(By Ethan and Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University)

As we head towards a pivotal US presidential election in early November, social media platforms are coming under scrutiny. Will they be flooded with disinformation seeking to sway public opinion? Will President Trump use Twitter to claim victory prematurely? Will militias, QAnon or any number of other movements grown on social media lead to political violence? In short, is social media harming us as a public, undermining our democracy?

These are worthwhile questions, but they reflect a key blind spot. Because Facebook and Twitter are so prominent and are so widely amplified by mainstream media, we tend to assume that all social media operate in the same way and suffer from the same problems. Our work on Digital Public Infrastructure is based on the idea that it’s possible to build very different social media which might strengthen us as a public, helping us be better friends, neighbors and civic actors. Towards that goal, we’re working to map the social media space, understanding the possibilities of “alternative” social media — and we need your help. …

My friends at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia have just published a new paper from me on the topic of digital public infrastructures. This is an idea I started talking about in an article for the Columbia Journalism Review late last year, and presented at a terrific conference called “The Tech Giants, Monopoly Power, and Public Discourse”.

The paper is not a quick read — it’s about 11,000 words — so I’ll offer a quick TL:DR; here:

- Social media is often not very good for us as citizens in a democracy. That shouldn’t surprise us, as it wasn’t designed to be a space for civic discourse — it was designed to capture our attention and our personal data for use in targeting ads. …

What influences do social movements like Black Lives Matter, MeToo or Occupy have on society as a whole?

One hope movement leaders express is that a successful movement can change how we think and talk about key social issues. Champions of Occupy argue that one of the movement’s achievements was getting Americans to talk about economic issues in terms of inequality and the power of the 1%. But it’s difficult to quantify claims like this: how do we know when language, news coverage and public dialog about an issue shifts?

There’s excellent work already done in this field with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). Deen Freelon and colleagues have examined the relationship between BLM’s use of twitter and media coverage of police brutality. To further investigate these approaches, my colleagues and I have just published a paper — Whose Death Matters? A Quantitative Analysis of Media Attention to Deaths of Black Americans in Police Confrontations, 2013–2016 — in the International Journal of Communications. Our paper examines coverage of individual police-involved deaths and the following media coverage. We used the Media Cloud toolkit to examine US media coverage of 343 deaths between 2013 and 2016: deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the police. By analyzing the attention US media outlets paid to these deaths, we were able to describe a “media wave” of attention to the phenomenon of police violence affecting Black Americans. Critical to this wave of attention was the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the police and community’s reaction to his death. …

Please read the addendum added to this post on August 21, at the bottom of the page.

A week ago last Friday, I spoke to Joi Ito about the release of documents that accuse Media Lab co-founder Marvin Minsky of involvement in Jeffrey Epstein’s horrific crimes.* Joi told me that evening that the Media Lab’s ties to Epstein went much deeper, and included a business relationship between Joi and Epstein, investments in companies Joi’s VC fund was supporting, gifts and visits by Epstein to the Media Lab and by Joi to Epstein’s properties. As the scale of Joi’s involvement with Epstein became clear to me, I began to understand that I had to end my relationship with the MIT Media Lab. …

My friend Christian Sandvig, who directs the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing at the University of Michigan, started an interesting thread on Twitter yesterday. It began:

“I’m super suspicious of the “rush to postdocs” in academic #AI ethics/fairness. Where the heck are all of these people with real technical chops who are also deeply knowledgeable about ethics/fairness going to come from… since we don’t train people that way in the first place.”

Christian goes on to point out that it’s exceedingly rare for someone with PhD-level experience in machine learning to have a strong background in critical theory, intersectionality, gender studies and ethics. …

My friend and (lucky for me) boss Joi Ito has an excellent essay in Wired which considers the challenges of measuring the impact of philanthropy. For Joi, one of the key problems is that social problems are complex, and the metrics we use to understand them too simple. Too often we’re measuring something that’s a proxy for something else — we can measure circulation levels at libraries as a proxy for their usage, but we’ll miss all the novel ways libraries are reaching communities through makerspaces, classrooms and public spaces. …

I was privileged to speak to a gathering of Senators and Representatives who came to MIT for an Aspen Institute event in May, 2019 titled “Internet, Big Data and Algorithms: Threats to Privacy and Freedom, or Gateway to a New Future”. It was a pleasure to share the stage with old friends Jonathan Zittrain and Cathy O’Neil as well as my student Joy Buolamwini, qnd a wonderful opportunity to share some of my thinking about the future of social media with lawmakers who could help or hinder this vision becoming a reality. This piece draws on my earlier piece “Six or Seven Things Social Media Can Do for Democracy”, as well as a speech from late 2018, “We Make the Media”.

“Why does Amazon ask me to review something the day it arrives?” Amy asks. “I usually don’t know if it’s any good for a couple of weeks. They should email you again a hundred days later.”

We’re walking the dog on the Ashuwillticook rail trail, which runs along side Cheshire Lake, a few miles from our house. When we manage to get our schedules in sync, this is one of my favorite rituals. We walk four miles in a little more than an hour. …

On a sunny summer morning in June, professor Jonathan Zittrain is hosting Sir Tim Berners-Lee in a Harvard Law School classroom. The audience is a smattering of visiting scholars at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a few local techies involved with open source software development. I’d come to the room half an hour early to snag a seat, but I needn’t have bothered, as the crowd to see the man who invented the World Wide Web is attentive, but thin.

Binyavanga Wainaina died last night in a hospital in Nairobi at the age of 48. We lost him far, far too soon, but Bin spent his brief time on earth remarkably well, and packed more insight and discovery into his time than many people who survive twice as long.

Binyavanga Wainaina, photographed by Victor Dlamini for The JRB.

Like many people, I learned of Binyavanga’s work first from his remarkable and cutting essay, “How to Write About Africa”, a compendium of clichés that infect a great deal of writing about Africa, especially writing by well-meaning, liberal white westerners like myself. We met in person at TED Africa in Arusha in June, 2007, where he gave a funny and rollicking speech that touched on the rapid changes Kenya was going through, and the need for an African literary scene not centered around London or New York. …


Ethan Zuckerman

Center for Civic Media, MIT Media Lab, Global Voices, Berkman Center. Author of Rewire, published by W.W. Norton RT ≠ endorsement, RT = interesting read.

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