Interview: Ethan Zuckerman on public media and the dangers of misinformation

Ethan Zuckerman is an internet activist, blogger and director at the MIT Center for Civic Media. He’s also the co-founder of Global Voices, an international media network for bloggers, journalists translators, academics and human rights activists which offers news and perspective from around the world. 

Zuckerman is the author of the book : Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection  which re-examined the internet as a tool for increased connectivity.

WikiTribune talked with Zuckerman on how the internet has evolved and some of the important challenges being faced today.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

WikiTribune: It’s been five years since you wrote Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, in which you argue that society is becoming less connected. Do think things have changed since then?

Zuckerman: This is a very different moment than the one when I wrote Rewire. There was a sense that we were living in an interconnected world, but that our technologies might not be up to the task of preparing us for connection. Now we’re in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world where ethno-nationalism is on the rise. I think very few people are thinking about interconnection and life in a global world – many of us are trying to think about how we’ve taken this apparent step back into older visions of nationhood.

Rewire came out in the wake of the Arab Spring, where there was hope that organized and connected people could change the world. We’re now years into an Egypt that’s even less free than under Mubarak. I find myself wondering whether that hope as a tool of organizing was misplaced, but then I look at movements like MeToo and BlackLivesMatter, and I remain enthusiastic about the power of technology to help build movements.

You said in one of your articles that we should stop using the term fake news, why is that? And do you see practical solutions to this problem?

Donald Trump adopted the phrase “fake news” very early on. He uses it to dismiss any reporting he doesn’t like, and when we use the phrase, it reinforces his meaning for the phrase. Beyond that, Trump’s power comes from causing us to question existing institutions and their power. If we don’t trust government, don’t trust Congress, don’t trust the media, the only thing left to trust is him. I think it’s important to distinguish between propaganda, fake news created for money, and disinformation, created to undermine our trust in institutions in general.

As far as solutions… I think we need to question the institutions in our lives, but I also think that when they prove themselves trustworthy, we need to support them. There’s a great deal of journalism that’s done carefully and wisely and deserves our support. By supporting high quality news and defending both the truth and the processes that uncover it, we can go a long way towards countering the narrative of fake news.

Ethan Zuckerman, via Wikipedia. License: CC 0

You recently proposed that media has changed since 1990 from a linear and predictable system to a complex one governed by feedback, can you talk about more about this model?

In a pre-digital age, media was fairly linear. Authors created content, distributors packaged and monetized it, and audiences consumed it. It’s more complicated now. Audiences influence distributors, voting up some content, helping it go viral. Audiences also create content, either as original creators, or reacting to content that’s been created. These systems create feedback loops, leading to highly unpredictable behaviors.

In this new model, we have some problems due to vulnerability to bad actors. It’s not hard for propagandists to pretend to be authors and introduce content that looks personal and authentic, but is created to provoke and mislead. There are at least as many problems that are inherent to the feedback loops of the system. Clickbait, polarizations, echo chambers are all problems in this new system. The fear is that while platforms like Facebook have an incentive to combat bad actors, the incentives to combat these known bugs are much weaker -– indeed, the known bug behavior may often make the platforms more money.

Why are you a strong advocate for a “public social media platform”? What’s your definition of “public” and where does a platform like Facebook or Twitter fit into this?

What I like about public media is that it’s media created with a specific social purpose – it’s designed to inform us and prepare ourselves for citizenship. I don’t especially care whether this is paid for with a license fee (as in Britain), with taxes (as in most of Europe) or through donations (public radio in the U.S.). What’s interesting to me is the idea of media created with this explicit set of non-commercial goals.

It’s possible for commercial media to accomplish public media goals, but it’s a matter of motivations and incentives. The incentives for companies like Facebook and Twitter favor engagement over education, controversy over compromise. I can imagine many different models that could give us diverse, educational media that prepares us to be citizens of the world – it’s just that most of those models involve public support rather than commercial support.

How do you evaluate current experiments that try to decentralize the web, do you think they are scalable and what are the challenges they will have to overcome?

I think we are very early in the process of experimenting with the decentralized web. Systems like Mastodon are well engineered and could well be scaleable. The real issues are not about technology but about usability and adoption. Thus far, very few of these platforms have sufficient adoption to develop scaling effects – we don’t know how well they’ll work once we have significant usage.

For me, the real issues are around aggregation and federation. Until we have clients that allow us to follow Facebook and Twitter and new networks simultaneously, it’s going to be very hard for new platforms to gain traction. I hope to see policy changes that allow aggregation and data portability which could bring about a new generation of creativity around new social networks.

You’ve launched Global Voices in 2004 to connect bloggers and citizen journalists. What do you think of projects like WikiTribune?

From what I’ve heard of WikiTribune, it sounds exciting. I know that previous Wikinews experiments have stumbled over the ways in which Wikipedia tends to be a space for breaking news. Because the project has NPOV [Neutral Point of View] principles, it’s very different from Global Voices, which is all about personal perspectives. I’ll be watching closely and am excited to see what comes from it.

How do you see the future of the internet, are you still optimistic about it?

I’m not sure I can answer that question. At the moment, I have a lot of problems with optimism. The world feels like a pretty dark and challenging place right now. I see hope from efforts where people with similar problems get together to try and support each other. I’d be a lot more optimistic if I saw more efforts where people were working to learn from and understand one another using online technologies.

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