Tech, trust and the media: Three questions to answer by 2029


The end of trust: What are the fundamental questions that need to be answered within the next decade so that humanity and technology can grow side by side? A talk with Ethan Zuckerman.

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“How do we trigger social change? Through law, markets, norms and code,” Ethan Zuckerman stated in his keynote at the MIT Europe Conference on March 27th at the WKÖ, the Austrian Federal Economic Chambers.

Ethan Zuckerman is the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and an Associate Professor of the Practice at the MIT Media Lab. His research focuses on the use of media as a tool for social change, the role of technology in international development, and the use of new media technologies by activists. He is also the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection (W. W. Norton, 2013) and Director of Gobo, a project built by the MIT Media Lab. Gobo connects three social media platforms in one single feed and provides users with the possibility of controlling what is shown, how much and why. Undoubtedly, Zuckerman has dedicated his career to the connection of new technologies and social change – a crucial link, considering how the tech industry carries and multiplies structures of inequality.

I had the chance to interview Ethan after his keynote at the MIT Europe Conference organized by the WKÖ. My intention was to discuss the impact of new technologies on civic participation and media trust with him. My intention was to initiate an inspiring discussion about relevant sociopolitical matters and innovative projects. My intention was a good one – until I started preparing for the interview. You see, Ethan Zuckerman has given interviews in the past. Numerous interviews. During my research, I found it challenging to come up with one single topic that had not been tackled, one project that had not been discussed and one question that had not been asked in previous interviews.

However, Ethan Zuckerman is a researcher. And scientific research is about asking questions first before answering them; it is about identifying problems and then fixing them. Therefore, we had a talk about the questions he has for specific industries, fields and interest groups. Questions that grassroot movements and non-profits, tech companies and political institutions need to answer within the next decade if they want to shape a more transparent and robust democracy.


Tech, trust and the media: Questions that need to be answered by 2029. From Ethan Zuckerman for….

1. Grassroot movements: Will they be able to make social change not through laws, but through norms?

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See, media are more participatory than civics are. Civics have higher barriers of entry. Yes – you can go to a meeting; yes – you can stand for office, but it feels like a very heavy level of commitment compared to writing a blog post or a tweet. Almost all of us do the latter all the time. So what is happening, is we participate in civics but only in the media part of civics. Grassroot movements like #metoo were built upon this premise and triggered social change through norms, not laws. They did not change the judicial system, but the way people perceive and talk about sexual harassment. The interesting thing about media is exactly that it is most powerful as a tool when the idea is to foster change through norms. To change attitudes. It may also change laws, but only secondarily. I am curious whether the grassroots can prove they can make change through norms as effectively as they historically have made change through laws. I come from the US and from a generation when my parents were involved with the civil rights struggle. And so they grew up in a country where black and white people were in separate facilities, where black people inherently had fewer rights and achieved equal education, equal marriage, equal employment discrimination through law. Today, can grassroots make these changes through norms?

2. Tech companies: Will they survive without taking civic questions seriously?

Right now, Facebook is being asked questions like Are you bad for democracy? So, unless they can find ways answers to those, will they survive? For example, the question that is always worth asking with Google is: Imagine that Google had wanted to swing an election. Google could define that anytime you search for the opposition candidate, it will give you just a little more of the negative coverage. And maybe it will push down the more positive one a little bit.

Research experiments in India have actually done this research and they were able to demonstrate that it changes voting rate. So, is this happening with Google? We don’t now. Nor can we. I think that many of us have stopped trusting Facebook, even if we use it. We trust that Facebook’s motives are pure, in that they simply try to sell us more stuff by trying to keep us more interested. But maybe keeping us interested means making us more angry or passionate. Does that start to count as manipulation? Again, this is very hard for us to study. And it probably hits legal barriers when we try to.

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Of all the real big tech companies, most of them have some utility. Amazon does a lot of data tracking but it also gives me stuff I want from all over the world. So I am willing to be pretty flexible about it. Apple also knows a lot about me, but they make a phone that I really like, so I tend to not worry about it. Google gives me this incredibly useful search engine. All Facebook does is gossip. And gossip feels like a very human activity that you might not actually want a machine to be in the middle of. Everything else seems at least like it’s doing a job, Facebook doesn’t even seem to be doing that – but it seems it’s taking this very human function and trying to take it over. And I wonder if we resent them more than these other companies because of that luck of utility.

3. Political instituions: How do we change when all the power is being infringed?

So here’s a very quick example of this: When the United States were founded, there were supposed to be one representative for 30.000 people. This was something that Georg Washington, the founder of our country, insisted on. Now, we have one representative for 770.000 people. You would need to have a congress with 11.000 people in it. You could! You could do it digitally; you could do it as part-time jobs. But see, it will never happen. Because the 434 people in congress right now are very powerful and they will be much less powerful if there will be 30.000 of them. How do you reform systems where everybody benefits?

Thank you very much, Ethan, for your thought-provoking questions, and also the WKÖ for hosting such a special and successful conference! Watch Ethan Zuckermans keynote “The end of trust” here.

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About Alina Nikolaou

Raised in Greece and now residing in Vienna, Alina is passionate about humancentric technologies, social change and poetry.

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