Ethan Zuckerman

Defining Civic Media

Air Date: September 7, 2017

Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media Ethan Zuckerman talks about activism, technology and the future of the digital ecosystem.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. We spend countless hours exploring the digital world on this broadcast, and its wide digital dissemination. We concern ourselves in particular with whether or not technology acts in the public interest. When Canadian broadcaster turned Wikimedia chief, Sue Gardner, joined me here about two years ago, she said something startling: “I’m really worried about the future of the internet because I think we risk losing the awesome potential, and we risk turning it into something that’s just kind of a cross between a shopping mall and a surveillance state.” That worry persists, of course, and it’s why I’ve invited Ethan Zuckerman here, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, whose research focuses on the distribution of attention, the use of technology and activism across new media. I want to ask Ethan today what civic media and education mean, how we can develop a blueprint forward, and the construction of these principles, how they can inform our on and offline lives. Ethan, welcome. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.

ZUCKERMAN: Great to be with you, Alex.

HEFFNER: Tell us, when we think of civic media, what does that mean? Civic media.

ZUCKERMAN: For us it’s a really broad term. For us, civic media, a, and us, not speaking of the world, or we, I’m speaking about the other researchers in my lab, we talk about civic media as media that people make and disseminate as a way of trying to make social or political change. So, if you tweet uh a story that is critiquing the President, if you write an article about an issue in your hometown, if you try to rally people to change the timing on the traffic light on your corner, all of that is civic media. It’s simply the act of making media, putting it out in the world, in the hopes of having influence or change in one fashion or another.

HEFFNER: And that influence can be educational as opposed to… partisan or politicized. It can be a variety of kinds of change.

ZUCKERMAN: So civics’ extremely broad. Uh. And one of the first things that we try to do is unpack civic from just being about passing laws. So one of the things that I worry about at the moment is that I was very much raised on the School House Rock, I’m just a bill, only a bill model of civics, where we elect representatives, you know, legislation goes into the house, it goes through committee, it passes. And your role as a citizen is to watch the process and occasionally sort of comment and chip in. I think a lot of people don’t feel like that’s a particularly effective way that they as individuals can make change these days. So I’m interested in a definition of civic that could involve everything from trying to influence laws, to trying to make change through markets, through new code and new technologies and through social norms.

HEFFNER: The commercial media do not necessarily embody… what we would consider civic values in how they disseminate information. Are they beginning to adopt a civic framework around the ideas, the content they produce, that is fed into our Twitter and Facebook feeds.

ZUCKERMAN: So the, the way that I would look at civic media is, is the media that you’re consuming making it easier for you to be an active citizen? So in many cases, what we’re getting is reporting on powerful people, important processes that you don’t individually have much influence over. Um. And we do this because we have this sort of old-fashioned notion of civics, that civics is something that happens in Washington. It’s something that happens in a state house. But it’s not necessarily something that you have all that much involvement with. What I’m interested in doing is trying to figure out how do we overhaul media around the idea of individual efficacy. How do we help you, as a citizen, identify issues that you care about, identify issues where you could make a change. That change may not be about electing someone to Congress. That change maybe more about understanding what’s going on with rooftop solar energy and why converting your house, um, so that you’re no longer using a coal-fired power plant, that might be a massive civic step that you could take. So I’m really interested in, in thinking about, how do we define civics now. And then when we think about the role of professional media, how do we help professional media help people be effective citizens, understanding that one of the things that’s really different right now is that people make media as well as consuming it. So they’re always part of the production process at the same time.

HEFFNER: And you’re concerned with both ends, the consumption, citizen consumption, and citizen production too. How do you most effectively operationalize civic in civic media.

ZUCKERMAN: So… again, for me the, the question in this is efficacy. Where do you feel like you can push and you can make a difference. A lot of what we study is looking at this idea of norms based change. How do you change, not necessarily the law, but how do you change people’s minds? Because often changing people’s minds proceeds changing the law. If we look at the victories around equal marriage, these followed on a massive change in public mentality in terms of acceptance of gays and lesbians and gay and lesbian marriage. So for me right now, one of the most effective movements of the last few years has been the movement for Black Lives. And looking at the way that this movement essentially said look, the problem of police violence, the problem of unarmed people of color being killed by police officers, we’re not going to legislate our way out of this. It’s been illegal for quite some time um for police to shoot unarmed people of color unless they feel like their lives are threatened. What’s going on is a norms problem. People are feeling threatened particularly by young black men, and so we have to go after that set of social norms. So there was this amazing campaign online uh called If They Gun Me Down. So you would see young black people posting a pair of images of themselves from their Facebook feed at their, at their worst, at their most threatening, at their most sort of uh demonized or stigmatized, and at their best. You know, wearing a marine uniform, graduating from high school. And this was a reference to the fact that when Michael Brown was killed, people used a photo of him that was very much him looking tough, looking big, and like a thug, whereas on his Facebook feed there had also been pictures of him looking young and unthreatening. Why did the media pick one image over the other. Flood of these images comes out. This hashtag gets very popular. Within three days it’s on the front page of the New York Times, and it’s very, very hard to find that original image of Mike Brown looking threatening. So people talk about slacktivism, people complain that people are doing activism online and it doesn’t have any impact. This really did have an impact. It got media outlets to think about how do they portray victims of crime. Because what images we use matters in terms of shaping social norms.

HEFFNER: How do you find now, Black Lives Matter, to… impact the political process beyond the incrimination of officers who may have acted… not in accordance with the law or appropriate practice.


HEFFNER: How do you take that next step.

ZUCKERMAN: Well so first of all I think in many cases the next step has been taken. So. What Black Lives Matter did um, are, our lab is finishing uh, uh, a paper on this right now. Before Michael Brown’s death, when you read a story about a black victim of police violence, an un-armed black victim of police violence, in only two percent of the stories did you see a reference to another death. Generally speaking when you saw that story this was an isolated incident, it wasn’t part of a larger narrative. After Mike Brown’s death, it’s up to 22 percent of stories. So there’s a huge change in how we talk about these stories. People are now seeing these stories as part of a larger narrative. We also analyzed how much attention these stories get. After Mike Brown, the average 33 year-old African American victim of police violence was 11 times more likely to get a story than beforehand. So the visibility of Mike Brown’s death, movement for Black Lives, all the different efforts to get people to pay attention to this got enormously more media attention and enormously more attention to this narrative that America still has a race problem and still has a violence problem. So a big part of what we try to figure out when we study civic media is what’s the point of all of this. What’s the influence of all of this? Young people in particular turn to digital media because it’s a place where they can find efficacy. They feel like there’s something that they can do, and often they can see a result from it. A lot of people say well what does this really do? It doesn’t elect anybody. It doesn’t change any laws. First of all, with the movement for Black Lives, actually it’s had an enormous change in police policy. Widespread adoption of body cameras, which are a mixed blessing, uh and a real change on the norms based side of it. So a lot of what my group tries to do is figure out what works and how does it work, because what we wanna do is recognize that what we call civic is so much broader than reading the news, going to vote, writing or calling your congress-person or senator, all of which are hugely important, but are really a sort of narrow and almost impoverished view of what it means to be a civic actor these days.

HEFFNER: And yet on the national stage, legislation stalls that’s been put forward by Senator Paul, Senator Booker, now recently Senator Harris and Senator… Paul teaming up on incarceration reform. Um. It, it doesn’t seem like the output of that civic has yet, has been extrapolated on that stage. And I’m wondering how we get there.

ZUCKERMAN: So um… I would say in analyzing this particular moment in American civics, trying to get legislation passed at the federal level is probably the hardest task that you could have as a civic actor in America right now. And so when I’m talking to young people about civics, I’m really cautious about giving primacy to that model of civics. We have a real tendency as a nation to say OK we didn’t make real change unless we got federal legislation, or unless we did something at the level of the Supreme Court. That’s not the only way to make change. You can make change legally at the state level, you can make it at the city level. You can make change um through these other media. Um. Like I said, I’m not sure the problem of police violence is going to be addressed by laws. I think over time it’s gonna be addressed by norms change, better training. And those are places where campaigns in the media, uh, as well as other types of campaigns can be more effective. So what I’m trying to get, in many ways, is to sort of get beyond the … you didn’t pass a law you didn’t accomplish anything. And essentially say what are the other ways that you could make change. One of my best examples of this, ’cause, I, I, come out of MIT. You know many of my students are engineers. Um. A lot of them were incredibly frustrated by NSA surveillance as revealed by Edward Snowden, even under an Obama Presidency, not very much progress on putting surveillance back in the box. The engineering response, the code response to this was to say, well maybe we can find ways to make our communications more secure, even if we can’t pass legislation around this. So you likely have WhatsApp on your phone. At the heart of What’sApp uh is the same protocol that’s used in signal, which is a really high-quality messaging app that a lot of us in the security community use. There’s a really good chance um that you’re able to have highly secure communication that’s really tough for the NSA to break. Even if we couldn’t pass laws in the wake of those revelations, maybe there’s a way to make change through code. And for me, that’s what the changing shape of civics is all about. It’s finding different and new ways to make change.

HEFFNER: Let’s talk about security Ethan. We had your friend, our mutual friends, John Palfrey and Zeynep Tufekci here. We talked about, with John Palfrey, a term that he’s coined, “Digital Pearl Harbor.”


HEFFNER: Now Zeynep and I talked about digital Watergate…


HEFFNER: In the context of the 2016 Russian interference and hijacking of DNC headquarters and servers. It strikes me, Ethan, that some of that civic energy is lost because uh we are unaware of cyber and online theft as being real and analogous to, and very much concretely the same as if we went to Tiffany’s right now and stole all the jewels.


HEFFNER: How do you deal with this gap, this dissonance?

ZUCKERMAN: Yeah. So it’s interesting. I think what happened with the DNC in 2016 brought an issue to the table that many of us in the security community have been dealing with for a long time now. I do a lot of work with NGOs, some of those NGOs work in China, they work in Russia. Uh they are under constant attack. They are infiltrated all the time. Uh and this sort of notion that, you know, cyber-attacks sort of just happened, and we’re just paying attention to. It’s a very American view of things, right? So Ukraine has found itself embroiled in this conflict for years with Russia, and that is very much a cyber conflict as well as a real-world conflict. We’ve talked about these scenarios for years. Um. There are people in the Pentagon who have war-gamed them out. Uh and when they happen in reality they’re much… messier and trickier than anyone had really thought. One of the biggest problems in uh these scenarios is attribution. Uh when someone launches a missile at you, you can generally figure out where it came from, who sent it. And the fact that you can attribute it and threaten a strike in retaliation, keeps us from lobbing nukes at each other most of the time. It doesn’t happen that way uh with, with cyber weapons. Uh it’s very rare that, that I agree with Donald Trump, but when he, you know, makes the point that, you know, it could be a 400 pound man sitting on his, his bed doing this, I was in a room with people, by the way, when they did that, they all stared at me, and I was trying to explain to them that I’m lighter than that, I’ve been working out…


ZUCKERMAN: Um but it is really hard to decide. Was this a state? Was this an individual actor? And so it does make it incredibly hard to attribute. I do think the DNC attacks are attributable to Russia. I’ve looked at some of the research behind it, and I do think that our reaction is really disturbing, in that it seems to say we’re going to accept this level of interference. We’re going to accept uh this level of whether we would call it, you know, cyber war, or whether we could call it cyber propaganda. We’re going to accept this as a new fact of life. and I, I think that’s quite troubling and quite concerning as we go forward.

HEFFNER: Doesn’t it come back to norms though, and teaching those norms through civic media.

ZUCKERMAN: I think we can teach people… how to be smarter about the int, uh, the, the information that they’re encountering, and to be more skeptical about it. But I think one of the critical things that we don’t talk about very much is that we are at a moment in time where trust is extremely low. So uh I spend a lot of time with people who are really worried about trust in the press. And we’ve seen trust fall from a peak maybe five years after Watergate, down to incredibly low levels, which makes sense when you have one political party you know, ruthlessly bashing uh the media as fake media. What’s interesting though, is that trust as a whole, trust in institutions, is in crisis in the United States. If you asked Americans in 1964, do they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time, 77 percent of them would have said yes, I trust Washington.


ZUCKERMAN: If you ask that question now you get somewhere between 15 and 19 percent. So that’s an enormous difference. You basically have flipped it 180 from trusters being in the vast majority to trusters being in the vast minority. Some people benefit from mistrust. If you have a very simple narrative; follow me, I’m strong, I’m gonna lead us through this mess, you tend to do very well in a high mistrust society. Complex processes, complex institutions, here’s how a bill gets made law, here’s how it goes through the senate and congress, they do poorly. So this moment of high mistrust is benefiting people. And having the mistrust that comes from things like the idea of, did Russia pollute our election. Can you believe information online? Can you believe the information that’s coming out of the leaks? That benefits certain types of government and it hurts other types of government.

HEFFNER: And for that reason you would wish that the CIA in its intelligence report would be more transparent about the origin of this conclusion. IP addresses… meta-data… put it up front. Show the American people the evidence, and it really hasn’t been quite forthcoming.

ZUCKERMAN: Beyond the CIA, I really wish uh the government in the White House would say, no. This is a serious concern. There seems to be evidence that the election was tampered with it. Let’s deal with it, and let’s deal with this idea of cyber tampering, rather than creating a commission to uh look at voter fraud and misidentification in the US, which there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for. So what, what’s so hard about this is… at this moment of high mistrust, if you have a party in power that seems to be benefiting from the mistrust, it’s right now to the Trump Administration’s benefit to, to sort of keep a certain amount of uncertainty and chaos going on around this. What it does is sort of steadily erodes our confidence in those institutions. But we have an insurrectionist President who ran against those institutions. So it helps strengthen his hand over time.

HEFFNER: To think about the evolution from a TED talk that you gave touting the great potential of international… camaraderie online, to… the present climate. Uh. How did we get bonkers? How did we go nativist when the technology would seem to or hope to inspire… greater trust.

ZUCKERMAN: So I gave a TED Talk in 2010 um about what I called “digital cosmopolitism.” And I wrote a book about it later called “Rewire.” And the idea was, a lot of us back in the 1990s had hoped that the internet would have us all holding hands and singing Kumbaya. And back in 2010, I was saying, we’re so far… below our potential for this. We need new tools that help introduce us to each other, that help bring us into conversation. We need better tools for language. We need, you know, better media, that helps us understand enough of what’s going on in Russia or China or India that we can pay attention to it. And I wrote it at a moment of comparative global stability, where it seemed like further global integration was where we were going to go. Almost immediately after I published it, I realized I had the wrong time for it, because we started seeing this sort of nativist swing. Uh we see, you know, Viktor Orban in Hungary. We see uh the political shifts in Poland. We see Brexit, we see the Trump election here. And I think what’s going on… is there’s this sense that this arch of progress that we’ve been on, this notion that we were getting more interconnected… people are now deeply afraid of where that scenario’s going. Um people are afraid, rightly or wrongly, I think mostly wrongly, about the danger of Islamic immigration. People are really afraid, mostly rightly I think, about the changing nature of work, whether they’re still gonna have meaningful jobs. Um people in the United States in many cases, um particularly working class and middle class white people, have a sense that their future is not as good as they had hoped it would be. And this all leads to these fairly simple nativist solutions. Let’s blame this on outsiders. Let’s close our borders. Let’s look for a way to put ourselves first. In the long run it’s incredibly destructive. The really big problems that we need to solve, like climate change, like uh, religious extremism, these are global in scale. And there’s no way you solve them by eh, except by communicating over borders. But right now we’re at a moment where it’s extremely difficult to get people to admit to being a globalist. I am a globalist and proud of it. But that’s now become the, the preferred epithet, uh, for the far right, to sort of throw at the left or even the center, that we are more concerned about the rest of the world than we are the United States. Uh I am happy to say that I am as concerned about the rest of the world as I am about the United States. That has now become an extremely unpopular political stance.

HEFFNER: Do you attribute this phenomenon of nativism to something going wrong with the way that civic media was transpiring, or the absence, going back to the beginning of the show, the absence of, of civic media?

ZUCKERMAN: So… one of the things that’s gone on over the last couple of years is that the atomization of media that we saw with the rise of cable news, where you could watch left or right rather than sort of straight down the middle, has gone to a profound degree online. You can find exactly the niche that you wanna pay attention to. Yochai Benkler at Harvard, and I, and our teams put out a study in the Columbia Journalism review, where we make the case that not only was Breitbart the far right anti-immigrant site deeply influential in the 2016 election. We basically argued that Breitbart won the Presidency. Um and we can show in our study that Breitbart found in Donald Trump a candidate who would take a hardline stance on immigration. And that wing, that far right wing of the Republican party, managed to have enormous influence over what right wing and frankly left of center media talked about as key issues in the election. We saw Breitbart writing about immigration more than three times as much as any other publication out there. And then when we look at the whole analysis of what substantive issues were discussed during the election, immigration outpaces everything else. So… this atomization of media, this ability to surround yourself with an echo-chamber of sources that you’re interested in, and the way that media can influence each other, has now changed the political landscape.

HEFFNER: And quickly, in the seconds we have left now, do you describe Donald Trump’s tweets, and Breitbart, or maybe you distill this, you separate the two as… still, civic, because they’re influencing political outcomes, or anti-civic media because they are… in a sense, disproven, fictional, or… alternatively antisocial rather than prosocial.

ZUCKERMAN: No one civic media had to be media that I liked. Civic media is media that tries to make political change. And like it or not, the far right have been extremely effective in using digital media and making political change in the United States.

HEFFNER: That’s a hard for me to swallow, though, the notion that civic… can mean… antisocial.


HEFFNER: It can mean…


HEFFNER: Anti-immigrant.

ZUCKERMAN: There are people on the far right who have felt like they haven’t had a voice in the political sphere for a long time. And they felt like, through Breitbart, through InfoWars, they found a voice. I’m not saying this is good-

HEFFNER: Doesn’t—

ZUCKERMAN: It’s awfully far…

HEFFNER: But doesn’t, doesn’t civic presuppose a view of government as… if not a positive, it presupposes… the preservation of government and the Breitbart contingent or at least part of it would want to in Steve Bannon’s words, deconstruct the administrative state. So how can it be civic media if its purpose is to…


HEFFNER: Deconstruct civics?

ZUCKERMAN: Remember how I’m defining civics. I’m defining civics as…

HEFFNER: Broadly.

ZUCKERMAN: People trying to make social change. And I don’t like the social change that’s coming from the far right. But it would be a mistake to deny its power and efficacy, which is why I want to study and understand it.

HEFFNER: Ethan, I appreciate your time today.

ZUCKERMAN: Great to talk with you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.