For Investors / For Startups
December 22nd, 2016

Let’s Make Media Work Better for Democracy in 2017

By Christie George

The presidential election has been a wake-up call for many of us. We’ve come out of it feeling like our civic fabric is now stretched and frayed, the victim of a rough game of tug of war. Throughout the candidates’ campaigns, an overwhelming mix of true, somewhat true, and definitely-not-true headlines streamed across our screens. These stories changed how we understood and related to each other — resulting in a real loss of trust, sometimes even in violence — ultimately affecting how we voted. It’s hard to believe the messages from this campaign are really what we want to be sharing about America or what it means to be a good citizen. So if our media has been failing us so dramatically, then what’s it going to take to get digital media right for the health of our culture and democracy?

Thanks to the particular craziness of this past U.S. election, we’re all a lot more motivated to address the risks and issues associated with today’s complicated media. But instead of hoping for a return to the journalism of the past, which is likely impossible, let’s explore a new path forward, a judo move to transform media to work better for democracy.

Here are some key issues surfaced by the election where we at New Media Ventures see the most potential for media innovation to positively impact our democracy. (We also highly recommend reading Melody Kramer’s roundup of 86 post-election journalism pieces and Andrew Zaleski’s key tech trends from the 2016 election.)

Fake News and Media Ethics

Many of us, both Democrats and Republicans, are still scratching our heads trying to make sense of how fake news and misinformation were so rampant in the election, so much so that Oxford Dictionary named ‘post-truth’ the word of 2016.

Nonetheless, fake news and misinformation are not new. And many communities would argue that both explicit and implicit bias have characterized the mainstream media business since its inception. Even Abe Lincoln had to deal with fake news. But now, we’re seeing content factories actively spreading far-fetched stories and quasi-truths that cater to extreme ends of the spectrum. The sheer volume of “news” sources in the 21st century media ecosystem makes accountability much more challenging.

“Extremely slanted news is eroding the authority that news has,” explained NMV investee Eli Pariser (who coined the phrase ‘filter bubble’) in a recent interview. With these ever-polarized perspectives, it’s hard to find the common ground that’s needed for healthy democracy. Pariser even started a crowdsourced google doc to explore solutions that has attracted wide participation.

How might we support sources that provide reliable information and help people to clearly identify untrustworthy sources?

Bots and Dark Influence

Today, around 62 percent of the public gets its news from social media. Too many of those news stories are reduced to clickbait to earn revenue, and there are more stories than most of us can keep up with.

One of the most influential tactics to come out of the recent campaign was pro-Trump accounts’ use of automated social media bots to churn out seven times more propaganda than pro-Clinton accounts. A New Yorker piece that looked into the Russian hacking coverage found, “The real effect… was not to brainwash readers but to overwhelm social media with a flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space.” And not all false stories have political intent. With little barrier to entry and the potential to be highly lucrative, even teenagers in Macedonia were getting in on the polarized content cash cow.

Social media amplifies voices, but it doesn’t discriminate or referee who is heard and who is drowned out.

How do we make sure meaningful content is heard through the noise?

Filter Bubbles and anti-Social Media

“The internet that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 and was used during Arab spring in 2011 is different from the internet that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump,” wrote Mostafa M. El-Bermawy in Wired.

A few short years ago, social media was being hailed by many as a great unifier that powered collective movements. Today, social media is suffering from what looks a lot like an identity crisis. Business algorithms that optimize for engagement surface content that re-enforces perspectives, polarizing people at best and creating damaging divisions in our society at worst. And the prevalence of online harassment has created a hostile environment for many progressive voices. Our newsfeeds have started to feel more like antisocial media. Rather than bringing us together, important stories about culture and politics make it easier to further isolate ourselves rather than to connect with others not like us.

The filter bubble dynamic is one of the most difficult challenges we’ll need to address as we rethink the role of media and how people engage as citizens.

How might we encourage the flow of information across partisan and cultural lines to expand empathy and understanding?

Opportunities for Moving Forward

It’s clear that new media has played a key role in creating these dynamics, and it will have just as big a role in creating the solutions. These potential solutions must encompass and represent not just the traditional press but also social networks, media makers, advocacy organizations, tech companies, news organizations and every person who is digitally engaged. This is where we see a lot of hope and opportunity:

  • We’re starting to better understand key drivers of the shortcomings of dominant media business models, such as ad-based revenue. It’s become clear that some revenue drivers are at odds with and can be detrimental to the accuracy and meaningfulness of news. Publishers are now experimenting with new models like self-funding and building community.
  • Technology is uniquely able to leverage resources to overcome big societal challenges. The future of media lies in technology’s hands, and key technology players are paying attention to how their products and services impact broader social outcomes. We’re seeing Silicon Valley organize initiatives like Nevergain.tech, which is a growing list of tech employees committing to a code of ethics to protect the ‘lives and livelihoods threatened by the incoming administration,” and this open letter by Freshdesk’s Dilawar Syed, which was co-signed by more than 100 technology entrepreneurs, VCs and business leaders (including me) pledging to safeguard freedoms and advance new economy jobs in America.
  • The increased awareness on issues like inequality and harassment is making a difference. For example, NMV portfolio organization Hollaback!had some recent success advocating against harassment on social media, including some of the recent anti-harassment changes on Twitter.
  • Early evidence (read: our inboxes) suggests that there are newly politicized people in our networks and new communities that want to take action. Individuals are mobilizing to create solutions like What Do I Do About Trump, which helps guide individuals newly motivated to become politically active or Four Years of Service, which encourages people to actively fight hatred with acts of service.

In the wake of this election, we have a huge opportunity to organize; to move resources; to support solutions to fake news; to combat harassment; to make sure the media we build fosters constructive messages.

New Media Ventures has supported organizations at the intersection of media, politics, and organizing for years, and it’s clear this work is more important now than ever. In 2017, we’ll continue to work with groups addressing the root causes of these dynamics in the new world of media: the business models we use, the distribution technologies, and how we engage communities around them. And we’ll be sharing the learnings from our work with our growing network of technologists, advocates and organizers committed to progressive media. We hope you’ll join us.