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.
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 over10 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.
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):
Jeff it’s already been independently certified as being fake. What Facebook are saying is that they won’t take down known sources of malicious political disinformation.
Damian, are you then going to expect them to take down any other video–or anything else–certified as fake? Certified by whom? Do you also want destruction of the evidence of this manipulation? Beware: slope slippery ahead.
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:
Community standards that govern matters of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. I hope they are made with more community input.
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.
Algorithmic means of identifying potentially violating behavior at scale.
Human appeals that operate like small claims courts.
High-level oversight boards that rule and advise on policy.
Regulators that hold companies accountable for the guarantees they make.
National internet courts that rule on questions of legality in takedowns in public, with due process. Companies should not be forced to judge legality.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Lately I’ve been scolding myself that I have not been radical enough — yes, me, not nearly radical enough — about rethinking journalism in our still-emerging new reality of a connected world. And if journalism requires rebuilding, then so does journalism education and all of media education.
Every fall, when I am lucky enough to talk with our entire incoming class at the Newmark J-school, I tell them that they are the ones who must reinvent journalism and media; they should learn what we teach them and then question it all to find better ways. If media will be rethought and rebuilt from the ashes, what principles might govern how we prepare our students to become authors of that change? For some discussions I’ve been having recently, I’ve been thinking about all this and so, as is my habit, I’d like to think out loud and learn from you. I’ll start by outlining a few principles that are informing my thinking and then briefly discuss how this might affect various sectors of media education:
Listen first. The net is not a medium. It is a means of connection: connecting people with each other, people with information, and information with information. It enables conversation. That conversation is the collective deliberation of a democracy. Our first duty now is to teach students to use the tools the net brings them to listen before they create; to observe communities and markets and their needs and desires; to seek out communities they have not known; to empathize with those communities; to reflect what they learn back to the public so they check themselves; to collaborate with the public; to serve truth, especially when uncomfortable. No sector of media listens well — they think they do, but they don’t.
Champion diversity. Now that most anyone — everyone who’s connected — can speak, new voices that were never represented in media can at last be heard. That is what is scaring the old people in power, leading to the reactionary rise of Trumpism, Brexit, and many of our racist and nationalist ills today. At Newmark, diversity is the soul of our institution and its mission. A colleague of mine, Jenny Choi, recently wrote an eloquent note about the value of our students and their wide variety of lived experiences. “They are the future drivers of trust in a journalism that holds true to its core values as a public service,” she wrote. Over the years, editors — and professors — have been known to tell reporters and students that stories about their own communities aren’t big enough because they don’t appeal to everyone, to the mass. That’s wrong. We need to build curriculum that values their experience. I’ve learned that as an institution, we need to serve diversity in the field at three levels: staffing (recruiting a diverse student body), leadership (at Newmark, we are starting a new program in News Innovation and Leadership, which will require ongoing mentorship and support for people who have not had the opportunity to lead), and ownership (thus entrepreneurial journalism).
Death to the mass. All sectors of media are having great difficulty breaking themselves of their habit of selling to the mass. Our products were one-size-fits-all; our profits depended on scale. But now the net kills the mass as an idea and as a business strategy. Media must know and serve people as individuals and members of communities. Recently I met a newspaper executive who’d just come from the music industry, where he said companies finally learned that smaller acts — which had been seen as failures supported by the blockbusters — are now the core of the business, for those artists have loyal communities that add up to scale. Thinking about our work in terms of communities-as-society rather than as mass society will have radical impact on what we do.
Service over product. So long as we continue to teach media as the creation of a product that can be bought, sold, and controlled, our students will miss the greater opportunity to be of service to a public. It is in service that we will build value.
Service as our ethic. We need to reconsider the ethical principles and standards of all sectors of media around these ideas of connection, conversation, community, collaboration, diversity, impact, service, responsibility, empowerment. We need to ask how we are helping communities improve their lots in life. We need to convene communities in conflict into civil, informed, and productive conversation (that is my new working definition of journalism and a mission all media and internet companies should share). We need to work transparently and set our standards in public, with the public. We need to be answerable and accountable to those communities, measuring our success and our value against their standards and needs over ours.
Be responsible stewards. I came to teach journalism students the business of journalism — at Newmark we call it entrepreneurial journalism — because we need to make them responsible leaders who will set sustainable strategies for the future of media. They need to learn how to create value and earn reward for it; profit is not a sin. Our creative graduates should sit at the same table with business executives in the industry; how do we equip them to do that?
Teach change. In media education, this has tended to mean teaching students to teach themselves how to use new tools as they arrive, which is important. But, of course, it is also vital that we teach students to change our industry, to innovate and invent, to address problems with solutions, to find opportunity in disruption, to be leaders. I don’t mean to teach them PowerPoint cant about change management and design thinking. I want them to challenge us with radical new ideas that turn each sector of media on its head. This is what I mean when I say I have not been radical enough. Their ideas could mean such heresy as throwing out the story as our essential form (for example, one of our entrepreneurial students, Elisabetta Tola, now is looking at bringing the scientific method to journalism). It could mean building an enterprise on collaboration with communities (Wikipedia showed what’s possible but where are the copycats?). It could mean lobbying for and then creating systems of extreme transparency in government and business. I don’t know what all it could mean.
Reach across disciplines. Since I started teaching, I’ve heard academics and administrators from countless institutions salute the flag of interdisciplinary collaboration. To be honest, most us aren’t good at it. I haven’t been. I believe we in media must reach out to other disciplines so we can learn from their expertise as they help us reimagine media: — Anthropology relies on a discipline of observation and evidence we could use in media. (My favorite session in Social Journalism every year is the one to which my colleague, Carrie Brown, invites in an anthropologist to teach journalists how to observe.) — Psychology is a critical field especially today, as emotions and anger prove to have more impact on the public conversation than mere facts. Maybe we don’t need media literacy so much as we need group therapy. — Economics, sociology and the other social sciences also study group behavior. — Marketing has a discipline of metrics and measurement we could learn from. — Education is a critical skill if we want to teach the public things they need to know for their own lives and things they need to know to manage their communities. — The sciences can teach us the scientific method, emphasizing, as media should, evidence over narrative. — Computer sciences are critical not just for the disruption they cause and the tools they offer. Data science and machine learning have much to teach us about new sources of information and new ways to find value in it. We can also work together on the ever-greater challenge of knowing our world. My friend the philosopher David Weinberger, author of Too Big to Know, has a brilliant and provocative new book coming out called Everyday Chaos in which he examines the paradox of the connected data age, in which knowing more makes the world more unknowable. He 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.
That conception is antithetical to the warranty media make that they can explain the world in a story. How do we build media for a world in which complexity becomes only more apparent?
In journalism, at the Newmark J-school, we’ve tried to implement various of these principles and are working on others. Social Journalism, the new degree we started, is built on the idea of journalism in service to the conversation among communities. The need to teach responsible stewardship is what led to the Entrepreneurial Journalism program. Our new program in News Innovation and Leadership will — in my hidden agenda — embed radicals, rebuilders, and diverse leaders at the top of media companies. These new programs are meant to infuse their revolutionary goodness into the entire school and curriculum. Since the start, we’ve taught all students all media and our J+ continuing education program helps them refresh those skills (we call this our 100,000-mile guarantee). We’re just beginning to make good connections across our university into other disciplines; personally, I want to do much more of that.
Advertising will require reinvention as well. Here I outlined my worries about the commodification of media with volume-based, attention-based, mass-market advertising falling into the abyss in an abundance-based economy. Advertising is a necessity — for marketers and for media — but it has to be rebuilt around new imperatives to establish direct relationships of trust with customers who can be heard and must be respected. Programmatic advertising, microtargeting, retargeting, influencers, recirculation, and native are all crude, beginning attempts to exploit change. Tomorrow’s advertising graduates need to come up with new ways to listen to customers’ needs and desires: advertising as feedback loop, not as megaphone to the masses. They need to do more to put the customer in control of the experience of media, including data gathering, personalization, and commerce. They will need to establish new standards of responsibility about the use of data and privacy and the behaviors their industry values and incents (see: clickbait). How can we build the support of quality media into the ethos of advertising?
As for public relations: A decade ago, when I wrote What Would Google Do?, the advertising sage Rishad Tobaccowala speculated that PR must become the voice of the market to the company rather than of the company to the market. That brings the advertising and PR of the future closer together (or in closer conflict). By logical extension, Rishad’s dictum also means that the best PR company will fire clients that don’t listen to and respect their customers by involving them earlier in the chain of a product’s design and even a company’s strategy. An ethical PR company will refuse to countenance lies on clients’ behalf. This PR won’t just survey consumers but will teach companies how to build honest relationships with customers as people.
And broadcasting: I think I began to discern the fate of one-way media at Vidcon, where I saw what that music executive (above) told me come to life in countless communities built on real and empathetic relationships between creators and their fans. As I’ve written before, Vidcon taught me that we in nonfiction media can serve the public by creating media as social tokens, which people can use to enrich their own conversations with facts, ideas, help, and diverse voices. At the same time, fictional media must — especially today — take greater responsibility to challenge the public to a better expression of itself. Years ago, Will & Grace (and many shows before and after) made Americans realize they all knew and loved someone gay; it played its part in challenging the the closeting of LGBTQ Americans. Today, we need fictional media that makes strangers less strange.
As I said above, we need the study of communications (I refuse to call it mass communications) more than ever — and what a magnificent time to be a researcher examining and trying to understand the change overtaking every aspect of media. At Newmark’s Tow-Knight Center, I hope to do more to bring researchers together with technology companies so we can bring evidence to what are now mostly polemical debates about the state of social media and society. I just came from the UK and a working group meeting on net regulation (more on that another day) where I saw an urgent need for government to give safe harbor to technology companies to share data for such study.
At that meeting of tech, government, and media people, I fought — as I always do — against classifying the internet as a medium and internet companies as media companies when they are instead something entirely new. But the discussion made me think that in one sense, I’ll go along with including the internet inside media: I’d like internet studies to be part of the discipline of communications studies, with many new centers to embed the study of the net into everything we teach. What a frontier!
Or another way to look at this is that media studies could be subsumed into whatever we will call internet studies, first because it is ever more ridiculous to cut up media into silos and then stitch them back together as “multi-media” (can we retire the term already?) and second because all media are now internet media. Media are becoming a subset of the net and everything it represents: connections, conversation, data, intelligence. Does it make sense to separate what we used to call media — printed and recorded objects — from this new, connected reality?
There are so many exciting things going on in media education today. We — that is, my colleagues at Newmark — get to teach and develop social video, AR, VR, drone reporting, podcasting, data journalism, comedy as journalism, and more . I’ve also been trying to develop ideas like restructuring media curriculum around skills transcripts and providing genius bars for students to better personalize education, especially in tools and skills. I wish we were farther ahead in understanding how to use the net itself in distance and collaborative learning. All that is exciting and challenging, but I see that as mainly tactical.
Where I want to challenge myself is on the strategic level: How do we empower the generation we teach now and next to challenge all our assumptions that got us here, to save media by reinventing it, to shock and delight?
My greatest joy at Newmark is learning from the students. In Social Journalism, for example, students taught me I was wrong to send them off to find a singular community to serve; every one of them showed me how their journalism is needed where communities — plural — interact: journalism at the points of friction. They taught me the differences between externally focused journalism (informing the world about a community, as we’ve always done) and internally focused journalism (meeting a community’s information needs, as we can do now). I watched them learn that when they first observe, listen to, and build relationships with communities, they leave their notebooks and cameras — the tools of the mediator — behind, for the goal is not gathering quotes from instead gaining understanding and trust. When I still lecture them it’s about the past as context, challenging them to decide what they should preserve and what they should break so they can build what’s new.
In all this, I see danger for the net and its freedoms posed by corporate protectionism and a rising moral panic about technology. One at a time:
Articles 11 & 13: Protectionism gone mad
Article 11 is the so-called link tax, the bastard son of the German Leistungsschutzrechtor ancillary copyright that publishers tried to use to force Google to pay for snippets. They failed. They’re trying again. Reda, a member of the European Parliament, details the dangers:
Reproducing more than “single words or very short extracts” of news stories will require a licence. That will likely cover many of the snippets commonly shown alongside links today in order to give you an idea of what they lead to….
No exceptionsare made even for services run by individuals, small companies or non-profits, which probably includes any monetised blogs or websites.
European journalists protest that this will serve media corporations, not journalists. Absolutely.
But the danger to free speech, to the public conversation, and to facts and evidence are greater. Journalism and the academe have long depended on the ability to quote — at length — source material to then challenge or expand upon or explain it. This legislation begins to make versions of that act illegal. You’d have to pay a license to a news property to quote it. Nevermind that 99.9 percent of journalism quotes others. The results: Links become blind alleys sending you to god-knows-what dark holes exploited by spammers and conspiracy theories. News sites lose audience and impact (witness how a link tax forced Google News out of Spain). Even bloggers like me could be restricted from quoting others as I did above, killing the web’s magnificent ability to foster conversation with substance.
Why do this? Because publishers think they can use their clout to get legislators to bully the platforms into paying them for their “content,” refusing to come to grips with the fact that the real value now is in the audience the platforms send to the publishers. It is corporate protectionism born of political capital. It is corrupt and corrupting of the net. It is a crime.
Article 13 is roughly Europe’s version of the SOPA/PIPA fight in the U.S.: protectionism on behalf of entertainment media companies. It requires sites where users might post material —isn’t that every interactive site on the net ?— to “preemptively buy licenses for anything that users may possibly upload,” in Reda’s explanation. They will also have to deploy upload filters — which are expensive to operate and notoriously full of false positives — to detect anything that is not licensed. The net: Sites will not allow anyone to post any media that could possibly come from anywhere.
So we won’t be able to quote or adapt. Death to the meme. Yes, there are exceptions for criticism, but as Lawrence Lessig famously said “fair use is the right to hire a lawyer.” This legislation attempts to kill what the net finally brought to society: diverse and open conversation.
Cairncross Review: Protecting journalism as it was
The UK dispatched Dame Frances Cairncross, a former journalist and economist, to review the imperiled state of news and she returned with a long and well-intentioned but out-of-date document. A number of observations:
She fails — along with many others — to define quality journalism. “Ultimately, ‘high quality journalism’ is a subjective concept that depends neither solely on the audience nor the news provider. It must be truthful and comprehensive and should ideally — but not necessarily — be edited. You know it when you see it….” (Just like porn, but porn’s easier.) Thus she cannot define the very thing her report strives to defend. A related frustration: She doesn’t very much criticize the state of journalism or the reasons why trust in it is foundering, only noting its fall.
I worry greatly about her conclusion that “intervention may be needed to determine what, and how, news is presented online.” So you can’t define quality but you’re going to regulate how platforms present it? Oh, the platforms are trying to understand quality in news. (Disclosure: I’m working on just such a project, funded by but independent of Facebook.) But the solutions are not obvious. Cairncross wants the platforms to have an obligation “to nudge people towards reading news of high quality” and even to impose quotas for quality news on the platforms. Doesn’t that make the platforms the editors? Is that what editors really want? Elsewhere in the report, she argues that “this task is too important to leave entirely to the judgment of commercial entities.” But BBC aside, that is where the task of news lies today: in commercial entities. Bottom line: I worry about *any* government intervention in speech and especially in journalism.
She rightly focuses less on national publications and more on the loss of what she calls “public interest news,” which really means local reporting on government. Agreed. She also glances by the paradox that public-interest news “is often of limited interest to the public.” Well, then, I wish she had looked at the problem and opportunity from the perspective of what the net makes possible. Why not start with new standards to require radical transparency of government, making every piece of legislation, every report, every budget public? There have been pioneering projects in the UK to do just that. That would make the task of any journalist more efficient and it would enable collaborative effort by the community: citizens, librarians, teachers, classes…. She wants a government fund to pay for innovations in this arena. Fine, then be truly innovative. She further calls for the creation of an Institute for Public Interest News. Do we need another such organization? Journalism has so many.
She explores a VAT tax break for subscriptions to online publications. Sounds OK, but I worry that this would motivate more publications to put up paywalls, which will further redline quality journalism for those who can afford it.
She often talked about “the unbalanced relationship between publishers and online platforms.” This assumes that there is some natural balance, some stasis that can be reestablished, as if history should be our only guide. No, life changed with the internet.
She recommends that the platforms be required to set out codes of conduct that would be overseen by a regulator “with powers to insist on compliance.” She wants the platforms to commit “not to index more than a certain amount of a publisher’s content without an explicit agreement.” First, robots.txt and such already put that in publishers’ control. Second, Cairncross acknowledges that links from platforms are beneficial. She worries about — but does not define — too much linking. I see a slippery slope to Article 11 (above) and, really, so does Cairncross: “There are grounds for worrying that the implementation of Article 11 in the EU may backfire and restrict access to news.” In her code of conduct, platforms should not impose their ad platforms on publishers — but if publishers want revenue from the platforms they pretty much have to. She wants platforms to give early warnings of changes in algorithms but that will be spammed. She wants transparency of advertising terms (what other industries negotiate in public?).
Cairncross complains that “most newspapers have lacked the skills and resources to make good use of data on their readers” and she wants the platforms to share user data with publishers. I agree heartily. This is why I worry that another European regulatory regime — GDPR — makes that nigh unto impossible.
She wants a study of the competitive landscape around advertising. Yes, fine. Note, thought, that advertising is becoming less of a force in publishers’ business plans by the day.
Good news: She rejects direct state support for journalism because “the effect may be to undermine trust in the press still further, at a time when it needs rebuilding.” She won’t endorse throttling the BBC’s digital efforts just because commercial publishers resent the competition. She sees danger in giving the publishing industry an antitrust exception to negotiate with the platforms (as is also being proposed in the U.S.) because that likely could lead to higher prices. And she thinks government should help publishers adapt by “encouraging the development and distribution of new technologies and business models.” OK, but what publishers and which technologies and models? If we knew which ones would work, we’d already be using them.
Finally, I note a subtle paternalism in the report. “The stories people want to read may not always be the ones they ought to read in order to ensure that a democracy can hold its public servants properly to account.” Or the news people need in their lives might not be the news that news organizations are reporting. Also: Poor people — who would be cut off by paywalls — “are not just more likely to have lower levels of literacy than the better-off; their digital skills also tend to be lower.” Class distinctions never end.
It’s not a bad report. It is cautious. But it’s also not visionary, not daring to imagine a new journalism for a new society. That is what is really needed.
The Commons report: Finding fault
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is famously the body Mark Zuckerberg refused to testify before. And, boy, are they pissed. Most of this report is an indictment of Facebook on many sins, most notably Cambridge Analytica. For the purposes of this post, about possible regulation, I won’t indulge in further prosecuting or defending the case against Facebook (see my broader critique of the company’s culture here). What interests me in this case is the set of committee recommendations that could have an impact on the net, including our net outside of the UK.
The committee frets — properly — over malicious impact of Brexit. And where did much of the disinformation that led to that disaster come from? From politicians: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, et al. This committee, headed by a conservative, makes no mention of colleagues. As with the Cairncross report, why not start at home and ask what government needs to do to improve the state of its contribution to the information ecosystem? A few more notes:
Just as Cairncross has trouble defining quality journalism, the Commons committee has trouble defining the harm it sees everywhere on the internet. It puts off that critical and specific task to an upcoming Online Harms white paper from the government. (Will there also be an Online Benefits white paper?) The committee calls for holding social media companies — “which is not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher’,” the report cryptically says — liable for “content identified as harmful after it has been posted by users.” The committee then goes much farther, threatening not just tech companies but technologists. My emphasis: “If tech companies (including technological engineers involved in creating the software for the companies) are found to have failed to meet their obligations under such a Code [of Ethics], and not acted against the distribution of harmful and illegal content, the independent regulator should have the ability to launch legal proceedings against them, with the prospect of large fines being administered….” Them’s fightin’ words, demonizing not just the technology and the technology company but the technologist.
Again and again in reading the committee’s report, I wrote in the margin “China” or “Iran,” wondering how the precedents and tools wished for here could be used by authoritarian regimes to control speech on the net. For example: “There is now an urgent need to establish independent regulation. We believe that a compulsory Code of Ethics should be established, overseen by an independent regulator, setting out what constitutes harmful content.” How — except in the details — does that differ from China deciding what is harmful to the minds of the masses? Do we really believe that a piece of “harmful content” can change the behavior of a citizen for the worse without many other underlying causes? Who knows best for those citizens? The state? Editors? Technologists? Or citizens themselves? The committee notes — with apparent approval — a new French law that “allows judges to order the immediate removal of online articles that they decide constitute disinformation.” All this sounds authoritarian to me and antithetical to the respect and freedom the net gives people.
The committee expands the definition of personal data — which, under GDPR, is already ludicrously broad, to include, for example, your IP address. It wants to include “inferred data.” I hate to think what that could do to the discipline of machine learning and artificial intelligence — to the patterns and inferences that will compose patterns discerned and knowledge produced by machines.
The committee wants to impose a 2% “digital services tax on UK revenues of big technology companies.” On what basis, besides vendetta against big (American) companies?
The Information Commissioner told the committee that “Facebook needs to significantly change its business model and its practices to maintain trust.” How often does government get into the nitty-gritty of companies’ business models? And let’s be clear: The problem with Facebook’s business model — click-based, volume-based, attention-based advertising — is precisely what drove media into the abyss of mistrust. So should the government tell media to change its business model? They wouldn’t dare.
The report worries about the “pernicious nature of micro-targeted political adverts” and quotes the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising recommending that “all factual claims used in political ads be pre-cleared; an existing or new body should have the power to regulate political advertising content.” So government in power would clear the content of ads of challengers? What could possibly go wrong? And micro-targeting of one sort or another is also what enables small communities with specific interests to find each other and organize. Give up your presumptions of the mass.
The report argues “there needs to be absolute transparency of online political campaigning.” I agree. Facebook, under pressure, created a searchable database of political ads. I think Facebook should do more and make targeting data public. And I think every — every — other sector of media should match Facebook. Having said that, I still think we need to be careful about setting precedents that might not work so well in countries like, say, Hungry or Turkey, where complete transparency in political advertising and activism could lead to danger for opponents of authoritarian regimes.
The committee, like Cairncross, expresses affection for eliminating VAT taxes on digital subscriptions. “This would eliminate the false incentive for news companies against developing more paid-for digital services.” Who said what is the true or false business model? I repeat my concern that government meddling in subscription models could have a deleterious impact on news for the public at large, especially the poor. It would also put more news behind paywalls, with less audience, resulting in less impact from it. (A hidden agenda, perhaps?)
“The Government should put pressure on social media companies to publicize any instances of disinformation,” the committee urges. OK. But define “disinformation.” You’ll find it just as challenging as defining “quality news” and “harm.”
The committee, like Cairncross, salutes the flag of media literacy. I remain dubious.
And the committee, like Cairncross, sometimes reveals its condescension. “Some believe that friction should be reintroduced into the online experience, by both tech companies and by individual users themselves, in order to recognize the need to pause and think before generating or consuming content.” They go so far as to propose that this friction could include “the ability to share a post or a comment, only if the sharer writes about the post; the option to share a post only when it has been read in its entirety.” Oh, for God’s sake: How about politicians pausing and thinking before they speak, creating the hell that is Brexit or Trump?
In the end, I fear all this is hubris: to think that we know what the internet is and what its impact will be before we dare to define and limit the opportunities it presents. I fear the paternalistic unto authoritarian worldview that those with power know better than those without. I fear the unintended — and intended — consequences of all this regulation and protectionism. I trust the public to figure it out eventually. We figured out printing and steam power and the telegraph and radio and television. We will figure out the internet if given half a chance.
And I didn’t even begin to examine what they’re up to in Australia…