Mistrust, Efficacy and the New Civics — a whitepaper for the Knight Foundation

I wanted to be clear that I think journalism has a great deal in common with other large institutions that are suffering declines in trust. Yes, the press has come under special scrutiny due to President Trump’s decision to demonize and threaten journalists, but I think mistrust in civic institutions is much broader than mistrust in the press.

.. The path forward for news media is to help readers be effective civic actors. If news organizations can help make citizens feel powerful, like they can make effective civic change, they’ll develop a strength and loyalty they’ve not felt in years.

.. When a disruptive entity like Google or Facebook becomes an institution, it’s incumbent on us to build systems that can monitor their behavior and hold them accountable. It’s rare that existing regulatory structures are well-equipped to serve as counter-democratic institutions to counterbalance the new ways in which they work. As a result, there’s at least two ways look for change as an insurrectionist:

  1. you can identify institutions that aren’t working well and strive to replace them with something better,
  2. or you can dedicate yourself to monitoring and counterbalancing those institutions, building counterdemocratic institutions in the process.

.. Some evidence exists that the shape of civic participation in the US is changing shape, with young people more focused on influencing institutions through markets (boycotts, buycotts and socially responsible businesses), code (technologies that make new behaviors possible, like solar panels or electric cars) and norms (influencing public attitudes) than through law. By understanding and reporting on this new, emergent civics, journalists may be able to increase their relevance to contemporary audiences alienated from traditional civics.

Some evidence exists that the shape of civic participation in the US is changing shape, with young people more focused on influencing institutions through

  • markets (boycotts, buycotts and socially responsible businesses),
  • code (technologies that make new behaviors possible, like solar panels or electric cars) and
  • norms (influencing public attitudes)

than through law. By understanding and reporting on this new, emergent civics, journalists may be able to increase their relevance to contemporary audiences alienated from traditional civics.

.. One critical shift that social media has helped accelerate, though not cause, is the fragmentation of a single, coherent public sphere. While scholars have been aware of this problem for decades, we seem to have shifted to a more dramatic divide, in which people who read different media outlets may have entirely different agendas of what’s worth paying attention to. It is unlikely that a single, authoritative entity — whether it is mainstream media or the presidency — will emerge to fill this agenda-setting function. Instead, we face the personal challenge of understanding what issues are important for people from different backgrounds or ideologies.

..  Trust peaked during the Johnson administration in 1964, at 77%. It declined precipitously under Nixon, Ford and Carter, recovered somewhat under Reagan, and nose-dived under George HW Bush. Trust rose through Clinton’s presidency and peaked just after George W. Bush led the country into war in Iraq and Afghanistan, collapsing throughout his presidency to the sub-25% levels that characterized Obama’s years in office.

.. With the exception of the military, Americans show themselves to be increasingly skeptical of large or bureaucratic institutions, from courts to churches.

.. In other words, the internet and social media has not destroyed trust in media — trust was dropping even before cable TV became popular.

.. trust in media has fallen steadily since the 1980s and 1990s, now resting at roughly half the level it enjoyed 30 years ago, much like other indicators of American trust in institutions.

.. Trump’s choice of the press as enemy is shrewd recognition of a trend already underway.

.. It’s not just that we trust each other less — people around the world appear to trust institutions less.

.. It’s also possible that reduced confidence in institutions could relate to economic stress. As numerous scholars, notably Thomas Piketty, have observed, economic inequality is reaching heights in the US not seen since the Gilded Age. The decrease of confidence in institutions roughly correlates with the increase Piketty sees in inequality, which is stable through the 50’s, 60’s and mid-70’s, rising sharply from there.

.. I favor a third theory, put forward by Kenneth Newton and Pippa Norris, called the institutional performance model. Simply put, when institutions perform poorly, people lose trust in them: “It is primarily governmental performance that determines the level of citizens’ confidence in public institutions.”

  • Vietnam and Watergate as eroding confidence in the federal government,
  • the Catholic Church sex scandal destroying trust in that institution,
  • the 2007 financial collapse damaging faith in banks and big business.

.. Watergate returned the US press to its progressive-era muckraking roots and ended a period of deference in which indiscretions by figures of authority were sometimes ignored. (It’s interesting to imagine the Clinton-era press covering JFK’s personal life.)

.. An explosion in news availability, through cable television’s 24-hour news cycle and the internet, has ensured a steady stream of negative news, which engages audiences through fear and outrage.

.. It’s worth noting that those most concerned with restoring public trust tend to be elites, those for whom existing institutions are often working quite well.

.. One approach to institutional mistrust is to try and educate this disenchanted majority, helping them understand why our institutions are not as broken as we sometimes imagine.

.. What happens when protesters no longer trust that institutions they might influence can make necessary social changes? The Occupy movement was widely criticized for failing to put forward a legislative agenda that representatives could choose to pass. Occupiers, in part, were expressing their lack of confidence in the federal government and didn’t put forth these proposals because their goal was to demonstrate other forms of community decision-making.

.. Early in the American republic, “good citizens” would be expected to send the most prominent and wealthy member of their community to Washington to represent them, independent of agreement with his ideology. Later, good citizens supported a political party they affiliated with based on geography, ethnicity or occupation. The expectation that voters would inform themselves on issues before voting, vote on split tickets making decisions about individual candidates or vote directly on legislation in a referendum was the result of a set of progressive era reforms that ushered in what Schudson calls “the informed citizen”.

.. Informed citizenship places very high demands on citizens, expecting knowledge about all the candidates and issues at stake in an election — it’s a paradigm deeply favored by journalists, as it places the role of the news as informing and empowering citizens at the center of the political process.

.. Unfortunately, it’s also a model plagued with very low participation rates — Schudson observes that the voting was cut nearly in half once progressive political reforms came into effect.

.. he argues that America has moved on to other dominant models of citizenship,

  • the rights-based citizenship model that centers on the courts, as during the civil rights movement, and
  • monitorial citizenship, where citizens realize they cannot follow all the details of all political processes and monitor media for a few, specific issues where they are especially passionate and feel well-positioned to take action.

.. while participation in “institutional” politics (rallies, traditional political organizing, volunteering to work with a candidate) is low, there is strong engagement with “participatory politics”, sharing civic information online, discussing social issues in online fora, making and sharing civic media.

.. We usually think of Elon Musk as an inventive entrepreneur and engineer, but it’s also possible to think of him as one of the most effective activists working to halt climate change.

.. The Black Lives Matter movement is less focused on specific legislative change than on changing social norms that cause many people to see black males, especially young black males, as a threat.

.. the Overton window — the idea that certain policy prescriptions are so radical that a politician could not embrace them without compromising her own electability.

.. Hallin’s sphere of deviance has psychological implications that falling outside the Overton window lacks.

.. “Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance — as defined by journalists — will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go… chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.”

.. The growth in media diversity brought about by the rise of the internet and social media means that if your ideas are outside the sphere of legitimate debate, you can simply find a media sphere where you’re no longer in the sphere of deviance. My friend, frustrated that he could not find media debating his ideas on immigration, began reading Breitbart, where his deviant ideas are within the sphere of consensus, and the legitimate debate is about the specific mechanisms that should be used to limit immigration.

.. Breitbart is the 61st most popular website in the US, close in popularity to the Washington Post.

..

In our data set, which examines how websites are shared on Twitter or Facebook, Breitbart is the fourth-most influential media outlet, behind CNN, The New York Times and politics site The Hill.

.. Even in the days of political pamphlets and early newspapers, it was possible to experience a Federalist or Anti-Federalist echo chamber.

.. The rise of large-circulation newspapers and broadcast media, which needed to avoid alienating large swaths of the population to maintain fiscal viability, led us into a long age where partisan journalism was less common.

.. cable news made partisan news viable again, broadcast news networks and major newspapers maintained aspirations of fairness and balance, attempting to serve the broader public.

.. As purveyors of wholly manufactured fake news (like the Macedonian teens who targeted content at Trump supporters) know, there is a near-insatiable appetite for news that supports our ideological preconceptions.

.. people seek out ideological compatible media not just out of intellectual laziness, but out of a sense of efficacy. If you are a committed Black Lives Matter supporter working on strategies for citizen review of the police, it’s exhausting to be caught in endless debates over whether racism in America is over.

.. If you’re working on counseling women away from abortion towards adoption, understanding how to be effective in your own movement is likely to be a higher priority for you than dialog with pro-choice activists.

.. three different generations of internet media have made it possible to self-select the topics and points of views we are most interested in.

  1. The pre-Google web allowed us to self select points of view much as a magazine rack does: we choose the National Review over the Nation
    • .. narrowcast media like websites and magazines allow more stark, partisan divisions.
  2. With the rise of search, interest-based navigation often led us to ideological segregation,
    • .. the vegan cooking website is unlikely place to meet conservatives, much as searching for progressive voices on a hunting site can be frustrating.
    • And the language we use to describe an issue — climate change, global warming or scientific fraud — can be thoroughly ideologically isolating in terms of the information we retrieve.

  3. What’s different about social media is not that we can choose the points of view we encounter, but that we are often unaware that we are making these choices.
    • it has a tendency to reinforce your existing preconceptions, both because your friends are likely to share those points of view, and because your behavior online indicates to Facebook what content you are most interested in. Eli Pariser calls this problem “the filter bubble”, building on earlier work done by Cass Sunstein, which recognized the tendency to create “echo chambers
    • Twitter has pointedly not filtered their timeline, which avoids the filter bubble, but leaves responsibility for escaping echo chambers to the user. While you can decide to follow a different group of people on Twitter
    • Our team at the MIT Media Lab is working on Gobo, a new tool that allows you to filter your Facebook and Twitter feeds differently
    • One possible escape for Facebook is to eliminate algorithmic curation of newsfeeds, moving back to a Twitter-like world in which social media is a spray of information from anyone you’ve chosen to pay attention to. Another is to adopt a solution like the one we are proposing with Gobo, and put control of filters into the user’s hands.

“News is shared not just to inform or even to persuade. It is used as a marker of identity, a way to proclaim your affinity with a particular community.”

.. factchecking, blocking fake news or urging people to support diverse, fact-based news is unlikely to check the spread of highly partisan news.

  • Not only is partisan news comfortable and enjoyable (I find it reassuring to watch Trevor Noah or Samantha Bee and assume that friends on the right feel the same watching Fox News commentators),
  • spreading this information has powerful social rewards and gives a sense of shared efficacy, the feeling (real or imagined) that you are making norms-based social change by shaping the information environment

.. conservative sources like the Wall Street Journal or the National Review. In our study, those publications are both low in influence and linked to by both the left and right, while the Breitbart-centered cluster functions as an echo chamber.

.. Our debates are complicated not only because we cannot agree on a set of shared facts, but because we cannot agree what’s worth talking about in the first place. When one camp sees Hillary Clinton’s controversial email server as evidence of her lawbreaking and deviance (sphere of consensus for many on the right) or as a needless distraction from more relevant issues (sphere of deviance for many on the left), we cannot agree to disagree, as we cannot agree that the conversation is worth having in the first place.

.. phenomenon of asymmetric polarization — in our analysis, those on the far right are more isolated in terms of viewpoints they encounter than those on the far left.

.. it might be possible to stop the left from developing a similar echo chamber.

.. the polarization of dialog in the media is a result both of new media technologies and of the deeper changes of trust in institutions and in how civics is practiced.

.. The Breitbartosphere ..  It’s possible because low trust in government leads people to seek new ways of being engaged and effective, and low trust in media leads people to seek out different sources. Making and disseminating media feels like one of the most effective ways to engage in civics in a low-trust world

.. Is it reasonable to expect Americans to rely on a single, or small set, of professional media sources that report a relatively value-neutral set of stories? Or is this goal of journalistic non-partisanship no longer a realistic ideal?

.. Why does public media seem to work well in other low-trust nations but not in the US?

..  — Is there a role for high-quality, factual but partisan media that might reach audiences alienated from mainstream media?

 

Github flow process: multiple deploys per day

For teams that have to do formal releases on a longer term interval (a few weeks to a few months between releases), and be able to do hot-fixes and maintenance branches and other things that arise from shipping so infrequently, git-flow makes sense and I would highly advocate it’s use.

For teams that have set up a culture of shipping, who push to production every day, who are constantly testing and deploying, I would advocate picking something simpler like GitHub Flow.