BY VIVIAN SCHILLER, Executive Director of Aspen Digital at the Aspen Institute
As it turns out, I’m incredibly naïve. As a life-long journalist, I thought I was a savvy observer of the volatility and impermanence of state systems of governance. From the failed promise of democracy in Russia after the end of the Cold War to the reemergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan to the crack down on civil society in Nicaragua, I was attuned to the fragility of nations in every part of the world. Except at home.
To me, the system of government in the U.S. was like gravity or breathing. It was just there – it would always be there and required no tending.
I’ve now come to my senses. Gradually and then suddenly, democracy in the U.S. has arrived at the brink. The recent midterms brought examples of repudiation of some of the worst anti-democracy candidates, but we are far from out of the woods. And if there is to be a constitutional crisis in the coming few years, I now believe it will be due largely to lack of trust: in institutions, in our fellow citizens and, most of all, in the media.
What on earth happened?
Three forces collided to bring us to this brink.
First, news organizations are going under, especially at the local level. This slow-motion collapse of the business has claimed 2,200 newsrooms in the U.S. between 2005 and 2020 and put about 30,000 journalists out of work between 2008 and 2020. Large parts of the country are now local deserts, lacking any professional reporting by members of the community for their neighbors.
There is a direct correlation between robust local news and civic participation. The act of reading a newspaper alone can encourage 13 percent of non-voters to vote, according to one analysis. But at least one-fifth of the U.S. live in a community without a local news source. And when news organizations disappear, that vacuum is typically filled with junk. So-called “pink slime” websites masquerading as news spread disinformation and conspiracy theories to advance a political agenda. Facebook groups and other closed channels are fertile ground for falsehoods, further driving residents into opposing camps.
The second contributing factor to distrust is attacks on a free press from political and civic leaders. This is especially true in Central and Eastern Europe and the global South where the ability of news organizations to operate unfettered has fallen to record lows, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres, a journalism non-profit. Things got worse during the pandemic as autocrats cracked down on the media using the pretense of promoting public safety. Even in the U.S., former President Trump’s signature attacks on the media were correlated to an increase in assaults. American journalists suffered a record 438 physical attacks in 2020, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The third contributing factor – and arguably the fuel that drives the greatest distrust in information – has been the rise of social media (where I worked for a while). By extracting the data from our movements around the web, the platforms are able to keep us online longer by targeting content – often falsehoods – that drive us further into polarized camps and, worse, down rabbit holes of hate and bigotry.
This is the fertile ground in which the January 6 insurrection took root, where genocide in Myanmar grew and where Russia advanced its baseless claim on the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Facebook has chosen to walk away from news rather than fix its content moderation challenge. And now Twitter, which has been in some ways an essential supply line of critical information, and where I once served as head of news, is undergoing a potentially life-threatening transformation under Elon Musk. As TikTok rises in dominance, its vulnerabilities as a vector of false claims are becoming increasingly apparent. Data from the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer shows global trust in tech continuing to fall — especially trust in social media. That is probably because that tech has seriously let us down.
So where do we go from here?
There are no easy answers, of course, but there are some shorter- and longer-term actions that collectively can help build trust in information and media, and by doing so, increase trust in each other. Last year, Aspen Digital, the program I run at the Aspen Institute, convened the Commission on Information Disorder to address the crisis of mis- and disinformation, particularly in the U.S. This group of academics, journalists, philanthropists, elected officials of both parties, tech and First Amendment experts offered 16 recommendations. I draw liberally from this report here.
1. Invest in local media
We need locally owned and operated newsrooms in every community in the U.S. This is not exactly a return to the “good old days,” as even when newspapers were more ubiquitous, they underserved communities of color and other marginalized groups. Rather, as our report offered, we need “substantial, long-term investment in local journalism that informs and empowers citizens, especially in underserved and marginalized communities who are most likely to be harmed by, or are most vulnerable to, mis- or disinformation.” Making this happen will require a portfolio of revenue streams from philanthropy, local businesses, and yes, you, dear reader. When I was CEO of NPR, I witnessed first-hand the power of public engagement with local news operations. Now, newer organizations like the American Journalism Project and Report for America are showing promise by funding promising local newsrooms and incubating new sustainable business models.
2. Bridge the divides between citizens
We’re talking past each other. It’s not entirely our fault – we’ve been conditioned by all the aforementioned factors to stop listening to each other. New methodologies are emerging to help people learn deep listening and empathy at scale. This may sound like a pipedream but organizations like Pol.is, Local Voices Network and the Front Porch Forum are demonstrating the possibility of a news kind of platforms “in which purposeful design combined with intentional adoption by communities of users can provide communication spaces that are well suited to civic dialogue and understanding.”
3. Tech company policy change
Meaningful social media regulation is unlikely in the near future, in the U.S. at least. The factors tearing us apart make it improbable. That doesn’t mean we should let up on pressuring the leading companies to do the right thing. Naming and shaming those practices that harm society has, over the years, driven changes such as stronger protection of minors online and led to generally more robust content moderation (current events at Twitter notwithstanding). But this is nowhere near enough. We must continue to demand far greater transparency and accountability. Private companies that feed the social media economy through their advertising and other spending have a big role to play here, too.
4. Media literacy
At the same time that we examine near-term solutions, we would be wise to explore the possibilities of generational change through a transformation of civic education to equip young people with far more sophisticated media literacy. To be clear, we’re not talking about telling kids which news outfits to pick and choose. Neither should we expect them to become sourcing experts. But let’s at least give them a grounding in how our system of government operates from the national to the local level, educate them on the critically important role of a free press and expand their radar for detecting things that sound too good to be true or are aligned too comfortably with their preconceived notions. The Commission recommends that we “expand investment and innovation in information literacy and media literacy collaborations to integrate evidence-based prescriptions directly into online interventions.” Groups like the News Literacy Project are already seeing early sign of progress.
5. Accountability norms
For years, meaningful accountability has been shrinking as one of the most important protections against leaders in the public and private sectors from acting on their worst impulses. As the Commission stated, we must “call on community, corporate, professional and political leaders to promote new norms that create personal and professional consequences within their communities and networks for individuals who willfully violate the public trust and use their privilege to harm the public.” This might include professional organizations holding their members accountable or encouraging advertisers to stay away from platforms that continue to sow distrust in our governance system. To reinforce this, news organizations should of course continue to hold public officials and business leaders to account when they lie.
None of these remedies alone will solve the problem of low trust in the media. But together they might start to make a dent. As the Commission has presented our report to Congress, to tech companies, to private industry and civil society groups, we have been heartened by the widespread resolve to address this unique threat to our precious and fragile democracy. Now for the hard work of turning this vision into reality.
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