20 Apr Launch Symposium: Digital at Risk
The following transcript is from a panel discussion on digital risks at the Center for Media at Risk launch symposium in April 2018 at the University of Pennsylvania. Moderated by Bethany Wiggin, panelists include Maria Ressa, Samuel Sinyangwe, Amy Siskind and Zeynep Tufekci.
Bethany Wiggin: Thank you, Barbie, and welcome, everyone to this launch of this really exciting center. It’s been such a pleasure over the last year to first talk with Barbie, to learn about her plans, to see them come into fruition, has been really, really a treat.
A few weeks ago, I got to talk to one of Barbie’s students, Muira McCammon, who’s sitting here, and she has this terrific podcast. This morning I got to listen to episode three of Muira’s podcast in which five of Annenberg faculty consider, what is media at risk to them. As you heard, I’m not her member of faculty. I’m faculty in the school of art and sciences and I think about media at risk in a slightly different way.
At the program and the environmental humanities, we’re thinking about ecological media—not in the way perhaps, exactly, that media professionals think about that, but in the deep and profound ways that we, as humans, are rewriting the media of our very planet—that is, the air, water, and clouds in which we live. So, it’s a real pleasure to work with the Center for Media @Risk as we are on a planet at risk.
I’m going to give a brief word about housekeeping before I introduce our super exciting speakers this morning. Muira is going to help me in that housekeeping task. We really are excited for a very robust Q&A session and thus are asking our speakers to keep it to 10 minutes and to help them do that and to help us to stay on time, we have a handy dandy one minute for when you get to nine minutes. And afterwards, we will be calling on you from the floor just we see you. As you heard, there are microphones in the ceiling so we won’t need to circulate the microphone but it is being recorded so please, do speak up.
Our first speaker this morning is Maria Ressa. Maria is the CEO—these are very brief introductions, we’ll get right to it. She is the CEO and executive of Rappler and joins us from the Philippines to address how to combat exponential lies. Our second speaker will be Samuel Sinyangwe, who is the co-founder of Campaign Zero, a policy analyst and a data scientist, and he’ll speak to us on digital activism, risks, and rewards.
The third speaker is Amy Siskind, author of The List: A Week-by-Week Reckoning of Trump’s First Year. She will be discussing writing history in the age of social media—how she has been able to keep up with it, I’m not quite sure. And our final speaker is Zeynep Tufekci, author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. She’ll be addressing fake news and the role of journalism. We’ll start with Maria.
Maria Ressa: It will drown me. This is what happens when you’re really short. I have 10 minutes. You guys, did you see that there is this play that starts at the end goes backwards in time? A Stephen Sondheim play, they graduate high school and you start with where they already are today and then you go back in time to that idealistic time—so that’s my foreshadowing.
Here is where I am today. Two days ago, three days ago, I got my fourth subpoena. I have been a journalist my entire life. It’s almost been 32, 33 years that I have been a journalist, a lot of it as a television journalist. I ran the Manila Bureau for CNN and then the Jakarta Bureau for another decade, and then I ran the largest newsgroup in the Philippines.
I would never have thought I would have to consider being arrested or even having to carry bail money because you don’t actually know when you’re going to get arrested. The subpoena I received this week was for—my gosh, which one? This one is a tax evasion case. The company I started—oh, here is moving backwards. Six years ago, I left traditional media, traditional television, and I decided to jump in and help create a new company. And this company is called Rappler. It’s based in the Philippines, we have a bureau in Jakarta.
Three days ago, I got a subpoena for tax evasion in the hundreds of millions of pesos, because when we raised money, they essentially classified—the Philippine government classified – our company as a securities company rather than a holding company for journalism, for a newsgroup. So that means that now, I face criminal charges for taxes. This is the second criminal charge I face. The first one was a charge by President Duterte himself that we’re owned and controlled by foreigners and we’re out to take down the government, none of which is true. That’s where this year brought me, January this year. We have six cases against us.
What are we doing? Journalism. The same thing that I learned when I was 20. And we keep evolving the discipline, the standards and ethics of journalism, even as we shifted online. So, let me tell you a little bit about what brought us there and how the platform, the technology, that really gave so much promise of being able to leapfrog development, of being able to build institutions bottom up—how that same platform and American company is now being used to circumvent democracy.
The Philippines is one of 30 countries that freedomhouse.org says has cheap armies on social media that are stifling dissent and shaping reality. You call it alternative reality. I think I just call it lies. What happened—let me go back to Rappler. The idea behind Rappler was to take our discipline, the standards and ethics, connect that—here is my Venn diagram—connect it with technology and then the last part is, use that to build community. So, in 2012, 12 of us—I came from managing a newsgroup of 1,000 people after I left CNN and then I left that and started with 12. Four or five of us who started were above 40 and then the rest we hired the smartest twenty-somethings you could find.
What I learned is that if you are in your 40s, whatever thing you think about will cost way more money than what your twenty-somethings will think about, because they’ll think about it for free. So, Rappler, using social media, using technology, grew 100% to 300% year on year for the first three to four years.
We ran into the first roadblock in 2016. I think 2016 is that inflection point for the world, and I point to 2015 as the time when Facebook took instant articles, enticed all the newsgroups to come onboard. When we came onboard, using the same algorithms, all of sudden, news, facts—you know news is never really popular, right? When I ran the largest newsgroup in the Philippines, we were in a television station where we had 20% of the programming, but only 1% of the population watched the news. So, we’re a public service. We always have been, the majority will not come into news.
Facebook is our public space. In the Philippines, the internet is Facebook, because 97% of Filipinos on the internet are on Facebook. So, Facebook was the platform when Rappler began. Up to 75% of our income in traffic was coming from this platform. So, we couldn’t have grown without it, but with Facebook and Twitter, with this new technology, all of sudden, we were able to, within a year and half, become the third top online news site in the Philippines.
What’s our goal? I’ve worked for—gosh! For CNN, I’ve worked for 20 years in countries where law and order is weak, corruption is rampant, and you are just impatient because there are no institutions. We have extremely weak institutions. So, what we were after was helping build institutions bottom-up. And from 2012 to 2016, we precisely did that. We had our investigative journalists and then we had a civic engagement arm, we had a tech arm, we had video—we put television in your pocket.
Okay. Why did it all go wrong, and what happened, and what role did Rappler play? I would come back to the States in 2015 and 2016, I’d come back and say, “The Philippines is a cautionary tale for the US because our presidential elections were six months heed of yours.” And after our president was elected, Rodrigo Duterte, he was a mayor—Mayor of Davao City from 1988. So, unlike your President, he has a lot of experience in governance. What kind of experience? You have to ask, but you can see what happened.
He won in May and then in July, he began a drug war. He was the first president elected by a social media campaign machinery. And it wasn’t until after he was elected, in July of 2016, that it became weaponized. This was something that didn’t feel homegrown. So they used social media to win, very nicely organized messaging and distribution networks, used social network cascade theory—very nice. But after he won, in July of 2016 he decided to boycott traditional media. He would only talk state media and pro Duterte bloggers who were part of these machine, and then the social media machinery pivoted and became weaponized.
What did they do? They attacked anyone who questioned the drug war. In July, we were getting—our reporters would go out at night and they’d see an average of eight dead bodies on sidewalk, every night. The estimate of human rights groups from July to January 31 was that there were 7,000 people killed in the drug war, something that the government then splintered by changing definitions. So now you have no idea exactly how many people have been killed in the drug war—it goes anywhere from 4,000 to 20,000, depending on who you talk to. But they’re thousands and that’s more people than were killed during martial law in the ’70s to ’80s.
It all began in social media, that weaponization that happened targeted anyone who questioned the drug war. Then after that—the targeting is not normal, the targeting is very personal attacks. Cursing is, like, minor, but these are attacks on extremely sexist, misogynistic comments. Oh, I have one minute left. Let me summarize into one word.
What happened was propaganda, which has always there, became exponential. A lie told 1 million times is a truth. You just don’t have time to catch up. And when Rappler exposed this, this machinery, because we started gathering the data—now we have a database of roughly 350 million public comments from about 12 million accounts, which tracks what we call the shark tank. That is the propaganda machine. That’s anyone also who spreads this stuff.
What it does is when it’s targeted, and there are several examples, you silence dissent. You silence questions. You silence criticism. We were part of a study that looked at what we called “patriotic trolling.” Have you guys heard that phrase? Online, state-sponsored hate that aims to intimidate and silence criticism, questions, dissent. And when you do that, playing with the algorithms of our social media platforms—so the algorithms already segment and echo. So, if you’re pro, you’re here and you’re only talking to yourselves, so you’re pushed even further; you’re anti, you’re here, you’re pushed even further, you have no public space. Then you add hate at the fracture lines of society and you have silence and you have a malleable society. My time is up. There is a lot more. What I’ll do is, I’ll tweet, @mariaressa. I’ll tweet more of this stuff and then look forward to the questions and chatting with you. Thanks.
Bethany Wiggin: While Samuel is getting set up, I’m going to ask also for Maria, would you mind coming back to sit here? It will make our Q&A so much smoother. Amy and Zeynep, could you also join us here in the front? Samuel is making his way down. Super. Just give them a second shift to the front and we’ll turn it over.
Sam Sinyangwe: Cool. My name is Sam Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero. I’m going to tell a story about my work. My work focuses on ending police violence in the United States, and I’ve been doing this since August 9th, 2014.
On August 9th, 2014 Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed in streets of Ferguson, Missouri. His death sparked a wave of protest that has sustained to this day. It sparked the Black Lives Matter Movement. Now, in the early days, and weeks and months of that movement, one of the essential questions that kept coming up again, and again, and again in the media was the question around data, because what we saw were communities coming forward and saying that there was a deep systemic issue with policing and police violence particularly against black Americans. And what we heard from police, and conservatives, and policymakers, was sort of dismissing this and saying, “We don’t have the data so we don’t know whether that’s true.” The reason that happened is because the Federal Government, to this day, does not collect comprehensive data of people killed by police. And so, simply the data wasn’t there to answer those questions. And then what happened was that there was a huge delay then, in any sort of conversation about solutions.
At that time, I connected with activists on the ground in Ferguson through Twitter. So, first thing is Twitter as an infrastructure for the movement. A digital infrastructure for the movement has been really essential. Connected through Twitter, didn’t know any of them, hadn’t met them, and asked a question about whether they wanted a partner to build a database to answer these questions.
Together, we were able to build a comprehensive database of people killed by police in the United States at Mapping Police Violence. We were able to do breakdowns by race, by place, we looked at the 100 largest cities in America. And we could actually answer some these questions. We were able to show that black people were three times more likely to be killed by police, more likely to be unarmed. We were able to show which cities had higher rates of police violence, which had lower rates. And then we were able to use digital tools in a way to effectively crowdsource solutions.
So, having the data on one hand… Yes, partners. So, we launched with this map. This was that map of police violence. It’s actually animated if you go to mappingpoliceviolence.org. There is a timeline and has—this is the year. There are about 1200 people killed by police in this country and what you’ll see on the map is a timeline of those deaths over the course of the year. The design of the map is meant to do one thing, very simply, and that is convince you there is a national crisis. Because, at this time that we launched, this was right before the Baltimore uprising in early 2015, the country wasn’t yet convinced there was a national crisis. People were convinced that there was something going on in Baltimore and St. Louis but a lot of people didn’t know that this was much closer to home. And so we use, through this visualization is really to show the scale of this crisis and how close it really is.
Demands: We were able to work with activists across the country. Dozens of activist groups in many, many states to crowdsource the demands from protestors. We’ve put this on the map at thedemands.org. And together with these demands and the data that we were able to collect, and the research literature we created, we synthesized all of that information into a 10-point policy plan called Campaign Zero. This is the first policy platform released within the Black Lives Matter Movement. We released this to be very clear and to show this requires a comprehensive approach to deal with the complex situation.
The next thing that we did was visualize this information for the 100 largest cities in the country. We took that policy agenda, matched it up against the extent to which the various police departments actually had these policies in place. The goal here simply is, for anybody in these cities were able to see—my city has—it requires the escalation; it doesn’t actually require officers to intervene if they witness another officer using excessive force; it doesn’t require officers to give a warning before shooting somebody. And this is interactive, you can click on it and see the specific policy language that defines this. So, that they know specifically going into meetings what to change.
Another piece. So again, I’m talking about some possibilities about digital activism. And what we were able to do, number one, build the most comprehensive database of people killed by police. Number two, identify effective solutions and crowdsource solutions from people across the country. Number three, what we were able is to build tools that make it easier for people to advocate for changes at the local, state, and federal levels.
We built this tool that allows you to put in your zip code, it shows your local, state, and federal representatives, what votes they’ve taken on police reform measures, and then allows you to contact them in three clicks or less. So we had over 100,000 people across the country use this tool to contact their representatives because we’ve been able to synthesize all of that complexity into a simple tool. These things have made a difference.
So we influenced the Obama Task Force on Policing in the 21st Century report; We shaped and informed Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ racial justice platforms during the campaign and met with them; changed local police department policy in a number of cities, from Baton Rouge, to Orlando, Florida, to Sacramento; and able to crowdsource and engage people at scale in the work of creating change, and I think that’s one of the biggest possibilities here, is that we were able to launch this simple survey platform that asks people, what type of work they wanted to do whether its research policy solutions, track legislation, collect data and statistic.
We were able to sign up 33,000 people in the space of a few weeks through Twitter alone and each person filled out this long survey, like 15 minute survey, and hindsight, it probably should’ve been like two minutes. But through that, we were able to get this wealth of people that wanted to get engaged in this work and that’s been the engine that has sustained that work. So, when you see the research that we did on the 100 police departments, those are people that we recruited online, each of whom researched the policies of their own city.
The tool where we built that, it’s for people to contact their representatives, the same thing: developers and designers that we were able to enroll as volunteers online. So, altogether what that means is that through digital tools, we were able to do what many large and well-resourced organizations have struggled to do quickly, and that is move quickly, build platforms and tools that are able to engage people at scale and harness the potential of this movement. But it is just the beginning. If you look at survey research, there are 104 million Americans that support the Black Lives Matter Movement, 104 million.
I’ll remind you, there are only 60 million people who voted for Trump. But at best, it’s only a tiny fraction of that number of people who’re engaged in the work of creating change on a daily basis. And so the question is, how do we close that gap? And this is not unique to Black Lives Matter. You take any issue, whether it’s economic justice, or reproductive justice, or climate change, you’ll always have at least 100 million Americans who support it. Probably more Americans who support it than oppose it. The problem with social movements is, how do we actually harness and leverage the potential, at scale, of that many people? And so the tools that we’ve launched are a small beginner, beginning foray into that and we’re trying to advance further.
So, I’m going to close with a little bit about the risks. So, promises and potential, there’s a huge upside. Risks—there are really serious risks. So, this is a tweet that went out, it’s at June 14, 2016. This is right before the Republican National Convention. This is a fake news tweet. So I didn’t actually say this. They tweeted these “screenshots” of direct messages on Twitter between me and my colleagues. What they have me saying here, essentially, is that I have an army of 10,000 people ready to descend upon the Republican National Convention, cause chaos, prevent Donald Trump from being elected president, and force Obama to invoke martial law so he can have a third term in the presidency. And the people believed it.
So, that went out and started circulating in sort of the alt-right ecosystem. Infowars, all of these sites started having articles about it. “Black Lives Matter activists want to shut down Republican National Convention” and their whole echo chamber thought this was real. And so, you would see in the run up to the Republican National Convention, there were actually ads on Craigslist seeking to recruit ex-military and ex-law enforcement to protect the convention citing these tweets as the threat.
I got threats, personal threats to my home because of this. And a few weeks after this happened, the FBI actually showed up at my doorstep, wanting to know about my plans for the upcoming national convention. So, this stuff is very real, right? And one of the risks of engaging in digital activism is that fake news can spread very quickly. There are a lot of people who will believe it and a lot of those people are armed, and some of the nation’s premier law enforcement actually is not very good at telling the difference either. So, that’s sort of closing and I look forward to the questions later.
Amy Siskind: Hi, everyone. I think I’m a little different than everybody else in the audience
because I haven’t had any experience in journalism after freshman year English, which was mandatory at Cornell. I am, by background, an economics major with a minor in math and computer science who got involved politically, and when Trump took office became alarmed at some of the things that were happening in our country that were not normal. And I read up on authoritarian regimes, through journalists who were knowledgeable on that—one is here today, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, and I took their advice, which was to start to write things down.
November of 2016 is when I started. And the thing that spurred me to do it is, early on, as Trump was taking office, the amount of lies that were being told and, as Sarah Kendzior kind of talks about in the preface to my book that, “The act of lying is almost an act of them letting us know they can get away with it.” The early weeks of when I started to keep track, there were a lot of unusual things happening—that Trump did not have a traditional vision or policies, that the hatred of others was being stoked and still continues today to be flamed as a way to keep him in power.
So, the act of writing things down, which in my first week was nine items that were not normal. And as I sat there that night making the list, I thought, “Wow! There’s this great tweet from a New York Times reporter,” which is still up on my website, theweeklylist.org, from the first week, critical of his own paper’s coverage, and then that next morning when I went to go look for the tweet, it had disappeared. He had taken it down, which was also telling. But in the early weeks, the list was nine items of not normal things, which again are not in the construct of Republican versus Democrat, but things that are a risk to our democracy or what have traditionally been America values, or strange things in the media.
The list currently has grown to over—last week, it was 163 items as Trump has staffed up his regime and there’s more people that sort of have their hands at the task of deconstructing our fragile democracy, the amount of not normal things happening are flying at increasing rates and we’ve come to live in chaos. And hence over time, I have now understood the importance that I started to write things down, even though I didn’t know anything about journalism, because we are living in chaos and we are forgetting what’s happening.
I have a constant pushback about, “Well, how is the media doing?” And I guess that’s a question for all of us today, “How is our media doing in covering an authoritarian regime?” Well, I am very protective of the media in a way and I personally try to get as many subscriptions as I can to both national and local media because I realize the import of their investigative journalism. But in a lot of ways, by design, the way our media is set up to cover events, they’re also failing the American people.
And I look at a week, I’m going to talk about an example, which was two weeks ago, when the list was 156 not-normal items—and quick trip down memory lane, that was the week Scott Pruitt was in the news every day and our media was tripping over themselves to find the next little tidbit about, “Did he spend this much on a first-class flight? Did he spend this much on his phone booth?” which is all interesting and they were like sort of super fascinated with it.
A bigger story might have been that he doesn’t believe in climate change, that he’s taking down information from the website. And, starting in the early weeks of my list, after meeting with Dow Chemical CEO, took away a restriction on using a pesticide, which pediatricians have already found is harmful to children, and by the way, they donated to Trump’s inaugural campaign. That to me is more interesting.
But going back to week 73, what our media didn’t cover was all the other stories of what’s happening to the marginalized communities in our country week after week, the rise of Trump’s ICE, which is very similar to the uprising of Hitler’s Gestapo. There was no coverage of things that were happening to our environment, to restrictions being taken away.
And so what I try to do each week, because I know the media reads my list, is to put together things that they need to know and focus on, because it’s become the 80/20 rule, where 80% of their focus is on 20% of what happens in a week. The other stories are getting single-source coverage in their local markets or no discussion.
For example, that particular week, the number one item on my list was the fact that Trump’s Department of Homeland Security had started to keep a database of journalists. Remember that story? It happened on a Friday afternoon, it came out, and those of us on social media were so alarmed and tweeting it out, and it got no media coverage—major media coverage. I mean, you didn’t see it on MSNBC, you didn’t see it on CNN. All they wanted to talk about was Pruitt and who could find the next scoop about what Pruitt had done.
So, that’s been typical of a pattern that I find. Another week that that happened was the week of the Nunes memo, whether that was going to come out or not and every other day, it was like a different iteration. “Is Trump going to release it? Is he not going to release it?” And that week, there were 150 items and, again, 20 of them related to Nunes.
What I’ve tried to do with the exercise of keeping the weekly list is highlight things that are not normal and are changing in our democracy and changing in our values. So, very purposely, at the top of the list each week, I put things that are happening to marginalized communities. Like this week up in Syracuse, there was a raid at a farm by ICE. They took away a worker while the farmer’s children were being taken away in a bus even though they had no warrant. ICE has been terrorizing Americans and undocumented immigrants around our country quietly for weeks and that’s a major theme of my list that, again, gets very little national coverage.
Other themes that I’ve noticed, that are getting very little coverage or gets sporadic coverage, is what’s happening to our media. So two weeks ago, voilá! Finally, we’re talking Sinclair Broadcast, which is all over my weekly list—not only Sinclair, but the changing landscape of our media. Those of you not familiar, Sinclair now enters 72% of local media homes, which for many is their only access to media. And in order to do that, one of the first acts of Trump’s FCC chair was to get rid of a regulation from the 1970s that allowed that increase to happen for Sinclair, who by the way, happens to be a supporter of Trump.
Or the supporters of Trump who have bought local media in New York: The Gothamist, DNAinfo in New York, the LA Weekly in LA, the second largest newspaper—and shut them down. The Koch brothers now own Time, Inc. Trump has very purposely threatened CNN since the early weeks of my list; that he and his son, and his son-in-law threatened executives at Time Warner and AT&T, that they would not that their merger happen unless CNN gave him better coverage and look what’s happened. So, those are examples to me that are beyond what we know of his daily diatribes on Twitter against the Washington Post or the New York Times of the ways that our landscape is actually changing.
And then, there’s the actual exercise of writing things down. I remember reading the articles about authoritarian early on, and I think it was Masha Gessen who said that these things would happen slowly but don’t get fooled by good acts, because there would be many more bad acts, and it was Sarah Kendzior who said to write things down because in an authoritarian regime information would be less accessible.
And one thing that I capture in the list is how information has disappeared from websites. Two weeks ago, information on breast cancer, science, climate change, information that is of help to people in marginalized communities, like the LGBT community. People of color and finding housing, on and on. But then, we also have the repeal of net neutrality, which—I was not planning to put The List into a book; I had no sort of vision of how this would all play out. But to me, that was sort of the linchpin for me deciding to put it in writing because information is literally disappearing around us.
And as fantastical as some of these things sound, that information could disappear, and the idea that you would have books, and the books could be burned, like that happens in authoritarian regimes—this is literally happening. This is the stuff I was warned about in November 2016 that is not so slowly playing out in our democracy.
So, I just want to close out on just the notion of re-examining our media. Jay is here who is a great critic of the media. I think it’s a responsibility for those of us who can be watchdogs on the media to call them out. There’s a certain chummy nature within Twitter and social media, of them kind of giving each other’s voices and amplifying the same message, da da da, and sort of swinging around the same stuff again and again, and not enough view from 10,000 feet down on stories like Sinclair Broadcasting, they’ll forget that in two weeks. They’ll forget about Cambridge Analytica and the fact that there are items in every week of my weekly lists that indicate our election may have not been a fair election.
And so these broader themes and the fact that Trump is cozying up with authoritarian leaders and not with our NATO allies, those have been lost. And the stories of what is happening to change the fabric of our country, the things that ICE is doing, the rollback of some rules from half a century ago, like Sessions trying to get rid of parts of the Civil Rights Act relating to sexual orientation, those are the untold stories that are actually more meaningful than whether Scott Pruitt had a phone booth in his office. So, I’m going to leave you with that.
Zeynep Tufekci: I am another one of those people who’s going to disappear behind the panel.
Okay, I want to start my talk by giving an example I’ve written about, but I think it’s sort of the striking example that deserves to be heard again. And it’ll go back to the Ferguson protests that was talked about in the first conversation.
In August of 2014, after Michael Brown, the African American teenager who had been killed by the police officer—after that event, there was a lot of unrest in the community. We’ve seen since the Department of Justice report some of the causes that had led to that moment. My Twitter feed, which is full of people who follow social movements around the world and who follow things like this, was full of people discussing what was happening because there were people on the ground tweeting about it and some of the visuals were really striking. There were armed personnel carriers, the militarization of the police around the country. So, this is suburban US and we have APCs. There were pictures of people—they took of people, like snipers we were like, “What on earth is going on?”
And then media itself got really interested because there’s a bunch of people who’d been there because there had been, I think, tornadoes, some weather event very nearby. So, there was a lot of national news, journalists, who’d been here and they had just gone there. So, we had Washington Post reporters who were just there, an LA Times reporter. And in the middle of all of the striking visuals, a lot of discussion about it, what’s going on on social media, two reporters who had been in McDonald’s charging and just using Wi-Fi, which I’ve done around the world when I do protest research. Like you’re either at Starbucks or McDonald’s because that’s where you get Wi-Fi. They were arrested just of the blue.
The police came and said, “Leave,” and they’re like, “What’s going on?” because they’re reporters, they’re not used to being pushed around like that. As we’ve seen very recently, a Starbucks employee called the police on two black men who had been sort of just there. We do this all the time and nothing happens to most people. The reporters weren’t used to just like, “Leave.” So, they said, “Why are we supposed to leave?” And boom! They were arrested. And they were arrested without being able to tweet they’d been arrested, so all of a sudden, we had somebody else take a picture of Ryan and Wesley being stuffed into a police van.
At this point, my friends in Bahrain are like, “Oh, this is looking familiar,” like they’re tweeting about it. They’re kind of like, “We know this.” So, given this sort of this thing going on and given my field of study and my personal interest, I went to Facebook to see what my Facebook friends were saying about it. I said, “Okay, what’s going on here?” and there was no conversation about it on Facebook. My Facebook feed was full of people talking about The Ice Bucket Challenge, you might remember that. Dump water on yourself, ice water, and tag some people, challenge them, say, “You do this next,” and you film a video. It’s a good cause. The money gets donated to ALS research. I have no problem with that but my feed was full of people doing this. This August, right? Hot weather.
Well, I said, “Okay, my Facebook friends haven’t figured this out.” So, I go back to Twitter again and it’s all over my Twitter feed and I’m like, “Do I really have that different friends on Facebook and Twitter?” Everybody on Twitter seems to be talking about it. It’s trending. It’s got all these tweets. And I go back on Facebook and it’s Ice Bucket Challenge, and some babies, and engagements— my usual Facebook.
So, I was like, “Wait, wait,” so Facebook algorithmically prioritizes your feed, right? You have on average 150 to 200 Facebook friends, 1,000 things perhaps to see a day, perhaps 2,000, depending on how prolific your friends are. So, the algorithm picks what to show you. I went and found in Facebook’s buried controls—and to this day is a buried control, the chronological one. It’s stop, get your algorithm out of the way. Now, this is not an easy thing to do. Facebook immediately will take you back. If you’re on mobile, it’ll just like not even listen to you. You keep trying to do it, and it keeps trying to wrest that control back from you.
And my friends on Facebook were indeed talking about Ferguson. It’s just that Facebook newsfeed algorithm really liked The Ice Bucket Challenge. It had everything. It was like this algorithm nip, right? It had a lot of likes. At that time, the only signal you could give to the algorithm was a like. Right now, they have these alternatives but it’s still “like” that’s the prominent, the one that’s across the web. So, first, that was a bias source positive stuff, because how do you like the thing that’s happening in Ferguson? There’s nothing likable about it.
The second thing is you are tagging people. Facebook’s growth team likes it when you tag people, you’re getting engagement. They were liking video. They prioritize video for a long time and you hear this, like news journalists pivot to video, it just means Facebook’s algorithm decided to like video. It doesn’t mean anybody else likes video, necessarily.
At that moment, if we had, like in the Philippines, a Facebook-only public sphere—in a lot of places where there are weaker institutions and you don’t have the sort of open mass media, it’s absolutely plausible to me that burgeoning social movements would have been smothered from lack of attention. Attention is the crucial resource for social movements and for politics. Joint attention is what politics is about. And what’s changed in the new public sphere is that—it used to be that we conflated public attention with mass media, because mass media essentially had a monopoly on public attention. They are not the same thing. A lot of scholarship on media focuses on mass media when they actually mean public attention. It is no longer a reasonable conflation because, right now, mass media—depending on which country you are, and it can be a means of very important joint public attention, but the level of control on it varies.
So, what had happened is that the new gatekeepers of attention, public attention, like the social media platforms—and that’s Facebook, that’s YouTube, and to some degree, that’s Twitter. It depends on which country you are in, again. They are largely structured by their business model and some functions of technology, and that has created a very different means of censorship. It’s created a means of censorship where you do not necessarily break the link between the person and the information, because the information is harder to block in a networked world. It is somewhere out there, right? It’s on a website. It’s somewhere. It’s on a tweet. It’s on a Facebook post.
But what can indeed be blocked is attention. Attention can be misdirected. Attention can be overloaded with information glut. It can be overwhelmed with misinformation and that’s where sort of the whole fake news things is important. It’s not that fake news is this crucial thing, it is that it is a way of drowning out credibility so that you may have access to the information but you no longer know what is actually going on because you have 10 pieces of information, and challenges to credibility, and no longer authoritative gatekeepers.
I’m not arguing that the old gatekeepers were great. I can give you tons of examples of the problems with the old kinds of gatekeeping, but there is at least the journalism ethos that they failed from, right? They failed from it all often, but there is something to fail from. Whereas, the business model of Facebook and YouTube is just to keep you on the site. So there’s nothing to fail from. We sometimes publicly shame them and they tweak a few things, and that has a lot of consequences for how people access attention.
Another thing, I’m going to give a more recent example. If you go on YouTube, as I do, and watch certain things—during the run-up to the election, I watched a lot of Donald Trump rallies, not a lot, some amount, because I was writing about it. I was writing about the burgeoning social movement. I was arguing this was a viable movement that the mass media in its own bubble was not noticing how much legs it had. I was going to his rallies. I was following his social media. I was making an argument to take the candidacy seriously rather than just a joke celebrity thing.
As I watched a few of these, YouTube started showing me extremist videos—of white supremacists. And I thought, “Maybe this is a correlation.” They watch this, they watch that. So, I started experimenting and I started watching videos of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, and I was soon shown conspiracy left. On the autoplay, right? YouTube has autoplay. I was like, “Okay, maybe this is politics, you know just pushing it here and there.” So, I was like, “Let’s experiment.” I would log out. I would get clean machines. I would start out and you watch something about being vegetarian, YouTube’s like, “Would you like to watch a video about being vegan?”
You’re never, ever hardcore enough for YouTube, is my way of understanding this. You watch something about jogging and soon YouTube’s like, “Ultra marathons, aren’t they cool?” So, what’s going on here is a very specific thing that is incredibly important because YouTube—not Wikipedia, not New York Times—YouTube is the source of information around the world. This is where young people go, including here. Chromebooks is half the K-12 education market and they come with YouTube. Every kid—not every kid but a lot of kids go to YouTube to get information and YouTube’s algorithm, that autoplay algorithm, it’s optimized to keep you on the site, to serve you ad after ad, and it’s a machine learning algorithm. That’s something specific we can talk about, it has real consequences, that it’s a machine learning algorithm. It’s not something YouTube programmers put in saying, “Let’s destabilize the whole world,” that’s not what’s happening. I wish that were the problem. I wish it was a bunch of evil programmers, I would say, “Go do something else.”
What has happened is that the algorithm has clearly figured out that just like humans have food appetites, like we have a craving for sugar, salt, and fat, which is perfectly reasonable during the Pleistocene, where there are no supermarkets, that you’re evolved to crave certain things. Now, we’re in an environment where you can get all the ones you want and you have the food industry. You have corporate agriculture, big agriculture, food industry, everything that is going to pump you with as much sugar, salt, and fat as they can because it’ll just sort of up what you want and they’ll sell you the stuff and that’s not really been good for your health.
In the information world, the counterpart to that is that people, especially young people, have natural curiosity. The healthy version of this is a scientific curiosity. They want to know what adults are keeping from them. Political dissidents want to know what’s being secret. We want to understand. And being edgier here is attractive. It’s seductive. Something like ultramarathon is more interesting than the jogging. You have that friend in college: you listen to heavy metal, they listen to thrash metal; you listen to thrash metal, they’d listen to death metal. There’s always this out edging. YouTube’s algorithm has figured this out for people. Its figured this out through machine learning, that if you keep feeding people extremists content, more extreme content—I don’t mean sort of radical in some philosophically grounded way. Whatever you are, something edgier is out there.
This is the environment in which people stay on the site longer. After I wrote about this, a bunch of people did some hires, like sort of big data-ish analysis, and BuzzFeed found that if you start anywhere political, within about three or so autoplays, you end up with Alex Jones. Alex Jones is entertaining. Alex Jones is edgy. Also, immensely cruel and a lot of fakery.
So, this is the particular moment in which we have a public sphere where misinformation, information glut, challenge of credibility, misdirecting of information, and sort of mismanaging people’s attention is the big threat. This is the environment in which things like fake news are one slice of this larger phenomena because—there’s a science paper that looks at fake news on Twitter and one key reason seems to be novelty. Novelty is interesting and fake stuff aren’t necessarily more interesting than reality, which tends to be more boring and mundane. And that creates an environment in which, even if you’re not on Facebook this is—I’m going to conclude. I get this a lot. There’s a lot of people who are not on Facebook and what about Fox News? This is the sort of question I get.
Here’s the thing though, even if you’re talking about some elderly person who’s only watching Fox News and you say, “What about that?” Fox News is competing with Breitbart on Facebook. Fox News is part of this ecology. If it’s Breitbart that is making some claims that’s getting more attention, Fox News’ coverage shifts. Breitbart is competing with those Macedonian teenagers that are creating the faker news. The ecology itself is pulling to the edge and it doesn’t really matter where you are in ecology, you are going to be pulled if your business model has attention and your business model also has to be reaching readers.
A lot of people dismiss fake news because there’s all these other things—well it’s part of the whole thing, well, it’s an indicator of pathology. And my final thing is, she (Maria Ressa) tweeted about me because I tweeted about her talk. I’m already getting trolled from the Philippines’ side. It’s my world too. I’m from where I am and this is how it operates. Five years ago, I could go on social media and say, “Let me find something out about places, even I know.” Right now, if I go, there’s so much misinformation, even from places I know by heart that I should be able to figure out, I can’t figure things out anymore and I’m pretty well informed and good at sort of this kind of triangulation. These are the challenges that I look forward to talking about. Thank you.
Bethany Wiggin: Thank you so much for those four really wonderful talks. It sounds like our challenge is how to get us to eat our vegetables, as it were, instead of binging on the sugars and salts of fake media. And yet, at the same time we’ve also learned about these incredible tools that Sam laid out for us, in which digital tools can be incredibly liberatory and work for social justice. Maybe they’re not spinach but they are definitely delectable and it was wonderful to see that.
I’d love to just open up the floor for commenters, questions. Please remember to briefly say your name before you ask your question. Yes, please, in the striped shirt.
Susan Douglas: Susan Douglas, University of Michigan. I have a question for the panel but especially for Amy and Zeynep. I’ve gotten very concerned about the way in which CNN and MSNBC are covering this presidency as if it’s celebrity journalism. “Who dissed who? Who’s on the ads? Whose feelings were hurt?” All that, and it’s all Trump, or Pruitt, or whatever all the time. And one worries if we actually had a different president in 2020, somebody a little less flamboyant and maybe less corrupt.
And I hate speculation in the news as well, but I think we’re at such a crucial point here—on the one hand, there is investigative journalism, but on the other end, there’s all of this hyperventilating about Trump. I’m wondering what you think about where the media might be if you get a slightly more boring, maybe policy wonk kind of president in 2021, and can the media pivot back something prior to all of this? Because what you’ve been raising is very concerning.
Amy Siskind: Yeah. I don’t view this right now as a Republican versus Democrat construct in our country. I think this is a battle for democracy versus becoming an authoritarian state. But I think our media is still back covering this Republican democracy. I think it’s a problem that they have gotten so much better, only because they’ve been thoroughly embarrassed by saying, “Trump read a speech off a teleprompter and now he’s presidential” 10 times and having to eat their lunch the next day. But they still have a ways to go in sort of telling the story that needs to be told, which is what’s happening to our democracy and our values. And they still are trying to cover him and go to these basically propaganda sessions with the press secretary where no information is being given that’s of any value, and they’re covering him like a celebrity president.
So, in answer to your question, I think a lot of Americans are screaming inside their heads of what the coverage looks like but if you really work towards it, you can find what you need to do. The investigative reporters, I think the Washington Post is doing a great job of covering things broadly, like a lot of the local stories and nationally. But where our media fails us is, yes, the ratings, the excitement around it, are not normal. And not really covering the stories that need to be told because they’re trying to get the best ratings.
I think after this all—and I get this question a lot, like, “What will it look like when this regime falls?” I think there’s going to be a readjustment of so many things. One is understanding that we thought—we learned in high school history that there are checks and balances in our country and really, those were norms, not laws. So, I think we’re going to have to reconstruct a lot of things, including our journalistic coverage and what that should look like, and I think it’s a story that needs to be told. But there’s too much—and you can especially see it— you’re all better much more expert than I am on the actual use of social media—but there’s too much of these cocoons within social media of everyone in the media, like everyone from MSNBC retweeting each other and CNN, and everybody’s pals, and then they go on their shows, and they say the same thing and they’re missing so many of the important stories and storylines as a result.
Zeynep Tufekci: So, maybe one question is, can we ever get a policy wonk president in a public sphere where you need to get the attention? The thing I will say is that—now, when you make the food analogy, it does sound like, “How do we make people eat their vegetables?” which doesn’t sound great. It sounds like we’re going to force-feed them broccoli. The challenge here is—and I don’t have an answer in my back pocket, obviously—is that you have to create news and journalism that is appealing to people. There’s just no two ways around this. This is not—you’re not going to go back to the old gatekeepers; people are not going to just be force-fed stuff.
So, how do you create this intersection where you’re doing serious stuff and you are getting people interested?
And this is a long-term project. I think there are very good examples of this. I see this all the time, well-written stories and things like that and the kind of—let’s give an example. Let’s give, like, the worst example is probably, what’s his name? The fix guy? The Chris Cillizza—he’s now at CNN. He seems to have no way to—he can fail as upwards as possible. He invented the “who won, who lost” format, which is incredibly damaging. Jay Rosen writes about that a lot. It’s really been horrible because it’s this “inside baseball” thing.
Someway, that’s an attractive format because it appeals to the same thing that appeals to our sports fandom. We get fandom and we get—it’s kind of an interesting format, except it’s very hollow and damaging because you don’t get policy. So, can there be a version of that format that gets the substantive stuff? I don’t know. Maybe the format is not suitable to that, but it has a way of getting people’s attention, even if people get mad at it. So, how do you deal with a question like that where, even if you hate something and you’re kind of hate- tweeting about it, the algorithm’s like, “Oh, engagement.” So, this is a problem for the new public sphere.
And the second thing I want to say is that we’ve kind of been in places like this before. The other example I’d like to give is that film started—and the early craft, the best craft of film—includes a lot of fascist filmmakers or filmmakers who are in the service of fascism or racism. In the US, you have The Birth of a Nation, which invented half the kind of movie conventions you have. If you ever watch ESPN, half the shots, they’re invented by Leni Riefenstahl who was filming the Munich Olympics and then Triumph of the Will, the crane shot, the hero shot, making Hitler charismatic. So, there’s a lot of ways a new medium can be in the kind of service of authoritarians.
And then, after World War II, in the US, a lot of the sort of universities were flooded with people who had fled fascism, either before or right after, and there was this enormous amount of thinking about anti-authoritarianism as a project. There was public education as part of it, critical thinking as a part of it. Fred Turner’s book, his latest book, kind of documents this period. And at the moment, if you show Triumph of the Will to people, we would roll our eyes. There are ways in which we are accustomed to blunt advertisements, so we have new kinds of manipulation. There are ways in which we’ve kind of developed a set of institutions. We moved from yellow journalism to the current ethos, which journalism fails from, but at least it fails from something.
So the question is, how do we create a public sphere, and a set of tools, and set of institutions, that deals with how comparable the current public sphere is with authoritarianism. And hopefully do it before back-to-back world wars scare the living lights out of everyone, including our elite? After World War II, you had this really scary moment where our elites and including our sort of leaders, everybody comes together and said, “How do we not go through this again?” And within 20 years, you have the European Union, you have this, you have that, you have a bunch of things—not perfect, but it’s really an enormous progress considering what just happened. So, can we do this without it getting that bad, is the big question.
Bethany Wiggin: I see a bunch of questions out there. Thank you so much for that, but I want to make sure that Sam and Maria also jump in and then we’ll—
Maria Ressa: Can I quickly add on that one? I really long for the old days. But we have to — we’re now separating form and distribution, right? The message and distribution, that’s separated. That’s never been that way before and that’s a huge difference. The gatekeepers to information are now the platforms and they’ve chosen mob rule as the guiding principle. And so, one of the first questions we should be asking really is—in many ways that place to the worst of human nature, our cognitive bias, it’s literally rewiring our brain.
So, it’s fundamentally changing the way we think. So even thinking, we’re pancake people. So, even the old forms of journalism, you wouldn’t get people to watch it. Zeynep kind of talked about that. So, I think there’s this new definition. It’s not creative destruction anymore, it’s beyond that. And whatever this thing is, we have to redefine what the world is.
The second is it’s connected to power. This is not just the media talking amongst ourselves, trying to just do ratings. This is manipulated in a global, geopolitical power struggle and it is changing power structures, globally. What we’re seeing in each of our country is—really fascinating to hear everybody—is only the tip of the iceberg because we are seeing changes in the way the power structures of the world are being done, because of the exponential powers of these platforms. South China Sea, Korea, right? The US role in a global market. All of this stuff has changed. Was Trump led there because of the disinformation on social media? These are all questions that we have.
And then finally, I think that you have to go back and look—right now, not one journalist, not one news organization or one organization can actually flip a switch. But the American companies, who are running these algorithms, can. It is in their hands, right? So, long-term solution, obviously, education. Medium- term, media literacy. Short-term is only Google, Facebook. If you really look at that, they control—journalists are getting killed on both ends. The two platforms are taking 80% to 90% of the new digital ad spend in any country around the world. In the Philippines is 85%. It went from 72% to 85%.
At the same time, those are the platforms that are being used, manipulated by power players to break down trust in institutions, in organizations, in media. The surveys also show that if you’re prone to believe in these conspiracy theories, which the algorithms are pushing you to believe, you are less prone to believe in facts. So, new world.
Bethany Wiggin: Yeah. Sam?
Sam Sinyangwe: I’ll say two things. One, I just want to emphasize how incredibly important and consequential it is that this administration has managed to shift the conversation to be all about, you know, the personal relationships between Trump and everybody else. In the context of police reform, we saw a national conversation for several years under the Obama administration, which led to laws being signed in 30 states to address some aspect of police reform. All of that progress halted the moment that Trump got in office.
The only conversation that’s happened has been a conversation about Trump. Every other issue, every other concern has perhaps created a day or two- window of conversation. It has not created a sustained conversation because this administration has so stifled the oxygen in the room, taken out the oxygen in the room. And that has real consequences for all the issues that we care about. It has consequences—we see this in the progress of legislation in various states. We see this in cities. So, real consequences.
I think the second piece is to emphasize that the platforms—Facebook, Twitter, whether it’s YouTube, Instagram—these platforms actually can decide to disrupt that and, in many cases, they’re deciding not to, and that is a conscious decision. I remember I was in a meeting with Sheryl Sandberg and others at Facebook, and I asked, “Does Facebook as a platform value inclusion and equity?” She didn’t have a response. Somebody who, literally her platform is all about inclusion and equity and yet, her platform is not, and I think that’s a choice.
It is a choice to just allow the algorithm to radicalize people in these incredibly dangerous and harmful ways, because it makes them a little bit more money. And I think they could make a different choice, and we should be holding the executives there accountable, not just saying, “There’s a capitalist economy. They’re going to do whatever makes the most money, that’s fine,” because that is literally allowing this to only get worse. And nothing that we do, nothing that any individual news organization does, is going to correct that system and the way that ecosystem is working.
And I think we see with Twitter, for example, they have started to take some measures where they’re looking more systemically at the platform and how the platform contributes to this. Facebook has made smaller corrections but I think more pressure needs to be put on them from the media, from everybody that has a platform, because that is what will change this.
Bethany Wiggin: Thanks, Sam. We have a question here.
Nour Halabi: Yeah. Thank you so much. This is brilliant to see this sort of interconnections of all these international journalistic sorts of context. I joined the program from Syria. So a lot of the things, Amy, that you are writing in your list, I recognize distinctly and I was like, “Well, this is not new. It just kind of—I brought it with me somehow.” But I was really worried about that as some sort—I’m starting to think, as we were speaking about the fact that these kind of practices are not new. So is there an effort made by journalists today to go back and think, “Some people have been dealing with this forever, what are people in Syria doing? What are journalists in Damascus doing?” The people who are in these areas that are being gassed, they’re still journalists and they’re doing very relevant stuff. Is there a conversation going on between journalists around the world on how they fight a sweep of authoritarianism, that’s not just in one country?
Amy Siskind: An answer to the last question: same thing. They are still trying to cover this. And I throw this out of my book events, rhetorically, “What is the Republican Party’s platform for the next six months?” None, because basically, we have one person ruling our country right now. It’s actually come to that, that he’s recreated our government into the Trump Organization and he’s surrounded by 20 sycophants, and anyone who doesn’t agree with him—McMaster, Cohn, they’re all thrown out the door. And so our policy can switch three or four times in a week depending on his mood and what his friends tell him to do.
And our media—that’s the story, that we have basically one person in charge and the checks and balances aren’t working, but instead, they’re trying to cover him, “Oh, why did he change his mind on tariffs?” It’s all really titillating that the New York Times and the Washington Post want to tell us, “He’s angry today. He’s sad today. He is da da da.” That’s all like really interesting and then everyone’s chasing around like, “Oh, what kind of mood is he in?” But the story is what is happening, which is there is one running our country and he decided, last week, to bomb Syria on a Friday.
And in Week 21 of my list, which was 53 weeks before, he bombed Syria. And why did he bomb Syria? Because he was getting negative coverage and he wanted to get positive coverage, which the media then gave him for acting like he was in control and then he did the mother of all bombs that week as well. So, yeah, they’re failing and I wish they would take your advice and read up about the way authoritarian regimes cover because the same things are happening and not at a slow pace either, in terms of intimidating people in the media, in terms of them getting threats. I’ve had to have police sleep outside my house with guns—not police but security forces—I mean, this is very real and happening in our country.
Zeynep Tufekci: All right. Can I say one thing about the big demand I get? And this is the intersection again with the technology because we’re stuck in the old model of censorship, most anti-censorship tools you have that’re developed by technologists are circumvention. How do you get around blocks, internet blocks? Now, this is not a bad idea to have tools like that—and I’m going to exclude China from this conversation, but I think it’s also part of it. The number one ask I’ve had for years, for a long, long time from activists, journalists, everybody is verification tools. They do not want circumvention tools; that’s a solved problem.
I’ve been going around for years begging technologists. I’ve been begging the Tor people.
I’ve been begging other people and saying, “Great, you’ve got this internet thing that routes around censorship stuck in your head, I would like, and I’m conveying what is necessary is this integration into my smartphone into Twitter platform, a way in which I can cryptographically sign a photograph so that it is authenticated as on or after a particular date and a location.” Verification—it needs to be sort of this automatic saying that is widely recognized because verification and credibility is the new anti-censorship and that’s what’s missing.
So, I think the old conceptual models are holding back some of the things you need because every time I see something from Syria—every time I see places, the first thing that happens to me somebody claims, “Oh, it’s from Gaza.” It’s not that. Sometimes activists make a mistake, “It is from Gaza and not Syria.” It’s this thing, at this point, you can no longer really tell which is which based on any credible set of facts. You have certain prior beliefs and you believe them or not. This is the problem. So, what is the new verification? What is the new authentication?
Ivan and Ellery are in the room. Global Voices does a bunch of that. Global Voices, like I can go to there and say, “Okay, this makes sense. I’ve got a bunch of people that I trust that are creating this kind of crowdsourced verification.” We need technological and component to it because it’s not getting the word out. Once again, authenticating and we don’t really have the tools we need for that.
Maria Ressa: But why wouldn’t you expect the platforms to have to do that? Why shouldn’t we demand that of them?
Zeynep Tufekci: We should and it’s also a technological challenge because you want to—it’s a mixture of building the institutions, because you need the people, and it’s also a mix of building the tools, because GPS can be spoofed, blah blah blah, and I’ve witnessed fake. They do that.
Ivan Sigal: There are attempts to do that—there’s something called the Credibility Coalition from—
Bethany Wiggin: Can you identify yourself?
Ivan Sigal: I’m Ivan Sigal, Global Voices. So the Credibility Coalition is trying to do that, at schema.org as well, they’re trying to build credibility indices for news. There are challenges with that as well—and without getting super deep into it, the biggest one is that as we’ve heard last night, the people doing the analysis are mostly American. Most of the analysis is in English and most of the potential beneficiaries, initially, are at large mass media companies. So, if those kind of credibility indicators are created in the wrong way, they privilege some kinds of people with access to certain types of language skills, or education, or access to platforms versus the web broadly. But that kind of effort is happening and we need to be super attendant to who gets to create that.
Bethany Wiggin: Maria, I want to make sure you also get to comment on that. Your experience founding a small company the Philippines seems to directly be an effort to address this kind of issue.
Maria Ressa: So, again, I believed, I drank the Kool-Aid at the beginning. Actually, it was extremely empowering at the beginning and we were able to fight against established huge media organizations and do well. But I go back to a pivotal moment, which is 2015, and I, again, because Facebook is the one where you have 2.3 billion people on it or accounts—when news came in there, that fundamentally changed our world. And when you use mob rule as the way you determine what facts are, it’s like they built a house and you gave everyone guns, and whoever kills the other side wins.
I guess it’s interesting listening to everyone about it, but I think, please—Ivan, you talked about the bias that could be built in. The bias is there and it is against developing countries. It is against the Global South. So, while Mark Zuckerberg testifies in the US Congress and talks about five to ten years before you can actually deal with this, I’m just thinking, in my part of the world, in the Global South five to ten years—people are dying. There’s a difference, right? Institutions in the United States—much as it’s horrible in some ways—are strong enough. In other parts of the world, there’s ethnic cleansing-
Amy Siskind: So far.
Maria Ressa: … so far, right? We’re such a bright optimistic group right now. So, I push back on it to say American platforms—America which stood for democracy and empowerment is actually now exporting something that goes against its fundamental values. And while we’re talking about the kinds of potential biases that are there, the biggest bias is already working in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka, in the Philippines, in Indonesia, and we need help.
Bethany Wiggin: Yep, I have a question here first.
Silvia Ryerson: My name is Sylvia Ryerson, I’m an independent journalist in New York. So glad to be here, thank you for the panel. Yes, on this point, I have a question for you, Samuel. In your work and the risks that you showed us in digital activism—when the FBI showed up on your doorstep, it so clearly shows how law enforcement is failing to be a regulator, as Soraya pointed out last night and also the platforms are failing to regulate. Do you have any strategies to regulate counter-activist approaches? How did you convince the FBI that that was a screenshot fake post? And sort of beyond that incident, how do you counter this sort of larger alt-right reframing of your work as bringing an army to the RNC? And it occurs to me, I wonder sort of in conversation with Amy’s work, if there’s a need to almost create your own record-keeping of your digital trail, your activism as a counter to these false protections.
Sam Sinyangwe: Yeah. So, a couple things. One, I think for any activists, particularly now, you need to take particular precautions about how you do work. I was fortunate, I wasn’t home when the FBI showed up. So, I get a call, no caller ID, on my phone. I turn on my phone and said, “This is agent so-and-so, field district office, San Francisco, I’m at your door, are you here to talk?” So, I didn’t know if this was real or not. So, I was like, “Okay, what do you want to talk about?” “I’m here to discuss your upcoming plans for the Republican National Convention.”
Literally, on the phone, I’m having to explain to him why this is fake and if you actually saw—it was kind of far away—if you actually saw the photo-shopped tweets, it is so obvious that they are fake. So, first of all, they’re in a font that Twitter DMs aren’t in. There are points where you can tell that there was like a copy and paste job, because you can see the dots on the “i” where there was no “i.” It was probably the worst Photoshop job I’ve ever seen and still, that was the response. So, I literally had to break that down. I had to explain why I wasn’t descending on the Republican National Convention with 10,000 people, which was wild. So, I go, “Okay, please leave your business card on the door and when I get home, I’ll contact you again.” Sure enough, there it is. The FBI business card and I never contacted again.
So, I would say, one, I think we need to be really cautious as activists. So, after that, I never tell anybody my address. I never tell anybody where I’m going to be before I’m there and that is because one time, it was advertised where me and my colleague were going to be in a theater screening the Black Panther documentary and a bomb threat was called when we were there. So, I think as an activist, you use Signal and other secure communications platforms, all of that is really important, like covering the cameras on your computer.
So, as individuals, those are the precautions we can take. I think more systemically, it’s very difficult because this—that was under the Obama administration—under this FBI, who knows? So, I don’t know. I don’t know what more we can do as individuals, as activists. I think it is important to be very transparent about everything that we do because where there are questions, those will be filled by fake news. And so how we go about creating policies, and where that comes from, and funding, and where that comes from—all of that, it needs to be as transparent as possible. Beyond that, I don’t have any—I wish I had answers. I think this is just the world that we live in.
Bethany Wiggin: I have a question here, in the black shirt.
Soraya Chemaly: Hi. My name is Soraya Chemaly. I wanted to touch specifically on this issue of verification and authentication because I’ve also worked with these companies for a long time now—Facebook and Twitter and Google—and it’s such a double- edged sword, largely because of the issues that we’re talking about. But really this divide between Silicon Valley’s culture and the rest of the world’s, because we work with a lot of women and activists who cannot be geo-located. That’s like a dire danger. When they’re taking photographs, where they’re actually on the ground.
And so, this issue of even something that to some of us seems straightforward, like the verification of identity, is endangering to people. It’s also really calibrated to Western ideas about what constitutes verification. So, I had one of the Facebook executives actually suggest to women writers in India that, really, they could just come with a club membership card and that was sufficient. It was kind of gobsmacking to have this conversation.
And so the additional risk to verification also is that it has traditionally empowered the status quo and so the same hierarchical analysis that we know exists within these institutions, whether it’s media, or technology, or sports – pick an industry – get replicated at scale, and then those become notes of harassment and aggression. So, that’s what happened, for example, with the verification of conservative pundits, who were weaponized through Gamergate and then into Pizzagate and into the election. So, I hesitate to say these are just good ideas, because I know that they’re really fraught. Especially for women, I will add again because verifying a woman puts her in the line of fire of harassment in a way that verifying a man doesn’t, and that’s also documented. Because it shows very visibly with a little blue check mark that she has higher status and then armies of racist, misogynist trolls come out to make her life a living hell.
So, I think that this idea that—we need civil society advocates to work with these technologies and honestly, we need international input because American exceptionalism pervades our responses. And activists here have so much to learn from activists around the world. And that kind of exchange has been invaluable to us.
Bethany Wiggin: Thank you so much for that.
Soraya Chemaly: So that’s not really a question because I really empathize with what you’re
saying, but everything you’re describing, to me, is so important to assess and have you respond.
Maria Ressa: Can I add to that? Our data actually shows that women are targeted at least three times more and the kind of exponential increase of racist and misogynistic—actually, it’s sexist in the Philippines.
Soraya Chemaly: It is. It is global.
Maria Ressa: It’s sexist misogynistic—
Soraya Chemaly: And they’re networked globally.
Maria Ressa: Networked, exactly.
Soraya Chemaly: The attacks are coming from all over.
Maria Ressa: So, yes. And the women are—critical female voices in the Philippines, and again, this is backed by data, so we can share that.
Bethany Wiggin: Sam, did you want to respond at all?
Sam Sinyangwe: Yeah. I think to your point about sharing with other activists, that was a big part of what was happening on Twitter during the Ferguson uprising. So we saw protesters learning from folks in Palestine how to respond to teargas, how to treat yourself. All of that has been—that information exchange has been really important and it goes, again, to the importance of how the platforms are designed. So, we heard about the difference between Twitter and Facebook and what you see—those are decisions: the way that Twitter is structured, to put everybody around the world in the same conversation around something that they care about, represented by that hashtag, which means if you are low- income in Detroit and you are impacted by police violence, you’re suddenly able to be in a conversation about that with everybody else around the world who’s talking about it at that time.
In a way that Facebook, you’re in a conversation with your friends. And your friends may not have reach, they have may not have a platform, they have may not have resources, they may not have tips from Palestine about how to deal with tear gas. So it’s just a fundamentally different structure of the platform and one is liberatory and the other reinforces existing social hierarchies. And those are decisions made by developers, and Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey, and people who probably weren’t thinking about how that simple design structure would have tremendous implications for social movements. But that’s the kind of thinking that we have to demand for people who are going to enter that sector and design as platforms to come.
Zeynep Tufekci: I want to add something, because something that’s very near and dear to my heart for obvious reasons, that I’ve been struggling with for—ever since the real name’s policy argument in Facebook broke out. There are these trade-offs that need to be discussed.
As a pretty high-profile public person from Turkey, I guess this is something I deal with all the time and there are ways in which you can have a really—like, this is not the picture verification because picture verification is a different thing than identity verification and I make this argument in my book but I was arguing this before. I think there are ways in which there are trade-offs between activist’s safety and ecology health that come from the verification thing. It’s the story I write in my book of a pretty high-risk activist who had family members killed, who was very, very happy to get verification and any kind of endorsement because he could then get publicity, and I’m like, “You’re putting your life on the risk here.” And he was like, “I know, but I’m putting my life on the risk, I might as well get results.” Without the verification part, without the authentication, you’re putting your life on the risk and you’re not getting the results. I don’t know if there’s a way out of this tradeoff. Because pseudonymous platforms like Twitter have been more easily weaponized.
I know countries where people will only connect with you politically if you can give them a Facebook ID and they go check your Facebook, because it’s a little easier to check that you’re an actual person rather than a government agent— because if you’re in a social movement, there’s informants. There’s somebody who’s like government agents, so being a real person isn’t enough.
On the other hand, if you’re in a real name environment, there are ways in which you can be targeted. Does anybody need a Muslim registry when you got Facebook data? So there’s this real issue that is very thorny and I think there are certain things the platforms could do better to offer certain levels but I think there are these structural trade-offs too that we have to have this big conversation about—how do we protect people while also keeping in mind what they’re trying to do?—which is to get attention, and there’s no way to be a political dissident getting attention in an authoritarian country and being safe. There’s no technological or political solution to this.
Bethany Wiggin: Great. We have quite a queue of questions so I’m going to bundle three. I see one, Litty in the back, three. If you could say your name, ask your question, and we’ll ask the panel to respond to them as a group.
Ellery Roberts Biddle: My name is Ellery, I’m Advocacy Director at Global Voices. I wanted to ask Maria and Sam if you could talk about facing all of these threats, and harassment, and trolling that it’s part and parcel of this work, the longer-term effects of that on the work itself and on the degree to which, especially when you’re working with a staff and Maria, you’ve been in this for decades—people get tired. And this is, in our community, something we’ve seen a lot especially in the Middle East and North Africa where, in 2011, the Global Voices community couldn’t get enough. So we were doing so much and it is so different now, and it’s like things change over time. I wonder if you could just talk about, how do you think about that in terms of actually the media you’re creating? And where does the risk and all of these threats actually start to—where is the map there?
Bethany Wiggin: Litty?
Felicity Paxton: Hi, I’m Litty [Felicity] Paxton from University Pennsylvania. Samuel, I have a question for you about how you do the counting. I noticed that both your site and the Guardian’s The Counted, but your site to a much lesser extent, count female victims of domestic homicide when the killer is a police officer. I would really be interested—and I remember reading the Guardian’s Counted, when that project started and I remember the first time I encountered that as one of the captured cases, having this moment of thinking: “there are processes and there are losses when we count domestic violence in this particular kind of count.” I’d really want to love hear your thoughts about what is gained, and what is lost, when we have that data.
Bethany Wiggin: Here.
Nikki Usher: Hi. Nikki Usher George Washington University / University of Illinois. I have a question for all of you. I wanted—it’s easy they got very dark, as you all pointed out. I wanted to hear something that you think works to fight this structure, sort of post-Trump administration. So, if you’ve got just even a small example of something that worked, I’d love to hear that.
Bethany Wiggin: Great question. Maybe we can start by inviting you to start there and then we’ll circle back to the questions of domestic violence and Global Voices. You want to start, Amy?
Amy Siskind: Oh, sure. I’ll start. So, I get asked, since I cover the not normal things, like Trump must have done something good since he took office, and my answer is, “He’s sprung the two largest social movements of my lifetime.” And I run a national women’s organization in addition to doing this list, and progress has generally been linear and slow, and now it’s like a bonfire. So, the American people, I think, when this started, there were two choices. It could have been like the Naomi Shulman poem where we watched as they paraded the Jews down the street, which now might be the undocumented immigrants or the Muslims. But instead, our country has an uprising and we’ve had over a million people march, two consecutive times, which got very little media coverage—another problem with our media, why the resistance is not like a defined term in the same way that, like, if you could get 20 white men into a room eight years ago when Obama was president, the Tea Party, that would be front-page news.
But there is an active resistance happening in our country that if you compare us to, say—I happened to be in the Netherlands in the fall, how slowly that country came to terms and resisted what was happening with Hitler, and how quickly juxtaposed, not only the Women’s Movement but our teenagers who are now going to get to the polls in 2018. So, I think the good news story is we’re fighting for our democracy and we’ll prevail, but I think we’re, at the same time, seeing then the flaws that existed and hopefully, there will be good that comes of that in terms of ways to fix it.
Sam Sinyangwe: Yeah. So, on that question around good things.
Nikki Usher: No, no, no. Not good things, what works.
Bethany Wiggin: Tools.
Sam Sinyangwe: What works, yes.
Nikki Usher: What worked from your individual/your efforts.
Sam Sinyangwe: Cool. So, one of the things that worked was effectively finding pathways to crowdsource all of the energy that’s happened across the country since Trump got elected. I think there’s a huge potential here, hundreds of millions of people who want to do something and if we can just build something that focuses that energy at a particular time and a particular place, we can make real change. The problem is coordinating all that complexity.
So, one example is, in Florida, we partnered with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which got a measure on the ballot there that would end the state’s disenfranchisement law. Florida disenfranchises more people than any other state, 1.6 million people, about 40%of black men in the state of Florida are permanently banned from voting because of this law, which was adopted in 1868, specifically to disenfranchise black people. What we were able to do was create a platform that allowed people to donate—for every dollar they donated, we mailed two petitions to Florida registered voters.
We needed a total of 700,000 petitions needed to be signed. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition was doing the on-the-ground organizing and we were able to be sort of be like the Air Force and we were able to crowdfund enough money to send 133,000 petitions, in a space of only a few weeks, to Florida registered voters, because people all across the country, first of all, cared about this issue, cared about voting rights; number two, understood Florida and the fact that that law has specifically been used to disenfranchise enough people to impact presidential elections, to impact Senate elections, to impact the governorship, the house. All of that is influenced by this law.
And we created a pathway for people to contribute if they didn’t live in the state, and that’s how we were able to do that. I think creating other things like that, that have real impact, not just sign this petition online that doesn’t go anywhere, but send real petitions that change policy and law—I think when we can make those real connections, I think we can make a big difference.
I think the second question around people who are killed in an instance of domestic violence when the killer is a police officer—we do count those in our database. Every year it’s about five or ten cases like that, that we’re able to identify. We include it because police violence is broad and impacts people in different ways, and we know that police officers are more likely to be involved in domestic violence, and we know that women are disproportionately impacted by that. And often, in the conversation about police violence, it is a conversation about—95% of people killed by police are men and so it becomes a male-centered conversation.
The ways in which police violence impacts women is often missed, number one, because those cases are excluded from databases like the Washington Post database, and number two because non-fatal police violence, there’s simply not data on that at a national level. So, we have the tip of the iceberg but if you’re talking about sexual assault, sexual harassment, there’s no national database of that and surely that would be much more frequent than 1,200 cases a year, and so we try to the best extent possible to include those cases.
Bethany Wiggin: I wonder if maybe Maria and/or Zeynep, you want to talk about particularly tools to combat what I think people are increasingly calling the homogecine— this dampening of global voices, global English all the time, ways to introduce maybe less heard voices, tools you have found particularly useful.
Zeynep Tufekci: Well, that is so pretty hard. I, individually, try my best, but it really is a challenge. I want to go back to Nikki’s question a little bit about what works. My book’s title is The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. The whole argument is that you scale up really fast with social media and you’re entering your first big moment at 100 miles an hour without a steering wheel, right? This is a different thing from protests in the past, where it took a lot of movement building before you could have a big protest. Right now, you can go from Facebook posts to the women’s march in three months and that’s both a power, and that’s the thing.
So, what I’m finding right now is that, like I wrote a lot of examples of that. Now, I’m looking into—I’m going around the country, I’m traveling here; who knew I would have a movement to study here, like this? One of the really interesting things for me is that it is like not what I’ve seen elsewhere. There’s this real emphasis on organizational infrastructure-building in a way that I had not seen in a lot of places. Part of it is learning, right? When you go like, “Boom! I can reach millions of people,” the weaknesses of the social media field movement model become apparent at some cost. You fail, and you learn from it, and for us, it meant a lot of friends in jail, a lot of countries in civil war, but you learn.
So, the second thing that I’ve seen is the learning. People have learned that you don’t just do that, that’s important. The second thing that’s interesting that I think that works in this particular movement is how many of this resistance groups—Indivisible, other things I’ve seen—are not just the young people, who are in the movement phase, which is great—I was there, I was a foolish young person, so I’m going to sort of take it personally. But there’s a way in which youth energy is awesome, but there’s a way in which it is youth energy. It comes with all the things that I did in my own time.
The current movement in the US has a large number of women, and especially middle-aged woman. I feel look in sociology women do the work of kinship, network-building. They’re like this sort of socialization-wise, the organization building, both learning and working seems to be there. And in terms of the tech tools, I’ll just give you guys one example is that I’m following this effort—it’s called Tech Solidarity, it’s not even a big effort—trying to get Silicon Valley, San Francisco people who work in tech who have nobody to vote for. They live in San Francisco. There’s not that much to do and it’s not like they’re really good organizationally.
There are a couple of districts in California where they could maybe do something—there’s these efforts to funnel money and some tech expertise from them to movements. There’s one in Lancaster, Lancaster Stands Up, I’m following—I’ll go there on Sunday—that is really grassroots, organization- building, field-building that I don’t think we’ve seen in this country, which is because the moment we’re at isn’t just some celebrity president. It is the result of decades of elite failure. It’s mass media failure, institutional failure, government failure, Iraq war, inequality. You can’t just—we can’t bring back our elites because they brought us here. It’s their failure.
And I’m now seeing movements that are neither sort of just elite-driven in this country nor are they trying to replicate it. They’re trying to find a new way. To me, that’s really interesting because—I’m sorry, I write for the New York Times but bringing back the New York Times, obviously, is not going to solve this issue, because this is, partly, how we got here.
Maria Ressa: Nikki, I want to answer your caution because I did find hope and I’ll also give the hope part of this. For us, there’s this great paper, a 2014 paper, called “The Menace of Unreality.” It’s by Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss. One of the things they actually pointed out there is how unprepared the west is to deal with this, and they predicted that it would roll out and it did. So, part of where I was getting some guidance is the Ukraine. They started collecting data from 2014 to 2016, that was why we started collecting data the minute I saw something weird going on and I spent a lot of time talking to folks in the Ukraine who’ve actually been able to push back and to reclaim it.
Vkontakte, of course, was banned so let’s not talk that. Here’s what’s worked in the Philippines: shine the light. When we exposed the propaganda machine, I just tweeted it, you can look at that—that was mid-2016 when we started looking at these numbers and the exponential spread, 26 fake accounts could hit three million others. This is like on a whole different scale. So, going out, that got us attacked and then here’s the attack: 90 hate messages per hour; 90 hate messages per hour and that was for me, personally. So I sat there and go, “Did I do something wrong? Is it real? Do I respond?” I tried to respond but then the more you get hammered, right?
So, in August, then we did a #noplaceforhate. But their goal is to silence us and a lot of people have been silenced in the Philippines. We see it in the numbers on Facebook. Facebook on Alexa ranking went from number one in 2017 to number eight in January 2018, and it’s now leveling at around number five. And then the campaign that worked, #inspirecourage—and it took the deaths of three teenage boys. So, from August 2016 to August 2017, there was a spiral of silence, it worked, and it was against normal people, against journalists, and I would still say journalists are still—we’re still a favorite target and we struggle every day to push back against it. So, the traditional tools of journalism: you’ve got to tell people, and sometimes people don’t want to hear, and we don’t even know if they’re listening, but you keep doing it.
The other part to your question, the longer-term effects. I was a war zone correspondent and in the last decade I was working, I would go from one war zone to another war zone. And conflict reporting is so much easier than what we’re dealing with right now, because you know where the gunfire is coming from and you know how to chart your path to safety, and you know how to assess the risks. When does an online threat become physical? When does exponential hate trigger someone you may not even know to actually take action? These are the things that we’ve had to think about as an organization because I have young reporters.
My palace reporter is 26 years old. She was banned by the President from the Palace and that’s very real. So what have we done? We sent our entire social media team for counseling. And there’s no counseling like this out in our part of the world yet. So, even that is new ground, but it helped. It’s PTSD at a different level, but if you accept that this environment is polluted and that you will steel yourself, then you move forward and you begin looking for solutions, and where I get excited is—we’re still a startup. We’re a startup that scaled; we broke even in year five, and the government attacks have bashed us a bit.
But now, I’m challenged. If we make it through this, we’re made.
So, things are changing so fast. The technology and the way people’s awareness are moving, the more we move with the technology—and that’s why we can’t let go. I just, last week, decided we’re collaborating with Facebook as fact- checkers in the Philippines and the two newsgroups that they chose, the other newsgroup calls President Duterte a liar all the time. So, the Palace has said they’re going to go and talk to Facebook to change their fact checkers. Facebook better hold the line, that’s all I have to say.
Bethany Wiggin: Thanks so much. We’re going to give the last question to Barbie—who better to ask a question about risk? Before you ask it, Barbie, I just want to let people know, stay tuned for book sales upstairs over a delicious, healthy, and fatty lunch. It will be all! Over you, Barbie.
Barbie Zelizer: Thank you for a terrific presentation. I guess I want to get back to the question on the status of activism. The status of activism and thinking about how it rolls forward into each of the other panels of this conference—those being journalism, documentary, and entertainment, each of which has its own ethos and, particularly in this country, about how not to abide by perspective and bias and opinion. So I’m wondering, briefly, because I know we’re over time, can you just address what you have seen that changes, and if it changes, what we need to be doing about the more traditional platforms?
Bethany Wiggin: Such an easy question.
Amy Siskind: Well, I’ll go first. There was an article in the Washington Post about a week and a half ago about the number of people showing up to march. One in five Americans have marched since Trump took office and for many of them, they were not involved.
So, I think more broadly, as opposed to concrete steps people are taking, like the Indivisible groups or other actions they’re taking, it’s heartening to know that this really isn’t a traditional Republican-Democrat construct, that there is a whole swath of our country that has not been politically engaged and don’t view what’s currently going on as politics. They view it as a fight for our democracy and a fight for our values, and these people are off the sidelines and engaged.
So, it’s an opportunity with those people who are not consuming things in a traditional way, are involved in different ways in their communities and their groups or whatever, they’re going to show up to vote, and I think the media is totally missing that uprising. They did in 2017, November, they’re going to again in 2018, to harness those energies. And for me, the act of remembering is an act of resistance. So the act of reading what’s going on in the information is how we then fight against what’s happening to our democracy and our truth.
Sam Sinyangwe: I think we’re in a moment that has some positives and some negatives. I think the positive is that there are so many people who are new to activism, who want to get engaged, have shown up, whether it’s to a march or just angry want to do something, there’s a lot of latent potential right now. I think the bad news is that that is not a permanent fixture. I think people, especially what I’ve seen over the past several years—this current iteration of the movement—we saw this in Ferguson in 2014 and 2015, we saw a movement emerge and I think in many cases, what happened was you get burnout because people really want to do something. They try their best and nothing changes, and I worry about what would happen if that happens here, because you only get people once.
And so, if you have everybody engaged now and then everybody gets completely disenchanted and apathetic, then you don’t get a second chance. And I think the problem is that the infrastructure for engaging people, it has not yet caught up with the scale of people who need to be engaged and so what you see are people who want to get engaged, they sign up for every organization’s newsletter, and every organization, and they’ve reached out to people, they want to volunteer, and most places won’t get back to them because they are already swamped.
The places that get back to them may have something for them to do every two weeks, but all of that potential—people want to get engaged now, they feel angry now. And if you can’t harness that, when they want to get engaged, how they want to get engaged, and immediately connect them to something to do, then we lose that potential. And I haven’t seen an effective way of doing that at scale developed yet.
I think Twitter is probably the best that we have where you can immediately get in the conversation. You can learn about what’s happening, you can connect with people. But I think there’s still something missing there where it should be as easy as, “I’m in the zip code. I care about this issue,” and it’s like, “Here are the three things that you can do right now,” and that doesn’t have to wait on some gatekeeper to have the capacity and the time to manage you in that process. I think we have to get there in order to overcome that bottleneck.
Maria Ressa: I think the different panels that are coming up, I really look forward to them because, in order to have great civic engagement, we need to move people away from this emotion-filled lack of thinking. Daniel Kahneman wrote a book, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. Social networks push us into the thinking fast, unthinking reality and that is why the engagement keeps spurring. So I see this in the Philippines, our younger generation—they’re pancake people: they know a lot of little things about a lot of different things with no depth, and so the next panels need to figure out, “How are we going to reach them? How are we going to reach them?”
And I’ll add two things. When I used to do television, it was always about form and substance. Form and substance—because there’s the form of whatever that art form is and then there’s the substance of the message that you bring in, and how you do it, how sophisticated, or how creative makes a difference. I’m going to add a third one, which is form, substance, and distribution. Now, because it’s separated, the distribution needs to be worked out as much as the art, the creativity, and the discipline of each of the panels that are coming up next.
Zeynep Tufekci: I’m going to go back to the first point about infrastructure because I think that’s the crucial part that’s genuinely badly, badly missing. The whole big thesis in my book is that the marches don’t signal the same kind of power they did. We had giant marches in the Middle East. We have marches in Occupy. We had marches in Indignados. It’s a boom-bust cycle exactly because we’re missing the infrastructure. And to this day, movements are still trying to do their decision- making on Facebook and Twitter. Okay, so Facebook’s the kind of platform, the whole point is to keep you on there, which means it’s going to push emotional content, right? Outrage-like, or things like that and it’s going to try-
Maria Ressa: Anger.
Zeynep Tufekci: —to keep you there, anger. A lot of us are faculty when you get in a faculty meeting, what’s your first thought? You want it to end. It’s fine, my colleagues are awesome, but we want it to end—for good reasons. Because you want to make decisions. We’re making decisions. Social movements around the world are making decisions on Facebook, on Twitter, that are so unsuited to decision- making. They could not be less suited to decision making and concluding things. So what we end up having is movements paralyzed by lack of decision-making ability at scale. If you’re going to have a movement, you need a decision-making ability at scale.
In the past, that was solved with organization and leadership. You’re not going to go back to the past either. There’s a participatory sensibility. You’re not going to say, “Where’s our next Martin Luther King?” and we’re done. It’s not that any movement in the moment lacks people of great courage. It lacks decision- making infrastructure that fits the current participatory movement type and I think that kind of infrastructure could be built. It’s partly technical, partly political. But it needs investment. It’s the kind of thing a non-profit or university could do.
And if you look at this country, the Koch brothers alone funded, in 2016, down- ballot races to the tune of about $950 million. Indivisible to the state, raised maybe $15 million to $20 million. So, just the right infrastructure was in the billions with a “B,” whereas the left infrastructure, even after all this brouhaha, is a few millions basically. On this side of the political spectrum, on the left side, you do not have—the Silicon Valley people don’t write the checks; you don’t have the equivalent to the right-wing billionaires who would write the checks. And there’s very little funding to this day in infrastructure-building for movement work, that includes technology, that includes other things.
It’s the kind of thing the academy could do, and I’d say this as a non-partisan thing. It’s lacking around the world in the sense that movements happen but they disintegrate partly because they end up bickering on Twitter, because if you’re doing your conversations on Twitter, you’ve got flame wars, you’ve got abuse, you will run into the ground. There’s a great Marc Lynch article about Arab Spring, “A Twitter Devolution.” Twitter has been great for social movements in the Arab Spring. It has also paralyzed them because it is only suited to bickering or getting attention, which is good. You need this new infrastructure to come from somewhere. It’s a big question we still face.
Bethany Wiggin: I hope that we can continue our civilized discourse at a slower pace, also over food, and those long reads known as books that are upstairs. Thanks for our panelists and thanks to all of you.