Saturday, July 02, 2022

Who’s Going to Protect Reproductive Rights Online?

Chicago protests, June 24. (photo: Timothy Karr)


Co-authored with Nora Benavidez for Tech Policy Press

Following the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade13 states have or will soon have laws that criminalize abortion, and at least five more are ready to follow. Those trying to determine how and where they can obtain reproductive healthcare face added layers of complexity when they use the internet and their smartphones to learn more. Law enforcement can now weaponize online data to investigate, harass and take legal action against people seeking abortions.

Despite the severity of the situation, social media platforms and other tech companies are failing to grapple with how the Supreme Court ruling should alter their content-moderation and user-privacy guidelines. Few could muster a coherent response when reporters from MIT Technology Review asked for clarity. 

We can already tell from recent reporting that they’re making a mess of it. Companies including Meta and Google have overcorrected for the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision in ways that could further jeopardize the health and liberty of millions of people. 

Before they do more harm, online platforms and internet service providers must change how they collect data about their users and ensure that they’re not sharing information that puts abortion seekers at risk. Congress, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and tech companies themselves each have power to safeguard the rights of those seeking reproductive health services. 

Privacy and the Digital Dragnet

This situation was decades in the making. Authorities can access pretty much anything we do online and via our smartphones. And there’s little that social-media platforms and other technology companies can do if police with a legal warrant or court order seek the user information these businesses have collected.

Google, for example, received more than 20,000 U.S. location data warrants between 2018 and 2020. This included dragnet orders demanding data about everyone who was near a particular location. In the hands of law enforcement seeking to charge abortion seekers, this would give them the power to locate a person at an abortion-services provider’s address at a given time. Google, which produces the Android operating system for hundreds of millions of mobile devices, says that as a matter of company policy it is required to respond to legal warrants.

There’s an additional risk to people who search for reproductive health-care information, such as how to order “abortion pills” via any of the online providers of this medicine. Internet service providers can keep records of the websites their users visit. When you send a text via SMS, your phone company stores copies of all those texts. These can be turned over under a warrant.

AT&T, for example, received 77,996 criminal subpoenas for user information from federal, state and local authorities in just the last six months of 2021. Like other companies that hold user data, AT&T says it is required under the law to provide customer data in response to court orders, subpoenas, lawful-discovery requests and other legal requirements.

What Congress Can Do

The absence of clear federal data privacy laws is a major concern. Layer over that the patchwork of state-level prohibitions on abortion and things become far more confusing for people seeking reliable abortion information online. The glut of websites and social-media posts featuring inaccurate medical and legal advice makes matters even worse. The platforms’ own rules for addressing these issues remain murky and are inconsistently enforced. 

One fairly straightforward solution is for these companies to stop collecting data about what their users are doing online, and where they’re going offline. Platforms, search companies and internet service providers must change their data-collection and retention practices so that they no longer gather or store individualized search and browsing histories and unnecessary customer-location information. 

To that end, Congress is considering several privacy bills that limit the data companies can collect. Various pieces of legislation currently on the table would reduce or prohibit the collection, retention and use of sexual health information, while others protect healthcare, genetic, biometric and geolocation data more generally, or even ban any use of such data in a way that violates people’s civil rights. But online entities still would be able to use such data with individuals’ consent, in order to respond to the requests that users make for information on these crucial topics.

Free Press Action is part of a large coalition of civil and digital rights groups fighting to minimize the personal information platforms and data brokers can collect and limit how they can use it. Another strong legislative proposal is the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, which closes a loophole that currently allows these brokers to sell our data to police without a warrant.

While none of these proposals are a perfect fix for this complex and crucial set of issues, these bills are meaningful measures that — if passed — could begin to ensure that tech companies are doing more to safeguard the privacy necessary for protecting reproductive rights.

What the FTC Can Do

The FTC is charged with oversight of unfair or deceptive practices related to the harvesting, sharing or sale of personal data, including health-related information.

For months now the agency has been teasing plans to begin a rulemaking proceeding to rein in the misuse of online data by social-media companies and other data brokers. In May, the Senate confirmed the agency’s fifth commissioner, Alvaro Bedoya, an experienced privacy advocate who has supported agency action alongside FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan and Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter. 

The agency has put a proceeding on its summer calendar and has the majority it needs to establish clear rules against abusive data practices that undermine reproductive rights and access to health care. Through an open and participatory rulemaking, the FTC can build a record of the harms related to the trafficking of personal and geolocation information and establish guardrails against unfair and deceptive extractive data practices. Such a rule would help mitigate these harmful data practices embedded in every sector of society, which we know to especially harm historically disadvantaged communities.

What Platforms Can Do

Legislation and FTC rules together won’t fix everything. People researching reproductive health-care options are seeking information on social-media platforms. With state-level abortion restrictions, sharing this kind of information in those states presents a significant content-moderation challenge.

Recent research finds that content from less reliable sources referencing abortion has more than doubled since the Dobbs ruling was leaked in May. Platforms have yet to apply the sorts of user-warning labels to abortion misinformation that they’ve applied (albeit in a haphazard fashion) to inaccurate posts about COVID-19 treatments and elections.

We’ve already seen risk-averse social-media companies overreact to abortion-related content. Meta, for example, technically has a gun-sale ban on its platforms. Yet it allows users to violate that policy 10 times before penalizing them. Meanwhile, just in the last week Facebook and Instagram have removed individual posts about sales of abortion pills. It seems likely that these companies will also ban ads for abortion services in states that have outlawed abortions.

If they’re forced to do so, they and other online advertisers must also refuse to accept advertising dollars from entities seeking to mislead people seeking abortions (for example: by posing as clinics that provide these services or spreading disinformation).

Social-media platforms have an ethical responsibility to invest in moderators who are specifically trained to spot such harmful content. These companies must ensure that people seeking abortions aren’t targeted for abuse or exposed to disinformation.

The difference between 2022 and 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, is that we now live in an era in which data about what we do, with whom and where, is in the hands of tech companies and data brokers that are willing to sell this information to the highest bidder — or hand it over to federal, state and local authorities.

As tech companies wield increasing power over everyone’s digital rights, they must collect and archive less user data and establish clear standards for sharing potentially lifesaving reproductive health-care information. The Supreme Court’s abortion decision makes the need for comprehensive action more urgent than ever. Congress, the FTC and tech companies must do what is necessary to protect reproductive rights.

Nora Benavidez is the senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights at Free Press Action, where Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy and communications.


Friday, March 25, 2022

The Future of Local News Is Noncommercial

(Originally published by Columbia Journalism Review)

IN FEBRUARY, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota reintroduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which is designed to make Silicon Valley’s billionaires pay for the harms they’ve inflicted on the news industry.

“What does Big Tech’s dominance over the news mean for Americans?” Klobuchar asked during a recent hearing on the legislation. Her answer: “Less revenue for local news, fewer journalists to do in-depth high-quality reporting, more exposure to misinformation and fewer reliable sources.”

The decline of local news is a tale often told against the rise of Silicon Valley. But equating the shuttering of local newspapers with the flourishing ad business at companies like Google and Meta (formerly Facebook) doesn’t get the story entirely right.

The news-business model itself — rooted in the belief that journalism must live or die by the dictates of the marketplace — is a primary reason that tens of thousands of newsroom jobs have been lost.

It’s easy to see why some blame journalism’s demise on the rise of digital platforms. Between 2008 and 2020, more than a thousand newspapers ceased printing, and the number of newspaper newsroom employees shrank by more than half. But while these numbers are alarming, they reveal only a part of the problem. Free Press found that more than 40 percent of the jobs lost in the newspaper industry since 1990 occurred prior to 2008 and the boom years for online advertising.

In other words, local dailies were shedding jobs long before a few tech platforms reported ad revenues in the tens of billions of dollars. It’s a trend that points to a deeper problem with the business of local news — and to the need for solutions that don’t merely make Big Tech subsidize old ways of producing journalism.

Solving the right problem

To be sure, the popular adoption of the internet and the way the platforms changed how we consume information undermined the local-news economy. But we can’t ignore the ways that conglomerate and hedge-fund media ownership subjects news production to the predatory demands of profit and growth. Decades of mergers and acquisitions also saddled consolidated media companies with sizable debts that their top executives chose to service not by cutting their own salaries but by downsizing local newsrooms.

We need to reinvent the news economy from one that serves a few owners to one that serves the needs of democracy — including holding leaders accountable, challenging disinformation, and exposing corruption — while supporting the jobs and content communities need.

No amount of tinkering with free-market mechanics can restore the business fundamentals that sustained local news in the twentieth century. This peak era for daily newspapers was due in large part to their unique ability to bundle local information with daily advertisements targeted to local audiences. This newsprint formula no longer functions in a media world where connections are instantaneous and attention is the main commodity.

To make matters worse, this digital marketplace down-ranks the kinds of journalism that inspire people to participate in community affairs, support local charities, or speak out against injustice. Researchers at MIT found that information that prioritizes sensationalism over accuracy is most effective at keeping eyes glued to your app or website. As such, platforms have a built-in commercial incentive to engage users with “low value” content that holds viewers’ attention — and not the often costly news reporting that bolsters civic participation and holds local officials to account.

It’s not clear how the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act will alter that basic equation or create a sustainable news model for the thousands of communities across the country where people have little to no access to credible and comprehensive local-news sources.

The legislation would give broadcasters, publishers, and other news producers an “antitrust exemption” to collectively negotiate for payments from powerful online platforms. Its primary beneficiaries would likely be national and international news conglomerates, the companies least in need of a bailout. When Australia implemented a similar rule — encouraging payment negotiations between news businesses and the platforms that sometimes feature or link to their content — the country’s largest media outlets were the first in line for payouts from Google and Facebook.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is getting tens of millions of dollars a year from these arrangements, writes Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton. “Meanwhile, the small fr[ies] in Australia media are getting bupkis.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the lobbyists representing consolidated media groups like News Corp, predatory hedge funds like Alden Global Capital, and consolidated broadcasters like Sinclair Broadcast Group are among the most vocal supporters of Klobuchar’s US legislation.

If news outlets are to survive over the long term, it won’t be because we’ve grafted their operations to digital enterprises that are more efficient at connecting advertisers to consumers — but less capable of separating fiction from fact, or disinformation from reporting that fosters democratic participation.

Doubling public funding is a start

Far too many of the bills circulating in Congress, including Klobuchar’s legislation, are designed to benefit existing media giants — many of the very same commercial operations that have gutted local newsrooms and profited from runaway media consolidation.

Clearly there’s a better way forward. Congress would better spend its time on bills that treat journalism as a public good. This is done by allocating public funds to support local innovations in noncommercial media.

The US hovers near the bottom of the list of advanced democracies when it comes to per-capita spending on federal funding for public-interest media. We spend about $1.50 per capita each year, while per-capita spending by Japan exceeds $50; per-capita spending in Germany and Sweden is more than $100. The concept of such funding for public broadcasting routinely receives high levels of bipartisan support in the United States.

As a start, Free Press has called for a doubling of public funds for noncommercial news and information. This kind of congressional commitment would recognize that propping up private industry alone won’t create a viable model for local journalism.

Dramatically increased public investment in locally engaged reporting would help support the wide array of new nonprofit outlets that are focused on meeting the information needs of communities that commercial media too often ignores.

To get there, Free Press has proposed a new tax on digital advertising to fund the kinds of innovative news production that’s now needed. A tax of 2 percent would generate more than $2 billion annually, enough to support new distribution models, especially those that don’t rely on data harvesting and targeted ads for revenue.

In New Jersey, Free Press helped conceive and create the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, an independent nonprofit funded by a state-budget appropriation. The consortium, including representatives from public colleges and universities across the state, supports inventive local-news projects like the Newark News and Story Collaborative and the Bloomfield Information Project, which train local residents to report the news from their own perspectives.

This New Jersey experiment, which received overwhelming bipartisan support, could be replicated by other states to help put journalists on local beats from Key West to Anchorage.

It’s been encouraging to see the recent growth in other not-for-profit news models, especially those that amplify the voices of people of color. State and federal funding could also help spur the sort of attempts at hybrid commercial-noncommercial media that are being explored by dailies in Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and elsewhere.

These and other good ideas have been testing new strategies for news production. But they can’t fill the massive gaps left by the collapse of for-profit newspapers. One thing is certain: legislation that sends tax dollars to hedge funds or keeps an antiquated commercial model on life support isn’t the solution.

Lawmakers should provide comprehensive funding for noncommercial news instead of wedding a sputtering business to a Silicon Valley attention engine that can’t possibly foster the sort of journalism that is vital to civic health.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The 'F' Word and the Media


Just before Thanksgiving break, former President Donald Trump told Fox News that he had met Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse at Mar-a-Lago, where the two smiled for a photo that was custom built for right-wing social media.

The message behind the encounter is brutally simple: The ostensible leader of the U.S. Republican Party endorses deadly violence against any and all enemies — in this case, anyone exercising their First Amendment right to protest police brutality against Black people.
With this meeting, the Republican Party’s embrace of political violence came into full view. And it’s a story that some in traditional media have finally started to tell.
“One of the nation's two major political parties appears increasingly tolerant of at least some persistent level of violence in American discourse, or at least willing to turn a blind eye to it,” wrote the Associated Press’ Jill Colvin in November.
“Faced with this alarming trend, a responsible political party would damp down its incendiary rhetoric and urge its supporters to moderate their zeal,” Max Boot wrote in The Washington Post. “That is not what Republicans are doing.”
With the evidence too hard to downplay or ignore, journalists are now dispensing with the tired practice of reporting down the political middle on a story that’s about the evils of just one party.
It took a lot to get many in the media to this point: the right’s “lionization” of Rittenhouse; its refusal to condemn Rep. Paul Gosar for promoting an animated video that depicts him murdering Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s call for supporters to be “armed and dangerous” as we head into the midterm-election season.
All this has happened against the backdrop of a party leadership’s abandonment of its pledge to honor the peaceful transition of political leadership — codified in the U.S. Constitution — in favor of an illegal power grab. 
It’s called fascism
The GOP’s tolerance of political violence didn’t begin on Jan. 6. It’s a byproduct of a larger, longer and more worrisome trend: A sizable chunk of people in the United States are turning away from democracy toward something sinister.  A survey by the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats found that one in 10 adults in the United States — or about 21 million people— agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency.” 
This is where we are today. None of the 20th-century fascist movements in the United States came so far as to undermine our democratic institutions and laws and replace them with a political system that privileges white power and authoritarianism. 
The GOP’s full-throated embrace of autocracy is on display in statehouses across the country, where legislatures are passing laws that make it easier to get away with killing racial-justice protesters. According to a PEN America report from earlier this year, Republican lawmakers have proposed at least 100 “anti-riot” bills in 33 states, with more on the drawing board. This includes legislation that would grant criminal immunity to people who crash their cars into so-called “rioters” blocking roadways.
It’s going to get worse in 2022. As political discourse grows more gruesome in the runup to the midterms, the threat of political violence will only increase. 
A media reckoning
The Republican Party, which threw in its lot with outspoken extremists like Trump, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, is almost entirely at fault for this. But many writers tracking these worrying developments have reasonably placed the blame for 21st-century fascism at the doorsteps of some usual suspects in conservative U.S. media.
“[A] true reckoning requires more than just observing this trend. It also requires reflecting on the instrumental nature of propaganda like that coming from [Tucker] Carlson,” writes Greg Sargent of The Washington Post. “Much of the discussion treats the possibility of violence as a mere incidental byproduct of that propaganda, depicting it merely as conspiracy-theorizing-for-profit getting out of control.”
Fox News regularly engages in the types of othering that shaped the 20th-century fascism that led to World War II. Fascism relies on creating scapegoats; Tucker Carlson’s primetime commentary routinely paints a target for his millions of devoted viewers on the heads of immigrants, Black and Brown people, “globalists” and the “liberal elite.”
Other right-wing media are just as bad. One America News Network and Newsmax have spread disinformation to undermine free and fair elections and the government response to the greatest health threat of the past century. Fascism thrives in an environment where facts are disregarded and dismissed in favor of myths.  
Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative conglomerate that owns and operates hundreds of local-television stations, has repeatedly aired falsehoods  about critical race theory and stoked fears that it’s overtaking the curricula of local schools.
In fascist states, language becomes a vehicle for emotion rather than facts, a way to spread fear, amplify prejudices and seek revenge against hated groups. “Attempting to counter such rhetoric with reason is akin to using a pamphlet against a pistol,” writes Professor Jason Stanley, whose 2018 book How Fascism Works describes how division and othering set the stage for political violence and authoritarianism.
But how have centrist or moderate media responded to the GOP’s embrace of violence?
There’s no middle path
Eric Boehlert of Press Run frequently points to how outlets like CNN, The New York Times, Politico and The Washington Post have sought to normalize the violent extremism that has infiltrated Republican  politics.
“Despite the GOP’s nearly universal support [for Rep. Paul Gosar and his murderous video], Politico insisted the episode highlighted the ‘fringe’ side of the party, while the Beltway media outlet Punch Bowl reduced the threatening, unnerving Gosar chapter to Democrats and Republicans just not trusting each other,” Boehlert wrote.
“CNN’s Chris Cillizza recently bemoaned how ‘we’re all just so damn angry,’ but could only find examples of far-right bullies lashing out in public,” he adds.
“Both-sides journalism” is frequently criticized by Boehlert and other media scolds who blame this crutch of 20th-century reporting for mainstream media’s failure to call the right’s embrace of political violence and white power precisely what it is: fascism.
“I don’t think ‘moderate’ has any independent political meaning,” NYU Professor Jay Rosen told author Nicole Hemmer. “Instead, like ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism, it tries to locate a midpoint between extremes, and then it associates that midpoint with a sort of unadorned truth.”
Journalism that strikes a balance between democracy and fascism should never be the goal. Rosen told Hemmer that reporters got a glimpse of the perils of such false equivalency in the runup to and aftermath of the 2020 vote. “For a moment there, their own need to protect American democracy was front and center,” he said. 
“This sort of wholesale treatment of this [Stop the Steal] movement as illegitimate, not founded in truth, was a pretty mainstream position. And to me, that was a breakthrough moment where journalists said …  we could really lose this democracy if Trump succeeds in his campaign to throw out the results.”
But this moment of clarity didn’t last into the Biden administration’s first year. Many reporters have fallen back on old habits: playing political stories as both-sided, or failing to see the larger context, including the alarming similarities to right-wing movements in the 20th century.
Repairing broken media
Both national and local news outlets must recognize that the future of our democracy is under as much threat today as it was on the afternoon of Jan. 6.
There are threats to our fundamental civic rights that reporters must make urgent to their readers. The media waited too long to start reporting on the politicized redistricting process and still aren’t paying enough attention to the adoption of voter-suppression laws aimed at undermining the voting rights of people of color. It will surely wait too long to cover the streams of political violence that are rushing toward the 2022 midterm elections.
Beyond that we need to acknowledge a broken media culture, undergirded by structures of media ownership that have withheld control of news outlets from the Black and Brown communities that are primary targets of fascism. 
Decades of federal policies have resulted in inequitable access to media-ownership opportunities. According to Federal Communications Commission data, Black people owned only 18 full-power TV stations as of 2019 — or just over 1 percent of all stations. Meanwhile, media corporations have aggressively and successfully lobbied to further consolidate their power over the sector, with no regard for the impacts on people of color, who make up an estimated 43 percent of the U.S. population.
Building a pro-democracy media means we first must acknowledge the history of white supremacy that’s baked into U.S. media policies. Only then will we be able to begin to create a media system that serves as a bulwark against 21st-century fascism.
Yes, Republicans are the problem, but so is a dysfunctional media that tends to normalize the party’s endorsements of political violence. There’s no future for a multiracial democracy without a serious redress of the white-power structures that dominate U.S. media ownership, and that seep into newsroom coverage. 
Calling 21st-century fascism by its name is an essential condition to defeating it. Journalists and their bosses have an important role to play. They need to stand against right-wing extremism and for a more just and inclusive U.S. media system that rejects political violence out of hand.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Getting Beyond ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’ and Upending Inaction on Climate Change

Ripples from environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech in Milan this September were still being felt last week as politicians, diplomats, NGO leaders and youth advocates convened during the World Forum for Democracy at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France.

In her speech, Thunberg denounced the planet’s “so-called leaders” for failing to do enough to reverse the effects of climate change, slamming their past pledges as decades of political “blah, blah, blah.”

This has triggered resentment from those in power who believe Thunberg has unfairly singled them out.

Those attending the
 World Democracy Forum’s final plenary were asked: “How do we get beyond the ‘blah, blah blah’?” The three-day conference focuses on connecting words to action, with an entire day dedicated to labs where organizations and individuals from across the planet present local initiatives to confront the climate crisis — the focus of this year’s gathering.

A ‘categorical failure’
Thunberg’s speech captured some of the frustration heard from young advocates as the forum unfolded. Many highlighted their innovative grassroots efforts as a forward-looking response.

“There’s been a categorical failure of governments all over the world in fulfilling their duty of care to their people,” said Marijn van de Geer of
 Extinction Rebellion.

Extinction Rebellion has led several UK experiments in deliberative democracy, convening citizen assemblies as a way to give people a way to make political decisions when their elected representatives are too slow to respond. Advocates have convened similar assemblies in France, Poland, Sweden and elsewhere.

“At the local level democracy is growing,” said Marcin Gerwin of the
 Center for Climate Assemblies, which has gathered thousands in local assemblies across Poland. “At the national level it’s a different story.”

Spat out
Sarah El Haïry, the French minister of state for youth and engagement, took exception to Thunberg’s assertion that government officials aren’t doing enough. A former member of the French National Assembly, El Haïry felt that dismissing the speech of leaders as just more blah, blah, blah was ugly and offensive. It’s as though the words were being spat out, she said in response to my question.

For her part, Minister El Haïry listed her efforts to engage French youth in the political process and expressed her disappointment at their reluctance to exercise their right to vote. According to figures from nationwide municipal elections held at the end of this summer,
 just 13 percent of 18–24 year olds in France turned out at the polls.

But perhaps Minister El Haïry misses the point. Trying to get beyond the blah, blah, blah is not a direct criticism of her leadership, but of the world’s representative democracies, where too many politicians care more about the the short-term challenges of getting reelected or maintaining their party’s majority than they are with taking on the decades-long struggle of combating climate crisis.

Youth power
Perhaps the answer lies with young people, those who have the greatest stake in ensuring a healthy future for our planet. Do we get beyond the blah blah blah by giving more political agency to youth?

Rhys Nugent, a youth delegate from Wales, said “It is often said, ‘young people should have a seat at the table.’ No, we should be setting the table.” In other words, young people are too often asked to take part in climate actions after decisions have already been made, Nugent said. They’re not recognized as having the power to create, organize and lead, and that needs to change.

And what about those who aren’t even represented by a democracy? People in the Global South and Indigenous cultures are suffering the most from the climate crisis. We’ve heard the blah, blah, blah from leaders of representative democracies. That shouldn’t drown out the firsthand experiences and needs of those in countries like the Maldives, Myanmar and Nigeria who are struggling each day to survive.

Paradigm shift

Getting beyond the blah, blah, blah means we don’t just need a political shift towards the unrepresented, but an economic and cultural one.

Dragan Jonic of Serbia’s
 Defend the Rivers of the Stara Planina said we must ask questions about the so-called green economy: Is it enough to recycle plastic and use paper straws? How can we move away from a mass consumer-driven economy and a global supply chain to economies that are more local and sustainable?

An even more pressing question: Is an economy driven by free-market principles more important than the survival of our planet? Usmanu Sali of Cameroon’s
 Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association said that forming alliances where ownership of land is shared among competing ethnic groups fosters a more sustainable and peaceful relationship among those occupying the same region.

In Sali’s region of the country, there have been violent conflicts between herders and farmers. Sali helps mediate this conflict by negotiating shared use of the land, bringing down fences that demarcate ownership and can incite violence.

“With the climate crisis and COVID-19 the time has come to revisit the social-economic contract,” said Maria Logotheti of Greece’s Democracy & Culture Foundation, which engages people in democratic decision making and develops grassroots leadership. “At the very basis of our project is the understanding that it must be based on a bottom-up approach.”

“Of course we need constructive dialogue but they’ve had 30 years of ‘blah, blah blah’ and where has that led us,” Thunberg said in September. “If this is what they consider to be climate action then we don’t want it.”

Many attending the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg channeled Thunberg’s frustrations. Yes, talking about the problem is needed, but only as long as those discussions include those who are rarely heard from in representative democracies and during global political summits.

And talk should link to action against the problem at the heart of the climate crisis: a political system where the financial incentives of the most powerful industry in the world still hold sway.

Getting beyond the blah, blah, blah means shutting off the pipeline of cash that connects the energy sector to the world’s political class. And it requires a systemic shift in the understanding of how incentives driving the marketplace threaten the future of our planet.

Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy at the U.S.-based media-democracy organization Free Press. He served as a general rapporteur for this year’s World Forum for Democracy.

Monday, November 01, 2021

Media Outlets Flood the Zone With News of Facebook's Failure

The many exposés reveal a toxic but highly profitable revenue model that's driving Facebook’s reluctance to safeguard democracy and stop the spread of hate and disinformation.

If you decided to take a breather this weekend from the relentless stream of Facebook news, you've got a lot of catching up to do.

Since Friday afternoon, several prominent outlets rushed to press with stories drawn from the trove of internal Facebook documents provided by whistleblower Frances Haugen. These stories offer shocking insights into Facebook's coverup of its role in the democracy-destabilizing spread of hate and disinformation, especially in the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. elections.

By Monday, another dozen reports were added to the pile, including important reporting by Bloomberg and USA Today on Facebook's inability to curb the amplification of hate speech or prevent conspiracy theorists from gaming its algorithms to spread their toxic messages across the company's networks.

What's going on here?

Since early October, a consortium of 18 news outlets, including the Associated Press, The Atlantic, CNN, NBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post, have been sifting through tens of thousands of Haugen's documents, with a plan to publish reports in some synchronized fashion.

Profits over people

The weekend crop of stories were a part of that push. Nearly all of them reveal Facebook executives' reluctance to fix the problem at the heart of the company's dangerous but profitable business: a revenue model that puts engagement and growth before the health and welfare of a multiracial democracy.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported on a rebellion that "erupted" inside the offices of Facebook on Jan. 6 as employees grew frustrated with the company's unwillingness to address the rise of pro-Trump political extremism across its platforms following the 2020 elections.

At CNN, Donie O'Sullivan, Tara Subramaniam and Clare Duffy reported that Facebook was "fundamentally unprepared" to curtail the Stop the Steal movement, which grew out of the false belief that the election was rigged and that Trump was the "true president."

Spokespeople and organizers for this anti-democratic campaign used Facebook's platforms to turn out people at events that led to the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. Even worse, the company provided the basic coordinating infrastructure that mobilized people and incited them to violence. In a damning news clip tied to CNN's report, O'Sullivan asked participants in the insurrection how they heard about or helped organize the attack. Their answer: via Facebook groups and event pages.

NBC, The New York Times and NPR reported on the efforts of a Facebook researcher who created an imaginary user, Carol Smith of North Carolina, to test the platform's engagement algorithms. The researcher offered a few details about Smith, including that she was a Trump supporter and followed the conservative accounts of Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group.

"Within one week, Smith's feed was full of groups and pages that had violated Facebook's own rules, including those against hate speech and disinformation," reports NBC's Brandy Zadrozny. These included several recommendations that Smith join groups dedicated to spreading far-right QAnon conspiracy theories or others espousing support for a coming race war.

Too big (and profitable) to fix

By Monday, Bloomberg reported that Facebook executives have long known that the company's hate-speech problem was far bigger and more entrenched than they had disclosed.

Last March, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg assured Congress that "more than 98 percent of the hate speech that we take down is done by [artificial intelligence] and not by a person." But Facebook employees warned that those numbers were misleading. Neither the company's human reviewers nor its automated systems were that good at flagging most hateful content.

"In practice, the company was only removing 5 percent or less of hate speech, the documents suggest," Bloomberg reported.

Zuckerberg and many of his spokespeople continue to say the violence that resulted from the spread of hate and disinformation is the fault of those who physically harmed others during the insurrection and at other times—but this new series of reports assigns significant blame to Facebook executives.

"Unquestionably, [Facebook] is making hate worse," Haugen told members of the UK Parliament on Monday. "I think there is a view inside the company that safety is a cost center, it's not a growth center, which I think is very short-term in thinking because Facebook's own research has shown that when people have worse integrity experiences on the site, they are less likely to retain [them]."

Facebook isn't capable of such farsightedness. Yes, its constant hunt for short-term growth may ultimately sabotage the social-media giant's long-term survival. But can we really afford to wait for Facebook to fix itself?

As news organizations continue to publish stories exposing Facebook's failures, more and more lawmakers and regulators have called for an investigation of a business model that profits from the spread of the most extreme hate and disinformation.

Fixing the model is the right approach. But it's a repair that Facebook will never do on its own.

Talking Facebook (I Mean Meta), Frances Haugen, the Media Exposé, and What This all Means to Washington

The following is an edited snippet of my conversation with Janine Jackson of CounterSpin and FAIR. You can listen to the entire conversation here.

Timothy Karr: Facebook’s unofficial motto used to be “move fast and break things,” and we now know because of these documents is that the things that it has broken include the lives of people in places like the Philippines, Myanmar and Ethiopia. Facebook also moved fast and broke trust in our democratic institutions and emergency health care systems. They thought that they could hide these facts and we owe it to this whistleblower to have brought these things to light.

Janine Jackson: One takeaway from these revelations is that communities of color are really at risk for hate, harassment and violence that Facebook foments intentionally.     

Timothy Karr: There’s been a real failure when its comes to non-English disinformation that’s spread over the network. And it’s not only a problem in countries like India, in the Middle East and North Africa, in Myanmar and Ethiopia and elsewhere, it’s a problem in the United States where we have a number of diaspora communities who don’t speak English and often rely on Facebook in their own languages as a source of news and information. And Facebook just hasn’t dedicated its resources to vetting those languages. So we find that the spread of disinformation on COVID, or on the 2020 elections results for example is far worse in non-English speaking communities that use Facebook.

Janine Jackson: I wonder if you would talk about what serious responses to the harms that have been revealed about Facebook, what that might look like.

Timothy Karr: A lot of the interesting work that’s being done in Congress is about looking at the business model, a model that puts engagement and growth before the health and welfare of a multiracial democracy. And we need to start questioning the way data are used and to start questioning how data are abused in discriminatory ways…. There is a role not only for Congress to push for transparency, but transparency is only a part of the picture. We need also to make sure that if data are being collected that they are being used to protect the civil rights of individuals and can’t be used in discriminatory ways. The FTC also has the authority to conduct a rule-making process about how not just Facebook but other social media platforms use data. We've been very involved in organizing support in Congress and at the FTC to create a stronger regulatory framework to prevent these types of abuses from occurring again.     

Friday, May 07, 2021

World Press Freedom During the U.S. Tech Boom


On Monday many observed World Press Freedom Day, a chance for people everywhere to assess the global health of a free press and the future of journalism.

As the world marked the occasion, the world’s largest tech companies, including Amazon, Facebook and Google, reported their quarterly earnings. The news for them is very, very good: Their streak of 
trillion-dollar earnings in 2020 is expected to continue to grow through 2021.

But what’s good news for these tech giants is bad news for most traditional news outlets around the world.

The 
New York Times reports that U.S. tech giants are “making bonkers dollars” because of the coronavirus, not in spite of it. The effects of the pandemic have been very different for the world’s newsrooms, which have seen an uptick in layoffs and closures since the beginning of 2020 due to the economic downturn and the continuing decline of advertising in newsprint.

The global ad market now revolves around a new core: the algorithmically targeted placements offered by the likes of Facebook and Google. In comparison to traditional media advertising, this technology is a far more economical way to put products (or ideas) before people who are most likely to buy (or support) them.

Quality local journalism has gotten lost in the reshuffle of the advertising economy. These digital-advertising platforms don’t need to employ reporters or produce news content to reach their intended audiences. The latest numbers reflect this change: eMarketer projects that global ad-spending will top $695 billion in 2021, and that more than 56 percent of that will be payments to online advertisers that typically don’t produce local-news content.

To understand what this means, It’s useful to think of U.S. tech companies as extraction industries that take advertising revenues out of local-news economies.

Lawmakers around the world have responded by crafting policies to “make Big Tech pay” for the damage it’s doing to legacy news production.

The 
News Media Bargaining Code in Australia and the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act in the United States are examples of this response. In effect, these policies seek to force tech platforms into payment negotiations with large outlets in exchange for linking to their content.

Earlier this year, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. leveraged the mere threat of these rules to secure a three-year deal with Google that would provide access to the publisher’s empire of news content in exchange for “
significant payments” from the search giant.

But is facilitating payment negotiations between new and old media giants really the answer?

The reality is that the market-driven model that once fueled traditional news production isn’t sustainable in a world where attention has become the main commodity.

Any policy solution that merely props up the media’s old model is simply prolonging the life of a commercial news system that 
never really served all of the people.

“More than simply placing regulatory patches on broken commercial systems, we must intervene at media’s very foundations,” argues media scholar 
Victor Pickard. He calls for regulatory support of “a positive program that provides robust, diverse, and reliable news and information to all communities — and these communities should be centrally involved in governing and making their own media.”

Free Press believes that creating a diverse and thriving news sector in the United States can be achieved by 
imposing a tax on online-advertising revenues that fuel the platforms and the attention economy.

The resulting revenue would be placed in a Public Interest Media Endowment and used to fund the kinds of local, independent and noncommercial news that’s gone missing from too many communities. For example, a 2-percent ad tax on the 2020 U.S. advertising revenues of the 10 largest platforms would yield more than $2 billion for the endowment — that’s more than four times the annual funding the U.S. government provides for public media.

This is just one approach that can be modified by other nations facing the journalism crisis. There are many others: Lawmakers in 
Canada and the United States have proposed the use of tax credits to help fund local journalism. Such proposals are evidence that lawmakers are getting serious about the issue — but these plans won’t deliver the levels of support needed to rescue local news.

Any policy solution must be built on the fundamental belief that public-interest journalism is a social good, that it is essential infrastructure for democracy, and that governments must play a central role in funding this infrastructure if they hope to see democracy thrive.

As we recognize press freedom this week, we should take action to ensure that it gets the support it needs to survive.