What cities can learn from Gainesville’s experiment with radical transparency

City_of_Gainesville_Commissioner_Mail_Archive_-_Message_Archive

There’s much to be learned from the experience of the city Gainesville, Florida, where a commissioners voted in 2014 to publish the public’s email correspondence with them and the mayor online.

More than five years on, the city government and its residents have are ground zero for an tumultuous experiment in hyper-transparent government in the 21st century, as Brad Harper reports for the Montgomery Advertiser.

It’s hard not to read this story and immediately see a core flaw in the design of this digital governance system: the city government is violating the public’s expectation of privacy by publishing email online.

“Smart cities” will look foolish if they adopt hyper-transparent government without first ensuring the public they serve understands whether their interactions with city government will be records and published online.

Unexpected sunshine will also dissolve public trust if there’s a big gap between the public’s expectations of privacy and the radical transparency that comes from publishing the emails residents send to agencies online.

Residents should be offered multiple digital options for interacting with governments. In addition to exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and petition on the phone, in written communications with a given government, or in person at hearing or town halls, city (and state) governments should break down three broad categories of inquiries into different channels:

Emergency Requests: Emergency calls go to 911 from all other channels. Calls to 911 are recorded but private by default. Calls should not be disclosed online without human review.

Service Requests: Non-emergency requests should go 311, through a city call center or through 311 system. Open data with 311 requests is public by default and are disclosed online in real-time.

Information Requests: People looking for information should be able to find a city website through a Web search or social media. A city.gov should use a /open page that includes open data, news, contact information for agencies and public information officers, and a virtual agent or “chat bot” to guide their search.

If proactive disclosures aren’t sufficient, then there should be way to make Freedom of Information Act requests under the law if the information people seek is not online. But public correspondence with agencies should be private by default.

 

If disinformation is a public health risk, put lies into epistemic quarantine

trump lies

Informing the public during a pandemic has always been a challenge for public health officials, but the information landscape of 2020 has been polluted by the the Trump administration’s history of lying in ways that make response to the coronavirus much more difficult.

As University of California law professor David Kaye wrote this past weekend, “government disinformation about public health is itself a public health risk.

Put bluntly: if publishers and producers don’t change how they report on Trump’s disinformation viruses, public health will be put at even more risk. Consider the messenger: Kaye, the current United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, is no friend of censorship or laws that curb speech. Instead, he’s asking politicians, pundits, the public and, most of all, journalists to be responsible about what we say or pass on in this crisis.

If spreading Trump’s disinformation damages public health, as it as with coronavirus, then officials, tech companies and media all face a common challenge in 2020: how to prevent harm by putting the lies of a President of the United States into epistemic quarantine, whether he bellows them from a bully pulpit at a rally or tweets them from the White House.

News organizations are a host for his disinformation viruses. (In the case of ideologically aligned networks, they are a willing one.) Partisans, the public, and bad actors spread them, too.

While we can and should try to inoculate publics with knowledge about influence campaigns, it’s hard to vaccinate someone against a disinformation virus in a polarized, low-trust media environment. It is especially hard when the sickness comes from inside of a White House.

Perversely, putting sunlight on disinformation may not “disinfect” it, but instead infect a far greater population through calling public attention to it.

Getting disinformation into wider discourse is precisely the goal of the people making intentionally misleading statements, otherwise known as lies, or “malinformation,” which is “information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country.”

We’re in novel territory, given the scale and velocity of modern communications across social media platforms and public access through connected devices, but we’ve been living through an increasingly toxic, polluted information ecosystem for enough years to undertsand and make adjustments.

Unfortunately, newsrooms still haven’t adjusted to the reality that folks “flooding the zone” with disinformation is a feature, not a bug, of this administration.

Remember, Steve Bannon, chairman of the Trump campaign and then White House advisor, said that “the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

If your democracy is in an epistemic crisis, and viral disinformation poses an ongoing public health risk, then newsroom leaders need to change their practices.

Focusing on fighting viral disinformation as a public health issue, as opposed to information warfare, may be a useful frame.

For instance, while it’s publishing amazing journalism, the New York Times is still failing:

Editors need to change how they’re reporting on Trump, or he’ll keep hacking the standards and practices developed in the professionalization of “objective journalism” (we report what POTUS says/you decide) to infect the public with disinformation viruses. Try Lakoff’s approach:

Publishers, platforms and the public should deny lies the “oyxgen of amplification and put disinformation viruses in “epistemic quarantine.”

Derek Thompson describes this as “a combination of selective abstinence (being cautious about giving over headlines, tweets, and news segments to the president’s rhetoric, particularly when he’s spreading fictitious hate speech) and aggressive contextualization (consistently bracketing his direct quotes with the relevant truth).”

Television producers need to change too, particularly on broadcast and cable news shows. A Meet the Press special on disinformation this winter grappled with these issues, but ultimately fell far short of what was required to inform the public, warn us of the public health threat that Trumpian BS posed, and adjust its own editorial practices.

A President who spreads disinformation viruses during a pandemic is a wicked problem. Journalism professor Jay Rosen diagnosed the structural problem media outlets have years ago and listed approaches newsrooms could take:

News media should adopt and adapt Rosen’s ideas. Experiment. Share what they learn, and pool resources. But today, they should stop putting lies in headlines and chyrons.

If government disinformation about public health is itself a public health risk, then journalists must stop spreading it, now.

The stakes will only get higher if our nation is drawn into a war, misleads the public about a conflict, or starts one under false pretenses.

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