that higher-level expression of principles, the Oversight Board is left to judge its moderation decisions against the company’s nitty-gritty statutes on one end, or on the other, overly broad concepts like “hate speech” and “human rights,” with nothing in between. The Board acted like Supreme Court strict constructionists without a Constitution to call upon, so it depended on the exact wording of statutes to set bad precedents that will make bad policy.

The Board said that criticizing Muslim men did not rise to the standard of “hate speech.” If only Facebook had a principle — an article in a Bill of Rights — that said it expected users to respect each other as individuals and as members of groups of many identities, then it would have been impossible, in my view, for Facebook, the Board, or the community of users to condone a post that says there is “something wrong with Muslims psychologically.” As the organization Muslim Advocates said: “Facebook’s Oversight Board bent over backwards to excuse hate in Myanmar — a country where Facebook has been complicit in a genocide against Muslims.”

As for the medical disinformation: The Board said that a post endorsing hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment did not rise to Facebook’s standard of “imminent physical harm,” because one needs a prescription to get it. Good Lord. We saw in the United States how Donald Trump inspired people to get the drug — and ignore other precautions — risking the health of themselves and others. The Board properly criticizes Facebook for some of its guidelines being too broad. But in this case, the guideline is too specific and created a loophole that allowed the Board to require — require! — Facebook to post medical misinformation. The Board suggested Facebook could have taken other steps, like adding context — but unfortunately, experience and data have shown that fact-checks of misinformation tend to amplify the misinformation. This is not about free expression and debate; there are no two sides to this — medicine has spoken. This decision ill informs, ill serves, and endangers the public.

I am glad — relieved — that after the Board’s decisions, Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of content policy, said the company would still stick by science: “We do believe, however, that it is critical for everyone to have access to accurate information, and our current approach in removing misinformation is based on extensive consultation with leading scientists, including from the CDC and WHO. During a global pandemic this approach will not change.”

The problem with much of this discussion about bad shit online is that it’s the bad shit that then monopolizes our attention. Look at the news: The Q conspirators are still getting much more attention on cable news, their messages amplified every day, while the Black women of Georgia who especially saved our election and our democracy are not heard (exactly what they feared and foretold: that they would be exploited for this victory and then their circumstances and issues would be ignored). This is what comes of a journalism that focuses on the bad and a debate — I say a moral panic — about the net that obsesses on the awful. Every intervention we see is to find something more to forbid until one day we’ll be done. Not. Thus Facebook’s community standards are expressed in the negative, as statutes, as commandments: Thou shalt not. What about: Thou shalt?

How could we express our expectations in the positive? If I could get a bunch of Facebook executives in a room with a whiteboard, I would start by asking them why Facebook exists. What is it here to do? How do you want its presence to make a positive influence in the world? How would you like people to treat each other? What might you expect them to accomplish? “A connected world is a better world” is fine and I agree (not everyone would), but that’s a bumper sticker, not a Constitution. I thus would press them to express Facebook’s raison d’être. At a less high-falutin’ level, I’d ask who Facebook wants in its garden party and how they should be expected to behave. Out of this discussion might come principles such as users being expected to treat each other with respect. And then I’d ask them what the company warrants to foster and support such an atmosphere. Perhaps out of that comes Facebook’s promise to follow science. Statutes — the community standards — should be based on these principles. Oversight Board decisions should call on these principles. Regulators should expect data from the company to hold it accountable for these principles (this is the basis of the regulatory framework proposed by a high-level working group of which I was a part and which I endorse).

But such a covenant does not exist. So users, moderators, engineers writing algorithms, the Board, regulators, and media are left to interpret and enforce a set of rules posted on the playground.

I now dread the Oversight Board’s upcoming decision on whether Facebook should reinstate Donald Trump. I fear they will call upon freedom of expression — even of a white-supremacist authoritarian ruler inciting violence and rebellion to tear down the sacred institutions of a democracy — and have little more to go on than Facebook’s vague description of what it may do in cases of incitement and violence. I further fear how other heads of state will use this decision, even if Facebook does not, as a precedent. As I said in an earlier post, I am concerned that Germany, the EU, the UK, and most worryingly Poland are contemplating forcing platforms to carry their speech. I will repeat: Compelled speech is not free speech.

I wish to stop a cycle of reaction: user does something new and bad; Facebook reacts by creating a rule against it; the next time a user does something similar a moderator reacts by taking it down; the user reacts by appealing to Facebook and the Board; the Board reacts by ruling according to the statute, and so on. Jane, stop this crazy thing.

Facebook has already reinstated the posts the Board ordered it to reinstate (including in another case about Hermann Goering quote and another with naked breasts in the context of cancer, which Facebook had already put back up). Facebook will then react, in turn, to understand how to enforce the Board’s enforcement of its statutes.

I hope instead that Facebook will use this opportunity to see the weakness of its community standards as the basis for governing the behavior of communities and users online and in society. I hope they will not just sit with someone like me in a room with a whiteboard but will call upon the communities to help draw up their own standards and will work with academics and civil society to imagine a better Facebook in a better world and the principles that would undergird that. I further hope that the Oversight Board will stand back and ask whether by ruling according to the letter of inadequate law it is making Facebook and the world better or worse. I hope for a lot.

Disclosure: Facebook has funded activities at my school regarding journalism and disinformation.

Trump v. Facebook

Facebook has decided to ask its new, independent Oversight Board to rule on its decision to suspend Donald Trump indefinitely. The Board will be able to make a binding determination regarding Trump, telling Facebook it was right or wrong, and Facebook and Instagram will obey. Trump will be free to a statement to the Board within two weeks.

Though the question is specific to Trump, it will undoubtedly have larger impact as other government officials — in Germany, the EU, the UK, and most worryingly Poland — are complaining about platforms being able to take down heads of state. I am equally — no, more — worried about governments thinking they can or should compel anyone, platforms or publishers, to carry their speech.

With this move, Facebook has certainly upped the ante with its Oversight Board. The first cases selected by the Board from users and sent to it by Facebook were, well, obscure. That’s not surprising. All sides of this polygon wanted to test this new institution and see how it would work. But this — the matter of Trump v. Facebook — is the case of cases. Before the Board was fully in operation, back in June, I urged Mark Zuckerberg to call them in on the question of Trump. I’m glad they’re doing it now.

When Facebook folk told me about this move, they said the company believed it did the right thing by taking down Trump. I agree. Then why appeal to the Board? Because, they said, they recognize this is an momentous decision being made inside a private enterprise and they understand the need for more perspective and accountability. Said Facebook’s VP for policy and communication (and former deputy prime minister of the UK) Nick Clegg:

Our decision to suspend then-President Trump’s access was taken in extraordinary circumstances: a U.S. President actively fomenting a violent insurrection designed to thwart the peaceful transition of power; five people killed; legislators fleeing the seat of democracy. This has never happened before – and we hope it will never happen again. It was an unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action.

In making our decision, our first priority was to assist in the peaceful transfer of power. This is why, when announcing the suspension on January 7th, we said it would be indefinite and for at least two weeks. We are referring it to the Oversight Board now that the inauguration has taken place.

The risks are many. Ubiquitous Facebook sceptics across media will likely accuse them of wimping out even though they already made the tough call. Governments will use whatever is said to fuel their fears.

Let me for a moment fuel my own fears: I do not want a society in which a government can outlaw the ability of platforms to choose what they do and do not carry (precisely what Poland is planning). Compelled speech is not free speech! I do not believe that platforms are media — an argument for another day — but if we stipulate for the moment that they are similar, then can you imagine a government in a free and enlightened nation walking into the office of an editor (of The Washington Post, The Guardian, the BBC, Die Zeit, El Pais, Le Monde, Gazeta Wyborcza) ordering that the publication must carry the words of an official (or, as in Italy, a fascist)? I pray Europeans especially would understand why this precedent in history, this idea, is dangerous.

I also worry that in seeking others — the Oversight Board, legislators, or regulators— to make its decisions, Facebook is engaging in regulatory capture. Clegg concedes: “Whether you believe the decision was justified or not, many people are understandably uncomfortable with the idea that tech companies have the power to ban elected leaders. Many argue private companies like Facebook shouldn’t be making these big decisions on their own. We agree.” Facebook can afford to deal with the legal medicine balls thrown its way by governments; new, small entrants into the net cannot. I want to see Facebook defend freedom of expression on the net for all.

In this process, I hope that Facebook decides to be as open and transparent as possible. I want to hear how they made the decision to take down Trump in the first place. I want to see data about the impact Trump’s incendiary and insurrectionist words had on users. I want to hear that they understood and debated key issues. I would like to think they listened to experts and perspectives — especially those of academics who research these matters — outside the company. I want them to be held accountable to do just that. It is not sufficient for Facebook to give the Oversight Board a binary, hot potato: Trump online? Trump offline? This is a nuanced and difficult discussion. I hope the Oversight Board sees it that way and returns a decision that looks at the many questions the case raises.

Again, Facebook is obligating itself to follow the decision of the Board only in the matter of Trump; the case is limited. Fine. What I find more valuable than the decision is the discussion. What precedents are set here for other situations in other countries? Last week, a journalist called me to discuss whether the Trump decision sets a precedent for taking down Ayatollah Khamenei based on human rights violations in Iran. Certainly this is a discussion that should be had in the Philippines — ask my friend Maria Ressa — in Myanmar, in Turkey, and elsewhere. Platforms must not become the outlets of governments, especially not autocrats and tyrants.

Twitter has been transparent with media about the process that led it to take down Trump; see stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times. I have met the company’s head of policy, Vijaya Gadde, as well as Jack Dorsey and the company’s staff working in safety, and I am impressed with their good will and judgment. I have more faith the more I hear of their decision-making. The same goes for every technology company. I have argued that Facebook, Twitter, Google — and, indeed, every journalistic enterprise — should establish covenants, North Stars, Constitutions (call them what you will) with the public and be held accountable for following them through transparency (I was part of the working group that recommended a regulatory and legal framework to do just that).

The internet is, at long last, the outlet for citizens, especially those too long not heard in mass media. This is our press. When we abuse it — whether as citizens or as heads of state — the platforms have the right and the responsibility to moderate us (this is why I am a staunch believer in Section 230) but governments should not control our speech (this is why I am a First Amendment absolutist).

These are indeed big questions as we decide together what standards the net — Facebook, Twitter, Google in the specific but the internet and society on the whole — should set in relation to speech and to power. The more discussion we have about these difficult issues, the better. For we are a society relearning how to hold a conversation with ourselves after half a millenium in Gutenberg’s thrall (that is the book I’m writing). This won’t be quick.

The Board will have 90 days to decide.


Disclosure: Facebook has funded activities at my school regarding journalism and disinformation. I receive nothing personally from any platform.

The Counter-Reformation

Journalists are tying themselves in knots about what words to use, what to call the actions yesterday, what to call the people who incited and engaged in them. Choosing the words is the ultimate job of the journalist.

Let me propose a historical way to view what is occurring now. I am coming to see #BlackLivesMatter as the recent culmination of the long American Racial Reformation. The Martin Luthers of our time are Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, who made #BLM a movement, and Stacey Abrams and especially the Black women who have finally brought our electoral victories, and so many more who have fought for so long. Their new tools include — just include — social media. Their cause is equity and reparation.

What we saw at the Capitol on January 6 was the Counter-Reformation, an effort by institutions — the Republican Party — and people — white men — to hold onto the power they see themselves losing at last. Their tools are Donald Trump, right-wing media (at the same time, they are the tools of Rupert Murdoch), the complacency and fear of mass media, and intimidation and violence. Their cause is white supremacy.

Journalists love to say they are writing the “first draft of history.” That is journalists saying that they ignore history, that everything they report is new, thus news. Our job must be to put current events in context. To report on Donald Trump and his incitement of violence and sedition and as anything less than a racist coup aimed at burning down the institutions of democracy and resurrecting Jim Crow is wrong and irresponsible. It is a lie of omission. It is not journalism.

Yet we see editors fretting about the fine points. See CBS:

“Overly dramatic?” How could one not express the day as dramatic? How could one see what occurred as anything other than an attempt to stop and take over government: a coup? This is paternalistic pandering by the editors at CBS. It is irresponsible.

On the other hand, Marty Baron of the Washington Post told his journalists to use “mob” not “protestor.” Good. The again, the L.A. Times allowed the insurgents to call what they engaged in “a second revolution.” Not good. 

In the midst of it all, I tweeted asking journalists to select the right words. Among mine: Coup. Insurgent. Insurrection. Fascist. Terrorist. Traitor. Sedition. Racist.

Has the institution of journalism learned nothing after four years of avoiding the words “lie” and “liar”, “racist” and “white supremacy” — not to mention “narcissism” and “insanity”?

Now is the time to stand up and call a coup a coup in the hopes that it does not get worse. I pray we are not at the beginning of a Thirty Years’ War.

Speechless: An allegory for our time

They had warned me about the silence of the City. Living in the woods these last few years, alone with my pod-family, my mind’s ear had grown accustomed to nature’s carols of birds, crickets, and wind. From the City, I expected the cacophonies of my memory. But now, there was not a word.

When researchers agreed that this latest virus, MO’VID-29, was spread most effectively via talking or shouting — not to mention coughing and sneezing or, God forbid, singing — it did not take long for masks and silence to become the norm and then the law. In the last pandemic, too many millions of lives and insurance dollars were lost in the insane War of the Masks and its long-haul aftermath — so many that sense and science finally had to prevail, at least in this case. This time, with no vaccine in sight, the mandate to stick a sock in it finally did pass.

The irony of our next pandemic striking now, just as the last embers of online speech are dying out, is too obvious to be ironic. But that’s America. We never did irony well.

In this trip, on the subway, no one made eye contact — which was always true here, but all the truer now that the experts keep reminding us that a straight line is the shortest path to infection. Look down; breathe down. With our new muffling masks hiding every expression, with no glance into an eye, with no talk and no opportunity to eavesdrop, it was impossible to imagine what anyone was thinking; impossible to connect. An elevator ride had always been an antisocial experience, but in the morning as I left the hotel, I was not prepared for the sight of four people each facing a corner and an exhaust fan. On the street, people moved as if they were magnets projecting opposite poles.

The night before, when I’d arrived, I was hungry, and since I could not imagine how expensive the room service would be in my awfully expensive little hotel, I decided to try the New Automat I’d seen in constant commercials; we don’t have them out in the country yet. Back when I used to travel, I never minded eating out and alone; I loved reading books over dinner and wine. But this was too eerie: all the diners alone in their own plexiboxes, not unlike the Zoomboxes we use to enclose us so we may talk on calls. Instead of a person on the screen in front of me there was a menu and below it, a slot that would open when the conveyor delivered my meal. To complete the effect, I wondered why they didn’t add steel bars and name the chain Solitary.

I was in the City to see my editor, not that there was much point in coming in as we’d have to converse in our individual, sealed Zoomboxes anyway. But at least we could look at each other through the plexi rather than screens. I’m old enough to remember when authors and editors had lunch at tables with tablecloths and wine. I’m old enough to remember authors. Anyway, being an old fart, for auld lang syne, I decided to take the risk and come in for my final negotiations. Oh, how I wish it were like the old days, when we’d be arguing over the title of my book or my defense of the Oxford comma or my predilection — which I readily confess — for dashes. Now we had to hash out my fee: how much I would be paying to my fact-checker, to my risk actuary, for licenses of snippets of quoted and referenced material, and for my speech insurance.

Amazing how, since the death of Section 230, everything in my humble trade has been flipped on its side. That poor little law, just twenty-six words, never stood a chance, as the right and the left attacked it in an ideological pincer movement: the left demanding that too-big platforms take down hate speech and lies or lose their protections, the right protesting that the hate speech and lies the platforms took down was theirs and so they threatened to go after the companies for “canceling” them. Media poked the coals fueling moral panic, gleefully demonizing technology companies and ultimately the internet itself. They created the conflict they covered. But they never acknowledged the conflict of interest inherent in attacking companies that competed with them for users’ attention and advertisers’ dollars. They never saw that in going after this law they undermined the protection of their own free press. Never mind all that; it made a good story.

After 230’s end, any company carrying anyone else’s speech — words, sounds, pictures, video, memes, shares, links, creativity, and conversation of any sort — became liable for the content of that speech. Gawker suits sprouted like mushrooms in a dark, industrial pig barn. The by-now-broken-up platforms’ first instinct was to make everything ephemeral: all speech disappeared in the wind after twenty-four hours, then twenty-four minutes. That didn’t much matter, for entrepreneurial cryptodicks made trollish enterprises that scraped every word and thought from the baby nets as it occurred, stored it all offshore in their undersea data farms, and filed or merely threatened suits with evidence in hand. These bros became our evil librarians, for they held the only repository of our online life and culture in text and image and we who made it couldn’t get at it, but for a price.

Enter the insurance industry. Their bottom lines were slaughtered in the slaughter of citizens to the Trump virus — trillions of dollars gone in life insurance and medical payments and bankruptcies, with record losses even after government bailout upon bailout. Now the companies saw a new business opportunity in insuring speech after such a policy was pioneered by the British startup, the Stationers’ Company.

For a price, you can get your book or blog post published, but you must indemnify the platform or publisher that carries it. Contemporary nonfiction is nearly an impossibility; the risk is too high and so then is the price. Fiction retains its defense for the author and carrier of not being true, but now absence of truth must be certified. To get a policy and license to publish, you have to subject your work to the scrutiny of fact-checkers, who certify the fictional nature of the writing by finding and excising every fact and replacing it with an alternative fact. We used to call the process being Conwayed, until she sued for trademark violation.

As a result, most everything is fiction, all is allegory. We learned much from our Chinese internet cousins, who for years before us had honed the skill of replacing people with animals, ideas with memes. But woe be to whoever translates the alternative to the real. Lawyers await. When I complained to my agent, she said, “If Kafka could do it…” Yes, but he had metaphor and irony. We work amid the literal-minded Puritanism of the right-wing fundamentalists, who will label that which they don’t understand dangerous, so we must make everything in their sight obvious and anodyne. The third-person effect is now the rule of the land, its enforcers arguing that they alone are not vulnerable to hate, porn, disinformation, or heresy — but everyone else is. So they protect us from us. “This,” I shouted back to my agent from the safety of our Zoomboxes, “is rule not by Big Brother but by Barney.”

The only other loophole in the law that replaced 230 is the exemption for political and government speech: anything said by a politician or government official, including local pols and police, is safe from threat of suit. Was what followed an unintended or intended consequence? Candidates for public office got nuttier and nuttier and so the only free speech — theirs — was little else than conspiracies and lies. The few newspapers left — one or two bankrolled by billionaires, the others by nutters themselves, the rest abandoned by the hedge funds that controlled them because of the high cost of speech insurance — carried official words because they were official. And so, in the self-fulfilling prophecy that has always been political news, media assured election of extremes.

This is not to say that there are not still some people who speak their minds, if they indeed had them. The same people who bring and bankroll suits against us still spout their hate, bile, and flame because they have more lawyers than you do. These are the people who cried “cancel!”, though, of course, they were not the ones being silenced. By claiming “cancel culture,” they attacked the speech of those who dared criticize them. And they won. They owned the libs after all.

While in the City, I came upon a demonstration over the police killing of a man whose spoken cry of innocence became a capital crime. With cops all around ready to arrest anyone at the first sound, there were no shouts, chants, or songs. Instead, on the left, I saw a forest of brandished middle fingers: human emoji. On the right, a herd of angry white men in their uniform “STFU” gimme hats brandished their Trump thumbs. This scene seemed to me the perfect culmination of our culture wars: all emotion, no substance.

The public conversation simply does not exist. I don’t mean to say that the end of 230 was the sole cause of that; there were other conditions leading here. In the Petri dish of the last decade, the techlash created the perfect medium for the cloning of laws and regulations from around the world. Practically every nation passed a carbon copy of Germany’s NetzDG hate-speech law, which in practicality forced the baby platforms — each smaller and less able to afford defense of itself and the internet — to take down anything that might be taken as hate by anyone. Countless nations followed little England’s lead and deputized regulatory agencies to enforce a duty of care against online harm. To this day, no legislature or court has adequately defined harm or hate, so anything that might possibly offend, though legal, is vaporized. This is what they call neutrality.

Europe’s Right to be Forgotten is de jure universal as now any nation may demand that any platform take down anything worldwide: privacy über alles, Datenschutz for all, we have reached the lowest common denominator of freedom. This has made for a fascinating legal quandary: Who is to say who owns a conversation or a transaction? If you and I correspond and I don’t want you to remember or repeat what was said, I can claim ownership of “my” data and force you to erase your memory of it. Code being law, this question has been translated into not only the ephemeral eradication of most any uninsured public content but also private conversation. That is, my Zoombox will not let me record us and my Gmail will not let me keep or print our emails unless you sign my terms and conditions, and because of our speech liability policies, we all got ’em.

Seeing its opportunity to pounce, the old content industry — Hollywood and remaining newspaper moguls — managed to exploit this highly restrictive environment by expanding the content controls they had been dreaming of. Europe’s and America’s copyright extensions spread around the globe such that it is now nigh unto impossible to quote anyone or share anything anyone else has said without getting — that is, paying for — permission. That’s another hurdle my book will have to go through: Plagiarism.AI, which will ferret out any line, character, or idea that might have been said anywhere in almost a century — that is, the time covered by copyright — which could make me, my publisher, and my insurance company liable. A hit sets red lights and red pencils into action, unless I’m willing to pay Disney for the privilege of calling all this “Mickey Mouse.”

I blame the politicians for passing their cynical laws. I blame the nutters and the uneducated, angry cultists who voted them into office. I blame media for their latter-day Luddite crusade against technology, their negligence to tell the truth about the insanity gripping Earth, and their failure of vision on the internet. I blame the technology companies for their hubris, greed, secrecy, awful decision-making, and refusal, in the end, to defend our internet because they thought it was theirs. But I also blame my fellow academics and writers. For I remember my horror when I first saw a paper that asked — just asked, mind you — whether the First Amendment was outmoded, obsolete. I remember how appalled I was when I read another professor’s blog post arguing that we have “too much speech.” I shouted into the air, when we still could: “Who is to say whose speech is too much?” It was this letting down of the guard around freedom of expression for all that led us to the uncomfortable silence we endure today.

The net that I hoped would let anyone and everyone speak freely past the gatekeepers and censors, the net that would introduce us to each other and make strangers less strange, the net that eventually would spark creativity yet unimagined (perhaps a century and a half hence, for that is how long after Gutenberg it took for new forms of media and literature to flourish) — that net is dead.

Or is it?

This is a tale of privilege and power to which the privileged and powerful are willfully blind. It is ever thus. Whenever a new means of speech is created, enabling voices previously unheard to speak, the incumbents in charge of the old mechanisms try to control it. They have since Gutenberg. Scribes objected to printing, newspapers to radio, print to television, media to the net — at each stage in cahoots with other threatened institutions of power: princes, popes, parliaments, legislators, regulators, industries, elites. They have used many tools of control: censorship, banning and burning (of books and their authors), criminalization, the granting of monopolies, licensing, copyright and the protection of exclusionary business models, moral condemnation, and critical belittling. The net finally allowed anyone connected to it to speak to anyone else, everywhere. That is what made it more threatening to the privileged and powerful than each technology before: the scale of its freedoms. That is why they so overreacted. Every time before, speech would out. I am yet optimistic that it will again — that, for example, #BlackLivesMatter’s Reformation will rise like Luther’s. But it will take too long and I am too old to wait.

You might wonder why I dare write these facts and accusations, undisguised. Well, I left my editor’s office that day with a bottom line: I would pay more in insurance and fees than the publisher would pay me for my work. We’d both lose money on it. I realized that today, we no longer pay to read; we have to pay to write. Speech is not free. I can tell you its price to the penny.

I decided to speak out nonetheless. I would like to think this was a decision on principle: to tell the truth. But the truth is, I’m cowardly. I write this not in the City or from my country pod but instead from one of the last two sane nations on Earth. I chose Iceland thanks to a very nice politician there, whose lovely old dog I used to watch on the late, lamented Twitter as they strolled the streets of their Reykjavik neighborhood. She became a friend from afar only thanks to the internet and social media back in the day, when that was still possible. She worked to grant me writer’s asylum and entry into the creators’ refuge camp on her island, which — like the other island of sanity in our world, New Zealand — has managed to stay disease-free. Here I treasure my little room, my thick sweaters, my keyboard, and my voice.

Our movement

Every year at this time, I am impressed with the imagination, invention, daring, and mission of our Social Journalism graduates at the Newmark J-School as they reimagine and reinvent journalism. I am particularly impressed this year as they were hit with the pandemic, forcing them to take their work of showing up and listening indoors and online. In this, the last week in the term, we watched 2020’s graduates and next year’s students present their work with communities. 

These students consistently push the old, sealed envelope of journalism. Examples: A few are experimenting with fiction as journalism. One planned a play to educate tenants about their rights in evictions. Some reached their communities with posters on phone polls. One enabled refugees to take their own pictures so they could tell their stories rather than having them told by others. One tried to get newspaper publishers to print absentee-ballot applications (the papers refused). One made a zine with political cartoons to educate journalists. One made a guide for young Latinx journalists to help them get their stories told in newsrooms. More than one realized that to gain the trust they were asking for, they needed to be open about themselves; one offered her community an opportunity to ask her anything, another tells the story of his addiction. One got dragged out of a meeting by a mayor because of her reporting; the mayor was soon defeated. One created playlists to help people with depression as her journalism. 

They serve a grand diversity of communities: black, transgender women; disenfranchised voters; tenants at risk of losing their homes in the pandemic; black women victimized over their natural hair; people going hungry in one American city; Kashmiris under occupation; Syrian refugees; victims of gun violence and advocates for gun safety; teachers; young journalists; people who buy weed; residents of Louisiana’s cancer alley; people with depression; recovering addicts and people who care for them; healthcare workers; caregivers; school social workers; people with intellectual developmental disabilities in group homes suffering abuse; feminists protesting the murders of women in Mexico; the incarcerated and their loved ones; trans sex workers; hair braiders; the Venezuelan diaspora; bicyclists. 

What was particularly gratifying this year was that — given we were on Zoom and not in a too-small room — well more than a hundred people came to hear the graduates present their final project and among them were dozens of alumni of our still-young Social Journalism program. They came to give their support and admiration, which, thanks to Zoom, they could share as chat. 

Our alumni are phenomenal. They are our Trojan horses who are changing newsrooms, where they are quickly employed, with their learned skills — social, data, reporting, investigation, product, entrepreneurship — but more than that, their worldviews, their vision for what journalism can and should be. As the director of our program, my brilliant colleague Dr. Carrie Brown, says, these alums preach the gospel of Social Journalism more eloquently and effectively than we do. 

And what is that gospel? That we start not with content but with communities. That we first listen to communities so they are heard on their terms. We empathize with their needs and reflect our understanding back to assure we have listened well. Then we imagine what journalism we might bring to serve them. We believe in journalism as service, not product. As you can see above, we find and work with an incredible richness of tools to perform that service, beyond publishing stories. We try to build bridges and understanding. And we constantly question our assumptions about journalism, unafraid to challenge the shiboleth of objectivity, recognizing its roots in systemic racism and our field’s damage to communities, and questioning the high heresy of journalism as advocacy for those we serve. 

This is our mission. This is our movement. This is how our students and graduates are reimagining and rebuilding journalism. 

We accepted our first students in January 2015, only nine months after our dean, Sarah Bartlett, challenged me to envision a new degree based on my thinking about a relationship-based strategy for news and we were lucky enough to hire Dr. Brown to build and lead it. Here is the Social Journalism class of 2020

I am prouder of nothing else in my career more than helping to start Social Journalism. May my tombstone carry the hashtag #SocialJ.