This is a crib of a talk that Data & Society Founder and President danah boyd gave at the Online News Association conference in Austin, Texas on September 13, 2018. For a video of the talk, click here.
In early September 2018, Facebook and Twitter were accused during a Congressional hearing of having anti-conservative bias. This should sound familiar to many of you in this room as you too have been accused for political purposes of being the “liberal media.” The core of this narrative is a stunt, architected by media manipulators, designed to trigger outrage among conservatives and pressure news and social media to react.
It works. Over the last two years, both social media and news media organizations have desperately tried to prove that they aren’t biased. What’s at stake is not whether these organizations are restricting discussions concerning free-market economics or failing to allow conservative perspectives to be heard. What’s at stake is how fringe groups can pervert the logics of media to spread conspiratorial and hateful messages under their false flag of conservatism.
Accusations of anti-conservative bias are not evaluated through evidence because reality doesn’t matter to them. This is what makes this stunt so effective. News organizations and tech companies have no way to “prove” their innocence. What makes conspiratorial messages work is how they pervert evidence. The simplest technique is to conflate correlation and causation. Conspiracy makers point to the data that suggests that both journalists and Silicon Valley engineers are more likely to vote for candidates from the Democratic party. Or that they have higher levels of education than the average American and are more likely to live in Blue states.
As my colleague Francesca Tripodi points out, accusing tech of anti-conservative bias also leverages and reinforces a misunderstanding of how search engines and social media work. As she notes, “People believe Google is weighing facts instead of rank-ordering results that match the entered keywords.” When the goal is to drive a wedge among the public, it’s not hard to encourage people to see bias.
Contemporary extremism is designed to increase polarization. One tactic is to twist frames. For example, “ideological diversity” has been deployed to suggest that people who hold conservative viewpoints experience a loss of opportunity similar to those who have faced systemic racism and sexism. But this isn’t about the history of economic inequality in the US. It’s a dogwhistle. It’s about using nominal conservatism as a cloak to promote toxic masculinity and white supremacy. It’s about extremists using conservatives. And it’s about intentionally twisting historical pressure to diversify newsrooms and Silicon Valley to open the Overton Window. Fundamentally, it’s a technique to grab power by gaslighting the public and making reality seem fuzzy.
Don’t get me wrong. Journalism has historically played a central role in shaping public discourse. Through editorial processes, news organizations have served as gatekeepers and chosen what to amplify. And many critics have challenged the media’s power to do so over the years. Ideally, newsrooms reflect the norms of society, but that doesn’t mean that this has worked perfectly in the past. Furthermore, this process has gotten a lot more complicated in the last 25 years as new tools for amplification have emerged.
As we sit here today, both news organizations and tech companies are struggling to figure out their role in the distribution and promotion of different kinds of speech. Like universities and think tanks, they are being pushed into a corner that they don’t understand. In response, and out of fear of being accused of anti-conservative bias, conference promoters are inviting speakers to the stage to share messages of toxic masculinity and white supremacy under the rubric of hearing “both sides.” News organizations are profiling extremists as legitimate voices to perform a version of neutrality that is rooted in false equivalency. And social media companies are hesitant to ban people who flagrantly and hatefully violate their terms of service out of fear of being painted as censors.
How did we get here? The stark reality is that we all got played. And we’re continuing to get played.
Freedom of Speech
In the United States, the First Amendment of the Constitution is sacrosanct. So let’s remind ourselves of precisely what is said:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Congress shall not pass laws curtailing the freedom of speech. Congress shall not pass laws curbing the freedom of the press.
Of course, in the public imaginary, the First Amendment has turned into the colloquial notion that no one — not news media, not social media, not teachers, not conference organizers, not universities — should engage in any act that in any way limits someone else’s ability to speak. As a result, it’s common for someone to accuse someone else for violating their first amendment, even though that’s absurd. No one person is Congress.
This misinterpretation of the First Amendment becomes unoperationalizeable fast. A conference like this one only has so many speaking slots. Not every voice — or every perspective — can possibly be represented. The same is true for the front page of a newspaper. Editors must make curatorial decisions. Choosing what to amplify is not the same as curtailing someone’s ability to speak.
Choosing what to amplify is not the same as curtailing someone’s ability to speak.
The dot com bubble’s obsession with e-commerce obfuscated the Silicon Valley obsession with building tools for online community, communication, and information access. The commitment to free speech in tech goes way back. In the 1970s and 80s, geeks built Usenet and BBSes to amplify their voices among each other without having to rely on a printing press. They (problematically) imaged themselves as extending the American frontier, not being new governors. After the bust, social media and search engines took center stage. While we can now look back at an esoteric passage of the 1996 regulation known as the Communication Decency Act (CDA-230) as the key to enabling platforms to be platforms without fear of legal prosecution, the stark reality is that no one who was building early blogging software or social network sites imagined they were doing anything other than giving people at platform to speak. They saw these tools as a gift, designed to allow people to connect in new ways, a natural extension of zines and pirate radio.
My peers built blogging tools so that they could share their perspective on the issues of the day, even as esteemed journalists dismissed us as “web diarists.” Recognizing a long history of ethnic media challenges to mainstream news media, my peers worked hard to open up the range of voices that could be heard. Tools like Slashdot, Global Voices, and reddit were all designed to increase the range of voices that people could hear. We realized that niche communities could propagate online, even if they couldn’t build large enough audiences to deserve mainstream media coverage.
Never in their wildest imaginations did the creators of major social media realize that their tools of amplification would be weaponized to radicalize people towards extremism, gaslight publics, or serve as vehicles of cruel harassment.
Over the last 25 years, the tech industry has held steadfast to its commitment to creating new pathways for people who historically have not had access to the tools of scaled communication. Yet, at this very moment, those who built these tools and imagined letting a thousand flowers bloom are stepping back and wondering: what hath we wrought? Like the ACLU and other staunch free speech advocates, we all recognized that we would need to accept a certain amount of ugly speech. But never in their wildest imaginations did the creators of major social media realize that their tools of amplification would be weaponized to radicalize people towards extremism, gaslight publics, or serve as vehicles of cruel harassment.
Aiming for Search
In early August, major technology platforms finally accepted that they needed to ban a well-known conspiracy theorist who was strategically, intentionally, and flagrantly violating their terms of service. Apple, Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube removed numerous podcast and video channels he operated. These sites had previously given him warnings for violating community guidelines, but he didn’t care. What worried the tech companies the most was that blocking him would feed into his agenda. They had watched it happen before.
In the summer of 2016, Twitter had finally blocked a different provocateur after he flaunted his violations of their Terms of Service and engaged in a sustained racist harassment campaign. He knew how to turn any effort to call him out for his harmful behaviors on its head in order to imply that it was actually him who was being oppressed. So, when he was banned from Twitter, he cried victim, arguing that he was banned for having conservative beliefs. News outlets struggled to respond to his claims, but gave him tremendous air time and ink. In the process, they made him famous. During the 2016 RNC Convention, he publicly thanked Twitter for helping him become a celebrity. Even after losing a book deal, being banned by major platforms, blocked from speaking, and being publicly shamed for his own words, this provocateur is still far more powerful in shaping views than he was before he was banned from Twitter.
After the conspiracy theorist was kicked off of major platforms in the thick of August, a frenzy of news stories emerged, reporting on the removal, dissecting the decision, challenging other technology platforms to remove his content, analyzing the responses of tech leaders, and more broadly debating the politics of free speech and the internet. TV newscasters spent hours bringing in experts to analyze the situation. With each news article, the conspiracy theorist and his channel were named. Not surprisingly, this gush of free advertising benefited the conspiracy theorist. Curious to learn more, thousands of people downloaded his App, found his website, and otherwise sought out his messages to see what he was all about. News outlets have been quick to highlight that the ban cost him significant revenue, which is true. But that wasn’t his priority. His goal is to produce stunts that motivate people to see the media as a tool of censorship. He wants to cultivate a network of people who will engage in self-investigation. In other words, his goal is to convince people to look.
Media manipulators have developed a strategy with three parts that rely on how the current media ecosystem is structure:
1. Create spectacle, using social media to get news media coverage.
2. Frame the spectacle through phrases that drive new audiences to find your frames through search engines.
3. Become a “digital martyr” to help radicalize others.
These steps rely on the relationship between social media, news media, and search engines. Let’s dive into this through an example.
Proselytizing Conspiracy Theories
It’s not clear who first asked whether or not the massacre at Sandy Hook was a hoax, but that notion was circulating on talk radio among well-established conspiracy theorists within days of the mass shooting. The conspiracy connected multiple well-trodden frames, most notably the presence of a deep state that wanted to limit access to guns and the idea that the news media was operating on behalf of the Obama administration. As conspiratorial thinkers and other digital actors obsessed over the story, they devised a term to dismiss the people who appeared on TV. They called these people “crisis actors.”
This concept is linked to an earlier phenomenon that Whitney Phillips documented: RIP trolling. In various message boards, people lamented what they called “grief tourism,” referring to the tendency of well-meaning people to post messages on someone’s page after they died even when they didn’t know that person. In response, trolls used cruel commentary, sick jokes, and harassment to attack anyone who added to the media spectacle surrounding a person’s death. RIP trolling was a form of harassment, but it was also a way of mocking how social media and news media created spectacle around death.
By labeling those who had witnessed terroristic gun violence “crisis actors,” conspiracy theorists didn’t simply seek to undermine those who were sharing their stories. They wanted to troll the news media. Some had a political agenda; others simply wanted to mock the media for its “grief tourism.” But collectively, they wanted to seed doubt in the public about the honesty of the media’s reporting.
Phrases like “crisis actor” don’t spread naturally through word-of-mouth networks, even on social media. To get them into the public lexicon, media manipulators must convince major media amplifiers to work on their behalf. Over the last six years, networks of online antagonists have jumped on every mass tragedy to manipulate the media and propel this term into the mainstream. They use fake accounts on social media to talk with journalists, to ask journalists if there is any truth to the idea that witnesses are really crisis actors. They deface Wikipedia entries. They try to manipulate trending topics and autocomplete on search. But algorithmic systems aren’t their target. Journalists are the real target of their digital shenanigans.
Manipulators aren’t trying to get journalists to say that witnesses to gun violence and terrorism are actually crisis actors. Their goal is to get the news media to negate that frame — and negate the conspirators who are propagating that frame. This may be counter-intuitive, but when news media negates a conspiratorial frame, the people who are most open to such a conspiracy will want to self-investigate precisely because they don’t trust the news media. As a result, negation enables a boomerang effect.
Algorithmic systems aren’t their target. Journalists are the real target of their digital shenanigans.
Propelling the term into public lexicon is only the first step. Sure, it’s fun to celebrate an effort to manipulate major newscasters. But a secondary goal is to get people to search for a term that they’ve never considered before. Once news media starts negating the concept of a crisis actor, searches for that term spiked. What did they find when they did that search? For example, in the first days after Parkland, they found blog posts and online conversations staged to mock the news media and gaslight the public.
For example, a video from the aforementioned conspiracy theorist focused on crisis actors opens with: “Are we saying the shooting didn’t happen? Are we saying they’re all actors and that they’re faking that something happened? No. The media is saying that. What we’re saying is [that] ‘School Shooting Survivor Turned Activist dad, Hogg’s Father in FBI appears to have been coached.’” This particular video then continues on to imply Anderson Cooper is a well-known CIA operative and describes how CNN fakes things… all to build the case that David Hogg is fundamentally a Democratic Party operative. Viewers may not believe everything, but they are initiated into frames that they’ve never considered. And that’s the point of triggering people to search.
Using search to your advantage relies on what Michael Golebiewski at Bing calls a “data void.” When people search for a phrase that does not have natural informative results, it’s easy for manipulators to control the results. Take, for example, “did the Holocaust exist?” If no one produces content to combat that frame, what people get when they search for that phrase is conspiratorial. Media manipulators design and exploit data voids. They galvanize around phrases, create digital content around that phrase, and then work to push those phrases into the mainstream lexicon by using news media’s instinct to cover something new. When it came to “crisis actors,” they knew what search results would appear at the top, especially on YouTube.
Google and Bing rely heavily on legitimate news content to cover up data voids about breaking topics. But YouTube is a disaster. First, there’s a lot less content on YouTube, which means that problematic content surfaces to the top faster. Second, YouTube isn’t simply a search engine; it’s also a recommendation engine that encourages people to view more videos and go on a journey. This is great for music discovery, but not so great when manipulators game the recommendation system to create pathways to extremist content. Third, while newsrooms and text creators have gotten smart about SEO on Google and Bing, they’re weak with YouTube, even though it’s the primary search engine for the under-25s.
My colleague Becca Lewis is about to release a report that shows how media manipulators have leveraged data voids, recommendation processes of YouTube, and potential recruits’ interest in self-investigation to walk people from quasi-mainstream debates to extremism. Through the use of comments, linking, and strategic cross-participation, those who are curious to self-investigate follow breadcrumbs that were designed to promote conspiracy and hate. Unfortunately, most media making organizations don’t think about the networked nature of video or the importance of creating high quality, easily findable content on YouTube.
In addition to playing with algorithmic systems, media manipulators exploit a psychological process known as “apophenia.” By creating connections between random ideas, manipulators warp the cultural imaginary. By inviting people to see artificial patterns, they engage potential recruits to see reality in their terms. As part of the indoctrination process, they want those who are self-investigating to start to see media manipulators as being persecuted for revealing a reality that others seek to suppress.
Martyrdom exists in most ancient religions. People have died violently and symbolically for their faith so that others could pursue the religious ideals that the martyr believed. In modern times, martyrdom has become more complicated. On one hand, there has been a rise of what can be understood as political martyrdom, as people have taken their lives to raise public awareness to a cause. On the other, we’ve seen the proliferation of mass murder to terrorize be committed under the false pretenses of religious martyrdom.
When we speak of martyrdom, we speak of death or the end of mortality. Given the grave nature of these acts, it’s hard to draw on this concept metaphorically. But given the perversion of martyrdom in the last 20 years to maximize fear within society, I feel it is only appropriate to also speak of the kinds of digital martyrdom that we are seeing emerge.
Most social media users who are given Terms of Service violation warnings quickly change their behavior. This is not the case for media manipulators. They know the rules, intend to flaunt them, and actively dare platforms to mess with them. They believe that being digitally crucified is to their cause’s long-term advantage, especially if media outlets will cover their digital execution. So they push and they push, they hurt other people and refuse to respond appropriately to restrictions. They bend the rules, leverage irony to their advantage, and engage in rhetorical games so that it’s hard to pin them to the wall. They know what they’re doing.
They’ve learned that the key to their success is to become newsworthy in your minds.
Their practices remind me a lot of what a hateful homophobic Kansas minister used to do when he protested the funerals of LGBT people and picketed gay pride events. He knew the law, but he also knew how to trick those who opposed him into violating the law. Just as lawmakers struggled to devise laws that would stop his hateful actions, tech companies struggle to find policies that will prevent toxic abuse. Media manipulators know how to exploit the edges. And they know to argue that tech companies aren’t supporting free speech when they do get banned. More importantly, they’ve learned that the key to their success is to become newsworthy in your minds.
I’ve never met a journalist who entered the profession for nefarious reasons. Hell, I’ve never met a journalist who entered the field to make money either. Like educators, most journalists are passionate about giving people access to information. Most espouse the ideals of journalism in a democracy. And let’s be honest, that idealism is essential for surviving the constant flood of attacks.
Journalistic idealism is very familiar to me. It’s easy now to lambast major tech companies and accuse engineers of doing evil things for money, but the tech industry that I entered in the 1990s was full of idealism. Full of a belief in changing the world for the better.
The downside to embracing idealism is that it’s hard to be reflexive, hear criticism, or be challenged. This is why accusing journalists and engineers of anti-conservative bias is so effective — neither want to see themselves as biased. So they twist themselves in knots to challenge such a critique. As a result, I recognize that it’s hard not to get defensive when someone like me suggests that you might be part of the problem, whether you’re a journalist or engineer.
Understanding the vulnerabilities in news media that manipulators see can help you strengthen your approach.
I was wary in preparing this speech of being too critical of a profession under fire. But I’m hoping that you can hear what I’m saying. Because our democracy depends on you recognizing that you are being manipulated. Understanding the vulnerabilities in news media that manipulators see can help you strengthen your approach.
ROI Capitalism and Journalism
Given this, we need to talk about capitalism. In this country, we are socialized into a narrative of capitalism that no longer exists. The capitalism of yore emphasizes how efficient markets can enable innovation and growth, while yielding all sorts of social benefits. Capitalism always required people to take financial risks, but over the last 40 years, we’ve seen the rise of a new set of financial instruments that are divorced from the services and products that are being produced. The finance sector has become an increasingly extractive instrument enabling a new genre of capitalism that emphasizes short term return on investment. This version of capitalism is corrosive and, without proper checks and balances, it has shaped every sector in society.
To complicate matters, it’s not just financiers that depend on the system that has been set up. We all do. University endowments, pension funds, and 401Ks are wedded to this financial system. We all want the stock market to keep going up. But quick return-on-investment style capitalism has costs. It means that every public company is under pressure to make more money quarter after quarter. Consider a company like Facebook under this model. Sure, Zuckerberg might have a controlling share of the company, but his ability to keep engineering talent is dependent on increasing the stock price. To do so, Facebook has three options. They either need to find more users, make more money per user, or diversify their portfolio of money making services. Only so much of that can be doing without tripping over the edge into exploitation.
But it’s not just Facebook that’s beholden to this form of capitalism. The news industry has also been undermined by the financial sector. When you ask most folks about why journalism is currently struggling, they quickly point to the tech industry. There’s no doubt that Craigslist and Google altered the advertising industry or that the internet and mobile phones changed how people consumed information. But the financial precarity of the news industry began long before these changes. Hedge funds and private equity started taking over newsrooms in the 1980s. They weren’t interested in the news business. They wanted your precious real estate. It wasn’t in their interest to shut you down right away, but they aren’t committed to your sustainability either.
Most Americans do not trust journalism. But this isn’t because of your reporting. It’s because you’re an abstraction. It’s because of the loss of local journalism.
Many newsrooms twisted themselves in knots to appease financiers — cutting costs, ending pensions, reducing staff, etc. But it was never enough, was it? Publicly traded companies in the United States are not valued for having a double bottom line. If you’re not making more each quarter, you will eventually collapse in this financial context. Trying to appease, the industry doubled down on advertising, failing to recognize how the water was starting to boil. So when sweeping changes to advertising happened, it was easy to blame tech for the downfall of journalism. But it wasn’t tech. It wasn’t simply your financial model. It was the entire financial infrastructure that financialized capitalism enabled. While there are ways in which newsrooms can be financially sustainable, the healthy practice of investigative journalism is not compatible with the ROI that the Street expects.
I don’t know if the private equity and hedge fund firms that exploited local news organizations recognized how much society would pay for the loss of local journalism. But I know that we’re feeling that pain right now. Most Americans do not trust journalism. But this isn’t because of your reporting. It’s because you’re an abstraction. It’s because of the loss of local journalism.
While he attended all of the sessions of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington did not participate in any of the debates that took place. Except one. After an early draft of the Constitution suggested that members of the House of Representatives should each represent 40,000 people, he argued that the number should be reduced to 30,000. He knew that the delicate American democracy depended on people knowing their representatives and felt that any number greater than 30,000 would create an elite governance class and trigger distrust in the public. Today, each member of the House represents more than 700,000 people. And most Americans do not trust our federal government.
Trust is rooted in networks. If you don’t know a journalist — or know someone who knows a journalist — why should you trust the profession? Thirty years ago, most people knew someone in their community that worked for a newspaper. That is not true today.
Why did TV news develop such great gravitas in the middle of the 20th century? Many Americans felt like they knew Edward Murrow and Walter Cronkite. TV anchors came directly into your living room. Psychologists refer to this as parasocial interaction, where the audience feels as though they know someone as real people. That’s a great trick for working around actual social networks. It’s the reason for news commentators’ success. It’s also why all sorts of pundits, conspiracy theorists, and toxic commentators have created regular podcasts and YouTube channels.
You won’t be able to earn the trust of the American public by doubling down on your rigorous reporting. Or by focusing on the brand of your organizations. Or by trying desperately to appease those who accuse you of “anti-conservative bias.” You will only earn the trust of the American public when you once again become a part of the American fabric. When people in communities around this country know you. When they understand your practices because you are part of their communities. When you are a part of their everyday lives.
You will only earn the trust of the American public when you once again become a part of the American fabric.
In short, you must actively seek to understand the social graph of the American public and build a relational campaign of direct engagement that isn’t that different than what innovative politicians are trying to do. Or what my colleague Nancy Baym highlights has been necessary for musicians. In order to be effective journalists, you need to find a way to be a part of the social fabric of America and you need to knit that fabric together through your connections. That’s the innovation that’s most critical — and most unfamiliar — to those in the news business.
In the meantime, you face another challenge. If manipulators are trying to use you to help polarize American society, how do you not take the bait? How do you not allow the trust problem to worsen?
First, recognize that the rubric with which you decide what to devote time to is not neutral. I don’t mean this in a condescending or pejorative sense. I mean: own the fact that what makes something newsworthy is subjective. It depends on the power of the actors involved. It depends on the norms of your audience. It depends on the implications for specific communities or countries. Many of you have honed muscles to focus on some stories and not others. Yet, you must also find a hook to make a newsworthy story relevant to your readers. You must navigate business interests alongside the recognition that an exhausted public might prefer junk food. Furthermore, because your organizations are rooted in an industry and culture of competition, you’re under pressure to be attentive to what others have deemed newsworthy. There be dragons everywhere. But like a yogi or jedi, your challenge is to constantly improve your awareness of the pressures and adversaries you face and evolve your strategy for navigating them.
Next, recognize that, in a networked era, every organizational and communicative process is exploitable. When journalism was the primary information gatekeeper in society, it was hard for a story to “break” without journalists being involved. But now, just as algorithmic manipulators have learned to engage in search engine optimization and game Twitter’s trending topics, media manipulators have figured out how to trick you into telling their story. Accept this and outsmart them.
Case studies are often valuable for seeing traps. So let’s look at one. In 2010, an extremist anti-Islam pastor named Terry Jones began using social media to publicly threaten to burn the Qu’ran in order to draw attention to his belief that “Islam is of the Devil.” His goal was to attract the attention of mainstream news media who, by and large, initially ignored him. Bloggers and smaller news venues did not. He leveraged the coverage of lesser-known bloggers, along with the algorithmic systems underpinning Yahoo! News to put pressure on journalists to cover the story as newsworthy. Eventually, it worked. As this escalated, the media then covered Secretary Clinton stating, “It’s regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Florida with a church of no more than fifty people can make this outrageous and distressful, disgraceful plan and get, you know, the world’s attention.” By this point, religious and political leaders were publicly asking him to cancel his plans. He vowed not to burn a Qu’ran, but then the media coverage faded. So, in March 2011, he oversaw the burning of the Qu’ran, which was of course covered by every news outlet who were primed to give him attention. Violent protests broke out in Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of at least 12 people, including at least 7 United Nations workers.
Not all media are created equal. Yes, a blog post can go viral. But when a major news outlet chooses to cover a story that had only received oxygen from bloggers, they amplify the message to wider audience. Mainstream news decisions matter. Even in a world of social media. What you choose to amplify has significant ramifications in what people discuss, share, and self-investigate. In her brilliant report “The Oxygen of Amplification,” my colleague Whitney Phillips used journalists’ own words and experiences to detail how news media has been hijacked to amplify the messages of hate groups using the exact same techniques that both marketing firms and the hateful pastor used.
As Joan Donovan and I struggled to offer advice to journalists in light of media manipulation, we pulled on threads of history. She uncovered details about how newsrooms learned to respond to their recognition that when they covered the KKK in the mid-20th century, they served the goals of hate rally organizers. I was more obsessed with the history of the Werther Effect, which makes it very clear that how a news outlet covers a death by suicide can affect the likelihood of copycats. (Side note: as a board member of Crisis Text Line, I’m very frustrated by how Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths were covered.) The scholarly literature describes the technique journalists can use to minimize harm as “strategic silence.” So we used this term. Yet, no matter how much we emphasized the strategic component of this practice, those in the news business consistently reacted with outrage that we were arguing that they should be silent.
Case in point. When I broached this topic with the publisher of an esteemed newspaper, he told me that the Pentagon is regularly telling him not to publish things and that it’s his responsibility to make sure that the public hears what it needs to hear. I completely agree with him. But when the Pentagon is breathing down his neck, I can promise you that his lawyers have been called and that he and his editorial team have dotted every i and crossed every t. They’re careful because they’ve made a very hard call and they get the cost of doing it wrong. They’ve made a very strategic call. And they want the public to hear a message clearly.
In other words, news organizations already engage in strategic amplification. You regularly choose to cover stories that are too critical, too newsworthy to ignore. And you’ve thought long and hard about how to tell that story because you don’t want any slip-up to undermine your goal of conveying crucial information to the public. My wish is not to silence stories, but for you to recognize that it’s as important to be sensitive to frames that benefit media manipulators as it is to be attentive to the ones that upset governments or corporations that might sue you.
You’re in the business of strategic amplification. There are all sorts of things that are effectively silenced in the process. Some aren’t deemed newsworthy. Cats sitting on people’s laps. But there are also newsworthy stories that don’t get covered because it’s hard to convince the public that it matters. All of you covering Syria know that what’s unfolding in Idlib is a disaster in the making, but finding the angle to make this front page news is bloody hard. If you can recognize your agency and power in choosing what to amplify, what’s the value in amplifying messages designed to polarize, radicalize, or bolster those peddling hate?
How you tell a story also matters. I would argue that you can effectively cover stories without serving the agenda of extremists if you understand what they’re trying to do. Let me give you a concrete example.
When a 25-year-old struck terror on the streets of Toronto by driving a van over people, the incident was unquestionably newsworthy. Journalists scrambled for clues. Soon after, an angry Facebook post emerged, suggesting a connection to an earlier shooting in California. What connected these two young men appeared to be a shared misogynistic attitude. They both seemed to have participated in online forums full of angry men who feel as though someone else is to be blamed for their loneliness. They typically blame feminists, arguing that they should have a right to “a woman” and that feminists have taken that away from them. They advocate for enforced monogamy and reject the idea that rape is a bad thing. Their hateful views are supported in toned down forms by more legitimate figures, including a university professor at the University of Toronto, across town from where the act of vehicular terrorism took place. They are also connected through a term, a term that journalists latched onto and amplified to magnify the seriousness of the terroristic act. A term that most of the public had not known prior to the media coverage. A term that invited your readers to go searching and find a world of deep toxicity that only grew after Toronto.
I understand that the term “incel” was provocative and would excite your readers to learn more, but were those of you who propagated this term intending to open a portal to hell? What made amplifying this term newsworthy? You could’ve conveyed the same information without giving people a search term that served as a recruiting vehicle for those propagating toxic masculinity. Choosing not to amplify hateful recruiting terms is not censorship. You wouldn’t give your readers a phone number to join the KKK, so why give them a digital calling card?
In my mind, this is about smart reporting. You don’t need to send people to data voids or offer free advertising to hate groups to tell the story of a terroristic act rooted in toxic masculinity. I get that you feel that it’s important to cover “both sides” of a story. But since when is intolerance and hate a legitimate “side”? By focusing on bystanders and those who are victimized by hate, you can tell the story without reinforcing the violence. Extremists have learned how to use irony and slippery rhetoric to mask themselves as conservatives and argue that they are victims. Ignore their attention games and focus your reporting on the wide range of non-hateful political views in this country that aren’t screaming loudly to get your attention. There is no need to give oxygen to fringe groups who acting like the bully in the 3rd grade classroom. Inform the public without helping extremists recruit. This isn’t about newsworthiness. And it’s unethical to self-justify that others are using the term. Or that people could’ve found this information on social media or search engines. Your business is in amplifying what’s important. So don’t throw in the towel.
A Theory of Power
In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously argued that the remedy to bad speech is more speech, not enforced silence. At the time, there was widespread agreement that speech can and must be curbed when it presented a “clear and present danger.” In Whitney v. California, Brandeis argued that it was unjust to prosecute a woman who was accused of helping the Communist Labor Party promote a violent overthrow of the government. He felt that political speech — even dangerous speech — was essential to democracy.
Because of cases like this, Brandeis became known as one of the greatest advocates for free speech. But while Brandeis believed that anyone had the right to express their views, he did not believe that anyone had the right to be amplified.
More importantly, he didn’t believe that anyone who had the means to shove a message down someone’s throat had the right to do so. In a 1932 case known as Packer Corporation v. Utah, Brandeis argued that Utah had the right to place restrictions on billboard advertisements by the tobacco industry. He argued that billboards must be treated differently than magazines because the former had “captive audiences.” In other words, people could choose whether or not to view a magazine, but to avoid a billboard, they’d have to intentionally divert their eyes.
The media landscape has changed significantly over the last 86 years, but the nuance in Brandeis’ arguments lives on. Brandeis recognized that the key to sustaining a commitment to free speech is to have a rich understanding of how people can abuse their power or manipulate the system to control what others hear. He also recognized that as the media landscape changed, so must our approach in enabling the First Amendment.
Now, more than ever, we need a press driven by ideals determined to amplify what is most important for enabling an informed citizenry.
This country was premised on the necessity of a free press. Journalism is an essential part of our democracy, not because of its financial power, but because of its ability to inform the public to enable self-governance. The press’ unique role in our country is rooted in its historically unique capacity to amplify information. Yet, just because the news media is no longer the only gatekeeper does not mean that its responsibilities to democratic governance can be ignored. Now, more than ever, we need a press driven by ideals determined to amplify what is most important for enabling an informed citizenry. Not what will get clicks or appease hedge fund masters. We need voices who are information stalwarts, determined to explain complex issues to the public.
I’m not suggesting that you ignore where the public is. To the contrary, start with their questions. Create explainer videos. Help people connect the dots between Syria and climate change by strategically linking content together so that people can follow the paths through compelling evidence-based content and learn more about hard topics.
Many of you have thoughtfully critiqued the tech industry for amplifying disinformation while claiming that its platforms are neutral actors in the information landscape. There is indeed nothing neutral about an algorithmic system. Algorithmic systems fundamentally function by creating networks and enabling others to do so. And the moment that an algorithmic system affects what information people access, someone will work to manipulate that system to achieve their information goals.
You are not algorithms. But you are also not neutral. And because you have the power to amplify messages, people also want to manipulate you. That’s just par for the course. And in today’s day and age, it’s not just corporations, governments, and PR shops that have your number. Just as the US military needed to change tactics to grapple with a tribal, networked, and distributed adversary, so must you. Focus on networks — help connect people to information. Build networks across information and across people. Be an embedded part of the social fabric of this country.
Democracy depends on you.
This talk builds on the amazing work of many people at Data & Society, including and especially the Media Manipulation team. Data & Society would also like to thank the News Integrity Initiative, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for supporting our work in this area.