Our Gutenberg Moment: It's Time To Grapple With The Internet's Effect On Democracy

No one is off the hook.

When clashes wracked Charlottesville, many Americans saw neo-nazi demonstrators as the obvious instigators. But others focused on counter-demonstrators, a view amplified by the president blaming “many sides.” The rift in perception underscored an uncomfortable but unavoidable truth about the flow of information today: Americans no longer have a shared foundation of facts upon which we can agree.

Politics has long been a messy, divisive business. I lived through the 1960s, a period of similar dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and disunity, brilliantly chronicled by Ken Burns’ new film “The Vietnam War” on PBS. But common, local knowledge —of history and current events — has always been the great equalizer in American society. Today, however, a decrease in shared knowledge has led to a collapse in trust. Over the past few years, we have watched our capacity to compromise wane as not only our politics, but also our most basic value systems, have become polarized.

The key difference between then and now is how news is delivered and consumed. At the beginning of our Republic, the reach of media was local and largely verifiable. That direct relationship between media outlets and their communities — local newspapers and, later, radio and TV stations — held until the second half of the 20th century. Network TV began to create a sense of national community but it fractioned with the sudden ability to offer targeted, membership-based models via cable.

But cable was nothing compared to Internet. Internet’s unique ability to personalize and to create virtual communities of interest accelerated the decline of newspapers and television business models and altered the flow of information in ways that we are still uncovering. “Media” now means digital and cable, cool mediums that require hot performance. Trust in all media, including traditional media, is at an all-time low, and we’re just now beginning to grapple with the threat to democracy posed by this erosion of trust.

Internet is potentially the greatest democratizing tool in history. It is also democracy’s greatest challenge. In offering access to information that can support any position and confirm any bias, social media has propelled the erosion of our common set of everyday facts.

What we trust and who we deem trustworthy is increasingly determined by five companies: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft. Today, Facebook and Google are more influential as purveyors of information than the New York Times or the Washington Post has ever been, yet both companies have shied away from accepting a publisher’s responsibility for the authenticity of their content.

These companies never intended to shoulder responsibility for reporting the news; they are corporations designed to offer communications technology to consumers. Yet the accidental publishers of Silicon Valley have displaced newsrooms by giving millions of users the same access and legitimacy as reporters, without the ethical or reporting standards of actual news outlets.

Meanwhile, an insidious misinformation machine, variously driven by profit, politics, and propaganda, is growing quickly. Algorithms are now responsible for combining bites of “news” into stories that are read by millions. Professional looking sites can convince an audience of millions of the false charge that the Charlottesville KKK demonstrators were Jewish actors or that a child pornography operation was being run out of a pizza shop in Washington. As entertainment continues to grow as a primary source of information, data-driven targeting becomes more precise with every news cycle.

Yet, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful about the future of news and of our democracy, because values are enduring and will learn, with time, to use the new technology.

I am encouraged by strong, enterprising journalism that searches for the truth and posts it. I’m excited by the proliferation of new business models to sustain quality journalism, like the nonprofit Texas Tribune. Local investigative journalists have captured the attention of their communities with intelligent, rigorous reporting. At Knight Foundation, we have long supported efforts to strengthen trust in news. Given the heightened challenge we face, Knight is ramping up our funding of these efforts, and we recently formed a new panel, the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, to explore the broader challenges facing journalism and its role in civic life.

I am optimistic that these investments will bear fruit. Humans throughout history have grappled with, and overcome, problems like this. The ancient Greeks struggled to balance common identity and purpose with free and democratic expression. Post-Gutenberg Europe managed an explosion of information and opinion, when any Tom, Dick, or Martin Luther could suddenly publish his thoughts for all to see. And on the darker side, sophisticated governments in the last century made manipulation of information an art form. Humans have always sought to identify truth, to control information, and to empower the people with knowledge.

Addressing this challenge will take more than good journalism. It will require us to rethink the rules in an era in which the speed and scale of information strains to the breaking point the bedrock principle that a democratic society requires an informed populace.

No one is off the hook. Not the major internet platforms. Not the president of the United States and his staff. Not the editors of America’s news organizations. And certainly not those who have the most to lose from a world without facts: we, the American people.