Social media platforms used to be a place to discover interesting people far away, to get hints of breaking news, to connect with your audience, and even a tool for democracy. They could still be all of those things. But in 2017 they have more often been seen as a tool for propaganda, harassment, and the propagation of false or silly content. They have also become an enemy of the media as they drive traffic up and down and capture the overwhelming majority of ad revenue.
The low levels of trust in media and the polarization in the U.S. and elsewhere are intertwined with the deterioration of public discourse. Some of the issues at stake may require regulation, but the most powerful forces could be awareness and behavioral changes in the use of technology. And here is where journalists could still play a major role in improving the social conversation while showing why they deserve to be trusted.
I’ve covered four presidential campaigns in the U.S. and several more in Spain, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands. In 2016, I covered Brexit and the U.S. election and that experience—talking to skeptical voters online and (mainly) offline—inspired me to use my Nieman fellowship at Harvard and MIT to explore tools for journalists to recover trust and survive as a relevant voice in this noisy and fragmented world.
A few months into my studies, I am more optimistic. And, yes, technology could help, most of the time in simple ways. Here are a few ideas. Some come from my experience at Politibot, a chatbot inside Facebook Messenger and Telegram that I co-founded with a group of journalists and developers to explain European and American issues. Others, from the MIT Laboratory for Social Machines and the MIT class Depolarization by Design taught by Deb Roy, as a thought-provoking debate with sociologists, engineers, economists, and journalists.