What Makes a Community?

Facebook wants to build community. Ditto media. Me, too.

But I fear we are all defining and measuring community too shallowly and transiently. Community is not conversation — though that is a key metric Facebook will use to measure its success. Neither is community built on content: gathering around it, paying attention to it, linking to it, or talking about it — that is how media brands are measuring engagement. Conversation and content are tools or byproducts of real community.

Community means connecting people intimately and over time to share interests, worldviews, concerns, needs, values, empathy, and action. Facebook now says it wants to “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people.” I think that should be meaningful, lasting, and trusting interactions among people, plural. Think of community not as a cocktail party (or drunken online brawl) where friends and strangers idly chat. Instead, think of community a club

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Facebook’s changes

[Disclosure: I raised $14 million from Facebook, the Craig Newmark and Ford foundations, and others to start the News Integrity Initiative. I personally receive no money from and am independent of Facebook.]

So, here’s what’s on my mind about Facebook’s changes, just announced by Mark Zuckerberg, to “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people” over content from media and brands.

Yes, I’m worried. Let me start there.

I’m worried that now that Facebook has become a primary distributor of news and information in society, it cannot abrogate its responsibility — no matter how accidentally that role was acquired — to help inform our citizenry.

I’m worried that news and media companies — convinced by Facebook (and in some cases by me) to put their content on Facebook or to pivot to video — will now see their fears about having the rug pulled out from under them realized and they will shrink

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Death to the Mass(es)!

In the tweets above, leading journalists Ezra Klein and Anne Applebaum reflect the accepted wisdom, raison d’être, and foundational myth of their field: that journalism exists to align the nation upon a common ground of facts, so a uniformly informed mass of citizens can then manage their democracy.

The idea that the nation can and should share one view of reality based on one

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Democracy Dies in the Light

When the nation’s representatives pass sweeping tax legislation that the majority of voters do not want and that will in the long-run harm most citizens — helping instead corporations, a small, rich elite (including donors), and the politicians themselves — there can be only one interpretation:

Our representatives no longer represent the public; they do not care to. American democracy has died.

Democracy didn’t die in darkness. It died in the light.

The full glare of journalism was turned on this legislation, its impact and motives, but that didn’t matter to those who had the power to go ahead anyway. Journalism, then, proved to be an ineffective protector of democracy, just as it is proving ineffective against every other attack on democracy’s institutions by this gang. Fox News was right to declare a coup, wrong about the source. The coup already happened. The junta is in power. In fact,

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Our problem isn’t ‘fake news.’ Our problems are trust and manipulation.

“Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.”
— Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928)

“Fake news” is merely a symptom of greater social ills. Our real problems: trust and manipulation. Our untrusted — and untrustworthy — institutions are vulnerable to manipulation by a slough of bad guys, from trolls and ideologues to Russians and terrorists, all operating under varying motives but similar methods.

Trust is the longer-term problem — decades- or even a century-long. But if we don’t grapple with the immediate and urgent problem of manipulation, those institutions may not live to reinvent themselves and earn the public’s trust back with greater inclusion, equity, transparency, responsiveness, and honesty. At the News Integrity Initiative, we will begin to address both needs.

Here I want to examine the emergency of manipulation with a series of suggestions about the defenses needed by many sectors — not just news and media but also platforms, technology companies, brands, marketing, government, politics,

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Fueling a flight to quality

Storyful and Moat — together with CUNY and our new News Integrity Initiative*— have announced a collaboration to help advertisers and platforms avoid associating with and supporting so-called fake news. This, I hope, is a first, small step toward fueling a flight to quality in news and media. Add to this:

  • A momentous announcement by Ben Gomes, Google’s VP of engineering for Search, that its algorithms will now favor “quality,” “authority,” and “the most reliable sources” — more on that below.
  • The consumer revolts led online by Sleeping Giants and #grabyourwallet’s Shannon Coulter that kicked Bill O’Reilly off the air and are cutting off the advertising air supply to Breitbart.
  • The advertiser revolt led by The Guardian, the BBC, and ad agency Havas against offensive content on YouTube, getting Google to quickly respond.

These things — small steps, each — give me a glimmer of hope for supporting news integrity. I will even go so far as to

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Jimmy Wales’ new Wikitribune

Jimmy Wales changed encyclopedias and news while he was at it. And now he’s at it at it again, announcing a crowdfunding campaign to start Wikitribune, a collaborative news platform with “professional journalists and community contributors working side-by-side to produce fact-checked, global news stories. The community of contributors will vet the facts, help make sure the language is factual and neutral, and will to the maximum extent possible be transparent about the source of news posting full transcripts, video, and audio of interviews.” The content will be free with monthly patrons providing as much support as possible, advertising as little as possible. I’m excited about this for a few reasons: First, I see the need for innovation around new forms of news. Next, I want some news sites to break the overwhelming and constant flow of news and allow us in the public to pull back and find
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