It Doesn’t Have to Happen Here

Saving Our Democracy

The Future of Democracy convening was held at Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California in January to develop media strategies to preserve civic society.

A charismatic man ran for president on a patriotic platform to restore the country to greatness and return to traditional values. When the media reported on his well-documented misdeeds, he accused the media of smearing him with vicious lies. His drumbeat of racist messages energized rural, working-class white men, playing on their fear of unemployment and their anger over societal changes that were threatening their privileged status. He won, with the support of the religious right, a fake news campaign, and impossible promises.

This may sound familiar, but it’s actually a synopsis of the first part of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, an eerily prescient 1935 dystopian novel about a populist demagogue named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip who undermines democracy and drags the United States into fascism. Here’s what happens next: Windrip strips Congress of its authority. His followers form a bloodthirsty militia called the Minute Men that violently attacks dissenters and enforces authoritarian law. Windrip imprisons his political enemies, restricts the rights of women and minorities, and throttles the press. Most of the citizens are alarmed by the totalitarian takeover of their country, but accept the president’s explanation that such changes are necessary to “make America a proud, rich land again.”

Is this our future? It’s impossible to know for sure. “The first rule of futures studies is that there are no facts about the future,” said Marina Gorbis, executive director of Institute for the Future (IFTF) (where I’m on staff as a research director). But we can and should take responsibility for shaping the future that we want. Gorbis told this to over one hundred journalists, publishers, technologists, philanthropists, academic leaders, and policy experts who’d convened at IFTF’s Silicon Valley headquarters to develop media strategies to preserve civic society in an increasingly hazardous environment of computational propaganda, a multi-trillion dollar criminal economy, deeply divided populations, and rising authoritarian populism around the world.

The future may be unwritten, said Gorbis, “But it’s important to think about historical patterns, too.” And to give attendees something to think about, Gorbis then invited a group of global investigative journalists from Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) to report to the attendees on the political and economic situation in Russia and Eastern Europe. The panel, titled “How to Destroy Democracy: An urgent conversation,” was moderated by OCCRP’s editor and co-founder Drew Sullivan. One of the panelists, Stevan Dojcinovic, a Belgrade based investigative reporter and a member of the OCCRP, shared recent Serbian experience under the leadership of ultranationalist president, Tomislav Nikolić, who has held office there since 2012. In his campaign for the presidency, Nikolić was routinely attacked by the press, but Nikolić harnessed the gusher of negative attention to his advantage to ensure that he was the top news story every day. After winning, says Dojcinovic, Nikolić “tried to be kind of gentle and prove that he was a good guy. But famous actors, writers, and opinion makers” continued to speak out against Nikolić, who eventually dropped the good guy facade and “hired lots of journalists and media, paying them to launch smear campaigns” against his high-profile critics.

The tactic worked. With his critics wounded, Nikolić began making corrupt business deals with his friends, and “lying without shame,” said Paul Radu, a Romanian investigative journalist and director of the OCCRP. “The first thing they do is blame the previous government for not being able to fulfill their promises. They say, ‘There’s money missing from the budget. We’ve started an investigation into the previous government who stole all the money.’ Interestingly, these excuses play well with the public because they always want someone to blame.”

After taking power, Nikolić replaced the judiciary with friends who shared the spoils with him, “initiating court cases and indictments against their opponents. It doesn’t matter that these people have not done anything wrong.They will find something to prosecute,” said Radu. And even though the citizens of these autocratic countries “got poorer and got sicker, what’s really interesting is that they will always find someone to blame for any of their faults.”

A Path to Transparency

With a name like “How to Destroy Democracy,” the panel was meant, obviously, to convey a sense of urgency. And it did, energizing the attendees for what followed: a two day event called “The Future of Democracy,” led and hosted by IFTF with support from the Skoll Foundation and in partnership with the (OCCRP).

The convening started with a series of provocations from authors, activists, and political experts. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, spoke about the role of viral media media in politics. The “Trump virus has less to do with Trump than with us,” he said. “It’s our collective, cultural ‘immune response’ that spreads the virus. We are infected and replicating the virus, whether we agree with it or not. That’s all a virus is: code that says, ‘make me.’ Until we address the underlying cultural agendas responsible for our immune deficiency, we will not be able to neutralize Trump or the memes within him.”

Following the provocations, attendees self-organized into teams and developed a number of intriguing proposals for media tools and practices to reverse the flow of global autocratic corruption.

If there was one thing all the proposals had in common, it was transparency. They were designed to reveal hidden information, identify bot swarms and fake news, pop the opaque red and blue filter bubbles that divide people, create platforms and protocols for meaningful dialogue, and open communication between journalists:

  1. Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker, an evolutionary biologist and pioneering biomimicry researcher, led the working group that developed a proposal for Fungalbook. It’s a social network that uses biomimicry (technology that mimics natural behavior) to attack the virality of fake news and make sharing lies more socially costly. In particular, the technology would mimic the ways in which bees and other social insects communicate and behave to ensure information is accurate.
  2. Imagine a system that tracks social, financial, familial, and political connections between powerful people in the news by presenting them as an overlay on existing media. This global topography of money, power, and influence wouldn’t just be limited to an individual news organization. It would be an open source database with an API that would drop a transparent layer on top of a news site (or as a browser extension that gives readers the same layer on non-cooperative news sites). With this system, you could right click on somebody’s name and find out what their connections are to an organized crime figure, or how they fit into the mayor’s connections to construction companies in town. OCCRP’s Drew Sullivan, who led this workshop, said, “We’ve got a great test case: Donald Trump. We will get all of his records, all of his assets, everything all over the world, and make it available to organizations very easily through this system.”
  3. As a rule, journalists are not accustomed to fighting back against threats in a unified way. Story exclusivity is important to an individual journalist’s livelihood, and, as a group, they’ve had little reason to share information with competing journalists. But the increasing number of threats against journalists is a good reason for them to start organizing and sharing information with each other. “We face new risks,” said Monika Bauerlein, CEO of Mother Jones, who led a group that charted a threat model for journalism and journalists. They built a list of the key threats journalists face, applying a simple threat model grid that scored each threat on the basis of capability, intent, and presence. Monika said the next step is to refine the chart and meet with senior level news organizations to formulate common responses to threats of violence and litigation against journalists.
  4. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are de-facto publishers, but they don’t want to be. Editorial curation is expensive, and deciding what its users can or cannot post would jeopardize their status as common carriers (which insulates them from liability for the content posted on their platforms). But these networks are breeding grounds for fake news and computational propaganda. Science fiction author and futurist David Brin told attendees that we are witnessing “an aggressive campaign to discredit expertise [and] obscure the truth by burying it in a cloud of lies.” What’s needed, said Aviv Ovadya of Media Window, is a layer that displays credibility scores for online news. The goal is to divert money from clickbaity fake news to quality journalism, which would result in win-win-win-win for 1) readers, 2) platforms, 3) journalists, and 4) advertisers. The system would include a dispute forum to challenge facts.
  5. The nation is divided into two opaque filter bubbles. How do we we create empathy across these groups? IFTF Fellow Mike Zuckerman of [freespace] thinks the way to do it is to pop the bubbles with an organization called Power of the People (POP). Mike and his group proposed to establish physical places where young adults can collaborate, listen to different viewpoints, and promote understanding. A simple way to start is by bringing POP into the education system and offer journalism programs that would, for example, “have kids in Kentucky reporting on kids in Syria.”
  6. Current funding models for journalism consider readers to be eyeballs for advertisers, and so stories are designed to maximize clicks. The easy way to maximize clicks is by generating a sense of outrage. But outrage journalism results in apathy and powerlessness, bringing to mind novelist William Gibson’s 2002 description of the typical media consumer as a “vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism… that can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections.” But, said David Bornstein, a New York Times columnist and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, stories can be written that create a sense of outrage and a sense of self-efficacy. The secret is to stop writing ”negative” or “positive” stories, and instead write specifically about how problems are being solved, which has the effect of engaging people.
  7. Many more ideas were proposed. Here are a few:
  • Build trust for the media and get a full spectrum of voices by funding journalists who live in economically disadvantaged places to report on the issues.
  • Gather lessons of successful local news operations and what they’ve done well.
  • Analyze the current and future states of political messaging on social networks, automation technologies such as bots, and the neuroscience of storytelling.
  • Create a pot of money, filled by the government, individuals, philanthropists, and foundations, so that radio can be at the forefront of rebuilding journalism.

Will the Trump presidency play out like Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here? The Future of Democracy workshop was designed to write a better ending for our reality.

For more information about the specific projects from this convening, or if you would like to contact a representative from one of the workshop teams described above, contact

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