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.

medialitSome news: We’re launching a MOOC — a massive open online course — on news and media literacy. The course (here’s the registration page) will be based on an online course I currently teach at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and will be open to all who are interested, at no charge.

The  MOOC, which has received funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, will be hosted at edX, one of the major–and rapidly growing–course platforms. ASU has become a member of the edX university consortium, and this is the first offering from the school. The course launches July 6, and registration is open now.

(Note: The media-literacy MOOC is not part of the ASU/edX Global Freshman Academy, which will be offering a battery of for-credit courses.)

We’re well aware that the jury is out, to put it mildly, on the ultimate value of MOOCs. Clearly they’ve been oversold in some ways. To think that courselogothey’ll take over education is absurd. Equally clearly, they have enormous potential. This course is experimental by definition, but we have two major goals: to make it a super-useful learning experience, and to learn from what happens in order to improve the next time.

One of the best parts of this project is the people involved. In the past several months we’ve recorded conversations with some of the smartest folks I know in the news and media-literacy communities. They include Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales; New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan; CNN’s Brian Stelter; media-literacy guru Renee Hobbs; and many others. We’ll be featuring these conversations in the course.

This is a team effort in every possible way. I’m incredibly fortunate to be working with the ASU Online folks, who’ve been helping me sweat the details and who know lots of things I don’t. A team of students at the Cronkite School’s Public Relations Lab has put together some great marketing ideas. PhD candidate Kristy Roschke, whose focus is media literacy, is playing a key role in the course development and will be the lead teaching assistant when the course goes live.

MOOCs are open in ways that most university courses are not. Openness is core to my work–my Mediactive book, on which the course is largely based, is free to read online and/or download, and is available under a Creative Commons copyright license (“Some Rights Reserved”). I want to apply the principle of openness, as much as possible, to the new project. So I’ll be blogging regularly about how we’re doing this between now and the July 6 launch.

You may find this interesting to watch. If so, and if you think we can improve on what we’re doing, let me know. I’m looking for the best ideas, not just my own.

The Knight, Ford and Mozilla Foundations are collaborating on the latest edition of the long-running Knight News Challenge. This one asks, “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?” — or risk losing the Net to the ever-more-powerful players that want to re-centralize (i.e. control) speech and, ultimately, innovation.

As you’ll see when you read the entries, folks are coming up with some terrific answers. I hope you’ll take a look at mine — I call it “The Open Internet MOOC” — and offer support if you like it. (Hint: There’s a little “Applause” button on the side that you can click.)

More important, I hope you’ll recognize the threat we all face, and get involved in saving/restoring the open Internet we all need.

I’ve created a new course for the Arizona State University’s online program, on digital media literacy. It’s a follow-up to an earlier course that focuses on media “consumption” (a word I dislike in this context even though it’s so widely used); I urge students to be active users of media rather than mere consumers.

This course, based in part on my last book, Mediactive, focuses on media creation, and its natural extension, given the digital tools we’re now using: collaboration. Among the requirements will be registering a domain name; contributing to Wikipedia, blogging, and more.

Unlike standard university courses, the online program runs for 7 weeks at a time. Here’s an outline of what we’ll be doing this spring — and if you see something I should add, please let me know: Continue reading