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How To Be A Digital Citizen in the Information Age

· News,Media,Net Neutrality

In an era of fake news, misinformation campaigns and infowars between many special interest groups, it's hard to sift through the sea of information to understand which agencies are telling us half-truths, misrepresentations taken out of context, blatant falsehoods or "alternative facts." Due to the nature of the free flow of information, we can literally be reading different points of views all day, and still come out confused; or worse yet, the same point of view can be continually repeated by multiple agencies until we believe it to be true.

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"A big lie" or große Lüge is a propaganda tactic described by Adolf Hilter in his book Mein Kampf (1925) in which a distortion or lie is continually repeated until people believe it to be true.

It's clear that in the Digital Age of Information that "infotainment" is more commonplace than news that is objective and unbiased. We are currently living in an era of a media oligarchy when just a handful of companies own the majority of the market. It's also been said that 90% of the U.S. media is controlled by 6 media giants, giving us the illusion of choice. That is why as a citizen in our global world that we have to take into account sources of information that aren't part of the mainstream media, and not merely click and share curated news feed from our social networks.

In the U.S., there is also a very troubling situation in development as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman recently announced plans to repeal net neutrality. 

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The U.S. Federal Commission chairman Ajit Pai wants to repeal net neutrality, in which one of the potential effects would be to give more power to internet service providers (ISPs) to charge websites and companies like Google and Netflix for faster internet connection. Repealing net neutrality would also give power to ISPs to potentially block sites like Skype and other messaging apps that compete with their services. In addition, ISPs could also arbitrarily block sites that advocate social issues that are contrary to their financial interests. Critics say that repealing net neutrality will result in a more expensive web and mobile service that favours ISPs and will ultimately change the user experience so that the ISPs will be able to filter or block any content they don't want people to have access to.

Net Neutrality is the principle that internet service providers and governments regulating the Internet should treat all data on the internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. Without net neutrality, it is possible for internet service providers to slow down connections to certain websites or services, therefore being able to limit connections to sites based on their own preferences or blocking information to users.

So, what is a citizen to do in the Digital Era of the Information Age?

I had a conversation with Craig Newmark, Founder and Chairman of Craigslist, over email to discuss various topics in fact-checking and the role of the media and social networks in news curation.

I have known Craig since 2008, when he was one of the panelists on the new media bi-coastal San Francisco-New York panel that I had organised and co-produced for the Producers Guild of America.

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Craig Newmark, Founder and Chairman of Craigslist, and Founder of the Craig Newmark Foundation and Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund.

Craig has been a web pioneer, philanthropist, and one of America's most recognised "nerds." He was named "Nerd-in-Residence" by the Department of Veterans Affairs' Center for Innovation in recognition of his volunteer work with the department to enhance services to veterans and military families. Craig also launched the Craig Newmark Foundation last year to promote charitable and educational causes with a focus on consumer protection, education, govt transparency, vote protection, women in technology and fact-checking in the news amongst many other initiatives.

Recently, the Craig Newmark Foundation gave $1 million to the Poynter Institute to develop a 5-year programme that focuses on the practices of verification, fact-checking and accountability in journalism.

"I'm a news consumer, and just want news that I can trust. A trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy." - Craig Newmark

As a bit of background, can you describe how you started Craigslist and the various philanthropic organisations that you have helped launch?

Craig: I guess Craigslist started in two phases, from this perspective: Early '95, I decided to give back to the early Internet community that gave me so much. So, I started a mailing list about arts and tech events that I heard about. It spread, word of mouth, that worked well, slow, steady growth. Most notably, when I had to name the list, I was going to call it "sf-events", since as an old school nerd, I'm very literal. Friends told me that I'd inadvertently created a brand, which they called "Craigslist." They were right, not hard, since I didn't know what a brand was.

End of '99, trying to run operations with volunteers, people told me it was failing, and I needed to get serious and make it a real company. Big decision: should I follow the advice of Silicon Valley bankers and VCs, monetize, and maybe make billions, or should I follow my own nerd values, and hope to "do well by doing good." I did the latter, not out of altruism, it just felt like the right thing.

Never launched anything philanthropic before then, though sometimes supportive at the beginning of a new org. Mostly, I find orgs that are really good at something I believe in, and support them with social media skills and efforts, and cash.

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Craig Newmark at the Wikipedia headquarters in San Francisco, where he was given a memorial latrine after donating $1 million through his Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund last year.

What do you think about those situations in which editors and journalists are pressurised to write spin stories that are favourable to their advertisers or media owners? What do you think would be an effective method to remedy those kinds of ulterior motives that are never disclosed?

Craig: There are multiple situations involved, mostly news orgs which try to act in good faith, and they generally do a good job separating editorial and business operations. On the other hand, some news orgs were created to do nothing but spin and deception, and I'm trying to the help the news industry learn how to safely call BS on them.

I'm involved mostly in funding nonprofit journalism, and following the ethical guidelines proposed by the American Press Institute. Mostly, it's about transparency and "do no harm." That's harder than it sounds.

"Some news orgs were created to do nothing but spin and deception, and I'm trying to the help the news industry learn how to safely call BS on them." - Craig Newmark

Journalists used to be the checks-and-balances of the US govt in the era of our Founding Fathers, but has evolved into a medium to control public opinion. As William Randolph Hearst said in 1897, "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war." How can citizens of our Digital Age become aware of the misinformation campaigns in the media? (e.g., NY Times front page stories in support of the Iraq War through undisclosed "sources" in the months leading up to the Iraq War)

Craig: The checks-and-balances thing has also been good, but rarely that effective. I feel that by supporting trustworthy, good-faith journalism, that'll lead to a news industry that will provide consistently effective checks-and-balances...Even news orgs which operate in good faith make mistakes, like the lead up to the Iraq war.

I do feel that we're seeing a renewal of trustworthy journalism, leading to much more truthful news operations, but it'll take a while.

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Craig Newmark on the San Francisco Muni; with a dedicated and humble attitude, Craig spends his time focused on customer service at Craigslist and philanthropic causes.

Which are your favourite or trusted fact-checking agencies and news sites? How can companies like these be able to survive without advertising revenue, govt support or endorsements in an era of corporativism?

Craig: For fact checking, it starts with the Poynter Institute International Fact Checking Network, with Politifact and Snopes leading in the US. For trustworthy news, take a look at ProPublica, Consumer Reports, and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

What do you think are positives and negatives about social networks curating news for us? Do you think all the fake news that surfaced as part of curated news content on Facebook after the November Presidential election last year skewed the votes in favour of Donald Trump? How can people who use social media be better equipped to filter fake news content?

Craig: I don't think the platforms should curate for us. What's happening is that good faith journalists and orgs are providing the means by which we curate our own news sources and that the platforms follow that. It's just a start, lots more to come, coordinated by the News Integrity Initiative via the CUNY graduate school of journalism.

"I don't think [social media] platforms should curate [the news] for us." - Craig Newmark

As a responsible citizen in the Digital and Information Age, what are some actions we can take?

Craig: Track the work of the News Integrity Initiative. At some point, it'll help new orgs signal their commitment to good faith reporting, backed up by fact checkers who'll call BS as needed. Social media platforms might help out by facilitating reader selection, maybe specifying only news sources that follow through with commitments to behave ethically and to correct mistakes.

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Craig Newmark outside one of his favourite cafés in San Francisco, where he is greeted by furry fans.

What is your view on agencies that pay groups to write positive reviews or inundate discussion forums with their paid views on a certain topic to sway public opinion, otherwise known as "shills"? This has been found to be paid reviews of a product or service on eCommerce sites like Amazon and Yelp and moves even further to sites like reddit and many others to manipulate public opinion.

One of the articles from the Snowden archives describes how western intelligence agencies are attempting to manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation destruction. How can citizens be aware of these sorts of actions and protect themselves from these kinds of subversive tactics to sway public opinion?

Craig: If labelled properly, that helps, and even better, whatever platform one uses should allow the reader to mute the display of such writing...About seven years ago I became the target of a rather unpleasant fake news attack. After some years, I remembered a Sunday School lesson: better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. In a way, that's motivated my considerable involvement in helping good-faith, trustworthy journalism.

"About seven years ago I became the target of a rather unpleasant fake news attack. After some years, I remembered a Sunday School lesson: better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. " - Craig Newmark

How do you think journalism will evolve in the next decade?

Craig: I feel that the fact checking networks, in context of the News Integrity Initiative, will make it reasonably easy to find trustworthy news...It's a work in progress, but moving fast.

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Craig Newmark with his rescued pigeons, Margaret and Snow.

As one of the early entrepreneurs who has advocated for fact-checking in the news, Craig has said before that fact-checking should be part of how news organisations earn trust, however, due to the time-consuming nature of fact-checking itself, sometimes this isn't a viable possibility when news often moves at lightning speed. I think though that the general consensus is that fact-checking should be a collective activity - and reading from sources with disclosed corporate, sponsorship and advertising interests would give more confidence to how we are able to interpret information.

"I do think the biggest problem newspapers have is loss of trust, and I feel that's a result of failure to speak truth to power and the failure to consistently practice journalistic ethics."

- Craig Newmark

Craig also serves on the board of directors of companies such as Girls Who Code, VetsInTech, Poynter Foundation and the Board of Overseers at the Columbia Journalism Review. A philanthropist at heart, he has given Wikipedia $1 million through his Philanthropic Fund, donated $1 million to ProPublica through the Craig Newmark Foundation and is a major funder of the News Integrity Initiative at the CUNY School of Journalism amongst many other organisations he has supported. He enjoys bird-watching, squirrel-watching, science fiction and can be found at cafés around San Francisco.