Ethan Zuckerman: So, thanks every­body. We are lucky enough at this point to hand mod­er­at­ing duties off to two sets of capa­ble hands. To my right, the love­ly Micah Sifry, late of Personal Democracy Forum, Harvard’s Kennedy School, a mil­lion and one oth­er things. He has a love­ly lit­tle book on WikiLeaks that I rec­om­mend. Over to my left, the love­ly Zephyr Teachout, most late­ly of Fordham Law School, involved with any man­ner of won­der­ful things. Early Global Voices con­trib­u­tor, which I’m very grate­ful for. Longtime fel­low Berkman fel­low asso­ciate, etc. With no fur­ther ado, on to you guys.

Micah Sifry: Thank you, Ethan. Okay, so I apol­o­gize on behalf of the Harvard Law School, the entire Harvard sys­tem, for the lack of prop­er caf­feine. There was­n’t caf­feine there. Did any­body get caf­feine? I did­n’t get any caffeine. 

So we’re going to have to— You know, we all store some extra caf­feine in the lymph nodes. Call on it now. This is the last ses­sion of the day. I know there’s always a dan­ger that ener­gy can flag, but I think we can bring it back and bring things to a strong conclusion. 

So before I bring up our four pre­sen­ters who are going to be talk­ing about inter­ven­tions for insti­tu­tions, I’d like to just sort of open first by just pick­ing up on the pow­er of metaphors that Christian Sandvig was offer­ing us at the begin­ning of the last ses­sion where he talked about the dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing about the Internet and how those dif­fer­ent frames, those metaphors, maybe lead to dif­fer­ent ideas about how to inter­vene on this problem.

But I actu­al­ly want to go beyond the way we think about the Internet to think about this whole ques­tion we’ve been wrestling with, which is you know, our infor­ma­tion sys­tem, and to take a metaphor that my friend Craig Newmark (who’s up there) likes to say, which is that the press or the media is the immune sys­tem of democ­ra­cy. And I think in one form or anoth­er that is what we’ve been talk­ing about here, is this sys­tem of peo­ple, ideas, inter­ac­tions, insti­tu­tions, that play a role in how we gath­er and fil­ter infor­ma­tion and make deci­sions as a coun­try or as a sys­tem, as a democracy.

And I also want to just flag that I thought Ethan’s sug­ges­tion that we hunt for exam­ples or we keep ask­ing our­selves how tractable is this approach, that we rec­og­nize that some of us like to work on the thing that will help between now and November, like Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s sug­ges­tion, very action­able, to try and reduce the amount of decep­tive TV ads that air. And oth­ers want to look more broad­ly at insti­tu­tion­al or infra­struc­tur­al kinds of respons­es that maybe strength­en that immune sys­tem beyond one elec­tion cycle or par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal event. 

I would like to pro­pose just as a tran­si­tion that you know, there are indi­vid­ual approach­es. We heard a few already. I’d like to men­tion two more. One a very inter­est­ing new book by the for­mer direc­tor the Sunlight Labs Clay Johnson called The Information Diet, which sug­gests that part of the solu­tion here is for indi­vid­u­als, the same way that we’re all tempt­ed to eat bad calo­ries that aren’t nutri­tious because our bod­ies are wired to respond to things like sug­ar, that we can also per­haps train our­selves to kind of be care­ful about what infor­ma­tion we con­sume, and in this dig­i­tal age also pay atten­tion to how we con­sume infor­ma­tion online. 

So that metaphor of the indi­vid­ual try­ing to diet I think could be a help­ful one. I’d like to offer anoth­er one, which is that we also think about the role that indi­vid­u­als can play them­selves as you know, ask­ing bet­ter ques­tions, as peo­ple whether we are pro­fes­sion­al­ly in that role as jour­nal­ists or as ama­teurs, as just cit­i­zens encoun­ter­ing sit­u­a­tions where a time­ly ques­tion asked can make a dif­fer­ence, and that per­son­al­ly I’m look­ing for ways to increase the sup­ply of good ques­tions and to reward, whether it’s pro­fes­sion­al jour­nal­ists or ama­teurs, when they do ask good ques­tions. That per­haps we can stim­u­late as a soci­ety that practice.

But just to go back to this metaphor of the immune sys­tem. It seems to me that if we take that as an oper­at­ing metaphor then we do have to admit that bad infor­ma­tion, mis­in­for­ma­tion, is with us to stay, the same way that bugs and virus­es are also with us to stay. We’re nev­er going to stamp them out, we just have to devel­op vac­cines or devel­op ways of keep­ing the body healthy, but under­stand­ing that they are too part of the system. 

And so I want to sug­gest that maybe as we think about infra­struc­ture, that what we’re talk­ing about here, insti­tu­tion­al respons­es, is a kind of pub­lic health approach to this prob­lem of mis­in­for­ma­tion, truthi­ness. And that the same way that it took mod­ern soci­ety a while to fig­ure this out, that actu­al­ly dis­ease isn’t just some­thing that floats in the air but it’s for exam­ple in dirty water, and thus we start invest­ing in things like clean water and sewage sys­tems, that we also have to think in the same way about what sort of infra­struc­ture do we need to get a health­i­er infor­ma­tion ecosystem?

And I don’t have all the answers but maybe some of the next group of peo­ple who are pre­sent­ing can offer us some in this con­text. And so just hold that thought of pub­lic health approach, strength­en­ing the immune sys­tem of democ­ra­cy. And I’d like to bring up now on our first speak­er. We’re going to go in the order of the peo­ple list­ed in the program.

Further Reference

Truthiness in Digital Media event site