Read The News Today, Oh Boy

Why the new climate report isn't helping its own cause. Plus how a "full stack" approach to digital public infrastructure could help strengthen democracy and defeat disinformation.

If you looked at the news Monday, it’s quite likely the stories on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change filled you with despair. That’s because another piece of solid scientific work, which essentially repeats everything we already know about what’s happening to the climate, was thrown into a broken media system. That system prefers spectacle to substance, and scary headlines and pictures generate more views than political analysis. As many climate experts have been noting this week, the IPCC doesn’t help matters by issuing its assessment reports in multiple parts, with the hard science of the problem coming out now, and the social science on the warming impacts, adaptations and mitigation strategies not coming out until next year.

As veteran science reporter Andrew Revkin points out, there’s still a lot we can do to reduce the risk of drastic climate change. And concerted collective action is far more tenable when people are hopeful instead of fearful. But the IPCC’s report and the headlines it is predictably generating may have the opposite effect, causing people to grow more despairing about the possibility of meaningful change.

Those of us who work in movements and organizing should pay close attention to the difference between the politics of fear and the politics of hope. It’s true that scary news agitates people into action, but history suggests that fear is the ally of demagogues and authoritarians. When people are fearful, they turn into a herd and gravitate toward leaders who promise them safety. Fear is an impediment to clear thinking. When we cultivate hope, we generate increasing demands on the political system to actually make meaningful change. It wasn’t for nothing that the most masterful Democratic politician of our time, Barack Obama, sometimes referred to himself as a “hope monger.” Here he is speaking at the 2004 Democratic convention, which was his breakthrough moment:

“Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope? . . . I’m not talking about blind optimism here — the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the healthcare crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; . . . the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!”

Likewise, radical writers like Rebecca Solnit and Rutger Bregman remind us that humans are often at their most altruistic in the face of disaster. When Katrina hit New Orleans, most people surged to help each other, Solnit reports in her wonderful book A Paradise Built in Hell. When six teenage boys were stranded for 15 months on a tropical island, they didn’t re-enact The Lord of the Flies, they survived by working cooperatively with each other, Bregman reports.

The IPCC’s science reports are incredibly important, but it makes no sense to ask a climate scientist how to solve political problems. As a result, we get a wave of dispiriting headlines instead of a wave of organizing prescriptions. In that respect, it’s heartening to see a group like 350.org emphasizing two simple messages. First, that we can stop the fossil fuel industry in its tracks. And second that mass movements are the way to build the power to change the future.

Bonus link: Climate writer Emily Atkin on what you can do to help win the fight against fossil fuels.

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The Media System We Need

“Strangely, public media has not figured prominently in the discourse surrounding information disorder, notwithstanding the fact that public media entities are among the most trust institutions for both conservatives and liberals.” That’s from the introduction to a new policy paper by Sanjay Jolly and Ellen P. Goodman for the German Marshall Fund, arguing for a “full stack” approach to empowering users, rather than the big platforms themselves, with tools to boost good information and dampen the noise created by bad actors.

What I like about Jolly and Goodman’s approach to fixing our disinformation society is that instead of focusing primarily on the content layer of the problem, they start by emphasizing the important role of “local communities and community institutions that generate civic information and socially relevant conversations, and that provide last mile or last block outreach and inreach” such as “libraries, schools and universities, museums, community centers, and local businesses that facilitate inclusive, accessible democratic deliberation.” And then, second, they argue for shifting public funding away from the broadcast-centric approach now literally embedded in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s name (75% of its funding going to TV and the rest to radio) and call for a new Corporation for Public Media to help drive innovation in the public media system. (Hilary Ross fleshes out this idea further here.)

Finally, they urge that “Public media should deploy data to empower citizens, not exploit them. Data collection should be limited in purpose to serving the public’s civic information needs while maximizing user autonomy over personal information.” Most crucially, they suggest that “Public media can model resistance to surveillant advertising as the singular, default model for financial sustainability.”

I recognize how utopian this must all sound. A handful of dominant tech platforms have done such a good job colonizing civic life that even our most public institutions, libraries, are forced to reach the public by building and feeding their Facebook pages more than their own websites. But Jolly and Goodman, like many others arguing for digital public infrastructure, note that America has a rich tradition of public interventions aimed at nurturing civic communication channels, starting with the postal rate subsidy for newspapers and periodicals. While we wait to see who President Biden picks to run the Federal Communications Commission, there’s ample room for new initiatives aimed at fixing what Big Tech has broken.

For example, in addition to revamping the mission of the CPB, here are two other ideas worth mulling. First, an individual tax credit to reimburse citizens for subscriptions to local news outlets, as embodied in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act co-sponsored by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ). Or give people vouchers aimed at doing the same thing, as Mark Histed outlines here. And second, with the success of the Children’s Television Workshop in mind, maybe we should shift the great bulk of tax dollars and foundation support toward children’s programming. As Melody Joy Kramer and Betsy O’Donovan put it in their 2017 white paper for the Knight Foundation, let’s focus on building “better citizens from birth,” and then distributing the resulting content through schools, libraries, the Internet and TV.

-Related: Speaking of responsible public media, consumer rating platform Yelp is giving businesses the ability to announce if they require masks from customers and if there staff is fully vaccinated, the company announced late last week. It will also proactively monitor pages that add those attributes, noting that it has already seen a jump in user-contributed content focusing on a business’ stance on COVID vaccinations.

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Tech and Organizing

-Amazon workers at its Bessemer, Alabama distribution warehouse may get a second chance to vote on forming a union, thanks to a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, which found that the company unlawfully interfered in the election. The case still has several levels of appeal left before the outcome is clear. The NLRB also ruled that Amazon had unlawfully interfered in an organizing effort on Staten Island. But as Jacob Silverman writes for The New Republic, while anti-trust sentiment is on the rise, until the giant company is actually broken into more manageable parts, it’s hard to see how labor organizing alone is going to change its rapacious behavior.

-“All ‘smart city’ technology trends toward corporate and state surveillance and … if we don’t stop and blunt these trends now that totalitarianism, panopticonism, discrimination, privatization, and solutionism will challenge our democratic possibilities.” That’s a quote from Rebecca Williams’ excellent new report for Harvard’s Belfer Center titled “Whose Streets? Our Streets (Tech Edition).” She catalogs a litany of abuses from just the last year in the US, “where the unprecedented participation in Black Lives Matters protests during the summer of 2020 were met with surveillance by street-lights in San Diego, business district cameras in San Francisco, Ring cameras in Los Angeles, helicopters in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Washington, spy planes in Baltimore and Florida, and facial recognition technology in New York, Miami, and Pittsburgh.” Then she couples that to the larger trend of “data-driven” technocratic governance, and how it removes agency from communities, closing with a ten-point list of policy changes we need now to protect personal data and protect public spaces. As she writes, “Democracy requires safe spaces, or commons, for people to organically and spontaneously convene regardless of their background or position to campaign for their causes, discuss politics, and protest. In these com-mons, where anyone can take a stand and be noticed is where a notion of collective good can be developed and communicated. Public spaces, like our streets, parks, and squares, have historically played a significant role in the development of democracy. We should fight to preserve the freedoms intrinsic to our public spaces because they make democracy possible.” Amen!

Odds and Ends

-The US Senate is on the verge of passing a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that shockingly appropriates no new funds for election administration, and civic leaders like Tiana Epps-Johnson of the Center for Tech and Civic Life are raising the alarm. “I am already hearing from stunned local election officials who are disappointed that no money whatsoever could be found to help ensure that our local election infrastructure is safe, secure and accessible. Federal funding from Congress is the best way to create budget certainty and set local election departments up for success. The decision from Congress to take a pass on funding is a double hit for many election officials who can no longer accept private funding for election administration,” she notes.

-Fonts of wisdom? For all the hoopla about tech helping fight COVID, we’ve seen little meaningful impact outside of the actual development of vaccines. Remember the COVID-19 Global Hackathon, which was heavily hyped by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg? Nearly 19,000 teams signed up, but the winners were less than inspiring, like an Italian website containing “optimistic information about the COVID-19 situation.” Now MIT Technology Review’s Will Douglas Heaven reports on two new studies looking at hundreds of efforts at using artificial intelligence to diagnose or predict COVID in patients, which found that “none of them made a real difference, and some were potentially harmful.” In many cases, the problem was extremely bad data. In one case, “a group trained its own model using a data set that contained a mix of scans taken when patients were lying down and standing up. Because patients scanned while lying down were more likely to be seriously ill, the AI learned wrongly to predict serious covid risk from a person’s position.” Heaven also writes, “In yet other cases, some AIs were found to be picking up on the text font that certain hospitals used to label the scans. As a result, fonts from hospitals with more serious caseloads became predictors of covid risk.” (h/t Dan Hon)

-You know New York governor Andrew Cuomo is in deep trouble when even top former Obama White House officials like Valerie Jarrett are talking to reporters like the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow about his past efforts to improperly squelch federal prosecutor Preet Bharara from investigating him. It does appear that Cuomo’s ability to hang onto power is finally dissolving, though the plodding pace of the state Assembly, which has yet to hold a public impeachment proceeding, is not encouraging.

-Attend: This Thursday through Saturday, Impact Labs is holding a free online summit for students interested in learning more about using tech for social good.