“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
So proclaims the fictional Howard Beale in the 1976 film classic Network. And now Beale’s mantra will ring out nightly in an electrifying new stage production featuring Bryan Cranston that opens on Broadway this week. When the film first appeared, it revealed a dystopian world where commercial media companies would harness rage for profit. And now the theatrical adaptation serves to remind us how we got here, to an age when commercial media companies harness rage for profit.
Today, the radical howl of a mad prophet has become the implied mission statement of every cable-news host, as well as every blogger and social-media personality on the planet, seeking fame and glory and advertising dollars. Unfortunately the constant drone of rage and vitriol obscures sound and factual information needed to conduct thoughtful public-policy debates.
What can philanthropy do to counter this unhealthy social dynamic? Perhaps it’s time for foundations to support social-media projects and platforms that will enlighten and inform users without regard to the interest of advertisers and investors.
Recent revelations that Facebook adopted aggressive tactics to counter critics like philanthropist George Soros and civil-rights advocates at Color of Change have raised questions about the ethics of the company. This episode only further damages the reputation of a company that is increasingly shown to have undermined democracy and auctioned off the privacy rights of its users to advertisers and nefarious political players on a massive scale. And this is just the latest controversy in a year when big social-media companies — Twitter and Facebook — have come under fire for harboring domestic hate groups and foreign interests seeking to disrupt our political system.
But beyond the current concern over the bare-knuckle public-relations tactics that Facebook has pursued against its critics, perhaps the larger question for philanthropy is how foundations can help create social-media platforms and services that serve the public interest if large commercial platforms are organized in a way that is fundamentally detrimental to individual users and the community as a whole.
Fake Information Travels Fast
More than half a century ago, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow famously declared television to be a “vast wasteland,” decrying the quality of programming. In that generation, philanthropy stepped up, and through the efforts of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, it led the development of a robust public broadcasting service, resulting in the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
If television of the 1960s was a wasteland, today’s media environment is toxic. In particular, the rise of social-media platforms and the ubiquitous internet itself have together contributed to a media ecosystem where misinformation and disinformation thrive. Indeed, a recent study published in the magazine Science reveals the unfortunate contours of traffic flows on social-media platforms, where false information typically travels further and faster than true information. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology examined a massive trove of data from Twitter over a decade and were able to chart precisely how much more vibrant was the spread of fake news over true facts.
Mark Twain never said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” The attribution is fake. But the idea is true. And now, with data from the Science magazine article, we know precisely how fast and how far a lie can travel.
Social-media companies make money based on the volume of traffic they generate, as more views bring in more advertising revenue. This creates a perverse incentive to the extent that social-media companies like Facebook or Twitter can earn more from false information than they can from the truth.
At the same time, it’s also a poor reflection on the ability of average people to distinguish between truth and fiction. And there is much that nonprofits can do to strengthen the media-literacy skills of viewers to help them become more skillful in ferreting out the truth.
But it may be time for foundations to move beyond simply helping media consumers and producers to navigate existing outlets effectively — however corrosive they may be to our democratic process. We need to devote substantial resources to create alternative social-media platforms operating in the public interest, just as philanthropy did 50 years ago in expanding the reach of public media.
Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble and co-founder of Upworthy, says that it’s time for a new digital public media system that gathers attention, earns trust, and generates sustainable revenue. Speaking to a gathering of media donors earlier this year, Pariser said, “What we should be looking for is a new ecosystem of community-focused, impact-oriented digital-media channels and entities and a network that can share learning capacity across these properties.”
Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees with Pariser. “I’ve argued that we need many social networks, not just one, and that they can have different rule sets, different audiences, and different purposes,” he said, speaking at the same meeting. “I’d love for at least one of those networks to focus on helping us prepare to be citizens in a diverse and complicated world. That network probably needs public support, much as children’s television needs public support if we want it to work well.”
Is this practical? Actually, yes, it is possible to create nonprofit information services on a scalable and sustainable basis, with enough recurring revenue to operate at a level that reaches millions of users a day.
Among the obvious examples, Wikipedia is a nonprofit information service that reaches hundreds of millions of people each month and is ranked fifth in overall traffic on the internet. Wikipedia survives on the voluntary donations of users, as well as scattered contributions from a relative handful of foundations and other philanthropic donors. Because Wikipedia’s content is generated by an enormous community of volunteer contributors, it is able to achieve this level of reach with a staff of just 300 employees. Facebook, by comparison, has the third largest number of online users and operates with a staff of more than 30,000.
In a similar vein, the Mozilla Foundation is a nonprofit organization that owns and operates Firefox, which is the second most popular web browser for computers in the United States. Operating with a mission to keep the internet free and open, the Mozilla Corporation generates revenue of $500 million annually through software products designed to give users greater control of their data and privacy. For its part, the Mozilla Foundation operates programs and makes grants to support open access, individual privacy, and security on the internet.
Craig Newmark is the founder of Craigslist, and in the past couple of years he has distinguished himself as one of the biggest donors in support of journalism, giving $20 million to the City University of New York to establish the Newmark School of Journalism and providing another $20 million to help start the Markup, a new publication focused on news about the technology industry, to name a couple of his most substantial donations.
But Newmark’s biggest gift to society may have been the way he organized his business enterprise. Craigslist has operated with the same primitive structure and design from its early days, connecting people who are offering and seeking products and services, mostly for free, without advertising and without collecting vast amounts of personal information. By choosing not to monetize Craigslist anywhere near the degree to which Silicon Valley venture capitalists would have advised him to do, Newmark has created a service that should serve as a model for efficient and fair treatment of consumers, all the while spinning off more than enough profits to enable him to become one of the biggest philanthropists in the tech industry.
Taken together, these hybrid enterprises prove that it is possible to deliver information products and services on a mass scale in ways that are not designed to maximize profits, much the way that public broadcasters have done for more than a half century.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that all these years later, public broadcasting is still delivering vital educational and cultural programming, as well as cutting-edge news products. Just this week, for example, PBS’s Frontline published a special interactive edition of its powerful two-part report on the “Facebook Dilemma,” a deep investigation of the company’s impact on privacy and democracy in the United States and around the world.
In a special note to viewers, Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline’s executive producer, said, “The promise of Facebook was to create a more open and connected world. But from the company’s failure to protect millions of users’ data, to the proliferation of so-called “fake news” and disinformation in the U.S. and across the world, mounting crises have raised the question: How has Facebook’s historic success as a social network brought about real-world harm?”
Frontline asks the hard questions. And public broadcasting may hold some of the answers on how we restore trust in media.
This piece originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on Dec. 5. Vince Stehle is the executive director of Media Impact Funders and a Chronicle columnist. He is also a board member of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.