After the future of news: civil defenses for information infrastructure
Keynote remarks at Media Indaba 2017, Cape Town
There was a time when a conference like this one would have taken place under the banner of the “Future of News”, and been attended by the small global band who were, in theory and in practice, building models to carry us from print and traditional broadcast to a sustainable digital future.
Product gurus, data journalists and workflow hackers, audience specialists and engineers: at the time, it was the job of people like us — this community of imagination — to be optimistic. We would show each other our work — gorgeous infographics, drone video sequences, new CMS architectures — and draw both ideas and sustenance from this network of innovation. We would kvetch at the bar about the dinosaurs impeding our progress, before heading back to our newsrooms to do battle with the past.
The truth is, the future arrived some time around 2008, when the financial crisis killed off print advertising in the west, and when smartphones began to proliferate, upending the nascent digital revenue model.
But it arrived in other ways too. Deep job cuts and the passage of time drove a generational shift in newsroom leadership. Increasingly, those that remained, got it.
And venture capital — to varying degrees — powered a wave of start-ups.
Social began to eat search.
Scale mattered. Was everything. Until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t anymore. Then relationships mattered, and so on.
Through it all, we, on the front lines, remained the optimists. We would keep building stuff, and answers would come. The future had arrived, it was permanent beta, and we were living it as a daily scrum, bright post-its on the whiteboard and roll-out schedules dotted with milestones.
At the heart of the vision was something substantial, and critically important: we would be closer to our readers, we would see the data, we would hear the voices in our social feeds, we would respond, engage, cease univocal transmission from our towers of power.
We would break with the formats imposed by the technology of the printing press and the television broadcast: square boxes filled with balanced words, 30 second segments, and invent new ones with the prodigious tools of our new digital trade.
This would be energizing, democratic, and ultimately, it would form the basis of durable financial models: ads, subscriptions, affiliate programs, non-profits.
Critically it would bolster the democratic role of the press, helping to rebuild trust that had been globally on the wane.
Some time around 2015, at least for me, the twitching nerve endings of the system began to register a new disquiet. All the cool stuff was table-stakes. Without code, and video, and audience data, you were dead, and everyone knew it. But Facebook and Google were eating all the advertising dollars, we could see it happening on our dashboards, and in our feeds there was a rising tide of rage and polarization and falsehood. Women reporters often saw the worst of it — threats of rape or other violence. And new inhabitants of the information ecosystem began to colonize space left open by the forest fires that had torn through it for a decade.
Sputnik, Breitbart, Republic TV.
In our optimistic phase we said that Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was the first truly digital presidential election campaign, from the perspective of both news and of campaign strategy.
In 2016 we learned that the future could look like Donald Trump, Brexit, Rodrigo Duterte. Of course in India, as early as 2014, we already knew that it could look like Narendra Modi, beaming out of an Instagram image while a mob killed a man on suspicion he had eaten beef.
If the first smartphone decade was the apotheosis of hopeful, technocratic, there’s-an-app for that futurism, we are now living with the terrifying obverse: a digital populism that has hacked the basic principles of both the new, attention economy, and the old rules of journalism to create a hell broth of disinformation, accountability failure and demagogy.
Donald Trump is easiest to talk about, perhaps, because he is President of the United States, home of the first amendment, and the edifice of law built on its foundations mostly for better — NYT v. Sullivan, the Pentagon papers, and sometimes for worse, Citizens United, but for those of us who come places where democracy is less self-confident, or less delusional perhaps, he isn’t so much a norm breaking shock as the American avatar of a familiar archetype.
From the beginning of his campaign, he made the press his enemy, the enemy of his voters, and the the enemy of “the people”.
This is not a trope he invented, it is one he adopted, from Stalin, of course, but latterly from his favorite TV channel, Fox news, and from dictators around the world. Fox is a strange beast — a massive, highly profitable, news platform built on media criticism. Fox has for more than 20 years sold itself as the “fair and balanced” alternative to the “liberal mainstream media”.
That is something it shares with Russia Today, and its “question more” mantra of skepticism.
And with Breitbart.
It is approach that will be familiar too, in India where the term Presstitutes, latterly in vogue in South Africa was invented by politicians to discredit reporting on corruption. So, we face political vilification, as a business model for some powerful pieces of the commercial press, as campaign fuel for demagogic populists, and as a way of jamming the accountability signal of independent reporting.
The intent, of course, is not really to challenge the coziness with power that afflicts too much journalism everywhere, but rather to render real accountability journalism — and more broadly fact-based justice and oversight mechanisms — ineffectual. And to build a politics that centers authority in the power of the leader alone to deliver truth. Majoritarian populism is a media politics.
Which is why its rise is inseparable from the creation of the disinformation complex, with layers of varying respectability: glossy propaganda — RT, Fox, ANN 7, the British tabloids are the aircraft carriers, hyper-partisan radio and digital outlets that range from along a spectrum of fakery are the artillery. All share a distribution network: presidential retweets and praise, highly motivated, authentic supporters of the agenda, paid human trolls, and unpaid bots of varying degrees of sophistication. Their product looks and feels like the real thing, so it slips past your cognitive barriers, left or right, and into the public discourse.
As the legal scholar Tim Wu puts it, these are speech-based attacks on speech. They use the low cost of digital publishing, and either the precision targeting of big data, or massive spray and pray operations, to silence authentic political speech in general, and accountability journalism in particular. They do that by trying to troll people into silence, or by injecting so much falsehood and confusion into the information stream that no-one can safely drink from it anymore. They also use good old-fashioned power. The bully pulpit reimagined for an accelerated age.
And let’s not forget, traditional attacks on the press have not stopped while networked propaganda powers up.
In Turkey scores of journalists are in jail, multiple newspapers have been closed down. We could turn our eyes northward to that great jailer of journalists, Ethiopia, or to Kenya, where our research shows consistent harassment, threats, and attacks on journalists by security forces. Journalists continue to be killed with impunity. In the United States, there is open talk that the merger of AT&T and Time Warner is being blocked because the president doesn’t like CNN, and of the chilling effect of the lawsuit that killed Gawker.
Meanwhile, faced with an information war, western governments are starting to talk about criminalizing fake news, and online radicalisation. On this continent, we know where those kinds of laws lead. We have colleagues in jail in Cameroon on charges of terrorism for their reporting. Jacques Pauw is in his guest house up the road, facing security charges as we speak for his book on President Zuma.
While new technological, political and regulatory threats converge with old ones, the news business is confronting its internal weaknesses. We’ve discussed some of those for years at conferences like this one. Commercial models that can’t keep up with technology change, an insurmountable distance from the audience. What we haven’t discussed enough, in the context of innovation, trust, and audience are failures of diversity and inclusion, racial and ethnic homogeneity, men who think women on their staff are at their sexual disposal. The price for that is being paid in US newsrooms right now, and it will be elsewhere too.
In short, this is a moment of profound and urgent crisis. The information infrastructure that undergirds democracy, and public life, is under deliberate siege at a time when its foundations are already weakened by sloppy construction, inattentive maintenance, and the rising waters of technological climate change.
So much for optimism.
But we don’t come to events of this kind to despair. To warn, certainly, but also to build.
Perhaps the first question is what we are building, and my very modest objective today is to suggest that as we build what we usually do — tools, processes, products, even whole news businesses and civil society organizations, we are making interventions in this information infrastructure in our home countries, and around the world. Our design choices, our triage of resources, our attention to processes and culture — ultimately our values, need to reflect that role, that responsibility, and that vocation.
A rights-based or constitutional democracy is structurally distinctive from a majoritarian system. It is designed not to deliver an elected strongman every 4 or 5 years, and trust in his promise of delivery, but to create a set of institutional arrangements which constrain state power on the one hand, and on the other set out positive standards, aspirational or absolute, which governments must meet. Civil and political rights, like freedom of speech, freedom information, and the right to a fair trial contain both these negative constraints on power, and positive obligations. Social and economic rights — water, housing, education, a healthy environment are much harder to advance and protect in the absence of civil and political rights, but no less important. It is the special genius of the South African constitution that it recognizes this interdependence, and gives it life through the laws and precedents built on the bill of rights — the Promotion of Access to Information Act, for example, and the way that the idea of open democracy is baked into the legislative framework here.
For example, Section 32 of the Constitution asserts that ‘everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state and any information held by another person that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights’.
National, local and provincial governments are required to report to the South African Human Rights Commission on their compliance with PAIA (sadly this is a requirement more honored in the breach than in the execution).
Similarly, a raft of judicial precedent now recognizes the importance of press freedom and freedom of speech more broadly not only because the right to receive and impart ideas is entwined with our basic dignity, part of what makes us human, but because a free and independent press is crucial to accountability, to justice, to the delivery of other rights. This is a jurisprudential tradition with deep roots, and it fundamentally recognizes that the way speech and information are treated has an effect on the expression of power — constraining it and directing it in support of constitutional rights, or allowing abuses and failures to continue under cover of darkness. This isn’t just a question of the press, but of information and fact-based accountability systems more broadly. I’ll choose just one local example. In 2011, when I was editor of the Mail & Guardian, Mac Maharaj, then President Zuma’s spokesperson, tried to stop us from publishing details of a confidential interview he had given to the Scorpions. We would have been able to show, had we done so, that he lied under oath, a fairly serious crime, in addition to the alleged corruption he was apparently attempting to cover up.
But Mac stopped us from publishing, threatening criminal charges under the National Prosecuting Authority Act.
After a long legal battle, the Supreme court of Appeal in September issued a ruling compelling the National Director of Public Prosecutions to grant permission to the M&G to publish the content of the interview. Here is what Judge Visvanathan Ponnan said:
“The objective of policing State officials to guard against corruption and malfeasance in public office forms part of the constitutional imperative to combat crime … The NDPP [National Director of Public Prosecutions] is an important bulwark in that regard. The NDPP is there to inspire confidence that all is well and, if there is corruption and malfeasance in high public office, that it is being effectively dealt with. The public needs to be assured that there is no impropriety in public life and that if there is, then it should be exposed. In that sense, the media plays a vital watchdog role. One of the aspirational goals of the media is to make governmental conduct in all of its many facets transparent.”
In other words, there are overlapping and mutually reinforcing layers of accountability at work here, with a healthy information ecosystem at their core.
A different example. The Russia office at Human Rights Watch recently published an investigation into that country’s “foreign agent” law, which is being used to shut down critical NGOs, and the press (in retaliation for the US’ misguided moves against Russia today). This is a satellite photo of forest fires near the shore of lake Baikal this year, which continue unchecked Among the groups that have been forced to close by the law are Baikal Environmental Wave, which was warning of the fires, gathering data, and criticising government inaction.
This is what another group, Planet of Hopes, had to say after they were shut down for their monitoring of radioactive contamination in Russia’s “closed cities” and accused of “industrial espionage with US money”:
“We believe that state security, including environmental security, depends on the degree of comfort and safety that people living in closed cities and working on hazardous plants can enjoy in their everyday lives — whether nuclear or chemical or weaponry… To collect people’s complaints, we opened and successfully operated a public reception office for the citizens of all Russian closed cities. After our designation as a “foreign agent” organization, the voices of those people can hardly be heard.”
Some repressive regimes adopt what they think are cannier strategems. After Human Rights Watch published a report detailing extrajudicial killings in Rwanda — the killing by security forces of a man accused of stealing a cow, for example. The country’s own human rights commission published its own report and staged an elaborate press conference. The victims we had reported dead were alive, they said, and here they were to prove it. Of course it was nonsense. France24 soon did its own reporting that showed they had found people with similar names, living in different districts, and simply made things up, as our own follow-up reconfirmed. The Rwandan trolls who had gleefully attacked us in the aftermath of the government friendly report went very quiet after that.
What we see at work here are state, civil society, and media institutions working, or not working, in support of justice, and the basic human rights principles that undergird democracy.
Investigative journalists, civic hackers, human rights researchers, and product specialists are working to sustain out the machinery that safeguards and advances those rights.
As we build our response to disinformation and trolling, to political stigmatization, to repressive laws, and to persistent economic threats, this purpose should be the first and guiding principle.
What does that mean in practice? I think determining what a functioning information infrastructure for the age of networked propaganda looks like, theorizing it and putting it to work is the new job of gatherings like this. We aren’t battling the newsroom and management-suite dinosaurs anymore, but the enemies of consensus facts, justice, and rights.
I want to throw out a few straws in the Cape Town wind as I close, by way of indicating directions.
First, the platform companies are crucial, and must do better, but nothing that is on the table right now will save us. They can de-rank RT and Sputnik as Google has promised to do, which seems a dangerous idea to me. They can edge toward transparency in political advertising as Twitter and facebook have begun to do, which is a good idea. They can run their impossibly limited, America-centric fake news flagging programs, with already overstretched newsrooms and fact-checking centers roped-in to do the editorial heavy lifting, and maintain the hygienic distance between platform activity and publishing. They should come up with ways effectively to enforce their own harassment and hate-speech rules. But it will all be too little too late. We have not even begun to confront the future of algorithmic speech and information control that awaits us. This requires detailed computer science, ethical, and regulatory work, not a bit of verification pasted over the top of the newsfeed. It also needs more and better journalism that makes sense of the information sphere, from Buzzfeed’s reporting on fake news, or Pro-publica’s brilliant investigations into Facebook, for example.
Second, many of the tools and thinking processes developed in what used to be called the future of news really can help us in ways that the platforms can’t.
Some of these are structures for thinking. What would it look like, Aron Pilhofer asked recently, if a news operation was optimized for trust at every level? We’d have to look at business process, including the handling of user data and ad tracking, at reporting — including showing readers your work, a process greatly enhanced by digital tools — and in its audience relationships, which memberships and subscription are transforming.
In different ways, different kinds of news organizations are starting to put that to work. De Correspondent in the Netherlands, and its US collaborators are trying to do it end-to-end as their model. The New York Times is selling Truth to millions more subscribers than ever before, amaBhungane’s crowd funding model, rigorous independence, and credibility are doing it here.
The bottom line, is that trust is the steel the information infrastructure we need. There is huge work to be done on adding more of it.
But it isn’t just about big picture models. Equally critical are tech and product tools. At Human Rights Watch we’ve used satellite imagery to show ethnic cleansing under way in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine State, and enriched it with layered and detailed testimony from the ground, transmitted in real time via Instagram, the web, and news organizations. Thanks to a new partnership with Planet Labs we have access to images of unprecedented resolution mapping the entire earth every single day. We use social media verification to create rigorous reconstructions of bombing campaigns and chemical weapons attacks, and and data analysis to understand how California’s system of money bail discriminates against people who are jailed because they are too poor to pay for their freedom. These tools and processes are increasingly being adopted by newsrooms, as we saw in the New York Times stunning reporting on civilian casualties from US airstrikes aimed at ISIS.
Making data visible is often the first step in accountability, whether it is air pollution figures from cheap sensors, transit numbers, or accumulated witness testimony. Identifying patterns is the next step, because it is patterns that tell us when governments or private actors are failing in their duties — either by the commission, or omission. This act of interpretation is the work of journalism, as it is of human rights, and it flows from an understanding of why we do what we do. It is a non-partisan politics of accountability, and a theory of power, independent, fair, rigorous, and indispensible.
And so we are back to optimism. Not the blithe kind, not “we have an app for that”. But the credible kind: we have a job to do, we know why it matters, we have some materials, and we know where to start. That is a decent place to face the future from. The only place.
Media Indaba Africa is hosted by the continent’s largest data journalism and civic technology federation, Code for Africa, which you can find on Medium here.