How information fuels the power of our democracy – Knight Foundation

How information fuels the power of our democracy

The following remarks were delivered by Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen during the opening session of the 10th Media Learning Seminar on Feb. 13, 2017 at the Miami Marriott Biscayne Bay. They have been lightly edited for publication. 

I am the son of an immigrant and the husband of an immigrant. I live in a county where half of the residents were born in a foreign country and three-quarters of us were born someplace else, here not by chance but by choice, striving to lead better, healthier, more successful American lives. Welcome to where we think immigration is good and where we take inclusion seriously.

This is not, of course, a conference about immigration or even about diversity, but it is about a search for truth in a pluralistic society. We believe in Knight Foundation’s core values: free expression, citizen engagement and equitable, inclusive and participatory communities.

This seminar is an ongoing exploration into the basic information needs of a democratic republic. It is an exercise in civil discourse, in the respectful exchange of differing views for the purpose of a better functioning community in a democracy.

Perhaps my favorite John Knight quote is where he describes the purpose of a great newspaper to inform and illuminate the minds of its readers “to rouse them to pursue their true interests.” He assumed an honest search for truth, he faithfully strove to separate opinion from fact, and he knew a well-informed community is a prerequisite before citizens can reasonably determine their own true interests

That hasn’t changed. But a lot more has.

When we started this conference 10 years ago, Facebook was just getting out of college and the first tweet had been sent less than a year before. A survey of attendees at the first conference found that 98 percent received their news solely or principally from a printed newspaper.

We guessed at some of the changes to come. But nothing prepared us for the fundamental change brought about by social media on internet, which accelerated the decline of newspaper and TV business models, allowed for the engagement of hundreds of millions of people formerly known as the audience, and simultaneously promised participatory democracy while creating a riot of uncertainty as people tried to figure out what is true and what can be trusted.

“[S]ocial media … [has] simultaneously promised participatory democracy while creating a riot of uncertainty.”

Social media invites engagement in the development of news by the posting of opinion, by allowing anyone to be a publisher, by the sharing of articles both written and recorded. Seemingly overnight, it turned on its head the formula of “I write/you read” or “I broadcast/you listen.”

When we began this conference, Knight had already begun to move away from funding traditional journalism training and begun an exploration into the basic questions of what devices people would use, how they would use them and how they would value the information, depending on the platform. Only when we understood that could we go back to teaching best practices.

We also realized we needed to expand the network of parties engaged in the search for new models to inform the communities where we worked and cared about. The Media Lab at MIT, a university with no journalism school, became our biggest journalism grantee. We created a series of challenges to source innovative ideas from people in and outside our networks. And we sought to engage community and place-based foundations on news and information because they not only cared about informed communities, but every program they already funded depended on informed communities to be successful and sustainable. 

Along the way, we have managed to engage and, hopefully, inform well more than half of all the community foundations in the country and many of the place-based. I am very proud of that.

And I’m also proud that we’ve expanded that conversation to include many journalists, media partners and librarians from all over the United States. We believe journalists and community and place-based foundations are uniquely positioned to understand citizen action and the information on which it’s based.   

The key disruption we face today is not that old institutions are challenged but that the community doesn’t have the tools or the experience to discern reliable and consistently reliably delivered truth at the local level. Our democracy is structured around local geography; it’s at that level that we elect mayors and boards of education and governors and members of Congress. And it’s at the local level where civic problems and opportunities are managed in real time.

If citizens are to influence the future direction of their community, and play a role in its progress, they need to know the facts and we need to redevelop a sense of trust in that information and each other. We need to rebuild common ground.  

Early last year, Knight engaged in a scenario planning exercise, trying to imagine what our communities would be like in 10 years. We then worked back to see how a program of informed and engaged communities should work. It was an extraordinary exercise that engaged every member of the foundation and included more than 230 individuals in our network. 

It’s fascinating to me to think back, even just one year later, at what we heard last winter and spring. We did not predict what would happen, but considered a wide range of developments that might happen from a broad section of people. We discovered threads that cut through all the foreseen futures: growing wealth disparity, race, pervasive technology, the environment, weakened media and lack of trust in institutions. How these insights play together can’t be foreseen or always understood. And, while we noted some world developments that seem on target, we missed other big ones like Brexit and our presidential election.

The mission of Knight Foundation continues to be to ensure informed communities that may best engage in our democracy. 

Although the aftermath of our most recent presidential election, on top of radical technological disruption just before it, makes it seem that we are in a moment never before seen in our history, concerns about the flow of information, and who controls it, are age-old questions.

“[C]oncerns about the flow of information, and who controls it, are age-old questions.”

From the ancient Greeks who struggled to balance common identity and purpose with free and democratic expression through the post-Gutenberg era when any Tom, Dick or Martin Luther could publish their thoughts for all to see, to the fascist governments in the last century or the glories of technology and open systems that make information reach more of humanity than ever, we’ve struggled to identify truth, to control information and empower the people with the greatest tool, which is knowledge.  Knowledge is power; be in sync with knowledge and you capture the power of communities and the power of democracy.

So we come together for a 10th time, and look where we are:

  • First, the internet continues to hold small “d” democratic promise like nothing else in history.
  • Technology continues to astonish in the ways it makes possible previously unthinkable ways of communicating.
  • Third, trust has evaporated. Trust in institutions and in each other. The traditional channels of intermediation have evaporated or weakened. Since the middle has shrunk and internet facilitates finding backup for any point of view, it helps confirm bias and polarizes.
  • Fourth, the programs we use to discover this information are not neutral. What we know or think we know is increasingly determined by algorithms controlled by a handful of tech companies whose relationship to government is evolving and whose commitment to free expression is uneven.

What are we to do?

Since we last met, Knight has launched what I think will be several significant contributions. We helped form the Knight Institute for the First Amendment at Columbia University. A $60 million project led by Jameel Jaffer, the institute will seek to be a forceful and independent force in favor of free speech online and off, through litigation, scholarship and education.

Being techno-optimists and believing in the power of technology for good, we don’t want to stop progress. But we also don’t want to pretend that technology or its application is without ethics and beyond governance. So, we’ve partnered with Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, MIT’s Media Lab and Harvard Law School’s Berkman Klein Center to form $27 million fund for the study and promotion of ethics and governance of artificial intelligence.

We continue to believe in the role of community and place-based foundations in meeting local information needs. 

Our Community Information Challenge raised awareness and prompted foundation experiments that would have been unthinkable just a few years before. We funded 88 projects totaling over $20 million in grants. Some are continuing and even appear to be sustainable; others have had less impact. In many of these, we focused on “what” but not on “how” nor did we emphasize sufficiently the need to design with the user in mind. One of the great things about philanthropy is that you get to live another day to experiment again and maybe correct your past missed calls. So, today, we are inviting community and place-based foundations from around the country to apply for the Knight Community Information Lab.   

This program will take four teams from selected foundations through an 18-month human-centered design process to find long-term solutions to meet community information needs.

We also continue to look for ways to enable the news organizations that have served communities so well – and whose success enabled the wealth that created the Knight Foundation of today.

It’s axiomatic that anyone who wants to inform or persuade must meet people where they are. So, for the last three years, we’ve supported work at Temple University to help four major metropolitan daily news organizations accelerate a shift to digital from print, evolving their practices to reach new audiences and better engage their readers and their communities. Today, I’m delighted to announce that Philadelphia’s Lenfest Institute for Journalism and Knight Foundation will invest nearly $5 million to help local news organizations accelerate their digital transformation in a program designed to include 12 more cities and dozens of smaller news outlets.

We are also announcing today that Knight Foundation will launch an open call for ideas to promote truth and accuracy. I’m honestly not sure what form this will take but I am sure we are living and breathing a growing concern about trust and misinformation.  What can be done about it? We’ve decided to ask the crowd and to fund their experiments.

Over the next months, Knight will continue to offer many more opportunities to explore these issues and find solutions. It is paramount that we, as journalists, media, community and place-based foundations, important institutions in our communities, realize the centrality of information driving the decisions of citizens and the depth of our disagreement.

Although this seminar is focused on what we as funders and leaders in community can do, it would be naïve not to acknowledge that these debates are happening very publicly and at a national scale.

Not a week goes by without a significant discussion about whether facts matter, whether they can actually be identified, who controls access to truth, and how does my truth differ from yours.

No one is off the hook. Not the major internet platforms like the big five, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. Not the president of the United States and his staff. And not the editors of America’s news organizations.

“No one is off the hook.”

The information landscape we live in has consequences for our society, and they have become acute and inescapable.

It is time for a new national conversation and new solutions. The pace of disruption will not slow down and is moving too quickly for a fixed model, we’ll remain agnostic, trying different ways but based always on our belief in free expression, citizen engagement and inclusive societies.