Ethan Zuckerman On Why Institutional Failure Can Spur Positive Change

Season 3 Episode 12
Ethan Zuckerman on Why Institutional Failure Can Spur Positive Change

Trust in our institutions is at an all-time low. Mistrust can lead to the spread of misinformation and conspiracy thinking, such as seen in movements like QAnon and anti-vaccination campaigns, but it can also be a force for positive social change.

S3E12 / April 29, 2021

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Episode Description

Americans’ trust in democratic institutions has been strained over the past few years. The stress fractures are expressed in everything from cries of “fake news” against the media, to outrage over violent and racist police actions, to suspicion about COVID-19 precautions and vaccines, to the siege on the US Capitol Building in the aftermath of the presidential election. When trust in institutions falls, the populace can be stirred into action. Depending on the issue and the group, this action can have negative or positive impacts on society.

In this episode of Big Tech, Taylor Owen speaks with Ethan Zuckerman, professor of public policy, communications and information at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and author of the newly released Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them.

Zuckerman’s work looks at how mistrust in the United States has led to activism and institutional change, from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, to Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and Occupy Wall Street. But he warns that mistrust can also be used in negative ways. “One thing mistrust is very, very good at doing is getting people to disengage. If you feel like you have no control over a political situation, if you feel like you have no way of making your voice heard, if everything is a fait accompli, you stop playing the game,” Zuckerman explains. “The other thing that mistrust seems to do, and this is fascinating, is that mistrust sort of reads as a choppy sea. It reads as a complicated scenario that no one knows how to find their way through. And then whoever it is who manages to thrive in that scenario, that person is destined to lead”—a tactic, Zuckerman says, that both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have exploited.

Ultimately, Zuckerman says, “mistrust is a perfectly reasonable thing to have”: it is up to society to critically think about its institutions and determine which ones are worth protecting, which ones need reform, and which ones should be torn down altogether.

Transcript

This transcript was completed with the aid of computer voice recognition software. If you notice an error in this transcript, please let us know by contacting us here.

 

Ethan Zuckerman: You need citizens to be skeptical. You need citizens to hold institutions responsible. The danger is that if you insist, "No, nothing can change," that's when institutions become brittle and incredibly fragile.

Taylor Owen: Hi, I'm Taylor Owen, and this is Big Tech. It hasn't exactly been a banner year for institutional trust, particularly in the United States, whether it's people refusing to wear masks because they don't trust the CDC or storming the Capitol because they thought the election was rigged. It's safe to say that trust in our institutions is precarious right now, but Ethan Zuckerman argues that mistrust could actually be a force for good. In his new book Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them, Ethan describes how movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Occupy Wall Street stem from very legitimate institutional mistrust, and also offer a way to create social change while working around these very institutions. Ethan began his career in the tech sector itself, infamously inventing the pop-up ad, perhaps as penance. He then shifted to building and understanding the empowering attributes of technology. Whereas much of the debate about the internet quite rightly focuses on harms, Ethan has spent the past 20 years championing the power of the internet to amplify new voices, create new communities, and challenge institutions in dire need of reform. So when he turned his attention to trust, something I've been thinking a lot about over the past year, I was excited to talk to him. We ended up having a wide ranging conversation about the roots of societal mistrust, why Canadians have more faith in institutions than Americans, and how the internet has both the potential to make this problem worse and to provide some tools to fix it. Ultimately though, I think Ethan's book and this conversation is an invitation to think critically about our institutions, which ones are worth protecting, which ones need to be reformed and which ones need to be torn down altogether. Here is Ethan Zuckerman. I don't think people are surprised to hear that trust in institutions is low, obviously, but how bad is it from your perspective? Is it a difference in degree or kind that we're seeing now?

Ethan Zuckerman: Yeah, it's interesting. So the reason I got involved with studying trust had to do with my students. So I really wrote this book while I was at MIT. I was running a lab called the Center for Civic Media. And the more that I talked with those students, the more that I realized that they had very little confidence in what you might think of as the standard model of cynics. This idea that we need to win elections, good people need to stand for office and that by joining those institutions and becoming part of them, positive social change occurs, my students to a large degree, were not buying it. And the more that I looked at it, I wasn't buying it either. And so I started to think about where that model came from. And in many ways I think that model came from the US civil rights movement. And this idea that the combination of legislative action, court action, and public protest could work together to put pressure on institutions and lead towards various attempts to change. And if you work in social change in the United States as I have for 20 years, you get really used to advocacy organizations run by lawyers that make their change in the court. And I started wondering whether there was something that had changed in society between the 1960s, which is the height of the civil rights movement and the present. And one of the things that seemed clearest to me was this catastrophic fall of confidence in institutions. So when you just look at the end points of it, it's easy to tell a particular story. And that story says, "Wow, people really had great confidence in institutions in the 1960s." You'd have four out of five Americans telling you that they trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time in the mid 1960s. By the mid 20-teens, that number's down to one and five. So clearly this must be a recent phenomenon. This must be the internet. It must be social media, it must be polarization, but then you look more closely and actually confidence in the US government falls the most sharply during the 1970s. It's a long time ago. And while that confidence claws it's way back at different points, it's really about local moments in the political cycle. It's confidence under Reagan, it's confidence under Clinton. It's the bellicosity of a nation at war after 9/11. But pretty much since the 2010s it's been very, very low down, but that first drop in confidence is something that we really have to consider. And for me, that takes us to this question of abandoning public goods, of really questioning what government is for. Now, those are diagnoses that in the book, I draw very specifically to the US and the UK, particularly to Reagan and a Thatcherism. I would be interested from your perspective in Canada, whether there is that same neo-liberal shift towards the uninvolved state. For us down here in the US we tend to look north and see a much more functioning state. So I'd be very curious how that differs between the nations.

Taylor Owen: The short answer is while there has been one particularly notable ten-year period of conservative government that did bring in certain Reaganite, Thatcherite small government initiatives, trust in institutions is still very high in Canada.

Ethan Zuckerman: Yeah.

Taylor Owen: Government institutions, but perhaps more consequentially I think media institutions, the trust levels in Canadian broadly define centrist media is incredibly high. And I actually think it plays a huge role in mitigating some of the effects of more polarized media online. If everybody is still reading or consuming a more moderate evening news, it plays a huge role in mediating some of the more eccentricities of the online ecosystem, right?

Ethan Zuckerman: So I think that's totally worth digging into. I have the good fortune, my department chair in the school of public policy over at UMass Amherst is a marvelous Canadian scholar, Alister Roberts. And he and I were talking about polarization at the end of the 2020 US election, right? And so truly crazy election where not only did you have people going into the streets, but you had people on the right storming the US Capitol believing the election had been stolen. It's impossible as a media scholar not to see strong media aspects to this, right? It's quite possible for people on the right to isolate themselves in a media bubble in which the election was clearly stolen and something must be done about it. Robert's pointed out that in Quebec, 40 odd years back, you had a media ecosystem where you had entirely different views of the world depending on whether you spoke English or French. And you also had moments of incredible instability and frankly terrorism around Quebecois separatism. And as Al put it, it took a lot of work to make Canadian politics as boring as it is. And I thought it was a lovely way to think about it because of course, this is a moment where I think Americans would pay for boredom, right? But I think the role of the CBC and the role of media that is taking public interest extremely seriously, I think that can't be dismissed. But I think what I would say more broadly on this, Taylor, is that my diagnosis in many ways is that institutions are really vulnerable to mistrust through two routes. The first is that they can screw up and lose trust organically, right? So the medical system in the United States has had a catastrophic fall in confidence, similarly confidence in the church falls sharply at the time that The Boston Globe reveals the extent of sexual abuse within the Catholic church. But the second way that institutions can lose confidence is if they're just systemically attacked. And what's interesting in that Reagan, Thatcherite moment is that it's an attack on government itself. And so we see that under Reagan in the States, we see it again with Trump. It's a different attack, right? There's literally a conspiracy against him within the deep state, but Trump also goes against media as a whole and chooses it as his enemy of choice. And that has an enormous amount to do with loss of confidence in this. So if Canadians have much greater confidence in institutions, it may in part be due to those institutions simply function better. It may also have to do with the fact that unlike in the US, the UK, and frankly Russia, right? Which is where I think a lot of these techniques develop, there has not been the political tendency of demonizing the institution and turning it into an enemy, which seems to be an incredibly effective technique.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. That really jumps out in your analysis. I mean, it's something that's a real point of differentiation, I think, between the American media ecosystem and certainly the Canadian one. And I think about your former colleague, Yochai Benkler's argument around-

Ethan Zuckerman: Still very much my colleague just not at the same university.

Taylor Owen: Fair enough. Fair enough. I mean, what struck me about his analysis of 2016 was that the picture that emerged of this confluence of online radicalization, normalization in mainstream media, but then further normalization through political speech and that's what catalyzed that mistrust of government. Whereas in Canada, we have the same crazies online. But we don't have a Fox News like entity repeating those at night, and we don't have a political party trumpeting the same narrative on the campaign trail. And so that deep level of mistrust of institutions or the state, which really has to take seed never really grabs hold.

Ethan Zuckerman: So an analysis that I had the good fortune to work on... Friends of mine in France approached me and said, "Look, could we repeat the Benkler team's analysis in France? We're really curious if we're facing the same polarization of this asymmetric polarization that Yochai saw where the right went off the rails and the left remains within a relatively normal distribution of opinion." So we did a ton of work. We did a very thorough Twitter analysis. We did lots and lots of text analysis. We did lots of graph therein processing. The output of the whole thing is the same thing is not happening in France. In France there is this tight cadre of elite media that sets the agenda for the country. They are enormously interconnected whether they lean left or right. And the rest of the country's media is looking to them to see what the important stories are. There are lots of downsides about this. That elite media can be elitist. It can be blind, but what it means is that there's no platforming of those conspiracy theory, extremist views, which are just as pervasive within the French internet as they are in the US internet, they just can't find a foothold.

Taylor Owen: And because they can't find a foothold, there's no political motivation to adopt them either, right?

Ethan Zuckerman: That's exactly right. That's exactly right. So if broadcast media came in with a Fox News style channel, it might radically change the equation, but at this particular point, we were able to look at it and say, "No, this is just unfolding very differently in France. If anything, what we want to warn is that there are probably interesting narratives coming up in these mistrustful segments of media, and they are not getting platformed and you might be ignoring them at your own peril. You have to figure out how to pay attention to that." But yeah, the US situation is really unusual, unique, and problematic. You asked a question at the beginning of all of this. How worried should we be?

Taylor Owen: Yeah.

Ethan Zuckerman: I think in many ways the most worrisome study that I ended up discussing in the book is the Foa and Mounk study called [The Danger of Deconsolidation: [The Democratic Disconnect], right? And in simple terms, it's actually... It's a really simple study. It's just a reanalysis of cross tabs of the World Values Survey. And it's asking people the question, do you believe that it's essential to live in a democracy? And people born early in the 1930s and '40s in the US, 80% say it's essential to live in a democracy. Once you get to middle-aged people like me born in the 1970s, it's down to about 50%. When you go generations younger than mine, it can be down to 30%. And this is a fairly consistent finding across mature democracies. Part of what's fascinating about this is people's responses to this paper.

Taylor Owen: Oh, yeah. I mean, it got a little bit of attention, this paper.

Ethan Zuckerman: It got a lot of attention. But one of my favorite responses is from one of the scholars who's most responsible for the World Values Survey who wrote back and said, "Okay, there is a finding here, but it's probably mostly about the United States where this effect appears to be the most dramatic." And obviously that's to be expected because the US democracy is utterly dysfunctional at this point.

Taylor Owen: Right.

Ethan Zuckerman: And it's wonderful when you see a dispassionate methodologist sort of say, "Well, of course the US has completely screwed up." We're not so sure about this in Europe, but clearly there's some of what's going up here. Yeah.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. So what are some of the consequences of this declining trust? I mean, they make the case that it's leading to this democratic deconsolidation, and maybe that's the case in many respects, but you seem to paint a broader picture of the consequences of this. You give that great example of the Sicilian Mafia emerging, the emergence of private actors when no one trust public ones, may be one consequence, but could you expand a bit on what you-

Ethan Zuckerman: Sure. Sure. Well, I'll start with that example because I do think it's interesting and illustrative, and I'll see if I can find two more examples that come out of that. Scholars of Sicily have a much more sophisticated understanding of the mafia than we tend to get from Hollywood movies.

Taylor Owen: Yeah.

Ethan Zuckerman: And the understanding of the mafia that's advocated by Italian scholars who are knowledgeable about these things are that the mafia is best understood not as a criminal organization, but as a trust broker. That obviously there's an enormous lot of criminality that goes on, but that this is how societies respond to having low interpersonal trust and low institutional trust. If you have high interpersonal trust, but low institutional trust, that's actually a nice example of Japan right now. Low confidence in institutions, very high confidence in fellow citizens, that you can get away with.

Taylor Owen: What does that lead to? What kind of social organization does that lead to?

Ethan Zuckerman: I think it leads to governments that are not always super stable and governments that end up being very widely criticized, but a highly functioning economy because people are able to build it on strong personal ties. China for instance, has very high institutional confidence, very, very low interpersonal confidence. That seems to lead towards a very strong government and the capability of a wild west capitalism to emerge where ultimately you can rely on someone to sort things out, but it can get pretty bloody in the meantime. Sicily was an example of low interpersonal trust, low institutional trust through a lot of history coming out of it. And the idea is that the mafia emerges as the fair broker. You're going to stand there and make sure that the cattle breeder and the butcher both get a fair deal and you're going to go slice the deal in the process. And this literally seems to be the case down to control of the drug trade. Palermo is evidently legendary in drug control circles because so few people overdose because the purity and quality of the drug supply is so high.

Taylor Owen: Because it's controlled by this honest broker.

Ethan Zuckerman: Because it's controlled by an honest broker that works very, very hard to quote Warren G, "To regulate," right? To maintain those illegal operations. This is not the society anyone wants, right? But it is the sort of thing that can emerge at a moment where government and other institutions are simply not stepping up and taking control. A parallel might be what's happening in some Brazilian favelas right now, where we are seeing arm to gangs institute coronavirus lockdowns to try to deal with the spread of the disease that is going mostly unchecked in Bolsonaro's Brazil. But I'll give you a third example of this, which is very personal for me. March 13 of last year I had a bunch of things in New York and for me really the only way to get to New York is via trains and subways. And I was really nervous about it, but I was going to do it. And then my university, at that point MIT, before I'd moved to UMass, my university just ordered me not to. And I found myself thinking, "Well, thank God someone said something," right? The Trump administration wasn't going to order me not to get on a train. My state government hadn't said anything about it. So finally, my employer stepped up and said, "Look, as an institution, we're going to make a decision that you need the lockdown." And it's one of those reminders that institutions could be really helpful. Sometimes it is really helpful to have a bureaucracy sort through a very complex fact pattern and make the go-no-go decision. I actually think moments of crisis like the coronavirus are increasing our understanding and our need for institutions and institutional voice.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. And certainly this last year has been just a Petri dish for various test cases and trust in institutions, in vaccines, in the pharma industry in each other. I mean, trust has been at the centre of a lot of this. And one of the things you see in Canada is the left and the right responding to that in quite different ways. Yes, there's been a slight decline in trust in government in handling this and the right sees this as their overbearingness, but actually the majority of people want the government to do more. So a lack of trust isn't actually that they think they're doing them too much, it's that they need them in this time. They're not doing enough. And you talk a lot about how the left and right interpret trust and react to mistrust differently. It seems in some ways the right takes advantage of it politically and to mobilize in a more powerful and effective way than the left, which sometimes disengages when they don't trust this process. How do you view that, the ideological nature of mistrust, I guess?

Ethan Zuckerman: So I need to be careful as I talk about this, right? Because I do believe it is possible to be politically conservative without supporting many of the things that have become associated with conservatism in the United States. It's not a healthy moment for a movement that may have legitimacy, but it's really not showing it at this point. Mistrust has at least two things that it can do. One thing mistrust is very, very good at doing is getting people to disengage. If you feel like you have no control over a political situation, if you feel like you have no way of making your voice heard, if everything is a fait accompli-

Taylor Owen: Then you step back, right?

Ethan Zuckerman: ... you stop playing the game. The other thing that mistrust seems to do, and this is fascinating is that mistrust reads as a choppy sea. It reads as a complicated scenario that no one knows how to find their way through. And then whoever it is who manages to thrive in that scenario, that person is destined to lead. Right? So the theory there is why does Vladimir Putin engage in not so much propaganda, but in a generalized increase in mistrust? Why is it the philosophy of a great deal of Russian media to promote conspiracy theories, to promote non-rational thinking... The theory behind it is that it's confusing, it's chaotic. But one thing that is deeply apparent to everyone is that Putin is very much in charge. And the same playbook is something that in many ways you could see with Trump. Trump ends up saying, "Look, it's all conspiracies, everyone's got their own agenda. There's a deep state that's working against me. But look at me, I'm a self-made billionaire. I know how to rise above all of this. And I can make this all work." The problem with that of course is that once you lose and lose as soundly as he did, that notion of invulnerability is punctured. And my sense is that Trump can't pull that trick off again. What worries me is that it's now a playbook for someone else to take forward. And I think as long as we have this incredible high level of mistrust and perhaps disengagement, that it could easily work again.

Taylor Owen: So in some sense mistrust can be a democratic good if it mobilizes groups to push for change. And then you have a government that is responsive to that change. I mean, thinking 2008 financial crisis, that led to a huge amount of distrust, but there was probably a... A lot of people wouldn't think enough, but there was a response of government that came in and some change emerged. So that's a democratic good form of mistrust. And then four years later you have a slightly more significant level of distrust leading to a leader with autocratic tendencies. I mean, it's a delicate knife edge.

Ethan Zuckerman: It can absolutely cut both ways. You need citizens to be skeptical. You need citizens to hold institutions responsible. Institutions naturally protect themselves. And if you don't engage in surveillance, if you don't engage in counter democracy, those institutions more often than not will find a way to go off the rails. The danger is that if you don't accept this dynamic, that institutions are going to be subject to mistrust, that people are going to try to reform them and you insist, "No, nothing can change," that's when institutions become brittle and incredibly fragile.

Taylor Owen: I wonder if that counter democracy principles are open democracy. I've just finished reading Hélène Landemore's book on open democracy and deliberative democracy processes. And I can hear her responding that, "Okay, counter democratic movements, yes, are response to mistrust in traditional institutions or seeking reform. But actually don't go far enough in reforming the institutions themselves." So a more radical institutional reform agenda that deliberative democracy community would call for. That actually you need to rebuild these institutions, not abandon them and just push from them from the outside. So I wonder if there's a... Is there a radical version of institutionalized reform as opposed to external reform?

Ethan Zuckerman: Sure. Sure. I think there's two pathways there. I mean, so the first is that I actually talk about radical institutionalism as one of my pathways towards productive insurrectionism. So contra democracy, right? This sort of mistrustful, "Let's hold people responsible. Let's keep institutions honest." That's one version of it. A second version is knocking institutions down and building new ones in their place. A third one is using energy from the inside to pull institutions back to their original goals. So the example that I often give of that in the United States is what people are calling the progressive DA's movement. So in the United States, the district attorney's office has an enormous amount of power within criminal prosecution. Not only do they make the case against the defendant, but they can determine whether to bring a case in the first place, they can divert people into training programs or substance abuse programs. The vast majority of the time what they do is they try to imprison people. So there is now a movement from district attorneys to use the full toolkit to basically say, "We don't want to imprison everybody. We actually want to deal with community justice, or we want to deal with restitution and we want to deal with getting people into treatment." So that notion of radical institutionalism, I think that's absolutely possible. I think it's absolutely worthwhile. I guess what I would say is much as I love my deliberative folks, I don't know that everyone is committed to deliberation under the right and the fair circumstances. And deliberation can be a great deal of time token inclusion. I am in many ways much more excited about conversations like defund the police. If you're dealing with a state like Minnesota, where there are decades of mistrust between law enforcement and the community, it's not going to be enough to make small changes to that system. You have generations of people of colour who have every good reason to mistrust that institution. And unless that institution is dismantled and rebuilt into something different and unless those communities are involved with the reconstruction of the system, that institution is bound to be mistrusted. So part of the argument of my book is that you have to make up your mind. Is an institution capable of being reformed through counter democratic pressure? Is it capable of being drawn back to its values by radical institutionalists or does it really need to be torn down and rebuilt?

Taylor Owen: And that's hard when the state is not one institution and democracy is not one institution-

Ethan Zuckerman: Oh, yeah.

Taylor Owen: ... it's many. So the Trump narrative resonates because it puts everything in one bucket and says, "Tear it all down." But the institutional reformists may have to pick and choose which ones can be reformed, which one should be, which one needs to be dismantled, right? It's far more nuanced.

Ethan Zuckerman: We got an incredible lesson in tear it all down from the Arab spring, right? So we watch this wave of democratization sweep across North Africa and the Middle East. In one country it goes well. In Tunisia we end up with something resembling a functioning democracy. In Libya, in Syria, it turns into civil war. In Egypt where people are most passionate about it what happens is what normally happens when you tear down institutions, which is that the next most powerful institution picks up. So you topple Mubarak, what do you get? You get the Muslim Brotherhood. You topple the brotherhood, what do you get? You get the army. That's the order of power in Egypt at that particular moment. And you knock one brick off the top of the stack and then the next one is the one that's up there. So tearing it all down as wonderful as it sounds, just doesn't work very well. Picking something that is at a point where it simply cannot regain the trust and thinking about how you dismantle it and rebuild it simultaneously, I think that's absolutely worth it.

Taylor Owen: I of course know your work best for thinking, being one of the most profound thinkers about our digital ecosystem and the way technologies can be built in service of democratic ideals or against. And it struck me in the book that of the examples that frankly seemed the least hopeful many of those stem from the technology sector, Bitnation, Peter Thiel's various extravagances around floating cities and colonizing space. And even some of the more successful "decentralized networks" like Mastodon, really not taking hold in any meaningful way. So I'm curious how you being so immersed in that conversation about digital technologies, were you disappointed to see there not being more there? How do you explain there isn't more democratic innovation maybe coming from the tech sector?

Ethan Zuckerman: Yeah, that was a fun chapter to write. No one likes how they get reviewed, but I thought the funniest thing about some of the reviews of my book were that people thought that I was being overly optimistic about projects like Bitnation, where I thought I was literally ridiculing it. But I guess if you simply decide to write about something that is giving it a certain amount of attention-

Taylor Owen: You platformed Bitnation.

Ethan Zuckerman: Evidently. And perhaps I should not have. Look, I think there is a narrative going on right now that suggests that all of our problems can be technologically solved. This is the uberization of everything. If we just make markets more efficient, they'll take care of everything, including perhaps the problem of statelessness. And no, right? It's pretty obvious that some of the ways in which people are trying to dismiss systems are not taking seriously people's obligations to one another. And I end up talking a lot about these questions of exit and voice. This notion that when you think about exiting a political system, there really is no exit possible with the exception of Peter Thiel moving to Mars. The vast majority of us are going to have to live in a nation and therefore our ability to have a voice and to talk about that nation is going to be critically important. The truth is I think things like Mastodon specifically are going to end up following a hype cycle. I wrote a bunch of pieces dismissing Mastodon, and essentially saying, "It's only growing with deep platform communities. It's growing with people who have been thrown off of everything else." I am now actively developing Mastodon. My new lab at UMass is trying to create small social networks that give people more control and the ability to vote and govern their own spaces and to deal with moderation. And frankly Mastodon is just orders of magnitude more advanced than anything else out there. And so-

Taylor Owen: As a platform on which to build and develop.

Ethan Zuckerman: As platform on which to build. I actually don't think it's a great way to replace Twitter, but-

Taylor Owen: Why not? Why not? Too decentralized?

Ethan Zuckerman: Maybe I want to take that back. I think Mastodon's real charm is not as a replacement for Twitter, whether or not it could do that, but as a social network that could make it possible for anyone to run a social network. So right now we think of social networks as things that involve 2 billion people, cost billions of dollars to run our functionally nation states and their level of complexity. And the answer is a social network might work really well with between 30 and 300 people, maybe 30 and 3,000 people. The ways that I'm experimenting with social networks right now are things like town meetings in Massachusetts where a few thousand residents of a town might use a closed social media space to interact with their neighbours around the town budget without anything else being involved with it, with having moderation. It turns out that Mastodon's phenomenally good for those things. So I think in many cases what we actually have to do is envision much broader uses of things than we generally do. That the answer to, "Hey, Facebook sucks. It's a lousy institution," may not be that we need to fix Facebook. It may be that we actually have to fix social networks much more broadly.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. And even broader than social networks we might need to fix as you've argued our broader civic media infrastructure. So how does this evolution of social fit in with this broader rethinking of what civic media is?

Ethan Zuckerman: So one of the things that I try really hard to do with my own writing is I try to follow my own advice. And so the end of this new book, Mistrust, basically ends up saying, "Look, you don't have to do everything. You don't have to solve all the problems, but this would be a really great time to find an institution that you are worried about and where you have the ability to try to fix things." And for me that institution that I'm going to try first is social media. I think there's a ton that's wrong with social media at the moment. So that's now where I'm focusing my efforts. There are other systems that clearly need to be part of this equation. We referenced earlier in this conversation CBC and providing an anchor for Canadian media so the Canadian media doesn't go completely crazy. I think the American model of all your quality journalism it's going to be paid for by the market is crazy. I think it's lovely that it worked for 60 or 70 years, but it doesn't work now. And clearly it is possible to have taxpayer-sponsored media and have it be responsible and centrist and independent. And I don't know that there's a way through what we're facing in the United States without taking that seriously. The flip side is that can't be my main problem right now. I've got to work on this one thing that I can work on, and right now that's going to be the future of social media. If I'm somehow incredibly successful at that, I might go a step further and try to work on things like decentralized search or responsible non-surveillant ad networks. I think that would actually be really terrific problem to work on.

Taylor Owen: As pieces of this new infrastructure.

Ethan Zuckerman: That's the spirit of digital public infrastructure. The spirit of digital public infrastructure is first and foremost, the internet is too important to leave up to the private market. That the private market is obviously going to have a place in it, but you can't assume that the market meets all of your needs. This whole argument about media is that argument, right? So maybe that's the case for social media. Maybe that's the case for search. Search strikes me as an incredibly powerful and potentially dangerous thing to leave purely up to the market. Maybe that's a place where we need a public alternative. So what are the parts of digital infrastructure where we need to explore public alternatives and how do we explore funding for it? That's really the question that I'm trying to ask.

Taylor Owen: Yeah. Just to wrap things up, I mean, this idea of a market absolutism of American media, it's something that our mutual friend, Emily Bell drives her crazy. And I think she's right. And us looking from the outside into the United States and seeing this market fundamentalism almost around journalism just seems somewhat bizarre. But she also makes an argument of trust that I'd like to get your thoughts on in closing and journalism, which is that is trust really the right metric for something like an institution of journalism when half of Americans trust Fox News or more than half of Americans trust Trump? So what's your defence of trust as a lens for looking at democratic institutions?

Ethan Zuckerman: Well, so let me actually be clear on this, right? When I wrote a book on mistrust, I think everyone concluded that they should come to me and ask me how to increase trust in things. And what I've had to say to people is, "No, that actually wasn't my point in writing this book." I think in many cases distrust, mistrust is a perfectly reasonable thing to have. I think ideally we would want to be in a place where we understood enough about where media was coming from, that we could read it through that lens. And I think for sophisticated readers, US media actually works pretty well that way. If Fox News is telling me something, I understand a little bit about the agenda behind it. I understand something about frankly the more subtle agendas behind something like the New York Times. It would be really nice to have something where there were a strong process behind it, pushing it towards neutrality. But I don't know that neutrality and trust are necessarily equivalent. I think trust has come into play so much on media because it's been under such attack. I think that this idea that left-wing media or mainstream media as left-wing media is advancing an agenda has become such a popular right-wing talking point that it obscures what some of these biases actually are. I think the truth is that media of all sorts has all sorts of biases. They tend to be biases towards sensationalism. They tend to be biases towards celebrity. They tend to be massive structural biases about who gets to make news and who doesn't get to make news. And I think we don't talk nearly as often about those, but I think if there's any way in which my current work connects to these questions about the future of media, it's really around this idea that we just need a much larger solution set. One of the reasons the US is in such trouble right now is that we have limited our possible solutions to a big established company will fix it or a new startup company will fix it. And actually we really need small groups of people will fix it, NGOs will fix it, local governments might fix it, state or federal governments might fix it. But we have taken so much of that off the table in the United States that we have solutions that feel intractable in part because we've limited our solution space well beyond what's reasonable to do.

Taylor Owen: Well, I'm glad you're working on a broader solution set and thanks for this conversation. That was really special. Yeah.

Ethan Zuckerman: It's always great to talk with you and I'm really glad that we could have some time together. And thank you so much for engaging with the book and thank you for bringing some Canadian perspective on this. I'm really grateful to get the view from what it looks like across the parallel.

Taylor Owen: That was my conversation with Ethan Zuckerman. As always, I'd love to hear from you. Send me your thoughts on this interview or suggestions for future episodes to [email protected].

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