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Social Media and Democracy, and “Journalistic Equivalence”—Lessons for Marketers and Citizens

Last week, Georgetown alumna Rebecca Buckman visited the KIE to speak with students in Ethics Lab course, “Social Media and Democracy.” Reflecting on the event, Buckman shared her insights from the discussion below. Buckman is currently the VP of marketing communications at Battery Ventures in Menlo Park, CA; she was previously a senior special writer at the Wall Street Journal and a senior editor at Forbes. This post was originally published by Battery Ventures

The rise of the Internet and social media is great for a lot of things. But is it hurting our democracy?

That’s the central question some Georgetown University students are grappling with in a class called “Social Media and Democracy”, which looks at issues like the rise of fake news, the ability of Internet “echo chambers” to shape public opinion and the real meaning of concepts like truth. I was honored to speak to this class last week, mostly sharing experiences as a former journalist in Silicon Valley who has seen the decline of the “real” news industry firsthand.

Marketers at all technology companies and, in my opinion, all citizens should be engaging in this debate, mulling the broader ramifications of how news and information is shared and consumed today. What does it mean, for instance, that as of last year, only two in 10 Americans (22%) said they trust the information they get from local news organizations “a lot”—but that 62% of citizens report getting their news from social-media sites, which may not be fact-checked or vetted in the traditional journalistic sense?

I talked to the students last week about the critical but dying art of real journalism, and how sites like Facebook and Twitter can easily—sometimes virally–spread fringe viewpoints or outright falsehoods. They all knew this already, of course, both from the readings they’re doing for the course as well as the news from across town on Capitol Hill: The morning I spoke with them, Twitter executives were getting grilled by members of Congress about 200 or so accounts that may have been used by Russians to manipulate the last Presidential election. Last month, Facebook agreed to turn over 3,000 Russia-linked ads associated with hundreds of accounts that appear to have been created with fake names, with the intent of sowing discord in the electorate.

The rise of social media and the upending of the traditional news business means there’s simply less agreement about what constitutes actual news—and if it’s possible to have objective reporting at all. The financial decimation of the print-newspaper business, fueled partly by the rise of the Internet and the decline of revenue sources like classified ads (and publicly held newspaper companies pushing for profits), means there are fewer and fewer reporters out there even trying to be objective. The American Society of News Editors reported there were just under 33,000 full-time journalists plying their trade in the U.S. in 2015, down significantly from a high of 56,900 in 1990. Last year, the group stopped counting, saying it was too difficult to classify who was really a full-time journalist anymore.

I saw this contraction play out first-hand over the course of my 18-year career in journalism. The Indianapolis Star, a once-venerable big-city newspaper where I worked from 1992 to 1996, after I graduated from college, struggled financially and was sold to Gannett in 2000. The paper quickly assumed the brightly colored, short-story format of other newspapers owned by its parent company, and newsroom staff shrank. Similarly, at the Wall Street Journal, the Bancroft family offloaded Dow Jones & Co. to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 2005. There was a slow exodus of top investigative reporters from the paper, whose new editors also extolled the virtues of shorter, less-detailed stories, which are of course cheaper and easier to produce. Then-managing editor (now News Corp. executive) Robert Thomson alienated large corners of the staff when he told reporters that there were too many stories that had “the gestation of a llama”–11 months, to be exact.

Why should we care? Well, maybe this sounds anachronistic, but hard-core, beat and investigative reporting has traditionally served as a crucial check on corporate, political and other types of U.S. institutions. And today there’s simply a lot less of it in print and on the Internet. (For a refresher on the importance of this type of reporting, please watch the recent Ken Burns Vietnam documentary on PBS.)

For marketers and communications pros, there’s the more-immediate issue of a confused and scattershot press landscape, where there are fewer reporters covering serious political and business topics, and they’re generally less experienced. Most cub reporters today don’t go through the type of training and rigorous editing my colleagues and I got at places like the Star, and later the Journal, which I joined when I was 27. Many of the blogs—often very well-known ones—that I deal with now as a communications professional often appear to have scant editing, or none at all. I can count the number of fact-checking calls I’ve gotten in the last four years on one hand. Other print and online publications are slowly erasing the once-sacrosanct line between business and editorial, running paid-for, contributed columns and features that are in many cases advertisements, but not always easily distinguishable as such.


Buckman discusses the state of journalism today with Ethics Lab students.


The students in the Georgetown class, part of an innovative ethics and design program launched recently by the school’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, seemed, refreshingly, interested in these broad issues surrounding truth and democracy—even though none of them (not surprisingly) said they read a print newspaper. They asked questions about how journalists combat bias in their use of certain words, and noted that social media has had many positive effects on democracy as well. And it has, in cases like the Arab Spring and others.

We even talked about whether the Internet and social media had created a sort of “journalistic equivalence”: A situation in which the fact that any viewpoint, however crazy or un-checked, can look legitimate on a nicely designed website, or in a trusted friend’s Facebook feed, is making actual news and reporting less believable and less distinguishable to most Americans. The students had discussed the “moral equivalence” argument about President Trump’s comments about the Charlottesville protestors, in which he said both sides were equally to blame for the violence.

So I left the class somewhat upbeat, though still worried about how real journalism will survive in the current political and economic climate. I personally hope that innovators can still find new ways to disrupt the old journalism business model—along the lines of what ProPublica is doing as a nonprofit, or the way in which Report for America is leveraging philanthropy to fund young journalists in “underserved” newsrooms across the U.S., almost like the Peace Corps. (The effort is partly funded by Google News Lab.) I also hope more civic-minded rich guys like Jeff Bezos, now the owner of the Washington Post, will use their billions to prop up old-school journalism in some form. So c’mon, Silicon Valley, start devoting more resources to this problem—our democracy may be at stake.

This semester’s Data Ethics course charged students with developing creative new proposals aimed at shaping the future of Georgetown’s policies on University use of student data. Each of the final projects aimed to impact the development of these policies in a different way — from raising student awareness of data safety issues to offering a concrete structure for authentic, democratic student involvement in University policymaking on this issue — and each was presented to University CIO Judd Nicholson and a panel of outside jurors as part of the course’s final “crit.”

Crits — or critiques — are formal events during which student teams present their work to an audience for evaluation, assessment, and feedback. During a juried crit, we bring guests and collaborators into Ethics Lab to serve as formal jurors, who critique the final products students deliver. Students were expected to deliver something that the jury deems valuable, and were asked to defend their work and collaborate on improving it.

Each team was also responsible for making their project public by setting it into context, inviting and engaging in critique, and providing an opportunity for public collaboration.

The following projects were presented at this semester’s final crit:

“Code of Ethics for the Use of Student Data at Georgetown University” – a project to design a proposal for a code of ethics for the Georgetown community. Students sought to create a classroom-wide collaborative consensus on the proposed principles. Full consensus was nearly achieved!

Student Advisory Group on Data Ethics – a group created to meet and communicate with University Information Services (UIS) regarding the student perspective on data ethics issues at Georgetown. The group is being created and hosted by UIS beginning in the fall semester.

Data Awareness Week – a guerilla marketing campaign that included buttons, coffee sleeves, flyering, and an informative website. They managed to get 150 unique visitors and 50 sign ups for a data ethics listserve. This may be a repeat occurrence next spring prior to the Kennedy Institute of Ethics’s Conversations in Bioethics event, which will focus on data ethics in 2018.

Meaningful Focus Groups – a new approach to managing and developing effective focus groups. This approach was designed specifically for UIS and in particular use for GU360, a new university-wide data management platform. It is being implemented as UIS moves forward with testing GU360.

Hoya Data – a game that generates unique insights about data ethics through gameplay. This team is being invited to incubate beyond this semester. The game is fun and engaging. Students 3D printed their gameplay pieces, and laser-cut the game token currency, in Georgetown’s Maker Hub.

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, Kobbi Nissim, Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown, joined students for a guest lecture on big data.

Nissim spoke about the importance of establishing rigorous practices for privacy in computation: identifying problems that result from the collection, sharing, and processing of information, formalizing these problems and studying them with the goal of creating solid practices and technological solutions. These ideas were then applied to health research and the implications privacy and consent have specific to health. Discussions centered on how guidance boards could mitigate present risks or better respond to crises spread across a wide network.

Toward the end, class got meta–the semester’s course work was split into five categories: writing assignments, design assignments, speakers, readings, and lectures. The students spent time dividing their class experiences into these categories, tagging particularly enjoyable or useful moments to generate data influential for designing future iterations of the course. Last, students broke to consult the final project rubric and guidelines for final crits of projects next week!

readings on big data + health

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, students were treated to a guest lecture and project critique from GU alum Bill Erickson (BSFS, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service & JD, Northwestern University), who spoke about some of the hard tradeoffs in data security that technology industry leaders face, as well as his belief in the danger of decision-making about novel technology in the absence of a considered moral framework for action guidance.

Today’s session, billed as a “project intensive,” was primarily dedicated to an intensive mentoring session for team projects. Take a peek at some of the works-in-progress below! (Georgetown login required.)

Mark your calendars! Government innovation with Alexis Bonnell of USAID

On April 27 at 3:30pm, Georgetown Library’s Gelardin New Media Center and Science, Technology, and International Affairs (STIA) Program will welcome Alexis Bonnell, Division Chief of Applied Innovation of the U.S. Global Development Lab of USAID, to lead a discussion on “How Innovation Occurs In Government.”

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, students explored information bubbles, social media’s role in reinforcing them, and what our increasingly polarized and fact-free public discourse means for the future of democracy. Heavy stuff!

Levity was added via an interactive exercise inspired by the Wall Street Journal’s “Red Feed, Blue Feed” feature demonstrating parallel information universes. Individual students “skewed the news” themselves prior to class, and the results were refined, aggregated, and presented as a formal feed interspersed with “skewed” stories from actual sources. Students voted on which stories they thought were student-authored, and which had appeared “in the wild” … with surprising results. Get out your smartphone and take the quiz to see for yourself!

Or, take a look directly at the full feed here and then review the key to check your score the old-fashioned way.

readings on autonomony + liberty
design tools crit

“this is the first time I’ve ended a lecture like this on a positive note…”

data ethics course update

This week in the lab’s data ethics course, students talked about the 4th amendment, and how it protects (or fails to protect) email and other materials saved on smartphones from search and seizure. Positive and negative liberty, tradeoffs, and the so-called “third party doctrine” were all covered in a free-ranging discussion with guest speaker Paul Ohm of the Georgetown University Law Center. A recent court ruling about privacy offered a glimmer of hope to individual liberty promoters, in Ohm’s view, joking that this was the first time he’d given a lecture on the topic and managed to end on a hopeful note.

readings on autonomony + liberty

Ethics Lab was excited to host a collaborative session with representatives from Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business and across the broader university system for a live demo of some of the lab’s creative design education methods.

Faculty and administrators were led through persona-building and empathy-mapping exercises drawn from the world of human-centered design and adapted to the setting of the collaborative social impact projects Georgetown business students will be beginning later this year — in collaboration with the lab team.

This session was a ton of fun as well as an inspiring opportunity to engage in open-ended dialogue with university faculty and leadership about the distinctly world-oriented, reflective, Jesuit approach to ethics that has always been a Georgetown signature — and the role that the lab plays in embodying, supporting, and expanding that approach for all of our students.

Have you seen the new “street ethics” installation one floor down from the lab? Weigh in on what you see as the most important issue facing our generation… if you can find any room, that is! The board was basically packed 24 hours after installation. Looking forward to seeing what’s next!