Professors and journalists debate role of digital media in democracy today

By RYAN AGHAMOHAMMADI | November 14, 2019

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COURTESY OF RYAN AGHAMOHAMMADI Public scholars deliberated the effects of new media technologies on democracy and public trust.

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Agora Institute co-sponsored a panel discussion titled “Digital Media in the 2020 Election” on Tuesday. 

The panel consisted of writers and scholars whose main interests focus on the intersection between digital media and politics.

The other cosponsor of the event was the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. 

The speakers included Jesse Baldwin-Philippi from Fordham University, Daniel Kreiss from UNC, April Glaser of Slate, Nancy Scola of Politico, Scott Shane of the New York Times and Sasha Issenberg of New York magazine. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Kreiss, associate professor at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, elaborated on his concerns about public trust, tampering and other modes of interference.

“We have a real crisis in public trust in media and media institutions. We have a lot of questions about electoral integrity, vote tampering,” he said. “Not all of these are driven by tech, but tech amplifies a lot of these larger things. More broadly, we see a need to reinvest political institutions with the ability to handle 21st-century crises.” 

Shane, a reporter with the New York Times, echoed Kreiss’ concerns but took a pessimistic perspective at the current state of technology. 

“Most technologies are neutral or available for both good and evil, and I feel that with a lot of online technologies, if we compare it to the discovery of fire, people said, ‘Wow, you can stay warm and cook! Isn’t it great?’ And then their house burned down,” he said. “I think with the internet and social media, in particular, we’re at the house-burning-down stage.”

Throughout the moderated discussion, the different panelists each expressed their own concerns about technology and what the public should be aware about.

The issue of Silicon Valley, however, is a bipartisan issue. 

Politicians on both sides of the political divide have expressed disillusionment and concern with major software firms and the rise of social media’s influence. 

Scola, a senior technology reporter at Politico, drew a comparison between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren, who have expressed similar thoughts concerning Silicon Valley.

“At the same time, Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump have found a common vision that these companies are horrible and have made it a campaign issue, that these companies are a threat to democracy,” she explained.

Glaser agreed with this point, citing that Facebook has always had a misinformation problem and that so far little has been done to combat it. 

“There’s been misinformation running rampant on Facebook for well over a decade,” she said. “Now we’re asking them to do something, and sure, we can ask that, but they’ve never done anything about it.”

Issenberg, author of Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, reasoned that misinformation has always been a problem but that social media has amplified it.

“I do think there’s a civic danger in the velocity and intensity and what we know about the psychological dynamics in types of social media that we should be concerned about as its own distinct problem,” he said. “But we should not pretend that this started in 2016.”

Many panelists had trouble answering a question on what the government’s role should be. 

Major technology firms have more funding and employees to mobilize than even the federal government. Scola pointed out that the Federal Election Commission does not have a quorum and, thus, has little power when it comes to educating the public and passing regulations. 

She worries that Silicon Valley is outrunning the government’s regulatory ability. 

“Do we have the democratic institutions that are capable of matching the power of some of these platforms?” she said.

Shane echoed this concern in response to a question about deepfakes, a new media form that allows users to map one individual’s face onto another, allowing them to forge realistic videos. 

“Technology is outrunning old institutions like elections,” he said. “Anyone who has watched these deepfakes floating around the internet knows they are a pretty scary possibility.”

Glaser agreed, stating that her role as a journalist has become harder as formerly reliable forms of information have become untrustworthy.

“Evidence is going out the window. Deepfakes are an example of this,” she said.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Andrew Corkery, a visual research producer at the Real News Network, explained the issue with the advent of deepfakes. 

“As a visual producer, it’s something that worries me a lot. It is important, and it is newsworthy, and it makes sense to cover it, but you’re giving implicit credibility to something that doesn’t deserve it,” he said.

Deepfakes were just one concern that the panel and interviewees expressed about the weaponization of new technologies. 

With the popularity of social media platforms across the generational gap, some point to examples of when such accessibility to the public consciousness has been taken advantage of.

Shane pointed toward Russian interference in the 2016 election as an example of something that consumed the last electoral cycle. 

He explained how Russian intelligence agencies bought Facebook ads with Russian credit cards during the last election.

“They did a spectacular job of imitating Americans on social media. They played every card pretty brilliantly,” he stated.

Corkery acknowledged the importance of covering stories on election interference but worried that these type of stories can consume the media. 

Instead of focusing on the daily problems that people in the United States face, the focus is shifted onto a more sensationalized story.

“The Russia-gate story is sort of sexy in a way; it sounds like a spy novel,” he said. “A lot of this is true and had a tangible impact, but it makes it so there’s less coverage of a lot of other things.”

Andy Krew, a senior at Towson University, believes the way younger generations consume information lends itself to creating echo chambers in which misinformation can be proliferated.

“Millennials and Gen Z get most, if not all, of their political news through social media. We end up making our own groups and echo chambers of what we want to hear about,” she said. “It is imperative [that it is] known that there are these foreign agencies coming into our elections.”

Many agreed with Krew that the public must remain vigilant concerning the type of political information circulating, especially since regulation of social platforms is limited, if present at all.

Kreiss explained that open discussion is a way for the public to educate themselves and to become vigilant against misinformation. 

“It’s our responsibility to have a set of conversations for public audiences around things like electoral integrity, around what the public has to be vigilant about, how the public has to hold elected officials and others to account, to strengthen democratic processes and make them trustworthy and reliable and represent people,” he said. 

When looking to the future of elections, the panelists shared hesitation and concern. Glaser stated that he could not envision a possible electoral cycle in which everything runs smoothly. 

“I can’t imagine a future right now where our elections are not awful and staying the way they are,” she said.

Scola shared a similar outlook, expressing wariness of the power that social media platforms wield with their ability to decide which ads are political and which to take down. 

“It’s going to be a complete mess this election cycle. You’re going to see Facebook or Google or Twitter in the position to make these decisions in real time, days before people are voting,” she said.

Some speakers and attendees, like Krew, were optimistic for the future and encouraged Americans to be responsible media consumers.

“I hope they become more skeptical,” Krew said. “I just want people to check their sources.”

Corkery expanded on this, referring to his own role at a news outlet and his responsibility to gather information from a myriad of sources. 

“Look at a wide range of outlets. Even if you don’t necessarily believe in whatever political beliefs someone has, I think it’s important to engage with that information so at least you can understand why people are gleaning those different realizations,” he said. 

Kreiss reaffirmed this statement, issuing a call to action for people in the U.S.

“The most important thing for the public is to find public sources and rely on them,” he said. “Call out misinformation when you see it. Call out racism when you see it. Look to hold people who share those things and undermine democracy or work to silence other voices, hold those people accountable.”

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