To build back better, The Biden House should release virtual visitor logs

The steps the Biden White House has taken on transparency taken are meaningful and welcome, but insufficient. They need to keep showing their work by opening Cabinet meetings & disclosing info, and emphasize being open by default isn’t just an option, but an obligation.

To put it another way, the Biden administration’s vocal commitments to transparency, restoration of press briefings & recognition of the role of journalists are profoundly welcome, necessary steps, but remain wholly insufficient to closing the yawning public trust deficit in the US government that existed before President Obama took office and grew much worse after four years of Trump’s official lies. That’s why transparency advocates have repeatedly asked the Biden administration to to take swift action, from the Freedom of Information Act to declassification and legal secrecy.

It’s not enough to put information online or put press secretaries and senior officials in front of the press, though both of those are profoundly welcome, or to stop attacking the credibility of journalists with lies.

As I told Politico, the Biden administration is doing worse, relative to Obama, given how aggressive, risky, and unprecedented some of the things they were doing online were in January 2009 were, particularly social media, and take questions online. (Press Secretary Psaki is dabbling in it, but it’s limited.)

Though obviously Twitter, Faceook, YouTube & other social media were used to go around the press and evade adversarial questioning by both administrations — and went pretty far into official channels being used to spread misinformation and disinformation under Trump — releasing information directly to the public using these platforms does find us “where we are.”

More transparency can and will be weaponized against them, as visitor logs were against the Obama administration, but rebuilding trust will require intentional investment and leadership on the world stage and around the USA, where the President and Vice President lean into tough questions and adhere to high standards of veracity in their public statements and those of the White House.

How to invest in closing America’s “information voids” and digital divides

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(Graphic by New York Times)

In the same way that poor diets affect our physical health, America’s infodemic is being fueled by poor information diets. About 2,100 newspapers have folded since 2004, driving a ~58% decline in newsroom employment.

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Digital outlets have not replaced the jobs or journalism reporters produced and editors verified.

Now, the New York Times reports thatpink slime” outlets are filling the information voids left behind, with the emergence of pay-for-play digital outlets that launder partisan attacks for a few dollars an article and digital duopoly of Facebook and Google dominates the digital advertising markets.

None of this is new nor, in 2020, can we really say that no one saw this coming.

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Clay Shirky was brutally honest about the fate of the newspapers back in 2014, after he “thought about the unthinkable” in 2009.

In an essay that accurately predicted the ongoing trend in the industry, Shirky asked the crucial question that keeps people who believe democracies depend on a robust, independent free press to inform publics engaging in self-governance: “who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?”

His answer remains instructive:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.

There were good ideas in the Knight Commission’s report on the information needs of American democracy, but it’s hard for me to argue that the polluted social media and cable news ecosystems of today are meeting them, given the collapse documented above.

In 2020, there is still no national strategy to catalyze that journalism, despite the clear and present danger absence poses to the capacity of the American people to engage in self-governance or the shared public facts necessary for effective collective action in response to a public health threat.

Investors, philanthropists, foundations, and billionaries who care about the future of our nation needs to keep investing in experiments that rebuild trust in journalism by reporting with the communities reporters cover using the affordances of social media, not on them.

Publishers could build out new forms of service journalism based upon data that improve access to information, empower consumers, patients, and constituents to make better choices, and ask the people formerly known as the audience to help journalists investigate.

We need to find more sustainable business models that produce investigative journalism that don’t depend on grants from foundations and public broadcasting corporations, though those funds will continue be part of the revenue mix.

As Shirky said, “nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.”

Finally, state governments need to subsidize public access to publications and the Internet through libraries, schools, and wireless networks, aiming to deploy gigabit speeds to every home through whatever combination of technologies gets the job done.

The FCC, states and cities should invest in restorative information justice. How can a national government that spend hundreds of billions on weapon systems somehow have failed to provide a laptop for each child and broadband Internet access to every home?

It is unconscionable that our governments have allowed existing social inequities to be widened in 2020, as children are left behind by remote learning, excluded from the access to the information, telehealth, unemployment benefits, and family that will help them and their families make it through this pandemic.

Information deprivation should not be any more acceptable in the politics of the world’s remaining hyperpower than poisoning children with lead through a city water supply.

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.

Continued use of personal email and encrypted messaging in White House exposes accountability hole in public records laws

In 2019, journalists, politicians and pundits shouldn’t be asking whether White House officials should using WhatsApp. If a given encrypted or ephemeral app does not have archiving built in, public servants should not use it for public business, much less … Continue reading

President Trump signs historic open government data bill into law

Today, President Donald J. Trump signed H.R. 4174, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, which, as the White House release summarized, “improves evidence-based policy through strengthening Federal agency evaluation capacity; furthering interagency data sharing and open data efforts; and improving access to data for statistical purposes while protecting confidential information.”

Back on December 21, 2018, the United States Congress sent the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017 to the President’s pen in a historic win for open government in the United States of America.

The Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary Government Data Act (AKA the OPEN Government Data Act) is now the law of the land.

Two canonical principles for open, digital government in the 21st century are now the default in the United States:

  1. public information should be open by default to the public in a machine-readable format, where such publication doesn’t harm privacy or security
  2. federal agencies should use evidence when they make public policy

As I’ve said before, this reform represents “a genuine opportunity to not only improve how the nation makes decisions but embed more openness into how the federal government conducts the public’s business.”

This is a historic, bipartisan win for open government data, after years of trying. It is a milestone for the open movement, codifying core principles into code.

Thank you to all of the advocates, legislators, watchdogs and journalists who played an essential role in making open government data the law of the land.