How can we escape the trap of surveillance capitalism to imagine, achieve, and govern a better internet?

Speaking today at the Cornell Department of Communication is Ethan Zuckerman (@EthanZ), director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and associate professor of the practice at the MIT Media Lab. At MIT,  Ethan does research and action on civic media, freedom of speech online, and understanding media ecosystems.

Ethan is a scholar, entrepreneur, philanthropist, activist and nonprofit founder whose work has shaped conversations about democracy and media worldwide. He also helped to found Tripod, an early participatory media company. Ethan was my PhD advisor and is a dear friend and collaborator. I was honored to introduce him to my new community at Cornell today. This liveblog reports and summarizes Ethan’s talk.

“Civic media,” Ethan tells us, is the practice of trying to change the world through the media that we make and share. He describes about movements like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter as examples of civic media at its best: people putting issues on the table and shaping conversations in ways that have real political power.

If we want the internet to be good for society, we still have the chance to imagine something better

But civic media has downsides. Ethan tells us about groups created by the Russian Internet Research Agency that tried to organize Americans from opposing groups to protest against each other. He also mentions the tragedy of people who live-stream acts of murder designed to amplify violence

How do we make sense of a space that’s capable of good and horrible things? Ethan talks about what has has happened to the structure of media that makes civic media possible. He starts by describing the broadcast model that used to structure media. Citizens would receive media and based on that information would mobilize. Media is structured differently today. Distribution has become almost trivially easy, resulting in a situation where many people are producing media that anyone can access. Where distribution used to be difficult, discovery is now the challenge. Media now operates in feedback loops between citizens, production, and discovery.

Four Problems for Democracy

After describing these changes, Ethan next outlines a series of internet risks that people worry about (read more in his article on four problems for news and democracy):

Is the internet destroying our minds? Ethan describes claims by Tristan Harris that media systems have become addictive and that bad things are happening because we’re becoming internet addicts. But when you actually look at studies that relate internet use to sense of subjective well-being, the evidence isn’t there. Ethan tells us about research by Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski, which found that heavy internet use has the same association with unhappiness as a diet of potatoes. Ethan suggests that we need to place our fears elsewhere.

Is the internet destroying journalism? In the last few years, advertisers have substantially increased their spending on online ads while reducing their spending on newsprint. Since print media have been producing most of the journalism, this is a real problem and it’s putting journalism at risk.

Ethan also tells us about bots, trolling, harassment, dark ads, and disinformation–all tactics used by bad actors to influence society. Ethan is hopeful that platforms and citizens can work together to make progress on bad actors because their incentives are aligned.

On many issues, the interests of platforms and citizens may not align. Ethan calls these known bugs. Polarization, misinformation, echo chambers, and algorithmic bias are hard for platforms to address because they depend on human behavior and because powerful actors disagree about what to do. Companies that want to avoid getting stuck in the middle try to minimize their responsibility in these areas.

Understanding Media Ecosystems

What can we do about this? Rather than suggesting like Jaron Lanier that we should leave Facebook, Ethan encourages us to ask how social media is impacting democracy and what we can do about it.

For example, many people are worried that actors like Cambridge Analytica might influence voter behavior. Citing research by Joshua Kalla and David Broockman, Ethan points out that it’s much harder to influence political behavior than many people fear. If we want to understand how social media is changing discourse, Ethan encourages us to focus on the structure of the media ecosystem. He shows us US-based research by Yochai Benkler and his own work in France about political polarization in the news.

While US media conversations are polarized between the left and right, French media is divided between the core of mainstream media and the rest of French media. The traditional gatekeepers in France set the news agenda for each other and independent media, and never pay attention to the rest of the media. 

These MediaCloud studies provide a first guess at the patterns of relationship between professional media, but they only cover France and the US. Ethan argues that if we’re going to develop ways to govern and manage digital media, we need to develop better knowledge about media ecosystems worldwide.

What The History of Radio Tells Us About the Future of the Internet

Ethan starts by reminding us that radio became more widely adopted commercially than the internet (you can read more of the history in his article The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure).

Comparing models in the US, USSR, and UK, Ethan argues that media business models, which are supported by national policies, are not inevitable and can go in different directions. When we think about the internet, Ethan suggests, we shouldn’t believe that an ad-driven business model is the only way to organize media.

What do we want the internet to do for democracy?

To imagine a better internet, we need to be clear about the world we want. Ethan draws an analogy to an essay by Michael Schudson about the things that news can do for democracy. Inspired by Schudson’s article, Ethan encourages us to think about the things that the internet can do for democracy:

  • Inform
  • Amplify important voices and issues
  • Create connection and solidarity
  • Mobilize
  • Deliberate
  • Provide a diversity of views
  • Model democratically-governed spaces

Ethan tells us about several projects that have attempted to re-design how social media works, including Majal, Parlio, and communities on reddit. He tells us about Gobo, a “social network browser” designed by the Center for Civic Media that combines what people see across their feeds and gives users control to filter the information they see.

Screenshot of the Gobo social browser. My personal configuration enables the “mute all men” option.

Digital Public Infrastructure

Once we imagine the internet we want, how do we achieve it?

Ethan tells us the story of a speech given by FCC Commissioner Newt Minow at the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961. As the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Minow described television as a “vast wasteland” and encouraged broadcasters to actually watch what they were putting in front of people. What did Minow do about this? Rather than restrict what broadcasters could do, he filled the gaps by creating public broadcasting.

Is it time for a similar direction for the internet? Ethan tells us about Paul Romer’s proposal for a digital advertising tax. If the US taxed 1% of the revenue of big tech platforms, that would generate $661 million a year. What could that tax support? Ethan proposes that a tax could support tech platform accountability research and public interest media like Wikipedia and the Internet archive. While public infrastructure might be unpopular in the US, he’s hopeful that some European countries might try it out.

Right now, Ethan says, we have a massive failure of imagination. We wrongly assume that the internet will be Facebook and Google forever. Instead, Ethan tells us that we’re in the early stages of a long drama. If we want the internet to be good for society, we still have the chance to imagine something better.