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


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