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.

I’m at the IndieWebCamp — a meeting of people who believe in “a people-focused alternative to the ‘corporate web'” — in New York City. This is a small but vital movement aimed at restoring (some) control of our data and communications to the people who create it at the edges of the countless networks that comprise the Internet.

I wrote about the Indie Web a couple of years ago, and it’s good to catch up with the impressive progress since then.

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 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…

(I’m on a panel at the International Journalism Festival later today, entitled “The capture of traditional media by Facebook.” I’m planning to say some of what you see below. What follows is an early draft of a section of a book chapter, and I’ll be revising it a lot.)

On the cover of this week’s Economist is a photo mashup of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as an emperor. It is a fitting image, given his company’s growing domination of online conversation.Zuckerberg as emperor

It is also a sign, one of many in recent months, that people in journalism have awoken to a potentially existential threat to the craft, among many other consequences of Facebook’s reach and clout in the information world. At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, where a Facebook representative stonewalled questions a year ago, more than one panel has been devoted to the issue of how journalism will work if big “platform” companies—especially Facebook—control distribution.

How should we respond? From my perspective, two primary schools of thought have emerged. One is to embrace that dominance, albeit with some unease, and fully participate in Facebook’s ecosystem. Another is to persuade Facebook to take seriously its growing responsibility to help get quality journalism in front of as many people as possible.

Both of those approaches assume that Facebook is too big, too powerful to resist—that we have no alternative but to capitulate to its dominance. But if that is true, the consequences will be disastrous. We will be living in the ecosystem of a company that has repeatedly demonstrated its untrustworthiness, an enterprise that would become the primary newsstand for journalism and would be free to pick the winners via special deals with media people and tweaks of its opaque algorithms. If this is the future, we are truly screwed.

I say: no. Let’s not give up so easily. Instead, let’s resist—and find a way out of this trap.

Before I explain how, let’s offer some due praise. You don’t have to trust Facebook, or approve of its “surveillance capitalism” approach to business, to recognize its staggering brilliance in other respects. The company is loaded with talent, and has become an entrepreneurial icon. It is innovative technically and quick to adapt to changing conditions. And I have no doubt that the vast majority of its employees, and some of its investors, want to do the right thing when it comes to free speech.

But Facebook is also becoming a monopoly, moving closer and closer to what Zuckerberg himself has called his goal—that Facebook should be “like electricity” in the sense of effectively being a public utility that we cannot do without.

And that’s where I’d start in helping journalists, and others, escape from its web. Here’s an early, and therefore rough, draft of the approach I’d suggest:

First, journalists should remember the proverbial first rule of getting out of a hole: stop digging. Sadly, with the advent of Facebook’s Instant Articles, a publishing platform with great allure in some ways, news organizations have abandoned their shovels and brought in heavy earth-moving machinery to dig themselves in even deeper. I’m not saying drop all connections to Facebook right now, but the dig-faster “strategy” is beyond short-sighted. It’s outright suicidal.

Second, journalism organizations should explain to the communities they serve how Facebook operates. Such as:

  • Invasion of privacy. The occasional articles we see about Facebook’s latest privacy intrusions barely begin to describe the massive way this company (and other online advertising operations) are creating unprecedentedly detailed dossiers on everyone, and then using this information in ways we can barely imagine. The ubiquitous “Like” button, found all over the Internet, is part of Facebook’s surveillance system.
  • Control of speech. Facebook decides what its users will see by manipulating their news feeds. It removes posts based on its puritan approach to sex, and reserves the right to determine what speech is acceptable, period. In America, Facebook’s terms of service overrule the First Amendment.
  • Becoming an alternate Internet. Facebook would be delighted if you never leave its embrace. In some countries, where it makes special deals with governments and (often government-controlled) telecom companies, it effectively is the Internet on mobile devices.
  • Evolving ethics. Facebook constantly pushes the boundaries of acceptable behavior, especially in the way it collects and handles data on its users. It changes its terms of service and privacy policy, often in ways that should alarm people.

Third, journalists should do what they have done many times before when they encountered threats to freedom of expression: ask people with political power to intervene. As Facebook takes on more and more of the trappings of monopoly and utility, we need antitrust officials and others in government to pay attention. Of course, Facebook isn’t the only threat in this regard. The telecom carriers are potentially just as dangerous to speech, given their wish to control how our information moves in the vital part of the networks they control. There’s long list of other threats including pervasive surveillance by government, and for the most part journalists have ignored these attacks on freedom of expression. I said in Perugia last year that journalists need to be activists on these fundamental issues of liberty, and renew that plea here.

Fourth, once journalists have explained all this, they should help the communities they serve take action themselves. This should include technical countermeasures—how to block, to the extent possible, all that surveillance by corporations and government, by using encryption; browser plugins that block the online trackers; and more. Journalists should also tell people how they can campaign for change, such as contacting their elected representatives and regulators at the local, state and federal levels; support organizations that help preserve liberties; etc.

Fifth, journalists should join and support the nascent efforts to counteract the centralization of technology and communications. It’s not practical to ask media people to create a decentralized, federated web that includes social connections as well as standard publishing. This is beyond their expertise. But they should be leaders in the push to get there, and give financial and other help to projects that further the goal. Moreover, they should lobby a key constituency that has taken only timid steps toward saving the open Web: philanthropists and NGOs. Foundations, in particular, need to put their considerable resources behind decentralized platform development, and news organizations can help convince them to do so.

Plainly, some of these strategies will be easier to pull off than others. But we have to try. The alternative looks grim.

ubuntu imageAfter using Ubuntu 14.10 for several months, I’ve reverted to 14.04. On my ThinkPad T440s, I was having frequent system and/or application freezes, and some programs I regularly use were having other odd glitches.

The main reason I’d upgraded was to get support for the wifi card in the ThinkPad, for which there were no drivers in the kernel used by 14.04. So I’m back to using an external USB wifi radio for now. I gather that the updated kernel, with support for my wifi, will be included in the 14.04.2 update coming later this month.

Reverting cost me an afternoon of work, mainly tweaking, but was well worth the trouble in this case. Sometimes the latest isn’t the greatest.