How to Put Out Democracy’s Dumpster Fire by Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomeratsev in the Atlantic is an article about the way the current nature of the internet, in general, and social media, specifically, are harmful, or even hostile, to democracy. The authors also recommend several specific suggestions to change this. The writers seem optimistic that their suggestion could actually significantly improve the internet, making it a more viable for democracy, if their recommendations are adopted (which is another matter).
I do believe improvements can be made to at least reduce the toxicity and dysfunction of the information and discussion space produced by the internet. But I do have some critiques of their recommendations.
I’ll go over these soon, but for now I recommend others to read this article.
Those who are really interested in politics can have very different views about basic facts–and if those numbers are large enough, that can be a big threat to our democracy. I saw the tweet below and I thought of this topic, as well as one way we could solve this. It’s something I’ve talked about before, but I feel compelled to talk about it again, as I think it would be effective. At the same time, a part of me feels like my proposal is flawed in some significant way–or at least someone would have done it already. But I can’t see what the flaw(s) is. If anyone knows the reason my idea won’t work, I really would like to hear it. After the quote, I’ll explain my idea.
The thread below by Senator Chris Murphy is the impetus behind this post.
Joe Biden – and all of us – SHOULD be furious that media outlets are spreading what is very likely Russian propaganda.
1/ I’ve seen the intel. The mainstreaming of misinformation is Russia’s 2020 goal. Here’s what we know, and why we can’t take it lying down.
2/ Russia knew it had to play a different game than 2016. So it built an operation to cull virulently pro-Trump Americans as pseudo-assets, so blind in their allegiance to Trump that they’ll willingly launder Kremlin constructed anti-Biden propaganda. Guiliani was a key target.
3/ Andriy Derkach was a top Russian agent. He was unmasked by the Treasury Dept this summer. Derkach and his team recruited Guiliani and have been feeding him info all year. The White House knew this. The White House was warned that Giuliani was target of a Russian intelligence operation to feed misinformation to Trump from WaPo
4/ Whether he knows it or not, Giuliani is effectively a Russian asset now. It’s almost certain that any anti-Biden info he has is fed to him by Derkach and Russian intel.This should be patently obvious to any reporter worth his or her salt.
Vowing crackdown on Russian meddling, US sanctions Ukrainian lawmaker who worked with Giuliani to smear Biden. from CNN
5/ And you don’t have to believe me. Believe the Department or Justice – Trump’s own FBI is investigating the “leaked” Hunter Biden emails as Russian spycraft.US authorities investigating if recently published emails are tied to Russian disinformation effort targeting Biden from CNN.
6/ Further, media don’t need a Pulitzer to see the whole story as super fishy. A pro-Trump computer repairman mysteriously comes across Hunter Biden’s laptop, copies the files, and guess who gets them? Russia’s top American asset – Rudy! Coincidence!! Meet the computer repairman at the center of New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story from Delaware Online
7/ Why is it important for media to not simply pick this story up and amplify it? Why should we be offended that the VP is being asked about it?
Because this is Russia’s bet – that America, and its media, is so hungry for salacious stories that no one will vet their lies.
8/ And American media do have major credibility, for good reason. They do amazing work, and get most stories 100% right.
Russia wants to use this credibility to their advantage. And that’s why we all have to be vigilant. Democracy depends on it.
I honestly don’t know where you guys stand on this (and based on what I know, Mitchell likely disagrees), but I totally agree with Senator Murphy. I’ll expand on reasons for this in the first comments post.
The following tweet resonated with me, and I wanted to comment on it:
Also: the most pervasive bias in political coverage is not left vs. right it’s “follows politics” vs. “doesn’t follow politics”
By default, nearly everyone who covers politics falls into the “follows politics” category, which makes it really hard to understand people who don’t
What are possible ways the “follows politics” people (or news junkies, as I call them) have trouble understanding the “doesn’t follow politics” folks? Here are some thoughts off the top of my head Continue reading “A Possible Blind spot for the Press”
I previously wrote about some of the unique challenges the press faces in covering Trump. But I never really touched on the larger structural features in the press that prevent coverage that best serves the public. I want to write about that in this post. Specifically, I want to address criticism of press coverage that I see regularly. What’s interesting, in my view, is that I agree with their criticisms, but my sense is that they don’t seem to understand the obstacles that prevent the coverage they seek. For example, the solution isn’t simply editors and journalists simply choosing a different approach. In my opinion, the problem is systemic and structural; individual journalists are more like cogs in a machine than masters operating the machine.
To put it more simply, Continue reading “Changing Journalism Requires Systemic Changes; Or, the Challenge of Covering Trump, Part 3”
This is a not a new idea. The problem has existed probably since at least the 1980s. It’s also not an opinion I’ve just arrived at. I thought of this because of a recent post I read, about a journalist (who reminded me of Holly Hunter’s character in Broadcast News) quitting MSNBC.
It’s possible that I’m more sensitive to the editorial process due to my background in public radio, where no decision I ever witnessed was predicated on how a topic or guest would “rate.” The longer I was at MSNBC, the more I saw such choices — it’s practically baked in to the editorial process – and those decisions affect news content every day. Likewise, it’s taboo to discuss how the ratings scheme distorts content, or it’s simply taken for granted, because everyone in the commercial broadcast news industry is doing the exact same thing.
“We are a cancer and there is no cure,” a successful and insightful TV veteran said to me. “But if you could find a cure, it would change the world.”
As it is, this cancer stokes national division, even in the middle of a civil rights crisis. The model blocks diversity of thought and content because the networks have incentive to amplify fringe voices and events, at the expense of others… all because it pumps up the ratings.
I want to be clear that while I agree that ratings driven approach hurts the quality of news, this is not the same thing as saying “fake news”–that is, broadcast journalism is completely unreliable; that they’re making things up, particularly to hurt political opponents. I don’t think the public should completely give up on TV news, although they should be cautious and not blindly trust what they watch.
The journalist calls for some way to change things. I’ll address some ideas in the first comments post.
There are two main positions regarding the lack of an informed citizenry in a democratic society. One emphasizes the failure of individual citizens–that is, they are apathetic or lazy, failing to think critically and put in the time to inform one’s self. The other emphasizes the effects of new technologies and media–specifically, the deluge of information and the eroding authority and influence of traditional curators of information. I use the word “emphasizes” intentionally, signifying that both aspects are important, but the difference in position is a matter of emphasizing one aspect over the other.
I fall into the latter group. Specifically, I believe that not only an informed citizenry, but a functioning public square, which is critical for a democratic society, depends on addressing some of the negative effects of new technology. My sense is that new technologies that change nature and flow of information requires societies to adjust, creating tools and processes to help individuals and institutions manage and make information meaningful and useful, versus the opposite. Knowledgeable, critical thinkers are important component of this process, but even if every citizen had these attributes, the problem would still be significant. In this thread, I hope to give some specific examples, primarily from social media, that illustrate this.
Here’s the basic premise I’m operating from: There’s too much information for even the most rigorous critical thinker to evaluate each news item or issue on a case by case basis. As a result, everyone has to rely on shortcuts or heuristics to evaluate information. One common approach is to rely on certain sources, while ignoring others. A source can be an individual, group or institution. It may be someone we know personally or strangers we see on TV or the internet. It may be mainstream or fringe outlets. In some cases, we just accept information from sources we trust at face value, without any scrutiny. For this approach to be sound, an individual has to effectively identify and separate reliable from unreliable sources of information. This is key. However, in a democracy, it is also crucial that consensus forms about credible and trustworthy source from across the political spectrum. If every political or social group makes different determinations about trusted sources, I don’t see how we can operate from a common set of facts and norms; and without this, I don’t think we can have a functioning democracy.
Because of all of these factors, I think we should put more time and effort into a thorough evaluation of the people and institutions that play a major role in providing information to the public sphere. This process should be based on similar, if not the same, type of standards journalists and academics use, and can be put into a table or scorecard. This would be easier to read, allow for regular updates, and provide a way to hold pundits and news outlets accountable. The reputation and trust of those who score highly should increase, while the opposite should occur for those with low scores.
By the way, a recent article
on Bill Barr, specifically making a case that the public should not trust his pronouncements, made me think of this topic. Spending time and energy building a case for an individiual’s or institution’s credibility, based on previous comments and actions–and then presenting this in an easy-to-digest form–seems like a more useful way to use resources and an effective way to help citizens to sift through information. Ultimately, I think the approach will be crucial for creating a healthy public space for debate and discussion of critical issues–at least if we want a functioning democracy.
On a sidenote, I recommend reading the Bill Barr piece. At the same time, when I imagine indifferent news consumers reading it, I tend to think they would think it’s just partisan attack on Barr. What I’m suggesting could get around this–as long as casual news consumers of all political stripes view the process of evaluating news sources as trustworthy and credible. One thing I forgot to mention: The people evaluating sources should represent major political groups, and being diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, age, sexual orientation, religion would be great as well.