INTERVIEW: MIT's Ethan Zuckerman Says 'Be Angry and Engage'

INTERVIEW: MIT's Ethan Zuckerman Says 'Be Angry and Engage'
Credit: CC BY 4.0- g0v Summit 2018 recording team
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We are looking toward a future where civic tech is no longer remarkable, it is just part of how government functions, says the MIT Media Lab professor.

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Editor's note: Ethan Zuckerman, Associate Professor at MIT Media Lab and the Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, joined the g0v summit 2018 in Taipei this October. Zuckerman is a renowned internet activist. He is also author of "Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection" (W. W. Norton, 2013). He co-founded the international blogging community Global Voices and founded Geekcorps, a technology volunteer organization. g0v.news had a chance to talk to him about the internet, fake news and more.

g0v.news: What do you think we should do about apathy in democratic socieities?

Zuckerman: Everything I am trying to talk about is to fight disengagement. The most dangerous force is disengagement. II would prefer to see people be angry and unproductive and engage, rather than disengage. An angry and unproductive person at least has energy, and you can channel that energy in different directions. Disengaged people have no energy and there is no power for change. We have to look at why people disengage, [which] is that they feel participating in a system won’t have any benefit for them. And often they are right. Often participating in democracy that isn’t representing them, maybe it’s not a good use of time. I started investigating this because whenever people talk about low voting rates, they blame people for [being] disinterested and lazy. But what if the answer is that the voting is not meaningful; you can vote but the system doesn‘t change, and has the same outcome?

g0v.news: It's a problem with the electoral system?

Zuckerman: It’s not even the system. In the U.S., it’s more a problem that there is so little room that the Democrats and Republicans can agree on. The room right now for new policy is so narrow. That is incredibly frustrating. Everybody in the U.S. agrees that the health system doesn’t work, but it’s impossible to suggest that government sponsors healthcare. Something within that process isn’t working very well for anybody.

The truth is that the tool you use to stay touch with family and friends, and the tools you have political debate with people disagree with one or another, those are different tools.

Part of what I'm saying is that in those circumstances, it might make sense to say 'I’m not going to participate.' My goal is to take those people who are considering not participating and try and steer them toward something they feel they can change. That may not be an election, it might be a social movement. It might be something like #metoo, and having people speak out against sexual assault.

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Credit: CC BY 4.0- g0v Summit 2018 recording team

g0v: Do you think in this age with both states and giant tech companies centralizing their power, we can still build strong communities?

Zuckerman: I think control of platform is worth considering on several different levels. It can be very worrisome that you have a single company with enormous power over speech. These companies have a lot of technology we need to interrogate more closely. We need to ask of their algorithm, how they are shaping what we see or we don’t see. I don’t see these companies as barriers to organizing. I think people are able to organize quite effectively using these tools. In many cases these tools are very good for organizing and mobilization. I don’t think they are very good for organizing deliberation or debate. So, many problems with the tool is that they are very good amplifiers – when our goal is to take someone who is shouting with anger and have the rest of us shouting with them, then these tools work very well.

g0v.news: These amplifiers also amplify hate speech.

Zuckerman: Absolutely. My friend Wael Ghonim was one of the leading organizers of the Egypt Revolution. He ran a Facebook group ‘’we are all Khaled Sayeed.’’ This is the Facebook group that really mobilized people to take to the street. Ultimately, he had so many people coming into Tahrir square that Mubarak called him and said ‘’call your people off and I will negotiate with you.’’ He (Wael) said 'They are not my people, I can’t pull them off.'

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
Traffic moves through Tahir Square in Cairo Feb. 13, 2011. Thousands of protesters streamed back into Tahrir Square after the army sought to disperse them from the heart of Cairo where they have vowed to stay to hold the army to its promises of reform.

Three years later he is very frustrated with Egyptian politics, so he's started a new social network called Parlio. The idea behind Parlio is there will be very strict rules. You will have to be civil, to engage in informed debate. If you attack or abuse anyone, you'll be kicked out of the platform. You have to be invited in to use it. It did OK and it was bought by Quora so they incorporated the community into Quora.

What he is trying to do was create a different set of rules for how a social network should operate. One of the problems we have is not just these social networks are controlled by big companies, but they just aren’t very experimental. They try to serve everybody with the same set of tools. But the truth is that the tool you use to stay touch with family and friends, and the tools you have political debate with where people disagree with one or another, those are different tools. So I would really like to see groups like g0v do is inventing new social networks.

g0v.news: g0v did invent a new social network. But we're facing the challenge that it needs more users.

Zuckerman: There are two things we need to do. The first is good strong laws that mandate interruptibility between social networks. We need strong digital identity law that gives people both control of any data that they put into social networks, but also control over their relationships. When we leave a social network, you should be able to take all the social content you create but also your full relationship map.

g0v.news: The GDPR of the EU is a good example?

Zuckerman: It’s getting there.

g0v.news: What is lacking ?

Zuckerman: Mostly the relationship map. There is a second thing you need, you need laws that make it possible to aggregate social media. So, when you use one web browser to visit every different website. Right now for social media, you use a client for different social platforms and you read them in all different places. One thing that would make them more likely for people to adopt different social networks would be to have a single client. That's one of things we are trying to build in my lab.

We created something called Gobo. Gobo looks like a tool for filtering Twitter. But what is really cool about is Gobo is designed to be a single browser for different social networks. So at present it does part for Facebook. Facebook mostly blocks it. It does Twitter. In the next version it’s going do other networks like Instagram. And the goal is to get to the point you can use it as one client across social networks. Once we start doing this with Facebook, we expect Facebook to sue us. They sue other people who try to do social network aggregators. But we're looking forward to that.

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Credit: CC BY 4.0- g0v Summit 2018 recording team

g0v.news: One of your articles on Medium talks about Gobo and you say there is some limitation. For example, it cannot read private posts, so it reduces people’s willingness to use your service.

Zuckerman: I agree, but keep in mind this is not a commercial service. It’s designed as a discussion. But we have the capability to bring in your friends’ post. We haven’t done it yet because the day we do it, Facebook will block us, and conclude we are violating their terms of service.

g0v.news: What would be the solution?

Zuckerman: I need Facebook to sue the Gobo team, that’s the point. I need to create a tool that works across different social network and when Facebook blocks us, we can say look, these other networks allow us to do this, why is Facebook the only network that isn’t permitting this? Why is Facebook not committed to this open-source academic project? It’s about the strategy. I don’t need millions of subscribers now, what I need is ten thousand users to start to experiment while I’m expanding.

I need Facebook to sue the Gobo team, that’s the point.

g0v.news: What are your take aways from spending time with the g0v community?

Zuckerman: What is exciting about g0v for me is that it brought this idea of listening and scale into government and that government needs to find a way to be listening to many thousands of constituents. That is one of hardest unsolved problem in democracy. We have very old techniques like petitions that are designed to help government listen but they are bad, and they just don’t work very well. Audrey Tang (Digital Minister of Taiwan) also made the case that a lot of this is about cultural change within the government.

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Credit: g0v.news
Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang.

g0v.news: What do you think would be a good way to change the internal working of the government and beat the sense of frustration?

Zuckerman: I don’t think in the U.S. we have something parallel to the digital minister in Taiwan. We have people who in theory are in charge of the relationship between the president and technology. But these posts are not very powerful. They are mostly symbolic. There hasn’t been much work in the U.S. in trying to figure out how to encourage large scale participation. And this is what I’m very excited about for Taiwan.

In some way there has to be g0v movement in government – in many ways g0v has been a techies movement, some of whom have now gone into government. Now maybe we need an equal movement of people who are serving in the government reaching out for that direction. In the U.S., the way we are trying to do this is we create this new profession of being a social interest technologist. The notion is that you are someone who works on civic and social issues and works on technology. You might be a hacker or you might be the someone who knows social issues very well and is very knowledgeable about technology. And your goal is to break technology thinking into the department you are working.

g0v.news: But doesn't that contradict the idea of mass participation? That is professionalism.

Zuckerman: This is a good question. Remember in the U.S. we are very far from large scale participation. Our hope is that by starting to digitally transform, mass participation becomes the next step.

g0v.news: Do you think we need to build new shared values ?

Zuckerman: What is a little challenging is what should those values be? Many of the shared values that people suggest can be called something else. So people talk a lot about the shared value of civility in the U.S. Could we all agree that a least we all have civil dialogue with one another? A friend of mine said ‘'No, actually civility is a way of telling me to shut up.’' If you look to the early point of history, you are often looking to points where people, women, people of color weren’t part of the conversation. So, you need to look forward. What are the shared values we can agree that Taiwan or the U.S. need to have? Audrey argues that this is the sustainable development cause – working toward shared global vision of what it means to be a good society. That is not going to fly in the U.S. The U.S. doesn’t do a very good job bowing to the UN. The question is what could be a looking-forward cause?

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Credit: CC BY 4.0- g0v Summit 2018 recording team

g0v.news: Finally, how do you see the future of civic tech?

Zuckerman: One thing in my experience is, first the idea is exotic, and then it becomes so familiar that we don’t talk about it anymore. That is sort of when the idea has won. For example, 10 years ago we had a lot of argument about blogs – whether a blog is journalism or not. Now 10 years later a blog is journalism, journalists now do a lot of blogging. So I think we will have that for civic tech, we won’t consider it as separate category. It will just be part of civic life, government or technology. One panel made a point that 'If we don’t hold onto our values, then the danger is we just become government technology.' But if we hold onto our values and civic tech remains a special thing... We will know we won if we don’t talk about it anymore. It will be just part of a larger conversation about civics. That’s where we are heading and I wouldn’t be surprised if 10 years from now we don’t need this conference because it is simply how government and technology works.

g0v.news: Hopefully.

Zuckerman: Hopefully.

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The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from g0v.news, a news platform covering the latest trends in civic tech from Taiwan, Asia, and around the world. The original article is available here.

TNL Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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