Category Archives: The Public Interest

Part Eight: Different Realities

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

Image of a duck, or is it?  If you look at it another way, you see a rabbit.  The duck's bill makes up the rabbit's ears.  This classic optical illusion illustrates how perception creates reality.
There are duck people and rabbit people, and nobody is allowed to be both, anymore. Public Domain, Link

My Mom and I sat down over the last two weeks and watched the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. The experience made it terrifyingly apparent just how different our realities are as Americans. Camp Red America might as well be on an alien planet from Camp Blue America. We live in alternate universes.

So much of what the Commission recommends is dependent on people of goodwill working together independently of their tribal partisan identities. But can that be done when our differences extend beyond even our identities and determine our fundamental perceptions? If we can’t agree on what is real, how can we agree on what to do about it?

That means that quite possibly, the most critical recommendation the Commission makes is to hammer out a national story we can all accept (6.2). But this can’t just be about history. Before we can even address the past, we need to generate a coherent, unified theory of us in the present. We flirted with this at the beginning of the pandemic, back before Dr. Fauci was politicized. But we couldn’t sustain it. It didn’t take long for our conflicting realities to reassert themselves.

That, then, begs the question; if an unprecedented national crisis can’t bring our worldviews together, what can?

When things transform as radically and drastically as they have in the US over the past 20 to 30 years, one must ask what changed? What is different now that might have led to this outcome? Since this has been a time of massive disruption, it’s easy to find phenomena to blame. It’s Facebook’s fault. The internet did it. The 24-hour news cycle brought us low. One can go on and on.

And one will be somewhat right. All of these factors, and so much more, have contributed to our situation. But I’m struck by one change in particular. The other day my Mom and I talked about the giants of news when I was growing up. Everyone knew who Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings were. And during my Mom’s young adulthood, everyone knew Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and Edward R. Murrow.

Unusual color picture of Edward R. Murrow hamming it up with a cup of coffee for the Pan American Coffee Bureau.  Murrow and anchors like him helped to create a shared reality in America.
Murrow in 1953. Copyright 1953, Pan American Coffee Bureau / Public domain

These newsmen, and they were overwhelmingly men, had plenty of blind spots. The media was complicit in marginalizing people of color and women. The news of the day didn’t tell many important stories and didn’t report critically on a lot of other important stories.

Nevertheless, the anchors of the three big networks, between them, ensured that most Americans were getting the same information with a similar emphasis. Mom and I couldn’t think of a single person in the current mediascape who has that kind of broad-based authority and gravitas. Our fractured media landscape has opened the floodgates of differing ideas and opinions. In so doing, it has had the unintended consequence of creating conflicting realities.

I’m not sure we can begin to reconcile our realities without a common trusted news source.

That may be the recommendation the Commission forgot to make.

I don’t have an answer for how to reunite our worlds, but the Commission itself gives me hope. One can still find 35 heavyweight thinkers from across the ideological spectrum who share enough reality to have a rational conversation and find a consensus. They can even gather enough people interested in civil discourse to have nearly 50 listening sessions around the country. That has to be a good sign.

Now it’s really up to us. Emergency response training tells us that if something bad happens to someone, the impulse to step in and help varies with the number of witnesses. If you are alone with someone who suddenly experiences a seizure, you will probably help them. But if you are part of a crowd that witnesses the seizure, you (and all your fellow humans) will tend to think that someone else has got it, and not help.

Right now, there are 328.2 million witnesses to America’s convulsions. We’re all making the wrong assumption that someone else has got this. No one has it. It’s up to each of us to try to help. The Commission’s strategies and recommendations are a good place to start.

Part Six: Internets in the Public Interest

This post is part of my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US.

Our Common Purpose: Reinventing Democracy for the 21st Century highlights many things that are wrong in our democracy. Our institutions aren’t as representative as they could be. Our voting system is antiquated. Our politicians aren’t responsive. Our civil society is dwindling. These issues are either long term trends or the result of baked-in functions whose time has passed. The most dramatic and recent problem for our democracy has cropped up over the last 20 years— the internets.  

Surely a network that was already so vast in 2005 should operate in the public interest.
Partial map of the Internet based on the January 15, 2005 data found on opte.org. Each line is drawn between two nodes, representing two IP addresses. The length of the lines are indicative of the delay between those two nodes. This graph represents less than 30% of the Class C networks reachable by the data collection program in early 2005. The Opte Project / CC BY

(I use the term internets because it amuses me, but also because it is more accurate to the current situation. We have a multitude of internets, each increasingly siloed from the others.)

If American democracy was on shaky ground already, the advent of social media has been an earthquake.  

Things started with such promise! Back when my household got its first computer, circa 1995, the internet was going to make everything better. Surely a more connected society would be a more democratic society. Surely the chance for individuals to know people from all over the world and from all walks of life would render our society fairer, more just, and more equitable. Early adopters saw a bright future ahead for all of humanity.   

Back in the early days, we all thought the internet would just automatically serve the public interest.
The early days. Microsoft / Public domain

That was before everyone was online, and we discovered that human vitriol and relative anonymity are a combination forged in hell. Before we all learned how shockingly credulous we are in the aggregate. Before bad actors figured out what spies have known forever: the most effective hack is done on hearts and minds, not machines.  

It is boggling even to begin to think about how to fix the ensuing mess. But the commission rightly points out that we, as humans and as Americans, have created these systems. There is no reason (bar a lack of political will) we can’t change them for the better.  

Perhaps the first step touches on the commission’s second (5.2, tax the advertising online and create public platforms) and third (5.3, regulate private platforms to dedicate spaces to public interest applications) recommendations. Before we can get down to business, we have to reengage with the ideas of a public good and the public interest. When TV started, it was understood that broadcasters were using airwaves that belonged to the public. That is, to every person in the country. Therefore, they owed it to the public to produce programming in the public interest, and they paid for the privilege.    

Somewhere along the line, we lost sight of this principle. And with the advent of the internets, we seem to have lost track of it entirely.  

Perhaps it is because the public good is a little harder to identify. Facebook, Google, and Twitter don’t use the public airwaves, so what right have we the people to regulate them? I submit that our collective data is every bit as much a public good as airwaves, national forests, BLM land, and our coastal fisheries. We may sign away rights to our personal data when we sign up for an account, but our collective data belongs to the public as a whole. And if a company is going to monetize it, they should incur both taxes and fees, and an obligation to provide for the public interest.  

All that is without even getting into the idea that the internet itself is a sort of international public good.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, and What's App (pictured as keys on a keyboard) should serve the public interest, since they are taking advantage of public goods.
They may not use the airwaves, but they use the public’s information. Today Testing (For derivative) / CC BY-SA

Once this is understood, taxing these companies to fund public alternatives (a PBS of social media platforms, if you will) and regulating them to serve the public interest on their platforms is fair. They’re using data that belongs to we the people. They should pay for the privilege and use it in a way that benefits us, or we’ll sell it to someone else.  

The commission’s other recommendations in this strategy (5, Build Civic Information Architecture that Supports Common Purpose) have to do with: 

  • how we determine that public interest (5.1), 
  • how we gather data to see if it is being met (5.4), 
  • and developing a data source and clearinghouse for research that supports social and civic infrastructure (5.5).  

These are by far the most technical of the commission’s recommendations. A working group (5.1) to “…articulate and measure social media’s civic obligations…” would be a great start. The commission uses the analogy of railroad gauges when talking about creating interoperability between social media platforms. That recommendation (5.4) is primarily concerned with giving researchers and the government access to the data social media platforms are garnering on us. The final recommendation in this strategy is to create the Democratic Engagement Project, a space hosted by a university or consortium of institutions where extensive data gathered on democratic engagement can be studied, including longitudinally.  

In his 1961 speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, then FCC Chair Newton N. Minow (pictured) called TV a vast wasteland, and extolled programing in the public interest.
Newton N. Minow, JFK’s Chair of the FCC, described TV as a vast wasteland in a speech in 1961, laying out the need for more broadcasting in the public interest. The words are certainly apt for the internets. Today Testing (For derivative) / CC BY-SA

Unfortunately, the United States has become so polarized that even ideas like a public good and the public interest are political. That makes implementing at least three of these ideas (taxes and fees to fund public social media, regulations providing for public areas in established social media, and interoperability and access to data) hopes for the future. In the current political climate, they are going nowhere.  

Our polarization stymies some of the steps to fix our polarization.  

But perhaps this situation won’t last forever. At the end of the day, it is up to us. We think of ourselves, the public, as powerless before the titanic forces unleashed by the internets. We resign ourselves to a toxic sea of misinformation, slander, hatred, and aggrieved whining as if there is nothing we can do about it. In reality, the internets and everything we put into them are ours. We should take them back.