DPI-659 blog post 6: Arab Spring

The Arab Spring was supposed to be the start of a revolution. And in a way, it was. Online tools emboldened young activists to give voice to longtime tensions that had simmered just beneath the surface of society, creating a wave of protest that ultimately toppled the government.

In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky talks about the three levels of social awareness: 1. everybody knows something; 2. everybody knows that everybody knows; and 3. everybody knows that everybody knows, that everybody knows. Prior to 2007, Egypt was in the first or second level: people suspected that their government was corrupt and perhaps through local conversations, they knew that this sentiment was shared amongst their friends and family. But because communication was limited and the government controlled mass media, few talked about it publicly, and the state could continue with the status quo.

The age of the internet changed this. As Shirky notes, the internet collapsed the cost of sharing and coordinating, making new methods of organization available to ordinary citizens, methods that allowed events to be arranged anonymously, without much advance planning. The ability to speak freely and to share widely unleashed the third wave of social awareness: anger mounted; citizens were emboldened to speak out as they saw others doing so; and protests could be organized almost instantaneously over social media.


In her article A “Cute” Facebook RevolutionBasem Fathy argues that “the influence of factors (conditions, events, and timing) was much greater that the influence of actors.” I would argue, however, that Fathy underestimates the power of social media tools in accelerating and amplifying the feelings of Egypt’s citizens. A hundred years ago, it would have taken years for books about events to circulate. Thirty years ago, cassette tapes or letter might have circulated slightly faster. But in the interim, citizens’ feelings may have cooled or governments may have had a window to sense the changing winds and respond in order to preserve their regime. In 2011, communication was almost instantaneous. Rather than cooling, outrage was stoked with outrage in realtime. By the time the government responded, it was too late.

There were also some strategic decisions that helped organizers succeed. As Ethan Zuckerman notes in his lecture Where Social Media Meets Social Changeby infiltrating popular social networks, rather than creating stand-alone websites, there are automatically more people who buy into the cause, even if they do so passively (this is perhaps the one place where the long tail doesn’t work so well). It’s easy for the government to shut down a website: only the people who care about that cause will care. But by posting to platforms used by a broad swath of society such as YouTube or Facebook, many more people will be outraged when the government retaliates against a fringe group Suddenly unable to access there cat videos or soccer highlights, large masses of citizens will feel they are being oppressed, stoking more outrage. Similarly, by creating a Facebook page and then cost-posting on the platform, Wael Ghonim was able to reach new audiences and form alliances much more efficiently than if he had been managing a stand-alone website.

While these tools helped bring about an abrupt change, five years later I can’t help but wonder if perhaps social tools accelerated the situation too quickly, toppling dictatorships before any alternative or next step had been thought through. As a result, Egypt ended up with a harsher military regime and now grapples with a terrorist threat. The Middle East is more fragmented than ever.

Fathy notes that the Egyptian uprising was “a very large, loose network of young and old activists that at one point decided to gather together for common action.” And perhaps that was one of the downfalls of the “revolution.” Once the protests were over and Mubarak was gone, there was no unified vision or clear path forward. The status quo had been shattered, but what would take its place? It would take more than a Facebook group to figure that out.


DPI-659 Assignment 5

Everything we think we know about campaigns is a lie.

Perhaps that seems a but hyperbolic, but I have no other way to explain this week’s election results. After a campaign that seems to have lasted years, unrelenting media coverage, and poll upon poll, we have a campaign result that seemingly no one saw coming. I don’t know how that’s possible.

I spent the week before the election reading Victory Lab. I learned that data is now driving elections, that campaigns can use micro-targeting to identify likely voters and tailor their messages accordingly. In this era where data science dictates everything from interest rates to consumer advertising, the idea of campaigns using data made sense, even if it seemed a little creepy.

Clinton’s campaign apparently read Victory Lab too. Today, the Washington Post wrote about how her campaign relied on data from a secret algorithm named Ada, that was fed polling data and then dictated how the Clinton campaign should deploy resources, informing everything from campaign stops to where to buy TV ads.

“Clinton aides were convinced their work, which was far more sophisticated than anything employed by President Obama or GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, gave them a big strategic advantage over Trump,” the story says.

If data is so valuable and so useful and so sophisticated, how did so many people get this election so wrong?

I’m not so much disturbed by the election result as I am by the fact that no one seemed to see this result as a possibility. Not the polls. Not the mainstream news media. And certainly not the Kennedy School. This week, the institutions I rely on to help me be an informed citizen were revealed to be out of touch with HALF of the voting population. There was no conversation or consideration of what a Trump presidency would look like because everyone was convinced it wouldn’t happen. That is a huge, huge failing.

The thing that seems most obvious to me is that we have turned what was once a tool (technology) into a panacea. If the Clinton campaign relied on Ada and allowed it to override decades of real-life campaign experience (which the Post seems to imply) to drive decision-making, that was a mistake. The Clinton’s have been playing politics for almost four decades. They have the experience to know how to connect with voters. And yet, they seem to have disregarded that experience in favor of an algorithm.

Over the next several months, I suspect we’ll learn more about how the polls got this election so wildly wrong. But I can’t help but think that an over-reliance on polling data combined with letting “data-driven decisions” trump tried and true lessons contributed greatly to the failure to accurately understand where the allegiances of voters in this country truly lay.

DPI-659 Assignment 4: Business Models/ Production and Consumption of News

Our class today focused on journalism as a business, but I can’t help but think that journalism’s failure to understand the threat of the internet from a business aspect is closely tied to its failure to understand the threat of the internet from a journalistic aspect as well. I’ll try and speak about both here.

Interior of Tribune Tower lobby. (photo credit)

The business of news is something I’ve worried about since I was 18, when I went out looking for my first job in journalism. It was 1999, and while doomsday hadn’t quite yet hit the news business, things were starting to decline. That summer, I worked as a stringer, earning a dollar an inch writing stories on local government for a weekly paper in New Hampshire. In order to make enough money to get me through the next semester of school, I supplemented my reporter’s income working full-time as a lifeguard and teaching sailing lessons a few nights a week. That should have been a sign.

I became a journalist because I loved to write and didn’t want to work for “the man.” When I graduated from college, I landed a job at the Orlando Sentinel, covering municipal government in a town halfway between Orlando and Daytona Beach. That job, and the bureau I worked in no longer exist. Upon enrolling in a 401(k), I found out that the Sentinel’s parent company, Tribune, put their match in company stock, unless I opted out. I caught this after a couple paychecks and asked my dad what to do. He advised me to have the match put into a Vanguard account, sell the Tribune stock I had, and buy myself a six-pack with the proceeds. That should have been a sign.

In my first three months on the job my colleagues embedded with the military as the U.S. invaded Iraq, and the space shuttle Colombia broke up as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. Both were huge stories for the paper, but they weren’t enough to pay the bills. Actually, deploying reporters to cover these stories probably exacerbated the situation. Newsgathering is expensive, and the paper announced cuts soon after I got there. Around the same time, company executives were getting six-figure performance bonuses. I remember feeling galled that I was working 60+ hours a week to create the product that was the bedrock of a business (no one buys a paper for the ads) with no prospect of a raise, while company executives got bonuses that equaled six years of my salary. Turns out, I was working for the man.

I remember sitting in the newsroom watching colleagues twice my age take buyouts, and eventually get laid off. I remember thinking how hard it would be to reinvent yourself at 50, with a mortgage and kids in college. And yet, even as colleagues bemoaned the decline in news, they were slow to take steps to save it. Shirky talks about this in his book: how legacy media institutions colored by their narcissism bias failed to comprehend how big or disruptive the internet was. Something that was once hard and expensive, was suddenly easy and cheap. The New York Times 2014 Innovation Report says as much, as well, pointing to a culture that prized the print product, while digital-first competitors expanded rapidly.

Newsrooms were slow to warm to the internet, seeing it not as competition, or even as a tool, but as a conundrum. Even now, in 2016, news organizations are still having conversations about how to effectively use the web to gather news. At the same time, their business models were extremely fragile: as Nicco Mele notes in his Shorenstein Center podcast, for 150 years journalism has relied almost exclusively on revenues from advertising funding. This fragility was especially hard felt in places like Florida, where tourism drove the economy. In the post-9/11 economic downturn, tourism declined, taking the paper’s ad revenues with it. It is almost incomprehensible to me that an entire industry would rely on one revenue source to fund it. Yet, history is full of examples of businesses that relied on a narrow revenue stream, failed to innovate, and succumbed: Kodak, Studebaker, and Blockbuster, for example. Comfortingly, none of these businesses makes an appearance in the Constitution. The press, however, is another story.

The press, on one hand, is a business. On the other hand, it is so much more. So what is to come?

Shirky notes that, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” But for more than a century, newspapers have been the bedrock of journalism. If not newspapers, what?

I’m reminded of the lobby of the Tribune Building (now tronc, Inc. headquarters), which stands today as an almost ironic beacon of the importance of journalism. There, inscribed in stone, are reminders of the mission and value of a free press. Among them:

“Newspapers are the sentinals of the liberties of our country.”
–  Benjamin Rush

“Our liberty depends of the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
– Thomas Jefferson

Shirky ends his post hypothesizing that over the next few decades, a “collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.” To me, that sounds like saying over the next few decades, we might find a treatment for cancer, but in the interim a lot of people will die. In the meantime, what will slip through the cracks without a fourth estate to watch for it?

Here’s what I know: Newspapers were late to the internet game. Newspapers are expensive to print. Newsgathering is expensive. The model is broken. Something has to change. Society will lose a lot if it doesn’t.

Here’s what I think could help: Newspapers could be non-profit, instead of owned by publicly traded companies. This would help ease some of the revenue pressures. Newspapers could go digital, ending the need for expensive printing and distribution operations. Newspapers could diversify their revenue streams, taking some money from advertising, but also crowd-funding stories, and seeking foundation support.

Is it enough? Maybe not. But then, if I had all the answers to this, maybe I’d still be in the news business.