I’m happy to say I’ve signed a contract with MIT Press for my next book, tentatively entitled Permission Taken: Recapturing Control of Our Own Technology and Communication. This has been bubbling up in my mind, though not enough from my word processor, for a long time. Now it’s on, and there’s a deadline. It’ll be part of a series edited by my longtime friend and colleague David Weinberger.

I’m especially glad that the book will be done in an open-access format, meaning that it will be available much more widely than traditional publishing normally permits. More details on that to come…

News Literacy Working Group — Initial Thoughts

Can we make it un-cool to spread other people’s lies on social media? Should Facebook, Google, SnapChat, and Twitter embed tools of truth in their users’ feeds? Should journalists be vastly more transparent about how they operate? Should every public school be required to help kids learn how to be critical thinkers, and use media with integrity?

I’d answer Yes to all of those questions. And I suspect the same would be true for many if not most of the people who came to a remarkable meeting last weekend in Phoenix.

The occasion was a “News Literacy Working Group” at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The meeting, co-convened by Facebook and ASU, brought together about 50 people from education, technology, philanthropy, and journalism. Our goal, as the group’s name suggests, was to look hard at media/news literacy’s role in the digital age — and come up with serious ideas on how to deal with an emergency situation.

What’s the emergency? It stems from the realities of democratized media and communications. As media consumers and creators, we’re blessed with a staggering array of information sources. We can know more about things we care about than ever before. But some of what we see, and what too many of us share, is bogus — often deliberately so by people whose motives are profits or ideology, or both. And we’ve seen in recent months the poisonous effect the deceitful minority are having on public discourse and knowledge.

How can we respond? One way, in the fabled marketplace of ideas, is to upgrade our supply of journalism — a never-ending need.

But this is, in my mind, at least as much a demand problem: upgrading ourselves as active users of media, not just passive consumers. While supply and demand were both on our weekend agenda — and are intertwined in an age of social media — we were there to focus primarily on the latter.

I’m somewhat constrained by “Chatham House Rules” in what I can say here. These rules, which are widely used at meetings, basically prohibit me from saying who was there (without specific permission) or attributing what they said (also unless I have specific permission). But I can give you a flavor of what happened, and some details.

For me, the linchpin was to get people from the different sectors (e.g. education, tech, journalism, etc.) into the same room. This extended to some of the breakout groups, and it gave people an opportunity to look beyond their own specialties for cross-disciplinary approaches.

All kinds of ideas and recommendations emerged. We sorted them out in several overlapping categories, including a) educational needs; b) journalists’ role; c) technology’s role; d) what research needs to be done; and e) how to put this more firmly in the policy agenda and public consciousness.

I won’t go into detail on each of those, though I plan to expand on key thoughts in subsequent posts. Rather, after comparing notes with my colleague Eric Newton, here’s a short list of ideas that struck me as most immediately intriguing (again, among many others, and not in any particular order):

  • Get state legislatures to require media/news literacy in school curricula. (One suggestion was for the tech platforms to use a small part of their already-massive lobbying budgets to push for this.)
  • Come up with tools that help media users instantly get a much better idea of the context of what they’re looking at: metadata and more to be clearer on whether this or that piece of content deserves trust. A lot is already going on in this arena, but I heard several fascinating new approaches that I’ll talk more about later on.
  • Get the platforms to embed information about how things work. An example was auto-complete, which is a mystery to most people. The platform companies shouldn’t do this entirely on their own, several people said (and I agree); it should be a collaboration to give it more credibility.
  • Find ways to help media organizations embed media/news literacy into their own work. I’m still baffled, and beyond disappointed, that the journalism industry has abjectly failed to do this despite the obvious evidence that being leaders in media/news literacy would have engendered more trust from their audiences. One approach to begin to repair the damage, which I strongly favor, is to be much more transparent about what, how, and why they do their work.
  • Take a page from the anti-smoking campaign that has led to major improvement in public health, at least related to tobacco-caused illnesses, and create a campaign to make it un-cool to spread BS. We have tons of data from that campaign on what works, and what doesn’t. If we can enlist Hollywood, hip-hop stars, and other notables in this, we can do it.
  • Do much more research. We need to know better how deceit starts and spreads in all kinds of media, especially online; how what works and what doesn’t work in news literacy; how people actually use media (as opposed to how they say they do); and much more. A recurring theme, especially among researchers and journalists, was leaning on the platforms — especially Facebook — to open up their all-important data sets to researchers. (This will be a major challenge, to put it mildly, because for the big tech companies the data sets are pretty much the keys to the kingdoms. Without their help, however, research will be at best incomplete.)
  • Embed news literacy tools and training directly into the platforms. As I’ve said before, this is the one I think could have the greatest impact since we need scale. But it’s also a significant product change, more than a tweak, and I doubt it’ll happen soon in any major way.
  • Launch a “moonshot” that aims to give everyone kids and adults — the tools and skills they need to navigate our increasingly complex information ecosystem. This would be great, but only if there are serious resources involved.
  • We don’t only need to come up with new ideas. We should help the people who’ve been in the trenches in the media/news literacy fields to do more of it, and learn from their experiences.
  • Look outside the U.S., because this is a global problem. (The tech companies may know this better than anyone.)
  • In general, collaborate like crazy. I think we did some last weekend, and we can do way, way more.

Mea culpa regarding important one element of the gathering: We didn’t have remotely enough cultural and political diversity among the attendees. If and when we do something like this again (I trust we will), fixing that will be at the top of my to-do list.

As to outcomes, that’s TBD. We had people in the room whose organizations can write big checks, or do things with their products that could make a difference in a hurry, or both. (One of the philanthropies that sent a representative — Josh Stearns, a friend and great ally in all this — was the Democracy Fund. Craig Newmark, another friend who has started putting serious money into supporting quality information, was also there.)

None of this would have happened without the support of Facebook’s Áine Kerr and her colleagues. Their professionalism, hard work, and commitment to the ideas made this collaboration a pleasure. As I said in a pre-gathering post, I continue to have strong differences with the company on some issues. But on this — the need to help users of media be vastly more savvy about what they’re consuming and creating, and to understand the importance of doing things ethically — we are allies.

“Grateful” is too small a word to describe my thanks to the invited participants. They were the working group. They worked effectively and collaboratively. They taught me all kinds of things I didn’t know, which for me is the best kind of meeting. And they made me even more eager to move forward.

My overwhelming takeaway from the meeting: Our society (and others) could be the verge of getting much more serious about media/news literacy as an essential element of creating a sustainable and honorable information ecosystem. That’s good news indeed.

I don’t know anyone who assumes that our society’s bogus-information problem will be easily or quickly solved. But I do think everyone who came to the Cronkite School for this meeting agreed that we’re in something of an emergency situation — and that the time to move on it is right now.

(Cross-posted at Medium.)

A few days after the 2016 national election, viewing what I believe was (and remains) an emergency situation, I urged the major technology companies to make media and news literacy part of their missions. We’d just emerged from the most rancid campaign in my memory, marked in part by an avalanche of misinformation.

Social media platforms, especially Facebook, were getting a lot of heat—some of it deserved—for their role in making it easy for completely fabricated “news” reports to spread like a fast-moving pandemic. There were calls for the tech companies to remove the malicious hoaxes—what people called “fake news”—from their sites. (One appropriate response was to make it more difficult for hoaxers to profit from their deceit.)

I don’t want Facebook, or Google, or Twitter or any of these huge companies being arbiters of truth, as I wrote in November. The dangers in that struck me as obvious, given their enormous sway over public conversation and information search.

But they could help the public in big ways, I thought, if they’d help us—the audience for and users of information—to upgrade ourselves. Not long after, Facebook’s Áine Kerr, manager of journalism partnerships, asked my colleagues and me for some ideas what the company could do, and had some suggestions of her own. One result of those conversations, I’m glad to report, is a “News Literacy Working Group” this weekend at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

We’ve assembled a superb, cross-disciplinary group of people from around the U.S. and several other countries. They understand the emergency, and they’re coming to Phoenix to go deep on this question: How can we make media/news literacy, which now seems so vital, a core part of everyday life?

What we’re doing isn’t a “summit,” though the people joining us are some of the best we know in a number of fields—media literacy and its critically important subset, news literacy; journalism, technology, academia, NGOs, philanthropies, and more. Rather, it’s a working group of folks who all understand that this problem  demands not just a redoubling the valuable work already being done, but also a batch of fresh, ambitious ideas on how to make news literacy scale.

This chart doesn’t start at zero; media and news literacy advocates have been working to help people for years. But in a world awash in misinformation and outright deception, we need to grow this field dramatically.

When people in technology talk about “scale” they mean using modern tools and techniques to extend the reach of a product or service with exponential growth. You’ve seen charts that look like a hockey stick, where the initial growth is modest but turns up in a dramatic way, almost becoming a vertical line over time. That’s what scale means, and one of my goals is to make media/news literacy do that—via schools, libraries and other community institutions; via media; and tech platforms themselves.

In recent weeks, the Cronkite School has been working closely with Facebook to put this meeting together. A key colleague in this has been Eric Newton, now head of innovation at the school, who helped kick-start many of the nation’s pioneering news literacy initiatives when he was head of the journalism program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has pumped countless millions of dollars into improving public knowledge.

Facebook’s sponsorship of our meeting falls under its recently announced “Facebook Journalism Project,” a three-pronged initiative that includes “Training & Tools for Everyone,” specifically including a wish to promote news literacy. Áine Kerr and her Facebook colleagues have much of the heavy lifting to make this working group happen. Their professionalism has been evident at every step, and it’s been gratifying to work with them.

To answer a question that several people who know about the ASU-Facebook collaboration have already asked me: My longstanding and deep misgivings about Facebook’s overwhelming dominance in the media world have not changed at all. I don’t plan to stop talking about that, nor offering advice to journalists on how to navigate toward a future where they, not the people running highly centralized technology platforms, control their own destinies.

But I gladly work with people with whom I disagree on some matters when we have common interests in other ways. I’m convinced that Facebook is serious about promoting media and news literacy—helping all of us upgrade ourselves to be active users of media and not just passive consumers.

We—all people who understand the need to make civics and critical thinking universal—have a lot of work ahead. I hope that this weekend will be one step in a long and vital journey.

We’ve lost one of our best, a terrific journalist, teacher, and — most of all — human being.

I first knew Steve when we worked together in Kansas City in the mid to late 1980s. I was the newsroom nerd. Steve was anything but a nerd back then, but he was a great colleague and friend. He was my editor for a time, patient and encouraging and skillful at his craft.

Later, when the information ecosystem changed, so did he. Steve re-made himself as a journalist for the Digital Age. He saw amazing new potential for the craft if we used these new tools in smart ways, and was tireless in promoting the possibilities.

What never changed, and what will always be more important, was his essential kindness and integrity. He was a consummate family man, and a dear friend to so many. That’s truly what matters most in the end. Rest in peace, Steve.

Sorry, but I don’t want Facebook to be the arbiter of what’s true. Nor do I want Google — or Twitter or any other hyper-centralized technology platform — to be the arbiter of what’s true.

But I’m glad to see platform companies at least acknowledging their role in helping spread a colossal amount of misinformation and lying propaganda. Facebook and Google have intervened in small ways, including a vow not let fake news sites make money using their advertising systems.

While I strongly believe Facebok needs to hire some human editors—the algorithm-only approach has visibly failed—I’m very leery of pushing them a lot further down a path we may all regret. But there are specific, positive steps they can take that don’t put them in the dangerous — for us as well as them — position of being the editors of the Internet, which too many people seem to be demanding right now.

What are those positive steps? In a nutshell, help their users upgrade themselves.

They can help their users develop skills that are absolutely essential: namely how to be critical thinkers in an age of nearly infinite information sources — how to evaluate and act on information when so much of what we see is wrong, deceitful, or even dangerous. Critical thinking means, in this context, media literacy.

What is media literacy? From my perspective, it’s the idea that people should not be passive consumers of media, but active users who understand and rely on key principles and tactics.

Among them: When we are reading (in the broadest sense of the work, to include listening, watching, etc.) we have to be relentlessly skeptical of everything. But not equally skeptical of everything; we have to use judgment. We have to ask our own questions, and range widely in our reading — especially to places where are biases will be challenged. We have to understand how media work, and how others use media to persuade and manipulate us. And we have to learn to adopt what I call a “slow news” approach to everything — to wait before we believe any so-called “breaking news” that crosses our screens.

But even active consumption is not enough in a world of democratized media. We aren’t literate unless we’re also creators. And when we’re doing that — whether it’s by sharing a post on Facebook, writing in a blog, or starting a website or podcast or video series — we have to bring the consumer principles to the table and add some more. They add up to being honorable.

The flood of fake online news — augmenting the long-established river of fake news from outlets like Fox — has some of its roots in people sharing not what they know to be false, but what they believe to be true. Or, more often and perniciously, what they want to be true. If everyone did as CNN’s Brian Stelter advises, “triple-check before you share,” that would be a big help.

Why don’t Facebook and Google and Twitter and LinkedIn, among others, offer this advice themselves, and prominently? This is an opportunity the platform companies should seize. They could do more than almost anyone else to help us escape the new-media traps we’ve laid for ourselves.

The people working hardest on media literacy (and “news literacy” among other variants on the topic) are academics, activists, and ex-journalists. They’ve amply demonstrated that it makes a difference. For example, one study showed, logically enough, that exposure to media-literacy training increased students’ “ability to comprehend, evaluate, and analyze media messages in print, video, and audio formats.” Another associated it with increased “civic participation.” I could cite a long list of other studies that show media literacy’s genuine value.

I have a horse in this race; I’ve written a book about it, and have been teaching it at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. In the summer of 2015 I led a “massive open online course” (MOOC) called “Overcoming Information Overload.” A colleague in that project, Kristy Roschke, has analyzed the MOOC data and says it conforms with published research. (Note: my book is published under a Creative Commons license, and so are the MOOC course materials, which means they’re available for download, re-use, and remixing.)

For all its obvious value, media literacy hasn’t penetrated nearly as deeply as it should, and isn’t being taught enough where it matters most: in our K-12 schools. In most districts it’s an afterthought, at best. And let’s be clear: In many parts of the United States, teaching real critical thinking would be considered by reality-denying ideologues to be dangerously radical act.

Another vital cultural institution could, and should, have taken this on decades ago. I’m talking about the journalism trade.

Brian Stelter’s recent CNN commentaries have been a heartening demonstration of what media organizations could be doing. But it’s tragic and damaging — to journalists themselves as well as society — that they haven’t made this a core mission. Since they haven’t, what’s the next useful point of leverage?

The tech platforms are leverage to the nth power. That worries me. It is deeply unhealthy that a few giant companies — Facebook in particular — have become the epicenter of national and even global conversation. Their dominance is part of a re-centralization of communications that is already having dangerous consequences for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and much more. I’d much rather see a combination of broad media literacy and a re-decentralized Internet.

But their dominance exists, today. So I’m asking them to become the champions for a culture that values truth over lies; can tell the difference; and can act to help assure that truth has a fighting chance against the manipulators who are so efficiently poisoning our public discourse.

What specifically can they do? Among other things:

They can put media literacy front and center on their services. They can draw on the best work in the field — and ask for advice from super-experts like Renee Hobbs and Howard Rheingold (compared with them, I’m barely a dilettante in the field). The goal should be to help the rest of us understand why this matters so much and, more importantly, what we can do about it, individually and as members of communities.

They can give third parties ways to help users manage the information flow, not just to avoid bogus information but, crucially also ensure that they see competing ideas challenging their own biases.

They can offer better tools to users who a) don’t want to see fake news and other lies; b) want to help online communities police themselves; c) be better organized in their own consumption of media.

Those are just a few of the many useful ways the platforms could bring media literacy to a vastly broader public.

Will this solve the problem that’s been getting worse for a long time? Of course not. But it will help. That’s a lot better than giving up and sinking further into a swamp that at some point becomes impossible to escape.

This is an emergency. Truth and context need powerful allies, and need them right now.

I was honored to keynote the Congrés de Periodistes de Catalunya in Barcelona last week, and this is an edited version of what I said:

I’m glad to be here with you today in Barcelona. This is one of my favorites cities and regions, for many reasons that go far beyond the great people and food and remarkable things to see. There’s a spirit of political and economic innovation here that inspires me – and many others around the world.

It is a special honor to be at this Congress of Catalonian journalists. Journalists are among the people who inspire me the most – most of all when they’re doing their work with persistence and integrity.

I was planning to show you some slides. I was planning to talk about how far we’ve come in digital journalism, and how far we have to go to make it the thriving ecosystem our societies – and our journalists – need it to be.

But something happened this week.

America’s election has – and for once this is not an exaggeration – changed everything.

I am an American, and I love my country. I am hoping for the best. I am an optimist in the long run. But I have to be realistic. I do not expect the best, or anything even close to it, not for journalism or my country. The next few years will be, at the very least, difficult for people who believe in progressive ideals and social justice.

So I’m not going to show slides. I hope we can have a conversation about our future as journalists, and as citizens of countries we want to succeed as free and open societies.

I have three goals this morning.

First, to give you my impressions of how journalism performed during this election campaign. The short answer is that journalism failed, with some exceptions.

My second goal is to help you understand why I believe the Trump presidency could well be a turning point – a negative one – for free speech and other fundamental liberties in my country. That would have impact far beyond our shores.

Finally, I want to ask journalists – here and in America and everywhere – to be activists.

Activists for freedom of expression, among the liberties that are at the core of societies where freedom is an institution, not just a word.

Activists for media literacy, the foundation of which is critical thinking.

Activists, because if we don’t do this we’ll be helping the authoritarians and failing to serve our fellow citizens.

So how did American journalism fail in the current situation?

Our media organizations helped create the climate for someone like Trump to succeed. They’ve been selling fear for decades. For example, in America, at a time the lowest crime rates in many decades, our media have persuaded the public that the risk of being a victim is higher than ever. The risk of any individual person in America becoming a victim is terrorism is exceedingly low, but our media have persuaded the public that the opposite is true.

They’ve been selling mistrust for years, too–mistrust of institutions, some of which have indeed behaved badly, and in the end mistrust of themselves as well. That’s a climate made to order for demagogues.

Then, having helped make that corrosive climate, our media directly helped Trump capitalize on it. In the months before and he became an official candidate for president, he received unprecedented amounts of free publicity from a medium that had already helped make him one of the most famous people in America. But now the help was coming not from TV entertainment shows, but from so-called “news” organizations. CNN and the other TV news shows gave Trump free, unedited airtime worth, according to one credible estimate, more than $2 billion.

And as a candidate, Trump dominated the screen and newspaper columns. His competitors got very little coverage by comparison. The coverage they did get – Hillary Clinton’s in particular – was consistently negative.

Why did TV news give Trump so much free publicity to spout his be-afraid slogans, and to lie constantly with very few corrections from the journalists until late in the campaign?

Journalists, real journalists, always know to follow the money.

Trump drew audiences, which boosted ratings, and advertisers sent money. The head of CBS, one of the US media companies that profited wildly from Trump, will be infamous forever for what he said at a business conference early this year: “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

This leader of business said, most infamously, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

If American journalism dies in the next few years, those words should be carved on the tombstone marking the grave.

No other candidate in recent memory understood journalism’s flaws and blind spots as well as Trump, and he took total advantage of the opening. He relied on journalists to stick with their insane system of false balance, which often takes the form of giving roughly equal weight to truth and lies, in the name of so-called fairness. And he knew they would give up easily if he kept vital information from them. When journalists asked for his tax returns – made public by every other major candidate for the past 50 years – he said no, and most journalists meekly accepted this stonewalling.

American political journalists, especially the ones from newspapers and magazines, did eventually realize that Trump was something entirely new—that as media scholar Jay Rosen put it, he was “crashing the system.” But with too few honorable exceptions, major traditional media organizations and journalists failed to respond soon and persistently enough with the only possible fix: tough journalism.

I emphasize that there was some great work. In fact, if you compiled all the excellent campaign journalism, you’d have a long list–including some work from newer online outlets–that would make you proud as a journalist. But the good stuff was swamped by the flood of mediocrity and awfulness that dominated.

I want to praise one journalist in particular. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post gave a one-man demonstration of how journalism should work. He deserves and will win a 2017 Pulitzer Prize, unless the Pulitzer judges are sound asleep when they look at his work.

The press, as a whole, was definitely asleep for the duration of an election-related scandal that was in plain sight the whole time. In American states controlled by Republicans, laws and regulations — some plainly illegal — were writtento make it more difficult for certain groups – minorities in particular – to vote. This was a systematic campaign that plainly made a difference in the election (though how big a difference is not yet known). It deserved systematic, relentless coverage for years. Newspapers did some journalism along the way, but TV basically ignored it – and there was no sustained coverage except by several smaller outlets.

Think about it: a nationwide scheme by one party, designed to suppress that fundamental right and duty of citizenship – voting – and most in the media  couldn’t be bothered to pay attention until the last few days.

The media’s self-destructive obsession with polls was not new. As a rule, journalists love what we call “horse race” coverage – who’s ahead, who’s behind, who’s making progress, who’s not – and find coverage of actual issues too much of a bother.

Then there’s the very real failure of political journalists to venture outside their bubble and ask Trump voters why they were doing this. Yes, Trump had, and has, major support from outright racists, anti-semites, mysoginists who treat women as little more than property, and others whose views I consider shameful. But he also had support from millions of men and women in parts of the country the coastal elites hadn’t just forgotten – the elites barely knew they existed, and didn’t especially care.

For the record, I was a supporter of Clinton – this was the first time I’ve ever sent money to a presidential campaign – in part because her policies were vastly better than Trumps, but more because I believed Trump represented such a threat.

Clinton has many flaws, and ran a poor campaign. But it seems obvious to me that journalists treated Clinton much worse than Trump until the debates, with negative story after story, mostly about the emails.

The email situation was a genuine issue. It demonstrated classic Clinton arrogance and occasional tendency to skirt the truth until there’s no other choice. But Clinton isn’t remotely in Trump’s league as a liar (who is?), and the email story simply did not merit the kind of saturation coverage it got. Nor did Clinton deserve the last-second intervention by the FBI director with his mysterious letter to Congress—grossly over-interpreted by journalists who didn’t ask tough questions of anyone but Clinton, but that’s another story entirely.

Let me add one more essential problem. Social media and the vast amount of “fake news” – websites posing as journalism – have given partisans easier ways to go around traditional journalism and create bogus or highly slanted alternative realities. Traditional journalists have done far too little to understand this phenomenon or to counter it. And social media organizations don’t seem to care.

So what happens now? I fear that Trump and the new radically right-wing Congress will be the biggest threat to American civil liberties and freedom of speech in my lifetime. I don’t think journalists paid nearly enough attention to this during the campaign.

Many liberties are in jeopardy, but I will focus mostly here on ones that involve freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

It is clear that Trump actually loves media – when it’s helping to promote him or his business interests. But he plainly hates actual journalism about him, and has promised to do things – and has already done some of them — that would directly and indirectly threaten what journalists do. He has sued at least one journalist not because of inaccuracies but because he wanted to punish the writer financially by forcing him and his publisher to spend money on lawyers. He’s been clear that he’ll appoint judges who might sharply restrict journalistic freedom. There is much more, but I believe it is accurate to call Trump an enemy of journalism, and now he’s in a position where he can do extraordinary damage.

Trump will control America’s intelligence services. Journalists correctly criticized the Obama administration’s misuse of surveillance (especially when directed against media people) but they haven’t thought much about what Trump will do with these mostly unaccountable powers.

The Internet and democratized technology have given us a platform for free speech that is unprecedented. But technology is also giving authoritarians some of their best tools ever to clamp down on liberty.

In the context of freedom of expression, consider the possibilities. Trump is expected to call for restrictions on strong encryption, and thereby create vast insecurity for our communications—including journalists’ communications. He’s already said he wants to end network neutrality, the idea that the telecommunications industry shouldn’t be able to pick the winners when it comes to access to online content and services.

These and other positions are all threats to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to innovate in a digital world, and more.

Which brings me to my final point. Journalists have to recognize that on some issues, they have to become activists. There is no alternative.

I recognize that in many parts of this world, journalists are activists by definition—because truth telling in repressive societies is an act designed to bring about change. I’m humbled by the people who risk their freedom, and sometimes their lives, to tell their fellow citizens and the rest of the world what is happening where they live.

In the western democracies with a more robust tradition of free speech and a free press, the idea of journalists as activists is often seen as taking sides, and violating journalistic norms. But there’s a long and honorable history of what we call “advocacy journalism” exposing injustices with the goal of of bringing about change.

Even journalists who worship objectivity should recognize that on some issues, they cannot possibly be objective. Or at least, they should not be. On some issues we have to take stands, even though those stands may put us at policy odds with the people and institutions we cover. If the president of the United States declares war on journalism, journalists are not obliged to just record his words and publish them. They are obliged to take a side – the side of freedom.

I’d argue that freedom of speech is only one of the issues where journalists who do not take activists stands aren’t doing their jobs. These issues come under larger topics at the core of our liberty, among them: freedom of expression in general, freedom to associate, freedom to collaborate, freedom to innovate.

Governments and corporations are attacking these core values in the Digital Age. They’re typically doing this in the name of protecting us or giving us more convenience, and there’s some truth in that. But in the process, these powerful entities are creating a host of choke points. They’re locking down more and more of our computing and communications, and creating a system of control over what we say and do.

This is a betrayal of the Internet’s decentralized promise, where speech and innovation and collaboration would often start at the edges of this network of networks, where no one needed permission to do those things. Choke points mean we have to ask permission.

The choke points start with direct censorship of the Internet, a growing trend in far too many parts of the world. I trust no one here would object to journalistic activism on this front. The New York Times was an activist several years ago when it told China it wouldn’t be intimidated by the regime’s heavy-handed media control.

I mentioned Trump’s upcoming control of America’s surveillance apparatus, and how technology is also the spy’s best tool. Wholesale spying on everything that moves has become a method for government — often working with big companies — to keep track of what journalists and activists for justice are doing.
Like most people, I do not oppose all surveillance. I do oppose spying on everyone, all the time. That goes way beyond the mission of stopping terrorism and solving major crimes, and it harms everyone’s liberty, not just journalists’ privileges.

Surveillance chills freedom of expression, and no society that exists under pervasive surveillance is free. We know from history that it deadens innovation and culture. Journalists need to actively oppose the surveillance state, if we truly believe in free expression.

Another choke point among many others is the one I mentioned earlier: the telecommunications industry. In America and many other countries– and often in concert with governments– big telecoms say they should have the right to decide what bits of information get to people’s devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get there at all.

Now you and I helped create some of the choke points — by choosing convenience over liberty in relying centralized technology and communications platforms like Facebook and Google and Apple and Twitter. I have to note that these companies do provide useful services. And they are often trying to be advocates for free speech, though not consistently.

But journalists should understand that the Internet is getting new editors, namely the people who work for some of those companies. Facebook is increasingly arbitrary in how it edits your content. And by the way, I don’t understand why journalists keep pouring their work into a platform that is the media’s biggest financial competitor.

The corporate online powers are also spying on us. It’s their business model. Journalists are waking up to this, more so in Europe than in the U.S., but we all need to be thinking harder about how companies can use and abuse big data. We need to campaign for privacy from corporations, not just governments.

What else can we do? Journalists need to understand what is happening themselves, and then tell audiences about it – and more.

The Snowden revelations have convinced some journalists to pay more attention to security and, in a few cases, deploy countermeasures for themselves. We should go further. We should help our audiences do what they can to preserve some privacy, too. And we should lobby for laws restricting surveillance.

On network control, news organizations should be screaming about the telecom industry’s power grab. They should be warning the public about what’s at stake. They should be lobbying for rules and regulations that protect speech and digital innovation.

In all kinds of ways, journalists should be working to re-decentralize the Internet—both for their own sakes and the public good. Free speech starts at the edges of the networks, and ultimately that is where it is heard.

And – this is so important – we need to be spreading the concept of media literacy to everyone who will listen. This is, above all, about developing skills for critical thinking – being skeptical, using judgment, asking questions, ranging widely for information; and more. People need a refuge from the misinformation, and context to understand what is really going on.

Journalists should the leading teachers of media literacy. The ones who do journalism with integrity will be among the biggest beneficiaries, because they’ll foster much more trust in their own work – and one of the things people pay for in this world is products and services they trust.

I’m not asking journalists to ignore nuances when ask them to be activists; life and business and policy truly are complicated. But when it comes to things that directly threaten perhaps our the most fundamental liberties—without which journalism is vastly more difficult if not impossible—there’s no excuse for failing to explain what’s at stake. There is no excuse for failing to take more activist role in preserving liberty.

Journalists, and journalism, are under attack around the world. I wasn’t happy with President Obama’s harsh attitude toward leaks that assisted essential national security journalism. But we’ll probably look back on his tenure as a time of overt support for journalism compared to the Trump regime.

Core freedoms – of expression, association, and more – should be everyone’s right. Media literacy is everyone’s duty. Journalists, and journalism educators like me, have a duty to be their active defenders, and explainers.

Otherwise we’ll live in a world of choke points and control by others – and Donald Trump surely craves control. Otherwise we’ll live in a world where lies are as plausible as truth because the public that doesn’t know how to tell the difference – and based on this campaign that’s the world Trump prefers, too.

We have to defend ourselves, and our societies, from these anti-freedom trends. We have to take stands. It’s part of our job now.

Again, I am deeply honored to be here with you. What you do matters, so very much. Journalism matters.

Thank you.

It’s a joy to be back in Athens, where I’m doing a keynote talk, panel and workshop at a journalism conference created by Open University of Cyprus. CNN Greece, which is digital-only (CNN’s first experiment of this kind), came by my hotel yesterday to chat about the future of media (and asked about the presidential race). This photo is from the roof cafe. Quite the set…

dan in greece
Photo by Noriko Takiguchi

Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds changed our perception of media last week with her shocking and heartbreaking real-time web video of the last minutes of Philando Castile’s life. The couple, with her daughter riding in the back seat of their sedan, had been pulled over by local police in a Minneapolis suburb, and Reynolds had the astonishing presence of mind to send the aftermath of Castile’s shooting by a police officer — which included her arrest by cops who didn’t even try to save his life — to the world via Facebook’s “Live” video platform.

Countless articles, analyses, commentaries, and other posts have chronicled a media shift in those moments. The implications are real, and important. We are only beginning to confront the issues they raise. Among them:

  • Is this a revolutionary, or evolutionary, change in media creation, distribution, and access?
  • Does it represent a turning point for citizen journalism?
  • What responsibilities do you and I have in situations where we can witness important events and behavior, and where might that lead?
  • What can we trust, and what should we share?
  • Facebook seems to have been caught almost unaware of the likely consequences of offering a real-time video platform. Do Facebook and other centralized distribution platforms have editorial duties to perform?
  • More broadly, who will control what we can create and see in coming years? Facebook? Government? Or you and me?

Reynolds’ video prompted me to revisit something I wrote more than a decade ago, in my book, We the Media, which discussed the then-nascent idea of radically democratized media and one of its important offshoots, citizen journalism. I asked my readers to recall the media environment on Sept. 11, 2001, and then peer into an easily predictable future.

Our memories of that awful day stem largely from television: videos of airplanes slamming into the World Trade Center, the fireballs that erupted, people falling and jumping from the towers, the crumbling to earth of the structures. Individuals with video cameras captured parts of this story, and their work ended up on network TV as well. The big networks stopped showing most graphic videos fairly quickly. But those pictures are still on the Net for anyone who wants to see them.

We also learned, second-hand, that people in the airplanes and Trade Center towers phoned loved ones and colleagues that awful day. What would we remember if the people on the airplanes and in those buildings all had camera-phones? What if they’d been sending images and audio from the epicenter of the terrorists’ airborne arsenal, and from inside the towers that became coffins for so many? I don’t mean to be ghoulish, but I do suggest that our memories would be considerably different had images and sounds of that kind ricocheted around the globe.

Since then, a number of technologies (and uses of those tools) have become much more common. One of them is live-streaming, now so routine that we take it for granted as an offshoot of traditional broadcasting. Live-streaming from mobile phones has been around for some years, too.

In that context, Reynolds’ live video was anything but revolutionary. It was a logical extension of what came before. But the velocity of change is accelerating, and what she did had big implications.

Her video was a three-faceted act: witnessing, activism, and journalism*. Even though few people saw it in real time, she was saving it to the data cloud in real time, creating and — one hopes — preserving a record of what may or may not be judged eventually to have been a crime by a police officer. What Reynolds did was brave, and important for all kinds of reasons.

She also taught the rest of us something vital: We all have an obligation to witness and record some things even if we are not directly part of what’s happening. That’s what two people did as they captured videos of the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last week. They understood their duty when it comes to holding accountable the people we rely on to protect the public in honorable ways. (I still believe that the vast majority of police officers are honorable and trying to do their jobs right. But there’s also no question in my mind that the majority of officers at least tolerate the bad cops who are doing such harm to the reputation of law enforcement, and helping poison public trust.)

At this point I’m convinced, as Ethan Zuckerman says, that we have an obligation to use our cameras in these situations, among many others. These are times when a video record of what happened may not provide absolute clarity, but at least it can provide data.. It may also deter the worst kinds of behavior by public officials in the line of duty — especially as governments that adopted body cameras for police then pass laws designed to prevent the videos from reaching the public.

I also worry, as I did in my book (and long before) about Big and Little Brother becoming the default. So we’re going to have to draw lines, individually and (hopefully) as societal norms: Some things we see, we get the video and post it. At other times, we may get the video, but we’ll just delete it. And we have to make it second nature to realize that some — most — things shouldn’t be captured at all. Pervasive surveillance by law enforcement and/or the rest of us chills free speech and assembly, ultimately deadens us.

We’ll also have to learn, individually and collectively, what we can trust. This takes practice, because the online world is awash with deceit and lies along with honor and truth. It takes practice by news organizations not to be faked out, but even more so by the rest of us, because we, not journalists, have to learn to be the final arbiters — and we have to do this collectively, because like it or not, our news organizations are demonstrating in general that they’re not up to the job. I hate saying that, but there it is.

This is why I spend so much time lately teaching “media literacy,” which asks the former audience — still consumers but also creators — to be active users of media, not passive readers/watchers/etc. This is, in the “consuming media” process, about being skeptical and using judgment; understanding our own biases and working to challenge them; listening to others who may disagree with us; asking questions; waiting before trusting what we see; and so much more. It’s also about recognizing our role as media creators. As we wield our cameras we are obliged, if we want to be trusted, to be honorable.

One element of danger for the citizen video maker — being challenged or arrested or worse by people in authority who don’t want you capturing what they do — is lessening. In fact, the “war on photography” by police and others in power could soon be moot, for several reasons. In the United States, at least, courts are increasingly recognizing a First Amendment right to capture videos of police in their public role. This won’t stop cops from breaking the law, as officers sometimes do by confiscating phones and deleting photos and videos they find objectionable. (Police departments and the politicians they report to don’t mind paying taxpayers’ money to plaintiffs who sue after abuses.)

Meanwhile, technology is reaching a point where police soon won’t realize they are being recorded. It’s been possible for years to buy cameras that become part of our clothing. Google Glass made people realize how trivial it will be to embed cameras in eyewear. Soon enough, we’ll be able to capture videos simply by looking at something; Google, Samsung and Sony (and certainly others) are working on camera/recording devices embedded in contact lenses.

Again, this technology will be used for bad purposes we can easily imagine. And that will inevitably lead to moves aimed at preventing those uses, which in turn leads to free speech and other essential liberties.

Surely the authorities are delighted to hear of Apple’s new patent that lets police (and presumably others, such as big-time musical acts and movie theater owners) block iPhone recording “in areas where picture or video capture is prohibited.” From a company as control-freakish as Apple, it’s no surprise to learn of such a thing. From the context of free expression, it’s potentially catastrophic — and your fears should grow in a world where huge, centralized companies, often working closely with governments, become the venues for expression.

We need to ask now, not tomorrow, who controls the media we create and consume. Increasingly, it’s not us.

Perhaps smart people will find ways around phone makers’ constraints. (I assume they will, actually.) But what will we have gained when we take videos of newsworthy events if the videos are then disappeared by Facebook or Google or Comcast other giant platforms and telecom carriers?

Facebook is the most immediate threat, because it has become the default venue for conversation, and for news. It is also visibly unprepared for this role. Facebook hasn’t given a plausible explanation for its initial removal of Reynolds’ video soon after she posted it. Perhaps, as some smart observers suggest, the video was flagged by other Facebook users, prompting an automatic takedown while the company decided what to do about it (it went back up). Or perhaps the police who confiscated Reynolds’ phone took it down. Or perhaps Facebook itself decided initially to remove it. Or none of the above. The point is that the video remains visible because Facebook allows it to be visible. (Of course, in this highly visible case the video surely has been saved elsewhere and would be immediately reposted online if Facebook decided to remove it.)

The company’s policies on what videos — Live or not — and other material can stay online are incoherent. So, for that matter, are the policies at Twitter, Google’s YouTube and other user-created platforms. This is understandable, though obviously not good. At some level Facebook has no alternative but to make make on-the-fly and contradictory, even hypocritical, decisions. But as Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post has observed, Facebook has to recognize that it is “in the news business.” It’s making editorial decisions. So are the other platforms. I’ve called them “the new editors of the Internet,” and and much as I wish that wasn’t true, it is.

But Facebook is the behemoth, and the one making the key decisions at this point. This is wrong in so many ways. It’s enormously dangerous that an enormously powerful enterprise can decide what free speech will be. I don’t want a few people’s whims in Menlo Park overruling the First Amendment and other free speech “guarantees” (in quotes because those assurances are worthless in many other countries). So I don’t use Facebook for my speech. I’m posting this, among other places, here on my own website.

But I’m just one person, and approximately 1.6 billion other people have made a different choice. I hope they’ll reconsider someday, but I’m not counting on it.

At the very least, as Facebook becomes what amounts to a “common carrier,” we’ll need to treat it like one under the law. The government can’t stop people from saying anything they choose on the phone. This has to apply to companies like Facebook, or they will have far, far too much power over freedom of speech and assembly. Yet asking the government to intervene brings its own risks, which are visible in many other parts of the world where governments routinely order social media companies to disallow certain speech.

The answer, or part of it, is what World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee has called re-decentralization. A few weeks ago I spent several days with technology pioneers and young activists who want to save the Web and, by extension, the wider Internet from being controlled by a few centralized entities.

While they’re working on this, we should be experimenting ourselves with tools that don’t require us to rely on Facebook et al. For example, the capabilities of Facebook Live have been available via a project called “Rhinobird”, which uses open Web standards including WebRTC. And as projects like the “Interplanetary File System” take root, we’ll be able to use URLs as names of web content, not addresses.

These projects, and many others, are inspiring. I’m going to do whatever I can to help them succeed, because the stakes are so high — for free speech and so much more.

***

*The Reynolds video broke somewhat new ground in citizen journalism, which came to notice a decade ago. Citizen journalism got trashed, early on, by just about everyone in the traditional media world, and the flaws in the concept were certainly clear enough after a number of small and large “false news” debacles. But it was always important for its potential, and the countless cases where it was an essential part of the news flow more than made up for the downside. If nothing else, the act of witnessing — directly and not through intermediaries who may miss the context or the meaning — grew into its own media form. The more we saw videos of police misconduct, for example, the more white Americans had to understand whey black Americans feel they’ve been living in a different country.

 

decentral1
(I’ll be updating this regularly during the day. New stuff will be at the bottom of the post, not the top, on the principle that most people reading this will read it only once or twice. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the method in my madness. For great to-the-moment info, follow Kevin Marks on Twitter.)

After an amazing Builders Day–a gathering of technologists who talked deep code about the potential to re-decentralize the Web and the larger Internet–it’s the official start of the Decentralized Web Summit. Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, convened the event and the archive is hosting it. (My blogging from yesterday is here.)

Note: You can watch a live stream of the event.

Mitchell Baker, executive chair of the Mozilla Foundation and Corp., is launching the day. She has three guiding principles:

  • Immediate. Safe instant access to content accessible via a universal address without the need for install.
  • Open. anyone can publish content without permission or barrier and provide access as they see fit.
  • Agency: user agent can choose how to interpret content provided by a service offering.

It’s not about a particular technology, she says. It’s about much more than that.

Vint Cerf, one of the genuine originators of the Internet, is calling himself the “chief Internet evangelist” in the room. Fair enough. (More below…)

Continue reading

decentral1(I’ll be updating this regularly.)
Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, has pulled together an amazing group of people for what he’s calling–with only a tiny amount of hyperbole–the “Decentralized Web Summit.”  Some of the “original architects” of this system–including Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee–are here, or will be, along with the younger and deeply committed architects of what we all agree we want in a general way. I’m one of the participants, but I’m in awe of the people around me.

Why is this necessary? Because our technology and communications are being recentralized, and controlled, by governments and big companies. They often mean well. And we, the users, often choose the convenience (or supposed safety) that come with letting others control our communications.

Today is “Builders Day,” in which we try to figure out what we want and what’s already available. Tomorrow is a more conference-type program, and Thursday is a meetup.

Brewster started the day by asking three key questions:

  • How can we build a reliable web?
  • How can we make it more private?
  • And how do we keep it fun and evolving.

Mitchell Baker, who runs Mozilla, suggests three basic design principles:

  • Immediate. Safe instant access to content accessible via a universal address without the need for install.
  • Open. anyone can publish content without permission or barrier and provide access as they see fit.
  • Agency: user agent can choose how to interpret content provided by a service offering.

For some great live-tweeting, check out Kevin Marks’ feed at Twitter.

***

The Builders are identifying themselves and what they want out of the day. Some have macro goals. I described mine this way: We need tech and communications that lets anyone speak, read, assemble and innovate without permission, and I want to help get that done. Others have more micro goals, such as fixing specific roadblocks to the decentralized net.

One of the best: “I want to see all the ones and zeros liberated forever,” says John Light of Bitseed.

You can see the participants here. This is why I say I’m in awe.

***

We broke into groups, looking for areas of agreement and disagreement, plus ideas on how we can build or push forward decentralization. Then we merged groups (twice) and boiled it all down again, in order to have specific items to work on this afternoon.

What’s crucial to realize is that this is not an easy problem. Even the definitions are nuanced and complex. For example, what do we mean exactly by decentralization in the first place. There have to be some kinds of control points in some contexts.

We started with groups of six. My group(s) talked about such things as identity, encryption, and censorship. Then we compared notes (literally post-it notes) with another group and settled on some essentials to pursue later. Five other groups did likewise, and a spokesperson from each reported out to the rest of the participants.

I made an incredibly amateurish mobile phone video of the recommendations and posted it to the Archive (not, ahem, YouTube), using the new and wonderful mobile app called OpenArchive, which runs on Android. (Here’s a link to the page where the video is hosted.)

***

Google’s Van Jacobson talked, in part, about the inherent problems with IP (Internet Protocol in this context, not “intellectual property). It was a miraculous achievement. But it isn’t scaling as well as we need to a global (and someday interplanetary) scale.

Jacobson is working on the NDN–Named Data Networking”–project that aims to solve some of the growth issues. One key piece of this is where trust resides in the system. Today we get much of that trust from where the data originates, but perhaps we can get it from the data itself.

***

Zooko Wilcox (Zcash) isn’t enamored of the centralize-everything mantra. He’s focused, he says, on a more fundamental goal: to promote human rights with technology.

He chides us for our one-time “technological determinism”–a belief that we could solve any problem with tech. If some of us thought the law, or at least judges, would come to see it our way, we were naive. We aren’t anymore.

People share resources for many reasons. One is money, and he says money creates stability in a key way. He likes “commercial structures” and open-source (“almost like science”) in different ways.

***

zeronetTamas Kocsis is here from Hungary to talk about ZeroNet, a radically decentralized system that uses blockchain technology and BitTorrent to create “Open, free and uncensorable websites.” He shows a demo of ZeroBlog, one of the applications that he’s created from his platform, with seamless editing and publishing on a network that lives on multiple, loosely connected machines, because it’s operating entirely peer-to-peer. He’s enabled chat, bulletin aboard and more. The service can be connected to Tor for enhanced privacy.

A question from the audience from someone who was “super-impressed” when he first looked at it. Is there away of importing from existing applications (such as this WordPress blog)? He’s aware of the problem, but since there’s no back-end this is difficult. (In other words, no.)

Still, super-impressive, an understatement.

***

Much more TK…