Journalists covering conflicts and crises need to slow down, says Ethan Zuckerman. As social media diversifies and platforms like X become more and more unreliable, he calls for a new role for public service media.
"Journalists became obsessed with being first, with the hopes of gaining attention via social media. That's an unwinnable war," says Ethan Zuckerman.
DW: What are the main challenges for journalism in the face of the ongoing, rapid changes in the international media world?
Ethan Zuckerman: In many parts of the world, audiences are splitting into rival political camps, who trust different media sources and are receptive to different narratives. It's increasingly difficult to report news for all audiences.
It is very difficult these days to assert a set of facts that different sides can agree on.
The situation is complicated by the fact that social media platforms are no longer pretending to be neutral actors in this space. X (formally known as Twitter), under Elon Musk, is no longer a source of tips and sources for journalists – it's a right-wing amplifier that gives voice to anti-Semitic and white supremacist voices. Media outlets are being forced to choose which ecosystem of views and platforms they wish to serve.
DW: Both in Russia’s war against Ukraine and in the Israel-Hamas war, we can observe how crucial and yet how difficult it is to verify facts and put them in the right context. If, as the saying goes, the first casualty of war is truth, what is your advice for journalists covering conflicts?
Ethan Zuckerman: My primary piece of advice: slow down. Journalists became obsessed with being first, with the hopes of gaining attention via social media. That's an unwinnable war.
Journalists need to slow down and promise verified, contextualized information, not the fastest information. In both high attention wars unfolding, there are significant digital influence campaigns: Professionals and amateurs are working to mislead audiences. Because passions run high in wartime, these campaigns involve participatory propaganda: people acting on their own make, sharing mis- and disinformation for ideological reasons. The journalist's role is to help the reader navigate this fraught climate, not to be first to hit the "publish" button. Be right, not fast.
DW: You’ve described the damage done to society and politics by social networks as a problem that it will take decades to repair, and have advocated for a fundamental transformation of social media. You’ve also said that it is not enough to fix the internet, but that we need to imagine, fund, and build a better web. Can you explain these concepts?
Ethan Zuckerman: Whenever a new medium comes online – radio, television, social media – we have choices to make as a society about how we embrace it. Should we leave decisions about the medium up the market? Or recognize its effects on us as democratic citizens and either regulate it or subsidize certain behaviors?
Because social media emerged in the US, it emerged unregulated and unsubsidized. It unfolded according to dictates of advertising logic. Platforms benefit from content that is attention-catching, which means it is often highly emotional, divisive, and untrue.
While platforms move slowly to correct their worst behaviors, we have the opportunity to build our own systems that work more like public media, encouraging pro-democratic behaviors and counterbalancing the spread of mis- and disinformation. Done right, this could be a new role for public media in the 21st century. Ideally, social media platforms supported by public broadcasters could provide spaces for civil discussions of local issues and some guidance on the reliability of information shared in online spaces.
DW: How can the concept of public social media become a relevant reality? How can we implement it?
Ethan Zuckerman: We need a variety of platforms to host a variety of conversations. Some will exist on mega-platforms, while others might be restricted to people who share a common interest or common geography. They might have different rulesets, some optimized for deliberation and moderated discussion, others free for all.
We also need algorithms that we can control which help us to navigate this information space and find reliable information that matches our needs. Public media could help us build and share this toolkit, helping existing audiences navigate this confusing moment in digital media.
Ethan Zuckerman is a US-American media scholar and Associate Professor of Public Policy, Information and Communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he also serves as Director of the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure. His research focuses on alternative business and governance models for the internet.
This Q&A has been edited by Michael Münz and Sophie Kirby.