Beto to journalism: ‘What the fuck?’

This post began with Beto O’Rourke’s lesson. Then I added Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And then Eddie Glaude Jr.’s.


Reporter: Is there anything in your mind the President can do to make this better?
Beto O’Rourke: What do you think? You know the shit he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists. I don’t know, members of the press, what the fuck? [Reporter tries to interrupt.] Hold on a second. You know, it’s these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism; he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence; he’s inciting racism and violence in this country…. I don’t know what kind of question that is.

O’Rourke’s scolding of the press is well-deserved. Allow me to translate it into a few rules to report by.

Tell the truth. Speak the word. If you prevaricate, refusing to call what you see racism or what you hear lies, you give license to the public to do the same and give license to the racists and liars to get away with it.

Stop getting other people to say what you should. It’s a journalistic trick as old as pencils: Asking someone else about racism so you don’t have to say it yourself.

It is not your job to ask stupid questions. Like Beto, I’ve had it with the milquetoast journalistic strategy of asking obvious questions to which we know the answer because “that’s our job, we just ask questions.” Arguing that you are asking these questions in loco publico only insults the public we serve.

You are not a tape recorder. Repeating lies and hate without context, correction, or condemnation makes you an accessory to the crimes. That goes for racists’ manifestos as well as racists at press conferences.

Do not accept bad answers. Follow up your questions. Follow up other reporters’ questions. Just because you’ve checked off your question doesn’t mean your work here is done.

Listen. Do not come to the story with blanks ready to fill in the narrative you’ve already imagined and pitched. Listen first. Learn.

Be human. You are are not separate from the community you serve; you are part of it. You are not objective; you have a worldview. You cannot hide that worldview; be transparent.

Be honest. The standard you work under as a journalist — the thing that separates your words from others’ — should be intellectual honesty. That is, report inconvenient truths.

Improve the world. You exist to serve the public conversation, not to incite conflict, not to pit sides against each other, not to make the world worse.

Finally, I’ll add: You’re not the public’s protector. If Beto says “what the fuck?” then I say report his words; spare us your asterisks.

We live in unusual times so usual methods will not suffice. We need new strategies to report on new dangers or we will be complicit in the result.


Moments after I posted this, I saw that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also offered excellent advice for journalists. Unusual times, indeed, when politicians know better how to do journalism than too many journalists. She tweeted:

Racism is the most important story of the day. It has been the most important story of the age in America but it was not the biggest story in news until now. That has happened only because we have an obvious racist in the White House and racists supporting him and now they cannot hide from the recognition and media cannot hide from covering the story. So take this good advice.


And then I saw Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr. on Nicolle Wallace’s MSNBC show deliver a vital, forceful, profound, brilliant lesson in racism in America. Please watch again and again.

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The morning after, I saw The New York Times violate everything above with this:

Evidence, please

  • Earlier studies of the bifurcated blog world 15 years ago uncovered “only mild echo chambers.”
  • The Pew Research Center found that Facebook users do not select friends based on political leaning and thus are exposed to other worldviews in social media.
  • Two studies looked at already divisive topics — abortion, vaccination, Obamacare, gun control — and found, of course, they were also divisive online, though non-political but debatable topics — Game of Thrones and food porn — did not lead to polarization online. Is divisiveness online the cause or the effect?
  • “Social media users generally encounter a greater diversity of newssources than non-users do.”
  • “Those users frequenting the most extremely partisan conservative sites in the United States have been found also to be more likely than ordinary internet users to visit the centrist New York Times.”
  • “Exposure to highly partisan political information … does not come at the expense of contact with other viewpoints.”
  • In sum, a half-dozen academics argue, “at present there is little empirical evidence that warrants any worries about filter bubbles.”

News Publishers Go To War With the Internet — and We All Lose

Around the world, news industry trade associations are corruptly cashing in their political capital — which they have because their members are newspapers, and politicians are scared of them — in desperate acts of protectionism to attack platform companies. The result is a raft of legislation that will damage the internet and in the end hurt everyone, including journalists and especially citizens.

As I was sitting in the airport leaving Newsgeist Europe, a convening for journalists and publishers [disclosure: Google pays for the venue, food, and considerable drink; participants pay their own travel], my Twitter feed lit up like the Macy’s fireworks as The New York Times reported — or rather, all but photocopied — a press release from the News Media Alliance (née Newspaper Association of America) contending that Google makes $4.7 billion a year from news, at the expense of news publishers.

Bullshit.

The Times story itself is appalling as it swallowed the News Media Alliance’s PR whole, quoting people from the association and not including comment from Google until hours later. Many on Twitter were aghast at the poor journalism. I contacted Google PR, who said The Times did not reach out to the person who normally speaks on these matters or anyone in the company’s Washington office. Google sent me their statement:

These back of the envelope calculations are inaccurate as a number of experts are pointing out. The overwhelming number of news queries do not show ads. The study ignores the value Google provides. Every month Google News and Google Search drives over 10 billion clicks to publishers’ websites, which drive subscriptions and significant ad revenue. We’ve worked very hard to be a collaborative and supportive technology and advertising partner to news publishers worldwide.

The “study” upon which The Times (and others) relied is, to say the least, specious. No, it’s humiliating. I want to dispatch with its fallacies quickly — to get to my larger point, about the danger legacy news publishers are posing to the future of news and the internet — and that won’t be hard. The study collapses in its second paragraph:

Google has emerged as a major gateway for consumers to access news. In 2011, Google Search combined with Google News accounted for the majority (approximately 75%) of referral traffic to top news sites. Since January 2017, traffic from Google Search to news publisher sites has risen by more than 25% to approximately 1.6 billion visits per week in January 2018. Corresponding with consumers’ shift towards Google for news consumption, news is becoming increasingly important to Google, as demonstrated by an increase in Google searches about news.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is great news for news. For as anyone under the age of 99 understands, Google sends readers to sites based on links from search and other products. That Google is emphasizing news and currency more is good for publishers, as that sends them readers. (That 10-billion-click number Google cited above is eight years old and so I have little doubt it is much higher now thanks to all its efforts around news.)

The problem has long been that publishers aren’t competent at exploiting the full value of these clicks by creating meaningful and valuable ongoing relationships with the people sent their way. So what does Google do? It tries to help publishers by, for example, starting a subscription service that drives more readers to easily subscribe — and join and contribute — to news sites directly from Google pages. The NMA study cites that subscription service as an example of Google emphasizing news and by implication exploiting publishers. It is the opposite. Google started the subscription service because publishers begged for it — I was in the room when they did — and Google listened. The same goes for most every product change the study lists in which Google emphasizes news more. That helps publishers. The study then uses ridiculously limited data (including, crucially, an offhand and often disputed remark 10 years ago by a then-exec at Google about the conceptual value of news) to make leaps over logic to argue that news is important on its services and thus Google owes news publishers a cut of its revenue (which Google gains by offering publishers’ former customers, advertisers, a better deal; it’s called competition). By this logic, Instagram should be buying cat food for every kitty in the land and Reddit owes a fortune to conspiracy theorists.

The real problem here is news publishers’ dogged refusal to understand how the internet has changed their world, throwing the paradigm they understood into the grinder. In the US and Europe, they still contend that Google is taking their “content,” as if quoting and linking to their sites is like a camera stealing their soul. They cannot grok that value on the internet is concentrated not in a product or property called content — articles, headlines, snippets, thumbnails, words — but instead in relationships. Journalism is no longer a factory valued by how many widgets and words it produces but instead by how much it accomplishes for people in their lives. I have tried here and here and in many a meeting in newsrooms and journalism conferences to offer this advice to news publishers — with tangible ideas about how to build a new journalistic business around relationships — but most prove incapable of shifting mindset and strategy beyond valuing content for content’s sake. Editors who do understand are often stymied by their short-sighted publishers and KPIs and soon quit.

Most legacy publishers have come up with no sustainable business strategy for a changing world. So they try to stop the world from changing by unleashing their trade associations [read: lobbyists] on capitals from Brussels to Berlin to London to Melbourne to Washington (see: the NMA’s effort to get an antitrust exemption to go after the platforms for antitrust; its study was prepared to hand to Congress in time for its hearings this week). These trade associations attack the platforms without ever acknowledging the fault of their own members in our current polarization in society. (Yes, I’m talking about, for example, Fox News and other Murdoch properties, dues-paying members of many a trade association. By our silence in journalism and its trade associations in not criticizing their worst, we endorse it.)

The efforts of lobbyists for my industry are causing irreparable harm to the internet. No, Google, Facebook, and Twitter are not the internet, but what is done to them is done to the net. And what’s been done includes horrendous new copyright legislation in the EU that tries to force Google et al to have to negotiate to pay for quoting snippets of content to which they link. Google won’t; it would be a fool to. So I worry that platforms will link to news less and less resulting in self-inflicted harm for the news industry and journalists, but more important hurting the public conversation at exactly the wrong moment. Thanks, publishers. At Newsgeist Europe, I sat in a room filled with journalists terribly worried about the impact of the EU’s copyright directive on their work and their business but I have to say they have no one but their own publishers and lobbyists to blame.

I am tempted to say that I am ashamed of my own industry. But I won’t for two reasons: First, I want to believe that the industry’s lobbyists do not speak for journalists themselves — but I damned well better start hearing the protests of journalists to what their companies are doing. (That includes journalists on the NMA board.) Second, I am coming to see that I’m not part of the media industry but instead that we are all part of something larger, which we now see as the internet. (I’ll be writing more about this idea later.) That means we have a responsibility to criticize and help improve both technology and news companies. What I see instead is too many journalists stirring up moral panic about the internet and its current (by no means permanent) platforms, serving — inadvertently or not — the protectionist strategies of their own bosses, without examining media’s culpability in many of the sins they attribute to technology. (I wish I could discuss this with The New York Times’ ombudsman or any ombudsman in our field, but we know what happened to them.)

My point: We’re in this together. That is why I go to events put on by both the technology and news industries, why I try to help both, why I criticize both, why I try to help build bridges between them. It’s why I am devoting time and effort to my least favorite subject: internet regulation. It is why I am so exasperated at leaders in my own industry for their failure to recognize, adapt to, and exploit the change they try to deny. It’s why I’m disappointed in my own industry for not criticizing itself. Getting politicians who are almost all painfully ignorant about technology to try to define, limit, and regulate that technology and what we can do with it is the last thing we should do. It is irresponsible and dangerous of my industry to try.

Regulating the net is regulating us

Here are three intertwined posts in one: a report from inside a workshop on Facebook’s Oversight Board; a follow-up on the working group on net regulation I’m part of; and a brief book report on Jeff Kosseff’s new and very good biography of Section 230, The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet.

Facebook’s Oversight Board

Last week, I was invited — with about 40 others from law, media, civil society, and the academe — to one of a half-dozen workshops Facebook is holding globally to grapple with the thicket of thorny questions associated with the external oversight board Mark Zuckerberg promised.

(Disclosures: I raised money for my school from Facebook. We are independent and I receive no compensation personally from any platform. The workshop was held under Chatham House rule. I declined to sign an NDA and none was then required, but details about to real case studies were off the record.)

You may judge the oversight board as you like: as an earnest attempt to bring order and due process to Facebook’s moderation; as an effort by Facebook to slough off its responsibility onto outsiders; as a PR stunt. Through the two-day workshop, the group kept trying to find an analog for Facebook’s vision of this: Is it an appeals court, a small-claims court, a policy-setting legislature, an advisory council? Facebook said the board will have final say on content moderation appeals regarding Facebook and Instagram and will advise on policy. It’s two mints in one.

The devil is the details. Who is appointed to the board and how? How diverse and by what definitions of diversity are the members of the board selected? Who brings cases to the board (Facebook? people whose content was taken down? people who complained about content? board members?)? How does the board decide what cases to hear? Does the board enforce Facebook policyor can it countermand it? How much access to data about cases and usage will the board have? How much authority will the board have to bring in experts and researchers and what access to data will they have? How does the board scale its decision-making when Facebook receives 3 million reports against content a day? How is consistency found among the decisions of three-member panels in the 40ish-member board? How can a single board in a single global company be consistent across a universe of cultural differences and sensitive to them? As is Facebook’s habit, the event was tightly scheduled with presentations and case studies and so — at least before I had to leave in day two — there was less open debate of these fascinating questions than I’d have liked.

Facebook starts with its 40 pages of community standards, updated about every two weeks, which are in essence its statutes. I recommend you look through them. They are thoughtful and detailed. For example:

A hate organization is defined as: Any association of three or more people that is organized under a name, sign or symbol and that has an ideology, statements or physical actions that attack individuals based on characteristics, including race, religious affiliation, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, serious disease or disability.

At the workshop, we heard how a policy team sets these rules, how product teams create the tools around them, and how operations — with people in 20 offices around the world, working 24/7, in 50 languages — are trained to enforce them.

But rules — no matter how detailed — are proving insufficient to douse the fires around Facebook. Witness the case, only days after the workshop, of the manipulated Nancy Pelosi video and subsequent cries for Facebook to take it down. I was amazed that so many smart people thought it was an easy matter for Facebook to take down the video because it was false, without acknowledging the precedent that would set requiring Facebook henceforth to rule on the truth of everything everyone says on its platform — something no one should want. Facebook VP for Product Policy and Counterterrorism Monika Bickert (FYI: I interviewed her at a Facebook safety event the week before) said the company demoted the video in News Feed and added a warning to the video. But that wasn’t enough for those out for Facebook’s hide. Here’s a member of the UK Parliament (who was responsible for the Commons report on the net I criticized here):

So by Collins’ standard, if UK politicians in his own party claim as a matter of malicious political disinformation that the country pays £350m per week to the EU that would be freed up for the National Health Service with Brexit and that’s certified by journalists to be “willful distortion,” should Facebook be required to take that statement down? Just asking. It’s not hard to see where this notion of banning falsity goes off the rails and has a deleterious impact on freedom of expression and political discussion.

But politicians want to take bites out of Facebook’s butt. They want to blame Facebook for the ill-informed state of political debate. They want to ignore their own culpability. They want to blame technology and technology companies for what people — citizens — are doing.

Ditto media. Here’s Kara Swisher tearing off her bit of Facebook flesh regarding the Pelosi video: “Would a broadcast network air this? Never. Would a newspaper publish it? Not without serious repercussions. Would a marketing campaign like this ever pass muster? False advertising.”

Sigh. The internet is not media. Facebook is not news (only 4% of what appears there is). What you see there is not content. It is conversation. The internet and Facebook are means for the vast majority of citizenry forever locked out of media and of politics to discuss whatever they want, whether you like it or not. Those who want to control that conversation are the privileged and powerful who resent competition from new voices.

By the way, media people: Beware what you wish for when you declare that platforms are media and that they must do this or that, for your wishes could blow back on you and open the door for governments and others to demand that media also erase that which someone declares to be false.

Facebook’s oversight board is trying to mollify its critics — and forestall regulation of it — by meeting their demands to regulate content. Therein lies its weakness, I think: regulating content.

Regulating Actors, Behaviors, or Content

A week before the Facebook workshop, I attended a second meeting of a Transatlantic High Level Working Group on Content Moderation and Freedom of Expression (read: regulation), which I wrote about earlier. At the first meeting, we looked at separating treatment of undesirable content (dealt with under community standards such as Facebook’s) from illegal content (which should be the purview of government and of an internet court; details on that proposal here.)

At this second meeting, one of the brilliant members of the group (held under Chatham House, so I can’t say who) proposed a fundamental shift in how to look at efforts to regulate the internet, proposing an ABC rule separating actors from behaviors from content. (Here’s another take on the latest meeting from a participant.)

It took me time to understand this, but it became clear in our discussion that regulating content is a dangerous path. First, making content illegal is making speech illegal. As long as we have a First Amendment and a Section 230 (more on that below) in the United States, that is a fraught notion. In the UK, a Commons committee recently released an Online Harms White Paper that demonstrates just how dangerous the idea of regulating content can be. The white paper wants to require — under pain of huge financial penalty for companies and executives — that platforms exercise a duty of care to take down “threats to our way of life” that include not only illegal and harmful content (child porn, terrorism) but also legal and harmful content (including trolling [please define] and disinformation [see above]). Can’t they see that government requiring the takedown of legal content makes it illegal? Can’t they see that by not defining harmful content, they put a chill on all speech? For an excellent takedown of the report, see this post by Graham Smith, who says that what the Commons committee is impossibly vague. He writes:

‘Harm’ as such has no identifiable boundaries, at least none that would pass a legislative certainty test.

This is particularly evident in the White Paper’s discussion of Disinformation. In the context of anti-vaccination the White Paper notes that “Inaccurate information, regardless of intent, can be harmful”.

Having equated inaccuracy with harm, the White Paper contradictorily claims that the regulator and its online intermediary proxies can protect users from harm without policing truth or accuracy…

See: This is the problem when you try to identify, regulate, and eliminate bad content. Smith concludes: “This is a mechanism for control of individual speech such as would not be contemplated offline and is fundamentally unsuited to what individuals do and say online.” Nevermind the common analogy to regulation of broadcast. Would we ever suffer such talk about regulating the contents of bookstores or newspapers or — more to the point — conversations in the corner bar?

What becomes clear is that these regulatory methods — private (at Facebook) and public (in the UK and across Europe) — are aimed not at content but ultimately at behavior, only they don’t say so. It is nearly impossible to judge content in isolation. For example, my liberal world is screaming about the slow-Pelosi video. But then what about this video from three years ago?

What makes one abhorrent and one funny? The eye of the beholder? The intent of the creator? Both. Thus content can’t be judged on its own. Context matters. Motive matters. But who is to judge intent and impact and how?

The problem is that politicians and media do not like certain behavior by certain citizens. They cannot figure out how to regulate it at scale (and would prefer not to make the often unpopular decisions required), so they assign the task to intermediaries — platforms. Pols also cannot figure out how to define the bad behavior they want to forbid, so they decide instead to turn an act into a thing — content — and outlaw that under vague rules they expect intermediaries to enforce … or else.

The intermediaries, in turn, cannot figure out how to take this task on at scale and without risk. In an excellent Harvard Law Review paper called The New Governors: The People, Rules, and Processes Governing Online Speech, legal scholar Kate Klonick explains that the platforms began by setting standards. Facebook’s early content moderation guide was a page long, “so it was things like Hitler and naked people,” says early Facebook community exec Dave Willner. Charlotte Willner, who worked in customer service then (they’re now married), said moderators were told “if it makes you feel bad in your gut, then go ahead and take it down.” But standards — or statements of values— don’t scale as they are “often vague and open ended” and can be “subject to arbitrary and/or prejudiced enforcement.” And algos don’t grok values. So the platforms had to shift from standards to rules. “Rules are comparatively cheap and easy to enforce,” says Klonick, “but they can be over- and underinclusive and, thus, can lead to unfair results. Rules permit little discretion and in this sense limit the whims of decisionmakers, but they also can contain gaps and conflicts, creating complexity and litigation.” That’s where we are today. Thus Facebook’s systems, algorithmic and human, followed its rules when they came across the historic photo of a child in a napalm attack. Child? Check. Naked? Check. At risk? Check. Take it down. The rules and the systems of enforcement could not cope with the idea that what was indecent in that photo was the napalm.

Thus the platforms found their rule-led moderators and especially their algorithms needed nuance. Thus the proposal for Facebook’s Oversight Board. Thus the proposal for internet courts. These are attempts to bring human judgment back into the process. They attempt to bring back the context that standards provide over rules. As they do their work, I predict these boards and courts will inevitably shift from debating the acceptability of speech to trying to discern the intent of speakers and the impact on listeners. They won’t be regulating a thing: content. They will be regulating the behavior of actors: us.

There are additional weaknesses to the rules-based, content-based approach. One is that community standards are rarely set by the communities themselves; they are imposed on communities by companies. How could it be otherwise? I remember long ago that Zuckerberg proposed creating a crowdsourced constitution for Facebook but that quickly proved unwieldy. I still wonder whether there are creative ways to get intentional and explicit judgments from communities as to what is and isn’t acceptable for them — if not in a global service, then user-by-user or community-by-community. A second weakness of the community standards approach is that these rules bind users but not platforms. I argued in a prior post that platforms should create two-way covenants with their communities, making assurances of what the company will deliver so it can be held accountable.

Earlier this month, the French government proposed an admirably sensible scheme for regulation that tries to address a few of those issues. French authorities spent months embedded in Facebook in a role-playing exercise to understand how they could regulate the platform. I met a regulator in charge of this effort and was impressed with his nuanced, sensible, smart, and calm sense of the task. The proposal does not want to regulate content directly — as the Germans do with their hate speech law, called NetzDG, and as the Brits propose to do going after online harms.

Instead, the French want to hold the platforms accountable for enforcing the standards and promises they set: say what you do, do what you say. That enables each platform and community to have its own appropriate standards (Reddit ain’t Facebook). It motivates platforms to work with their users to set standards. It enables government and civil society to consult on how standards are set. It requires platforms to provide data about their performance and impact to regulators as well as researchers. And it holds companies accountable for whether they do what they say they will do. It enables the platforms to still self-regulate and brings credibility through transparency to those efforts. Though simpler than other schemes, this is still complex, as the world’s most complicated PowerPoint slide illustrates:

I disagree with some of what the French argue. They call the platforms media (see my argument above). They also want to regulate only the three to five largest social platforms — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter— because they have greater impact (and because that’s easier for the regulators). Except as soon as certain groups are shooed out of those big platforms, they will dig into small platforms, feeling marginalized and perhaps radicalized, and do their damage from there. The French think some of those sites are toxic and can’t be regulated.

All of these efforts — Facebook’s oversight board, the French regulator, any proposed internet court — need to be undertaken with a clear understanding of the complexity, size, and speed of the task. I do not buy cynical arguments that social platforms want terrorism and hate speech kept up because they make money on it; bull. In Facebook’s workshop and in discussions with people at various of the platforms, I’ve gained respect for the difficulty of their work and the sincerity of their efforts. I recommend Klonick’s paper as she attempts to start with an understanding of what these companies do, arguing that

platforms have created a voluntary system of self-regulation because they are economically motivated to create a hospitable environment for their users in order to incentivize engagement. This regulation involves both reflecting the norms of their users around speech as well as keeping as much speech as possible. Online platforms also self-regulate for reasons of social and corporate responsibility, which in turn reflect free speech norms.

She quotes Lawrence Lessig predicting that a “code of cyberspace, defining the freedoms and controls of cyberspace, will be built. About that there can be no doubt. But by whom, and with what values? That is the only choice we have left to make.”

And we’re not done making it. I think we will end up with a many-tiered approach, including:

  1. Community standards that govern matters of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. I hope they are made with more community input.
  2. Platform covenants that make warranties to users, the public, and government about what they will endeavor to deliver in a safe and hospitable environment, protecting users’ human rights.
  3. Algorithmic means of identifying potentially violating behavior at scale.
  4. Human appeals that operate like small claims courts.
  5. High-level oversight boards that rule and advise on policy.
  6. Regulators that hold companies accountable for the guarantees they make.
  7. National internet courts that rule on questions of legality in takedowns in public, with due process. Companies should not be forced to judge legality.
  8. Legacy courts to deal with matters of illegal behavior. Note that platforms often judge a complaint first against their terms of service and issue a takedown before reaching questions about illegality, meaning that the miscreants who engage in that illegal behavior are not reported to authorities. I expect that governments will complain platforms aren’t doing enough of their policing — and that platforms will complain that’s government’s job.

Numbers 1–5 occur on the private, company side; the rest must be the work of government. Klonick calls the platforms “the New Governors,” explaining that

online speech platforms sit between the state and speakers and publishers. They have the role of empowering both individual speakers and publishers … and their transnational private infrastructure tempers the power of the state to censor. These New Governors have profoundly equalized access to speech publication, centralized decentralized communities, opened vast new resources of communal knowledge, and created infinite ways to spread culture. Digital speech has created a global democratic culture, and the New Governors are the architects of the governance structure that runs it.

What we are seeking is a structure of checks and balances. We need to protect the human rights of citizens to speak and to be shielded from such behaviors as harassment, threat, and malign manipulation (whether by political or economic actors). We need to govern the power of the New Governors. We also need to protect the platforms from government censorship and legal harassment. That’s why we in America have Section 230.

Section 230 and ‘The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet’

We are having this debate at all because we have the “online speech platforms,” as Klonick calls them — and we have those platforms thanks to the protection given to technology companies as well as others (including old-fashioned publishers that go online) by Section 230, a law written by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) and former California Rep. Chris Cox (R) and passed in 1996 telecommunications reform. Jeff Kosseff wrote an excellent biography of the law that pays tribute to these 26 words in it:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

Those words give online companies safe harbor from legal liability for what other people say on their sites and services. Without that protection, online site operators would have been motivated to cut off discussion and creativity by the public. Without 230, I doubt we would have Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube, Reddit, news comment sections, blog platforms, even blog comments. “The internet,” Kosseff writes, “would be little more than an electronic version of a traditional newspaper or TV station, with all the words, pictures, and videos provided by a company and little interaction among users.” Media might wish for that. I don’t.

In Wyden’s view, the 26 words give online companies not only this shield but also a sword: the power and freedom to moderate conversation on their sites and platforms. Before Section 230, a Prodigy case held that if an online proprietor moderated conversation and failed to catch something bad, the operator would be more liable than if it had not moderated at all. Section 230 reversed that so that online companies would be free to moderate without moderating perfectly — a necessity to encourage moderation at scale. Lately, Wyden has pushed the platforms to use their sword more.

In the debate on 230 on the House floor, Cox said his law “will establish as the policy of the United States that we do not wish to have content regulation by the Federal Government of what is on the internet, that we do not wish to have a Federal Computer Commission with an army of bureaucrats regulating the internet….”

In his book, Kosseff takes us through the prehistory of 230 and why it was necessary, then the case law of how 230 has been tested again and again and, so far, survived.

But Section 230 is at risk from many quarters. From the far right, we hear Trump and his cultists whine that they are being discriminated against because their hateful disinformation (see: Infowars) is being taken down. From the left, we see liberals and media gang up on the platforms in a fit of what I see as moral panic to blame them for every ill in the public conversation (ignoring politicians’ and media’s fault). Thus they call for regulating and breaking up technology companies. In Europe, countries are holding the platforms — and their executives and potentially even their technologists — liable for what the public does through their technology. In other nations — China, Iran, Russia — governments are directly controlling the public conversation.

So Section 230 stands alone. It has suffered one slice in the form of the FOSTA/SESTA ban on online sex trafficking. In a visit to the Senate with the regulation working group I wrote about above, I heard a staffer warn that there could be further carve-outs regarding opioids, bullying, political extremism, and more. Meanwhile, the platforms themselves didn’t have the guts to testify in defense of 230 and against FOSTA/SESTA (who wants to seem to be on the other side of banning sex trafficking?). If these companies will not defend the internet, who will? No, Facebook and Google are not the internet. But what you do to them, you do to the net.

I worry for the future of the net and thus of the public conversation it enables. That is why I take so seriously the issues I outline above. If Section 230 is crippled; if the UK succeeds in demanding that Facebook ban undefined harmful but legal content; if Europe’s right to be forgotten expands; if France and Singapore lead to the spread of “fake news” laws that require platforms to adjudicate truth; if the authoritarian net of China and Iran continues to spread to Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, and beyond; if …

If protections of the public conversation on the net are killed, then the public conversation will suffer and voices who could never be heard in big, old media and in big, old, top-down institutions like politics will be silenced again, which is precisely what those who used to control the conversation want. We’re in early days, friends. After five centuries of the Gutenberg era, society is just starting to relearn how to hold a conversation with itself. We need time, through fits and starts, good times and bad, to figure that out. We need our freedom protected.

Without online speech platforms and their protection and freedom, I do not think we would have had #metoo or #blacklivesmatter or #livingwhileblack. Just to see one example of what hashtags as platforms have enabled, please watch this brilliant talk by Baratunde Thurston and worry about what we could be missing.

None of this is simple and so I distrust all the politicians and columnists who think they have simple solutions: Just make Facebook kill this or Twitter that or make them pay or break them up. That’s simplistic, naive, dangerous, and destructive. This is hard. Democracy is hard.

A Crisis of Cognition

In journalism, we think our job is to “get the story.” We teach the skill of “knowing what a story is.” We call ourselves “storytellers.” We believe that through stories — or as we also like to say when feeling uppish, “narrative”— we attract and hold attention, impart facts in engaging fashion, and explain the world.

My greatest heresy to date — besides questioning paywalls as panacea — is to doubt the primacy of the story as journalistic form and to warn of the risk of valuing drama, character, and control over chaotic reality. Now I’ll dive deeper into my heretical hole and ask: What if the story as a form, by its nature, is often wrong? What if we cannot explain nearly as much as we think we can? What if our basis for understanding our world and the motives and behaviors of people in it is illusory? What would that mean for journalism and its role in society? I believe we need to fundamentally and radically reconsider our conceptions of journalism and I start doing that at the end of this post.

Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke, pulled this rug of storytelling out from under me with his new book How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories. In it, heargues that the human addiction to the story is an extension of our reliance on the theory of mind. That theory holds that in our brains, humans balance beliefs and desires to decide on action. The theory, he explains, springs from lessons we as humans learned on the veldt, where we would mind-read — that is, use available information about our environment and others’ goals and past actions to predict the behavior of the antelope that is our quarry; the lion we are competing with; and our fellow tribesmen with whom we either compete or must trust to collaborate. “Since mind readers share their target animals’ environments, they have some sensory access to what the target animals see, hear, smell, taste, and so on,” Rosenberg says.

Humans in the bush became proficient at predicting the immediate behavior of other animals and humans, which led their literate descendants to believe they could not only predict behavior in the now but also explain the past. Rosenberg questions historical narrative, pointing out that if we really could ascertain the motives of actors in the past with verifiable accuracy, there would not be so many books with dueling theories as to why the King or Kaiser did this or that. The theory of mind also fails when trying to predict human behavior ahead of time — just look at how awful political pundits are at foretelling elections. Rosenberg writes:

The progression from a (nearly) innate theory of mind to a fixation on stories — narrative — was made in only a few short steps. We went from explaining how and why we did things in the present, to explaining how and why we did things in the past, to explaining how and why others did things in the present, then the past, and finally to explaining how others did things with, to, against, and for still others.

Voilá narrative.

And we love narrative. “Neuroscientists have shown that hearing a story, especially a tension-filled one in which the protagonists’ emotions are involved, is followed by the release of pleasure-producing hormones such as oxytocin, which is also released during orgasm…” (Indeed, research showsthat oxytocin improves “mind-reading” in humans.) Rosenberg says later: “Narratives move us. In fact, they move entire nations.” (See: Edward Bernays Propaganda.)

But Rosenberg’s coup de grâce against the theory of mind — and the basis of his book — is that neuroscience cannot find a sequence in the brain that balances stored beliefs with desires to arrive at a behavior. He writes that “the theory of mind and neuroscientific theory turn out to be logically incompatible.” I will leave it to you to buy his book and read his detailed scientific explanation of meaning and memory, of neurons and content, of rats’ brains and humans’. For the sake of this brief provocation, suffice it to say that neuroscientists’ observation of the brain does not confirm the theory of mind, the fundamental belief about human behavior that informs our every speculation about motives and actions in the stories we create.

What, then, of the first draft of history?

If that is Rosenberg’s view of history, I wondered what his view would be of the first draft of history — journalism. So I emailed to ask him and he kindly responded, observing that journalists “keep asking the question ‘how did you feel about…’ that invites the interviewee to roll out the beliefs and desires that drove their actions.” He acknowledges that our business model drives us to attract large audiences “in the face of the public’s demands for a good story.” Indeed, Rosenberg himself admits he is a sucker for a good story; we all are.

So what do we turn to instead of the story? “My message isn’t that journalists have to work harder to dig out the real motives behind the actions they report,” Rosenberg emailed me. “It’s that they need to change their target and their approach to it. Stop trying to explain what people do as actions driven by motives, and start taking on major social trends and figure out how the structure of cultural variation and selection imposes outcomes.”

In a panel about the seduction of storytelling I organized at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, I was asked to reread that last sentence of Rosenberg’s email three times, so boggling is it for us storytellers. Rosenberg is on one level saying that we journalists should focus on issues and trends over personalities and predictions — something friend Jay Rosen argues often. In that panel, Rosen said that the report, the discussion, and the investigation are more reliable units of journalism than the story and our skill is more verification than storytelling. But on a more foundational level, Rosenberg is warning in his email — as he does in his book — that society’s progress is a product of natural selection and that we are all subjects in a giant matrix of game theory. That is to say that journalists or historians cannot predict or explain human behavior based on motive or purpose but instead should analyze changes in society based on the harsh reality of natural selection and survival of the fittest: life as a nasty, brutish competition. Sounds about right, eh?

To put this worldview in greater context, Rosenberg says that Newton robbed us of our belief that the universe had purpose — divine purpose — and was instead ruled by laws of nature and science. Darwin did likewise regarding biology on earth, robbing evolution of grander purpose in favor of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Now, Rosenberg says, neuroscience robs us of our belief in our own purpose. “Neuroscience has shown that, despite their appearance, human behaviors aren’t really driven by purposes, ends, or goals,” he writes. Yes, we appear to have a goal when we choose one path versus another, but Rosenberg argues that decision could be determined by patterns in memory — experience or instinct — or rewards. “As in all the rest of the biological domain, there are no purposes, just a convincing illusion of purpose,” Rosenberg says. “Neuroscience is completing the scientific revolution by banishing purpose from the last domain where it’s still invoked to explain and predict.”

The more we know, the less we can explain

Let that last notion about banishing purpose from our lives sink into your epistemological guts, then I’ll deliver another swift kick, courtesy of my friend David Weinberger, coauthor of the seminal work of web culture from exactly 20 years ago this month, The Cluetrain Manifesto, and author of Small Pieces Loosely JoinedEverything is Miscellaneous, and Too Big to Know. His new book, Everyday Chaos, is out in May (on May 15 he and I will be discussing it in New York; you can reserve a seat at that link and preorder the book now).

In Everyday Chaos, Weinberger examines the implications of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other data-fed and algorithmically driven means of predicting events and behaviors. Says Weinberger, even simple A/B testing “works without needing, or generating, a hypothesis about why it works.” In other words, data and formulae can predict human behavior more accurately than fellow humans can, relying as we do on our theory of mind and storytelling. These machines cannot be expected to always provide explanations; they sometimes simply predict what will happen without having to say why. So much for the fifth W of journalistic ledes. Weinberger writes:

Deep learning’s algorithms work because they capture better than any human can the complexity, fluidity, and even beauty of a universe in which everything affects everything else, all at once.

As we will see, machine learning is just one of many tools and strategies that have been increasingly bringing us face to face with the incomprehensible intricacy of our everyday world. But this benefit comes at a price: we need to give up our insistence on always understanding our world and how things happen in it.”

Yes, machine learning may enable us to better predict cancer or market movements or traffic accidents, saving time, money, even lives. Weinberger says: “Our new engines of prediction are able to make more accurate predictions and to make predictions in domains that we used to think were impervious to them because this new technology can handle far more data, constrained by fewer human expectations about how that data fits together, with more complex rules, more complex interdependencies, and more sensitivity to starting points.” But with that benefit, we need to give up on our belief in stories and the theory of mind, not to mention our reliance on always being able to uncover knowable laws. We need to give up on our expectation of explanation for why things happen — even for why we do things.

Returning to Rosenberg, he sent me another piece he wrote in which he said that artificial intelligence algorithms work like our brains, “employing a Darwinian learning algorithm and so do we.” But that process of testing possible outcomes before deciding on one does not bring insight or explanation. “When success is a matter of tinkering, trying anything and seeing what works, there is no scope for insight, no need for it.”

In all of this I see a coming crisis of cognition. If change and uncertainty have led us to the apparent crisis of civilization we are seeing today — with the powerful (white, male) incumbents fearful of their dethroning by alien man or machine — I shudder to think what happens to the public conversation when its fundamental grounding in the theory of mind and certainty of the neat narrative arc of the story is exploded.

I also shudder to think what becomes of media. Says Weinberger :

Why have we so insisted on turning complex histories into simple stories? Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is the message. We shrank our ideas to fit on pages sewn in a sequence that we then glued between cardboard stops. Books are good at telling stories and bad at guiding us through knowledge that bursts out in every conceivable direction, as all knowledge does when we let it.

But now the medium of our daily experiences — the internet — has the capacity, the connections, and the engine needed to express the richly chaotic nature of the world.

Chaos is what journalism promises to tame. But journalism fails. It always has. The world is less explainable than we would like to admit.

Radical reformulation of journalism

Mind you, I’m not killing the story; it is too ingrained in literal DNA to extinguish. Let’s also be clear that the word “story” is overused in our field to refer to what should usually be called articles as well as topics.

I do, however, celebrate efforts to free journalism from the presumption of the story. This is why I am enthused about my current entrepreneurial student Elisabetta Tola’s efforts to demonstrate journalism in the scientific method. It’s why I am equally excited about Eve Pearlman’s efforts at Spaceship Mediato build journalism around the public conversation, not media’s content, as we teach at Newmark in Social Journalism. I am eager for more examples.

But Rosenberg and Weinberger inspire a more radical reformulation of journalism. Journalism requires a different starting point: not getting and writing stories to fill a Gutenberg-era product called a publication, not convincing ourselves and our public that we can summarize and explain their world in the neat confines of text, not merely saying what happened today or will tomorrow. Instead, I want to imagine a journalism that begins with the problems we see and reaches across disciplines to seek solutions. (You might expect me to turn to technology but, no, I am looking to academic fields of study that have much to teach us about the society we serve.) Thus a reimagined journalism would not act as gatekeeper but as bridge.

If, for example, we believe a key problem in society today is the demagogues’ demonization of The Other, then let us look to neuroscience for understanding of the instincts authoritarians exploit. See this article in Foreign Affairs by Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky about our responses to group identity and threat. “Our brains distinguish between in-group members and outsiders in a fraction of a second, and they encourage us to be kind to the former but hostile to the latter,” Sapolsky writes. “These biases are automatic and unconscious and emerge at astonishingly young ages.” But Sapolsky says we can realistically hope for change. “The Swedes,” he points out, “spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe; today they are, well, the Swedes.” He continues: “Although human biology makes the rapid, implicit formation of us-them dichotomies virtually inevitable, who counts as an outsider is not fixed. In fact, it can change in an instant.” Thus the question is, how do we make outsiders insiders? Or as I’ve been fond of putting it, how do we make strangers less strange? This might mean enabling the outsiders to tell their stories (you see, I’m not unalterably opposed to stories). It might mean educating one group about another’s circumstances. It might mean bringing strangers together to model peaceful behavior. It might mean trying to get people to like each other more than our stories. (How about oxytocin levels as a metric to replace page views? [I’m joking…. I think.])

To understand and reflect communities to each other, we can turn to anthropology with its discipline of observation and evidence, which does not — as news stories too often do — take one person as the exemplar for a large, odd group (for example, The New York Times teaching us that white nationalists, too, eat at Panera). In his survey, Anthropology: Why it Matters, Tim Ingold of the University of Aberdeen decrees, “Taking others seriously is the first rule of my kind of anthropology.” Just like journalists, anthropologists grapple with the concept of objectivity, of distance from subjects, of exploitation of their stories. Ingold rejects objectivity. His purpose “is not to interpret or explain the ways of others; not to put them in their place or consign them to the ‘already understood’. It is rather to share in their presence, to learn from their experiments in living, and to bring this experience to bear on our own imaginings of what human life could be like, its future conditions and possibilities.” Ingold echoes the great journalism teacher James Carey when he talks about the primacy not of conclusions but of conversation.

This is not to catalogue the diversity of human lifeways but to join the conversation. It is a conversation, moreover, in which all who join stand to be transformed. The aim of anthropology, in short, is to make a conversation of human life itself. This conversation is not just about the world…. It is the world. It is the one world we inhabit.

In a sense, journalists ask, “How do they live.” Ingold says the question the communities ask is, “How should we live?” Enter the verb “should” and we turn to philosophers and ethicists, who pose larger questions about how we are treating each other today, about the kind of society we want to build, about how we see ourselves in how we treat others. Perhaps the journalist’s job then could be to ask factions of society to reflect on their own behavior or to give those excluded from power the opportunity to reflect themselves. For this, we have disciplines devoted to African-American, Latinx, women’s, and LGBTQ studies to help.

Let us say the problem to attack is our epistemological crisis and alternative facts. We could look to cognitive science to understand how misinformation lodges in the brain; see this article by a professor in that field, Julian Matthews of Monash University. Of course, we also need to look to education to understand how to dislodge misinformation and propaganda and install reason and facts. See also this excellent review by Daniel Kreiss of three books about the 2016 election, inspiring various solutions: One book, Cyberwar, measures impact by the Russians (and a solution may be to judge American media for its complicity and vulnerability); another, Network Propaganda, argues the problem is Fox News et al (and proposes, as I have, the need to fund responsible conservative competition); the third, Identity Crisis, says the problem is not epistemology but identity — our ongoing American identity crisis regarding racism (to which, of course, there is no simple solution).

Another heresy of mine is debating the value of news literacy because it is too media-centric — if journalism needs a user manual, then the problem is probably journalism itself — and is perhaps aimed at the wrong population: the young. Weeks ago, I wrote about an NYU/Princeton study that found it’s not kids who are sharing disinformation online but instead people who look like me: old, white men. I thought about writing a book for them — Dear Grandpa — and as I outlined the idea, I realized that the problem isn’t Grandpa’s parsing of facts but instead his anger. How did this privileged white man become so mad? We probably know the answer: Fox News and talk radio. But what made him so vulnerable to manipulation? For this, we should turn to psychology. Then we might decide that what we really need is not stories about political fights but instead massive group therapy: journalism as couch.

I could go on — and will in the future. But you get the point. We have been too insular in journalism, looking to ourselves for solutions to the field’s problem and defining that problem too narrowly as finding ways to maintain what we have always done. That’s why I so welcome Rosenberg’s and Weinberger’s challenges to our ways of thinking about our most fundamental ideas of ourselves as storytellers and explainers. With no rug underneath us, we are forced to reconsider everything: what society needs, what journalism should do, what journalism is. To do that, we need to listen outside of ourselves, to the communities we serve (and especially those we haven’t served) and to disciplines other than our own — all those I mentioned above plus design, economics, sociology, data science, computer science, engineering, criminal justice (or rather, just justice), law, public policy, and others — each of which can help us reconsider society’s problems and goals from different perspectives. Then we can redefine journalism. What’s needed is radical thinking. I, for one, have not been radical enough. I will try harder.


If, perchance, you’ve not had enough of the topic, here’s video of that panel on the story at the International Journalism Festival.