A laptop displays a news website. Photo by: Luis Llerena

With the launch of the Facebook Journalism Project last week, the social media giant took a major step forward in attempts to fight the proliferation of fake news online, while also acknowledging its role as an influential distributor of information.

It was a significant moment for an industry in turmoil, with the media facing challenges from broken business models to the democratization of the ability to publish information to the web.

Facebook’s role in the evolution of media online was just one issue discussed at “Future of Democracy: Preserving A Vibrant Civic Media,” an event hosted by the Skoll Foundation, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. Representatives of organizations founded by individuals such as Jeff Skoll, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg gathered to discuss the question of how to preserve democracy when independent media is at risk.

This event is part of a strategic rethinking by foundations and philanthropists on their role in supporting civic media. Those who made their fortunes in tech and are now asking how civic media fits into the landscape of issues they want to support. Here are some key considerations that emerged from the event of just over 100 people last week.

Finding new ways to come together to support civic media

Before Facebook launched the Facebook Journalism Project, it joined First Draft News, a network of institutions dedicated to “improving skills and standards in the reporting and sharing of information that emerges online.”

“My hope, and we are seeing very early indicators of this, is that funders will begin to see that media development funds need to take seriously the fragility of the new media landscape,” said Ed Bice, the founder and CEO of Meedan, which aims to increase online exchange between Arabic and English speakers, and is a founding partner of First Draft News.

Traditionally, international media development has supported journalist trainings and related programs in order to help developing media ecosystems to foster truly independent and investigative media. But the future of media demands new forms of collaboration, like media companies and tech companies coming together for collaborative verification, he said.

Demonstrating how momentum is building around new models such as these, Daniel Swislow, senior partnerships officer at the National Democratic Institute, said his organization is interested in creating an international coalition such as First Draft News for civil society and political partners.

“We’re facing a pretty bleak period and civic media will be even more essential to hold politicians to account, to delve into the wealth of murky secrets that are undoubtedly out there, and, of course, to tell the truth,” said Patrick Alley, the co-founder of Global Witness, an international NGO dedicated to exposing corruption.

He talked about organizations including the U.S. Department of State and the Silicon Valley-based Omidyar Network funding media to fight corruption. As funders consider next steps to support civic media, NGOs such as Global Witness are thinking through new ways of working together with media organizations and philanthropic foundations.

“We all need to be working together to preserve independent reporting of critical issues, and the philanthropic community needs to pump a lot more money into it,” he said.

A process of reinvention for the media industry

The technological revolution has transformed the way people access news and information, said Suzana Grego, director of public engagement and communications at the Skoll Foundation.

“There’s no doubt that fake news makes it rain,” she said, citing a BuzzFeed survey revealing that most Americans who see fake news believe it, and adding that fake news is cheaper, more scalable, and therefore more lucrative than real news.

Her presentation, which kicked off the event Wednesday, outlined both the demand side and supply side challenges facing civic media.

She was one of several speakers to bring up recent comments by Jay Rosen, a media critic and professor at New York University, who warns the American press “is not accustomed to organizing itself to fight back or act assertively in any coordinated way.”

“While it is important, in the current civic media crisis, to help legacy media, there also needs to be investments in experimental digital products and businesses that contribute to the provision of information in the public interest,” Patrice Schneider, chief strategy officer at the Media Development Investment Fund, told Devex.

The organization invests in independent news outlets, helping them build sustainable businesses around quality journalism, and has provided more than $155 million in financing globally. While Schneider is a former journalist, he said what drives him is not how to save the media business, but how to ensure that societies have access to timely, accurate, and relevant information that is so critical for their participation in public life.

How can media work better for democracy?

A series of talks under the title: “WTF!?!” tried to answer the question: Where are we and how did we get here?

“If the newspaper industry is past its point of no return, you would assume that we would be having a national conversation about this,” said Victor Pickard, associate professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, citing the Pew Research Center’s 2016 State of the News Media report. “But thus far there has been almost no public policy response whatsoever.”

It was no surprise that many conversations in a room full of journalists focused on new business models for media. But others explained that the crisis extended far beyond the problem of declining revenues. They brought the conversation back to the topic of civic media.

“I don’t actually think solving the business model problem of media organizations is going to get us anywhere near where we need to get in terms of democracy,” Lucy Bernholz, senior scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and co-director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University, said at the event. “I hope we can shape this conversation to really think about civil society as a critical part of thriving democracies and where media fits into that. I think that’s the question.”

The question is how to make sure that media innovation positively impacts our democracy, said Christie George, the director of New Media Ventures, a seed fund that invests in startups using media and technology to drive change.

At the event, she mentioned a white paper to help donors, funders, and investors identify promising revenue models, and announced her next funding round, which will open on Feb. 1, with debt and equity investments and grants for technology, media, and civil society projects in response to the U.S. election.  

Technology is part of the problem and the solution

“If you remember the heady days of the 2000s, we thought that blogs and citizen journalism, the free expression of ideas, unmediated by gatekeepers, was going to improve the public sphere,” said Tim Hwang, public policy counsel at Google.

The expectation was that the internet would help the world achieve this dream of the wisdom of the crowds, he said.

“But I want to argue that basically the internet has fundamentally changed in a number of ways that make our original notion that left to its own devices internet will find its own equilibrium, traditional economics if you will of the internet, make that model no longer functional,” he said.

A few takeaways emerged from a series of talks on bots and big data. It is cheaper to create lies than it is to create truth. So while funders can support real news to combat fake news, they also need to look at the incentives by which information or misinformation is shared. Because artificial intelligence drives much of the way information is consumed, particularly on social media, it can also be part of the problem or part of the solution to fake news.

Fake news isn’t new, and the spread of misinformation is a global problem

In the final months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top fake news stories generated more engagement than the top stories from credible news outlets. There are mixed reports about the impact fake news had on the results. But more details are emerging on the role Russia played to use misinformation to disrupt the election.

Fake news is nothing new, but what is new is “the ongoing degradation of newsrooms,” said Brooke Binkoski, the managing editor of Snopes, a site that was set up to research urban legends, but recently began fact checking for Facebook.

“We have this perfect storm here,” she said, pointing to media companies cutting staff and closing doors, as well as trust among news consumers reaching a new low. 

“In the absence of vetted, contextualized information, people are going to just take in misinformation,” she continued.

The urgency of this moment cannot be overstated, said Sarah Kendzior, a freelance journalist whose academic research focused on authoritarian states in Central Asia. She spoke about her expectations for threats to press freedom in the next administration.

“Some of you have mentioned urgency, and I hate to say this, but I don’t think urgency is necessarily needed right now because it’s too late,” Drew Sullivan, director of the OCCRP, said.

While pressure following the U.S. election is what finally led Facebook to take on fake news, the spread of misinformation on social media started well before 2016, and the problem extends far beyond US. borders. Some governments are manipulating the online discussion with false online identities and chatbots, software programs that use artificial intelligence and automation to dominate conversations. Others are thinking through ways to defend themselves against disinformation campaigns, with officials from Germany expressing concern about the role Russian hacks and trolls could play in its own presidential elections this fall.

“Information is becoming more accessible and ubiquitous and the way people are getting their information is driven by incentives that aren’t necessarily pro truth,” Swislow of NDI told Devex.

The event last week concluded with a roadmap to action, which the Skoll Foundation plans to discuss with other funders who are considering ways to put dollars behind some of the ideas proposed there. Grego of the Skoll Foundation mentioned the Skoll World Forum and the United Nations General Assembly as two additional forums where funders might gather to continue the conversation.

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.