It’s become necessary at gatherings about the future of media to start by banning the “f” word, a word that gets a lot of play in Washington, especially on the President’s Twitter feed. But there’s lots to talk about in the world of dis- and misinformation, that complicated space where words online can lead someone to “self-investigate” a DC-area pizzeria with a rifle to ensure that it isn’t hosting a pedophile ring in its non-existent basement. Online words have consequences, and we’re still trying to understand whether those consequences include swaying elections in the UK, the US or Brazil, or whether recent political surprises have causes other than the media environment.*
There’s lots of people trying to solve the mis/disinformation problem with technology, and because I hail from a lab where people manufacture novel artificial limbs, 3D print buildings and design satellites to monitor African environments that I’m coming with a set of new tech solutions. You couldn’t be more wrong, because I’m bringing something far more powerful: history.
When people invoke history in journalism, they’re often talking about the “golden age” of broadcast media, sometime between the end of WWII and Watergate. We had a few authoritative voices — Edward Murrow, Walter Cronkite — and less doubt, perhaps, about what had actually happened in the world. “And that’s the way it is,” like Cronkite liked to say.
That model of media was the result of a very specific moment in technology and in economics that has more to do with the advertising industry depicted in Mad Men than it does with any specific view of how media and democracy work together. A small number of businesses did the very expensive work of producing news and packaged it with advertising on some of the very few channels that could reach a large public, a limited number of print publications and a tiny handful of broadcast television outlets. Those few outlets held a near monopoly over attention and sold slivers of that attention to advertisers for vast sums of money, which is a great business model as long as you can maintain it.
That concentration of power in the hands of a very few outlets meant that media wasn’t very representative. News was largely a white, male space — if you were Black, Latinx, Asian, female, queer or any other identity, news was often a space that wasn’t very open to you. I don’t want to return to a vision of 1950s news, where so many voices were missing from the conversation, even if that conversation was more coherent than the one we encounter today.
Our media now is dramatically more representative, for the simple reason that there are very few structural barriers to expressing yourself, even if there are massive barriers to being heard by an audience. Movements like Black Lives Matter and the gun control protests led by survivors of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida both leveraged the power of participatory media to be heard and to shift media narratives to stories that often go unreported. This, I would argue, is generally a good thing. But the results of this change (which An Xiao Mina terms the shift from “broadcast consensus to digital dissensus”) means media is more conflicted, confusing and hard to navigate than it was in the mid-20th century. For help understanding our current media, we need a different guide.
I propose Benjamin Franklin, the sort of guy we like to celebrate at MIT. We know him as a statesman, a diplomat and a scientist, but the job he held the longest was as postmaster, first as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737 and finally getting fired from his position as postmaster general of the Colonies in 1774, when the British finally figured out that he was a revolutionary who could not be trusted. (The dude literally used to post his letters by writing “B. Free Franklin” — as opposed to “B. Franklin — free” — it took the British a while to catch on that this was political propaganda as well as a way of getting free postage.)**
Ben was a hustler, an entrepreneur who took full advantage of the various opportunities his position opened, including giving plum patronage jobs to many of the men in his family. His most profitable synergy came from printing newspapers and using the post to distribute them. Early in his career, he’d had difficulty distributing his writings because the postmaster disagreed with their political content and refused to transmit them. Franklin put forth a policy that was both progressive and profitable — neutral carriage. Under his leadership, the job of the post was to deliver letters and printed materials, not to prevent their transmission. This fact, combined with the fact that US presses were not required to reserve “caution money”, huge sums that might be drawn on if a paper was successfully sued for libel, led the US towards a new form of public sphere: a distributed public sphere of mail and print.
When we talk about the public sphere as scholars, we’re usually referring to Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, which was rooted in conversation of wealthy elites in coffeehouses. This dynamic of face to face conversation shapes much of how we traditionally think of the public sphere working, but that’s not how the public sphere evolved in the US. The colonies were physically huge, and in imagining a political conversation that included both Boston and Charleston demanded a creative way of envisioning how political debate could unfold. More than any of the founding fathers, Franklin was responsible for the shaping of this new space for policial discourse.
The founding father who picked up the torch from Franklin as he took over Jefferson’s work as ambassador to France was Dr. Benjamin Rush, a professor and public health advocate whose arguments about the role of the post and the press in the Continental Congress led to the most important piece of legislation you’ve never heard of, the Post Office Act of 1792.
The Post Office Act established the right of the government to control postal routes and gave citizens rights to privacy of their mail… which was deeply undermined by the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, but hey, who’s counting. The low cost of mailing newspapers as well as the absence of stamp taxes or caution money, which made it incredibly prohibitively expensive to operate a press in England, allowed half of all American households to have a newspaper subscription in 1820, a rate that was orders of magnitude higher than in England or France.
But what may be most important about the Post Office Act is that it set up a very powerful cross subsidy. Rather than charging based on weight and distance, as they had before Franklin’s reforms, the US postal system offered tiered service based on the purpose of the speech being exchanged. Exchanging private letters was very costly, while sending newspapers was shockingly cheap: it cost a small fraction of the cost of a private letter to send a newspaper. As a result, newspapers represented 95% of the weight of the mails and 15% of the revenue in 1832. This pricing disparity led to the wonderful phenomenon of cheapskates purchasing newspapers, underlining or pricking holes with a pin under selected words and sending encoded letters home for the price of a paper rather than a letter.
But the really crazy subsidy was the “exchange copy”. Newspapers could send copies to each other for free, with carriage costs paid by the post office. By 1840, The average newspaper received 4300 exchange copies a year — they were swimming in content, and thanks to extremely loose enforcement of copyright laws, a huge percentage of what appeared in the average newspaper was cut and pasted from other newspapers. This giant exchange of content was subsidized by high rates on those who used the posts for personal and commercial purposes.
This system worked really well, creating a postal service that was fiscally sustainable, and which aspired to universal service. By 1831, three quarters of US government civilian jobs were with the postal service. In a literal sense, the early US nation was a postal service with a small representative government and a tiny military attached to it. But the postal system was huge because it needed to be — there were 8700 post offices by 1830, including over 400 in my home state of Massachusetts alone, which is saying something, as there are only 351 towns in Massachusetts.
The key thing to understand about this is that it’s not a happy accident that we ended up with a public sphere that worked this way. Our founders built and regulated the postal system in such a way that its function as a sphere of public discourse was primary and its role as a tool for commerce and personal communication was secondary. They took on this massive undertaking explicitly because they believed that to have a self-governing nation, we needed not only representation in Congress, but a public sphere, a space for conversation about what the nation would and could be. And because the US was vast, and because the goal was to expand civic participation far beyond the urban bourgeois, it needed to be a distributed, participatory public sphere. To be clear, this was far than a universal public sphere — the founders saw this as a space for propertied white men — but the infrastructures of post and mail created powerful tools for abolitionists, for newspapers that helped free black men connect across vast distances, that helped carry the case for women’s suffrage.
All that said, I’m not going to argue for a return to the press of the late 18th and early 19th century any more than I would argue for a return to Murrow or Cronkite. Franklin’s press was littered with advertisements to a degree we’d find disconcerting today — as much as 90% of the text in these papers were commercial in nature, helping explain why so many of these early newspapers were called The Advertiser. The press was partisan, to an almost absurd degree. It wasn’t a party press — the political parties of the time emerged from the press, rather than the other way around. You read Hamilton’s New York Evening Post, and that, more than anything else, identified you as a Federalist.
Oh, and the 18th century press was LOADED with fake news. I don’t just mean Franklin’s habit of inventing personas like Silence Dogood, who he created because his brother’s paper, the New England Courtant, wouldn’t publish his letters until he began using a pen name. Franklin’s papers ran stories accusing the British of paying Indians to scalp settlers, a slander that both helped sell papers and turn colonists against the British. (Yeah, that part doesn’t get much play in his autobiography for some reason.)
Worse was Sam Adams — you know, the beer guy — who was a notorious propagandist whose articles in the Boston Gazette led a mob to sack the house of Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts Bay. The folks who attacked his house — “They were old men, young men, and boys barely old enough to read, all of them jacked up on ninety-proof Sam Adams prose,” — believed Adams that Hutchinson was responsible for the hated Stamp Act, a tax on newspapers. Actually, Hutchinson was against the stamp act and had warned his superiors in England that the colonists would never accept this restriction on their speech. (This story is from Eric Burns’s wonderful book, Infamous Scribblers)
Mis/disinformation isn’t a new phenomenon in American civic discourse. Nor is a disputatious, partisan press that veers into propaganda. But these shortcomings where counterbalanced by a carefully constructed ecosystem where diversity and free, inexpensive flow of information helped counterbalance the excesses that otherwise might have plagued the system.
The public sphere of the mid-20th century was carefully constructed as well. It was shaped by a strong professional norm, the firewall between the business and journalism operations of a newspaper, which allowed news organizations to investigate the politically powerful, and even the corporations that funded them. The introduction of the Fairness doctrine in 1949 somewhat heavy-handedly tried to assure equal representation of opposing viewpoints in the media. And after FCC commissioner Newt Minow declared the emerging space of television a “vast wasteland” in 1961, the philanthropic community responded by building the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and building public media as we know it in America.
The point is not that any of these interventions might be the right medicine for what ails us at present, but that the shape of our media is a choice. The media environment we live in is the most powerful factor that influences our civic and political life, and that these environments aren’t inevitable — they can be shaped by policy and by norms, as well as by technology.
We seem to have a strange sense of powerlessness when it comes to coping with the contemporary media environment. After stepping down from his role as VP of growth for Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya now warns us that social networks are bad for us, and tells us that “i don’t let my kids use that shit.” It might have been nice had he mentioned something while working to bring 2.2 billion people to the platform. And perhaps he could do something with the billion dollars he made working for the company beyond a mea culpa.
Much of the discourse about social networks doesn’t develop beyond critique. We’re told that social networks are addictive and bad for our psychological health. We’re told they’re killing journalism. We hear reporting that social networks are easily manipulated and used to sway elections. And we’re told that the ideological isolation and polarization they cause is destroying our democracy.
But as a scholar, I’ve got to be a bit cautious about these claims. My lab does a lot of research on the dynamics of social media. My smart friends just published a 500 page book on the use of social media in the 2016 elections using the tools built in my lab. Despite what we’re learning, I will freely admit that there is TONS we don’t know about how social media is influencing political discourse and opinion. My guess is that honest scholars will tell you that the jury’s out on the psychological impacts of social media as well. And it’s not clear whether the damage that’s been done to journalism’s business model is the fault of the internet, or even whether journalism – rather than the journalism business – is suffering at present.
When we accept these equations that blame the current political and cultural moment on social media as valid, we end up with simplistic solutions to the dilemmas we face. There are dozens of organizations — some of them excellent — working to factcheck social media and reduce the amount of misinformation online. Much as fact-checking became a part of the journalistic mainstream over the past decade, I expect social media fact-checking to spread. But I also don’t expect it to radically alter the media environment. The people who most need fact-checks are the least likely to see them or to believe them. If fact-checking radically changed public discourse, it’s hard to imagine that after a decade of excellent work the American public would have elected a serial fabricator to the nation’s highest office.
Another overly simple solution: It’s become popular to advocate for people to delete their Facebook accounts, both as a form of protest and a way of reclaiming their interactions with the world. There’s nothing wrong with deleting your Facebook account, but it’s a mighty thin form of protest that’s unlikely to have much impact. Albert Hirschmann talked about exit and voice as strategies for trying to influence corporate behavior — if a product decreases in quality, you can switch to another brand, sending a signal to the corporation that their behavior needs to be changed. But Hirschmann notes that some systems, particularly political systems, can’t be exited — instead, you’ve got to use voice to make an impact. And while you, personally, can get off Facebook, you can’t get away from what Facebook is (or isn’t) doing to society locally or globally.
Facebook has a lot to answer for, both in the US and around the world. In some countries, it is — for all practical purposes — the internet. In a country like Myanmar, where Facebook is the main resource people use for search and messaging as well as social networking, and where it’s been abused by the military government to conduct a genocide against the Rohingya people, there’s a deep need for international pressure on Facebook to act with far more care and caution. Asking almost 20 million Myanmar users of Facebook to quit is probably less practical than helping pressure Facebook to behave better.
I want to challenge people to move beyond these criticisms of social networks — including all the valid ones — and towards a vision of what we’d like social media to do for us in a democracy. I want us to stop asking whether social media is good for democracy and start asking “What do we want social media to do for democracy?”
My friend Michael Schudson took on this question a decade ago in a slightly different context. In his book, Why Democracies Needs an Unloveable Press, he offered a brilliant essay titled “Six or Seven Things the News Can Do For Democracy”. Some of these things are unsurprising — they’re what we expect the press to do, to inform us, to investigate stories that demand deep reporting, to analyze the news of the day and put it into context. Other possible functions are less well known. The news can create a public forum, a space where people discuss the events of the day. It can mobilize people into a movement, sending them out into the streets, something that US newspapers have a strong taboo against doing, but which European media is much more comfortable advocating for. News can help give us empathy for people distant from us who are suffering from tragedies preventable and otherwise.
Importantly, Schudson doesn’t argue that media does all these things well, or that any one news organization can or should do all these things. Some of these goals come into conflict — if you are using your news organization for mobilization, it may conflict with its believability as an investigative outlet, for instance. But these are possible, legitimate functions for news media in a democracy and we could optimize any media outlet for any of these goals. In a diverse, rich media landscape, we might cover all these democratic functions through a plurality of media, trying to achieve different goals but working together to provide a public sphere.
I’m lazy, so I stole Schudson’s framing and wrote an essay this summer called “Six or Seven Things Social Media Can Do for Democracy”. As in Schudson’s essay, I’m arguing that social media could do these things, not that it currently does. And as in Schudson’s model, there are aspects of social media that are contradictory — the platform that lets us connect with the likeminded, amplify ideas and mobilize – the sort of platform that led people to protest in the Arab Spring – is not the same platform that is going to provide a sane and safe space for deliberation or introduce us to a diversity of people and ideas. The point is that we can build a variety of platforms, some of which help us connect with friends we already know, others which introduce us to people we don’t know. Some could help us mobilize action around causes we care about, others could introduce us to people we disagree with and help us have meaningful conversations.
In imagining what this vision of social media could look like, I’m imaging media that’s under personal control, plural in purpose, public in spirit and participatory in governance. (Those four P’s are nice and explosive when you’re giving a speech. Secrets of the craft, people.)
Personal — The first steps we’ve taken towards this vision of media in our lab is the Gobo.social project. Gobo is a social media aggregator — it allows you to view multiple social networks through the same client, a precursor for the social media world I’m imagining. It’s also deeply personalizable — you control a set of filters that let you decide the gender balance of friends you’re hearing from, whether you want to hear posts that are funny or serious, widely shared or shared only with a small group. These are features we believe should be available within social networks like Facebook, which uses an opaque algorithm to decide whose posts you see and whose are suppressed. Gobo puts that power in your hands, and shows you why each post is included or excluded from your feed, a feature we believe should be true on every social network. If the networks won’t provide these services, we can build them into tools we use with all social networks and put that control back into our hands.
Plural in purpose — LinkedIn doesn’t have much of a problem with hate speech — the people who use it know their possible next employer is reading their profile and behave accordingly. It’s not that different in function from Facebook, but the norms that govern the community’s behaviour are sharply different. There’s potential to create a great diversity of online spaces with different purposes, each of which have different behaviours and norms. One of the main problems with Facebook is its desire to be all things to all people. There’s not a simple set of norms that governs a platform that some use for sharing baby photos and others see as a space for political combat. A social media landscape that’s plural would allow different rulesets for different spaces.
Public in spirit – Wael Ghonim was one of the key organizers of the Arab Spring in Egypt. He administered the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, which organized Egyptian resistance in the name of a young man tortured to death by the police. When young people began occupying Tahrir Square, Hosni Mubarak contacted Ghonim and asked him to call his people off, something Ghonim explained he couldn’t do. But while Facebook helped lead people into the streets, Ghonim was disappointed with its limitations as a space for serious discussions for how the Egyptian people might govern after the revolution. After liberal Egyptians were shut out of the country’s politics, Ghonim created Parlio, a social network designed not to reach everyone, but to reach a small audience of current and future civic leaders. The network had strong rules requiring civility and polite discussion and wasn’t shy about kicking abusers off the network. While it was a private company, eventually acquired by Quora (another social media company with a different purpose and practices from either Facebook or Twitter), it was public in spirit and intent.
Some innovative new networks may be built by companies who see value in creating civic-minded public spaces. But I suspect others will be built by public-spirited actors, local governments that want to create conversations between neighbors, civil society organizations who want to increase understanding because people from diverse backgrounds. I’m particularly excited about the idea that European public broadcasters could see value in building new social media spaces devoted to amplifying marginalized voices and creating dialogue about difficult local issues.
Participatory in governance – Networks like Facebook and Twitter are largely unaccountable to their users. In the spirit of Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked, they are unenlightened monarchs, constrained by no Magna Carta and influenceable only by public shaming or by market forces. That’s not how social media systems have to operate. Reddit has an enormous range of communities, from the toxic to the deeply informative. The difference, again, is not technology, but governance – the /r/science community has thousands of volunteer moderators who follow a strict set of rules to keep conversations productive and rooted in peer-reviewed research. As we imagine a world with a plurality of public-spirited social media communities, there’s no reason most can’t be self governing. Indeed, since moderation is one of the most expensive tasks in moderating an online community, there may be no other way to build many of these online spaces.
It’s important that we start imagining a pro-democratic vision of social media for the simple reason that people are already imagining the alternative. As the ethnonationalist right gets kicked off platforms like Twitter, they are building a possible future of social media on sites like gab.ai, a short-messaging platform that builds on Twitter but adds some interesting community features. It’s a mistake to let the Nazis develop the future of online community. And while there’s innovation coming from the crypto-libertarian camp as well, with platforms like Steemit adding compensation for contributions in the form of reputational currency, there’s a shortage of large-scale experiments that treat the public sphere as a public good. Imagining a world in which our public spaces are controlled by large corporations that might, someday, be lightly regulated isn’t good enough.
My favorite Ben Franklin quote is “Well done is better than well said.” It’s time for us to move beyond critiques and conversations about what’s wrong with social media with the hard work of imagining and building something better. If we want social media that increases diversity, creates a space for civil discourse, we have to build it. At the very least, we need to build the environment where it can happen. We need to fight for interoperability, for transparency and for the right to build our own networks.
I am a firm believer that America is a nation of ideas. One of the most powerful of those ideas was that we could, as a nation, build a media ecosystem that allowed us to participate in our own governance. At a moment where there’s fear and doubt about the state of our democracy, it’s a good time to ask just what we’re going to build.
*This talk draws heavily on one I gave some months back at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, which Vincent Stehle, who invited me, draws on in this recent essay. It also hails back to a talk I gave at Data and Society years back (and to a lecture I give each year in my News and Participatory Media class.)
**The details of Franklin and Rush’s influence on the shape of US media are largely from Paul Starr’s excellent The Creation of the Media. The idea of an internet of print and letters is inspired by his work and by Winifred Gallagher’s How the Post Office Created America.
Ethan Zuckerman is the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and he teaches at MIT’s Media Lab and MIT’s Comparative media Studies and Writing program, where he is an associate professor of the practice. This post was originally published by Ethan Zuckerman’s website.