Media Is More Than Business

Ethan Zuckerman tries to increase the audience of global news stories. He spoke with Lars Mensel about making news more public, the filter bubble, and tweeting in Arabic.

The European: It’s only 9 am over in your side of the world: Have you read the news this morning?
Zuckerman: I can’t say that I have. I just got to my office.

The European: What kind of news site would you commonly be looking at?
Zuckerman: I often glance at Google News just to find out what the headlines are. I’m often looking at the New York Times. But really for me the biggest news is usually what people are talking to me about on Twitter. And so I’ll take a quick glance there at the 800 or so people I follow. That doesn’t always mean that I’ll find the most important stories, but it’s a good way of finding out what my friends are talking about. I hate just listening to the news.

The European: You are friends with Eli Pariser, who famously wrote about the filter bubble. Are you afraid that you might be missing out on important pieces?
Zuckerman: I know Eli well and I talked with him quite a bit on writing the book. You’ll note that I mentioned before that I turned to Twitter, that I turned to an automatic aggregator, which is Google News and a curated aggregator, which is the New York Times.

But it really has to do with who I’ve put into my Twitter feed. Glancing through my Twitter feed very quickly, there are a lot of Africans and a lot of people from the Arab world as well as some Americans and some Europeans in the first scroll. I’m weak on South America for instance. The filter bubble and all these dangers of homophily that I’ve been writing about for years, is a danger of being trapped into paying attention to people who are like you. But the hopeful side of the story is that these are all basic human tendencies we can try to overcome. These patterns are not unavoidable. You simply have to identify when you’re falling into them and then try to fight them.

The European: Yet there’s obviously a language barrier. I have noticed that learning a new language will open up a whole new world of web content – but how do you get to know people in regions where you don’t speak the language?
Zuckerman: Well, most of the people I’m following in Africa speak English and I read enough French that I may be able to follow the francophiles. Arabic is more challenging. One of the things that’s nice is that people have written little extensions to Twitter that put translate-buttons next to tweets. I found that I have started following a lot of new voices during the Arab Spring. There were many people that I ought to have been in touch with, in particular some other folks that were tweeting mostly in Arabic. And in some cases I added them and now I’m able to click on a tweet to translate. I also follow friends such as Alaa Abdel Fatteh, a person I know in the real world, who tweets about half in English and half in Arabic. This gives me a chance to see what he’s saying in Arabic.

The European: At the height of last year’s Arab Spring, I spoke with Tunisian activist Lina Ben Mhenni and quickly realized what an enormous source of insight her connections were – yet also how many contacts I had been missing out on. How do you discover people like her?
Zuckerman: There’s a couple of different components to that story. The first is that you found someone who is able to open up another conversation for you. I tend to call those people “bridge figures” – that person can act as a bridge into the community. She can help you figure out what’s been talked about in that community and what you might want to pay attention to. Because she speaks both Tunisian-Arabic and English, she’s able to give you some insights on what’s going on there, even though you don’t speak Arabic. It would be a difficult requirement to put on everybody, to have to speak and read every language.

In meeting her you’re also realizing two things: There is a big piece of the internet that is liguistically locked to you, which is to say that without the language you don’t have access – unless someone else serves as the bridge for you. The other thing that should be hinting at you is that even independent of language, there are parts of the internet we just don’t pay attention to – unless someone lets us know that we need to pay attention to it. And for all the Tunisians out there, there are the Madagascars or the Burmas that we may not be paying attention to. I find experiences like that both a little unsettling and a little humbling: They remind me that the part of the internet I generally interact with is just a very small subset.

The European: Viewing the internet as a few million bubbles, coexisting independent of one another is humbling indeed. But is it just through bridge people that we can establish connections?
Zuckerman: That makes it sound like it is not a big effort. I’ve been running an organization for seven years, which tries really hard to identify hundreds of those people who produce websites aiming to bridge what’s going on in their languages and their cultures to the rest of the world: that’s the Global Voices project. I think that’s something, which happens routinely between different communities that find ways to talk to another – it is also something we can do more of and do better.

Your question seems to be implying that maybe there is some sort of technical or magical answer to it. The bad news is: No, there is not. These are really hard problems having to do with language. While we’re getting better at it in technical terms, we’re still not great at it. It’s been quite challenging to get over this barrier of comprehension. And in truth, we made the biggest gains by helping human beings get together and translate for one another. You can try to identify these people through tag-work, by trying to figure out who appoints a network, who could connect one community with another. But it’s still a very human process of being able to say: “Here’s what’s going on over here, let me connect you to it.”

The European: Here in Europe we have been very concerned with the sovereign debt crisis – which is an inherently global issue. How can worldwide information help us make sense of it?
Zuckerman: I think the sovereign debt crisis is one of these things that is incredibly complicated and multifaceted and looks slightly different depending on where you’re sitting. The only way we can overcome problems that really have globe-spanning solutions is by trying to open conversations involving people from all over the globe. What’s interesting is that governments and diplomats have methods for doing this. You know, when we go to sit down at European Parliament meetings or at the UN, they’re capable of listening to someone’s translations. But citizens don’t have that, which is why we hear the conversation through our leaders. That makes it very hard to understand what people on the ground are thinking or feeling. I don’t feel like I have a very good sense of how Greek citizens are feeling about the crisis. And one of the ways that I could try to get that is by looking to people who are writing online and looking to people who are bridging between the Greek and the English-speaking community, to try to get a better sense of what’s going on on the ground. I really think it’s a matter of compassion leading to understanding. Let’s try to listen to people having their own conversations, talking about how they’re experiencing different facets of this – and combine these impressions into a single whole.

The European: When Angela Merkel spoke at the Davos World Economics Forum, a tag emerged on Twitter – “#bemoregerman”. People mocked her by suggesting that she encouraged people in Europe to become just 1% more German every day. Obviously, the proposal is ridiculous and yet I see an opportunity in it: I can try to be part of that dialogue to help the understanding between the Greek and the Germans. Are you optimistic about this kind of effect or is it too hard to initiate a dialogue?
Zuckerman: Well, Global Voices is now seven years old. It’s got hundreds of people involved with the project. So in that sense it’s been very encouraging to discover that there are roughly 500 people who are willing to give their time to do it.

In another sense I think what I’ve become aware of is the fact that it’s very hard for individuals to do this just by themselves. It’s possible for you as an individual to say “I’m aware that I’m being caught in certain bubbles and I’m aware that I’m paying attention to some things and not to others.” But it can be very challenging to change it because of forces you to go out and find those resources capable of bridging. To a certain extent I think we have to yearn for ways to solve this problem at a media level. This is not a problem that is new to new media. And this is, by the way, one of the things that is wrong with Eli’s book: it’s that he really blames this phenomenon on algorithms and on Google and Facebook. The truth is, this is a phenomenon that’s much, much older. If you look at the national newspapers in different countries, there are parts of the world where they do a very good job in paying attention to parts of the world that they systematically ignore. And if you really want to be paying attention more broadly, you have to solve this problem in the new media, but also in the old media which used to have incredible reach and incredible power. Where I have a lot of hope is in starting to build tools that let people get a curious sense of what they are paying attention to, what they’re not paying attention to, and then sort of look and say “Wow, I’m a little worried that there is this euro crisis and I’m not paying attention to anyone in Greece.” And then try to find people in Greece who they might be able to follow and who they might be able to listen to. I’m optimistic that we can start building better systems to do this. Will people flock to use them? People are going to have to realize that it’s going to take some time, that there is some real danger in having limited views of the world. I hope the people will come to understand some of the potential downsides of paying attention primarily to voices that are local to you and not paying attention to other voices.

The European: You’re American and I’m European; it is very easy for us to access technology: We can just start blogging from one minute to the other, right from our smartphones – it is obviously very different for people who live in Somalia, with basically no government and deficient infrastructure.
Zuckerman: Well, I think you’re misreading the situation. There’s a lot of people writing from Somalia. And, you know, the question is: what are you reading? This is the project, as I said, that I’ve been working on. There’s people writing in almost all of these countries. One of the very interesting things is the telecommunications and the infrastructure on the African continent. We have a lot of nations that don’t have good roads and don’t have good electric lines, but have surprisingly good mobile phone systems. And what that means is that you have people on Facebook, using mobile clients, you have people on twitter, you often have people writing long blogs. So, I really think that people in the media make a mistake in concluding that this is a supply problem. And with that conclusion they’re assuming that unless someone goes on the ground and gives workshops in blogging and builds cybercafés, you’re not going to hear from someone in Africa. And I would invert the paradigm and say instead: Maybe it is possible that there are already a few people speaking and you’re not listening very well.

The European: Clay Shirky has said: “It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure.”
Zuckerman: In this case I think it’s filter failure to the point where people don’t even bother looking to see whether things could trap them into a filter. Again, Clay is perhaps oversimplifying the technical aspects, because this is a conceptual problem: So long as we assume that large parts of subsaharan Africa are government-free anarchies, then we assume that there is nobody capable of speaking. You know, Nigeria tends to be viewed in these terms, but there has been an enormous online conversation about the Occupy Nigeria protest and about the violence in the North. In fact, you can pay very close attention to what’s going on there. Now that point, once you’ve made the decision to pay attention, then you have to start working on your filters and try to get better quality. But at this point, I really think the matter is that we are simply not paying any attention at all.

The European: In a sense, it is a fight on two fronts: First, as individuals we need to make sure to pay more attention to different regions. On the other hand, we have to convince big media organizations – which are very much responsible for the kind of news most people see – to pay more attention to other parts in the world.
Zuckerman: My work’s focus from most of the last decade has been trying to get big media organizations to realize that citizen media gives them insights in parts of the world which they no longer cover with people on the ground. In many countries we’re seeing international reporting shrink, we’re seeing internet reporters on the ground, we’re seeing greater concentration. And the hope has been that news organizations will realize that this is a weakness, that the world is getting more interconnected, that it’s more important than ever to have a very broad and wide profile. One way to do this is to take citizen media seriously and try to figure out who to listen to and then report from them.
There have been some really good examples of how to do this well. Some of the best reporting that happened on the Arab Spring in the US came from National Public Radio in the US, which largely reported by following what was happening on social media. So it’s certainly possible. But the question really is: Who is going take the lead on this? Who is going to learn how to use these techniques better?

The European: …all the while we have to express a certain demand for it.
Zuckerman: That’s an interesting question: In the US where the media is a largely commercial system, you can make the argument that if no one ever wants to hear from Somalia we should never hear from Somalia. That argument turns into absurdity pretty quickly because you end up in a situation where Somalia affects things people do directly care about. Concerns about piracy and international shipping quickly turn into concerns connected to global terror. I think that media is not purely a business, that news media is also about social responsibility and helping people be informed citizens. To the extent that we stop facing challenges like the sovereign debt crisis, issues of global terror or issues of global epidemics, you need an extremely wide view of the world just to be informed. I think you can make the argument that media also have a social obligation to provide a wide view to the citizens, rather than just what’s being demanded.

The European: What has been the most interesting news item to barely surface in the media?
Zuckerman: I referenced the Nigerian protests, which weren’t widely followed. It was very interesting to see a government make an ill advised movement, to see the population of a country that has tolerated an enormous amount of corruption, get very angry, very quickly. So that’s the one I really wished we could have shone a brighter light on.

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