Moving beyond ‘Zuck sucks’

Anthony Nadler, Doron Taussig, Hamsini Sridharan | October 10, 2019

This article originally appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review

In March, when Mark Zuckerberg called for new regulations on internet companies, journalists rightly covered the move with skepticism. Many pointed out that Zuckerberg might be angling for regulations favorable to Facebook or trying to offload Facebook’s own responsibilities onto regulators. A reader skimming this coverage, however, would not necessarily come away with a clear notion of what more vigorous regulation of social media might look like, or how such policies might reshape Facebook’s role in democratic life.

Tech journalism has made impressive strides in recent years. Journalists covering Silicon Valley have increasingly embraced the role of “watchdog” rather than “mascot”—a development, BuzzFeed News’s Craig Silverman told us in an interview, that marked the rise of “adversarial” tech reporting. This critical turn in tech journalism has ushered in reporting on the broken promises, negligence, and other shortcomings of Big Tech companies and their most prominent executives, he explained. But this may not be enough to spur the public engagement necessary to affect real change. For that, we need a public not only skeptical of Big Tech, but capable of navigating policy debates and ready to conceive of a technological world different from the one we live in.

Journalists are in a position to provide a helpful nudge here. To do so, they will need to help readers understand not only Big Tech’s problems, but also potential solutions to those problems. There are, thankfully, some signs of a recent uptick in such reporting. If the past few years of tech reporting showcase mounting rage directed at Big Tech, the past few months may indicate an incipient momentum toward a vision for change. Journalists are starting to take seriously the prospect of transforming the tech industry—aided in part, no doubt, by high-profile federal investigations, calls to “break up Big Tech” from presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and the growing stridency of tech workers at GoogleKickstarterAmazon, and elsewhere who are organizing and making demands for more ethical business practices and working conditions. 

This search for solutions should be a major story arc of its own. To make the most of this moment, we think tech journalists can find inspiration in the “solutions journalism” movement.

Reframing the story of technology

In the early years of the internet, most tech reporting pitted the creative force of technological innovation against established powers trying to tame its disruptive inevitability. Tech companies, in this narrative, represented the young and irreverent, gleefully smashing old traditions and hierarchies. As sociologist Thomas Streeter details in The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet, journalists helped romanticize the early internet. In the pages of Wired and other venues, the phrase “they don’t get it” rang often and loud. As Streeter puts it, this “constant cavalier dismissal of vaguely defined, ‘old’ institutions and points of view” served to flatter readers “by implicitly including them in the knowledgeable avant-garde.”

More recently, we have seen a major swing in a more critical direction. Through investigation, accessible explanation, and vivid storytelling, journalists have brought critical social-technical issues to the forefront of public debate, from online disinformation campaigns to the discriminatory effects of algorithms and AI to revolts against the digitally enabled “gig economy” to the exploitation of user data and trampling of privacy expectations. This has culminated in a swell of popular discontent, dubbed the “techlash,” which journalists helped stir.

Today, digital platforms and tech companies govern important aspects of our social world. Journalists are starting to tell a different story, in which the central tension is no longer between those who “get” the liberatory promise of tech and the dim-witted reactionaries who don’t. Rather, the conflict is between the concentrated centers of power where decisions about digital architecture are made, and the rest of us, who absorb the effects. And those effects have expanded into beats including politics, national security, economics, and entertainment. 

But reporting tends to ride the waves of scandals and crises, from Russian election interference to Cambridge Analytica to the livestreaming of the Christchurch shooting. Much current coverage still emphasizes the palace intrigues of major companies—the world of tech executives, who are hardly the only central characters. Journalistic emphasis has been on identifying villains: bad actors who abuse technology’s affordances, and the corporate titans whose power runs virtually unchecked. Calls for accountability, legislation, regulation, competition, and more seem to have, until recently, received comparatively little attention.

Policymakers, advocacy groups, and public-interest technologists are all developing ways to address the structural issues underlying each scandal, proposing and sometimes testing a variety of government- and market-based solutions. National lawmakers debate legislation with broad implications for speech and privacy and consider how to adapt ponderous laws to rapidly evolving technologies and dynamic information environments. States experiment with novel models of data privacy regulation and advertising transparency. Advocates representing marginalized communities have long made the case that the downsides of digital innovation land disproportionately on them (recall, for example, #yourslipisshowing) and pushed back on discriminatory systems. But stories about these efforts often go untold or get buried under successive waves of scandal coverage. 

As a result, the public is left with few alternate visions for how technology could operate in society.

Turning towards a solutions approach

How could journalists cover the multiple crises rocking Big Tech as something other than an unquenchable dumpster fire? We suggest that journalists covering technology take inspiration from the solutions journalism movement and creatively adapt some of its playbook. “Solutions journalism” is a fad, and a popular one. You may have read about it in a colleague’s grant proposal. But it’s a fad with something real to recommend. 

Solutions journalism is reporting that focuses on the responses to social problems that other reporting describes and defines. Its proponents argue that such an approach offers several potential benefits, including sharing insights about what works, reducing the sense that the press only shows up when things go wrong (which contributes to distrust of journalists), and, crucially, combating the sense of hopelessness and powerlessness that accrues from a flood of bad news.

Solutions stories, when done right, aren’t puff pieces. A reporter beginning a story on a response to a problem need not know whether the response is working, and the story should include the limitations and risks of a response even if it appears to be generally effective. But the story’s orientation will be toward the possibility of change. If you scroll through the Solutions Journalism Network’s “Solutions Story Tracker,” you will find journalists approaching homelessness, gun violence, and addiction by writing about an experimental homelessness “street team” in Santa Monica, a campaign to reduce homicide in Chicago, and a new high school in Ohio for students with addiction issues.

Asked for an example of a solutions-oriented tech story, Buzzfeed’s Silverman couldn’t think of a single one. 

Silverman suggests that tech journalism has just now entered its “the world is on fire” phase, and solutions reporting will follow. It may also be that there is less experimentation in tech governance for US journalists to cover. The Solutions Journalism Network doesn’t count coverage of proposals that haven’t been put into practice as solutions journalism, but we would encourage tech journalists to do this kind of coverage, too. 

It’s entirely possible for tech journalism to embrace a more solutions-oriented approach. We don’t want to over-emphasize any one example here, because we really don’t want to be misunderstood as saying “cover our pet solution more!” But some examples come to mind. Reporters could identify and focus on activists and civil-society organizations putting forward specific ideas for change. Or Americans among them could look at places where new policies to tackle problems such as data privacy or online political manipulation are being implemented. States including CaliforniaMontanaVermont, and Washington have all taken novel approaches, as have many other countries. How can the successes, failures, and uncertainties of these experiments and others be relayed in ways that resonate beyond geographic borders?

Such stories could contribute to a larger narrative about the struggle to reconfigure the digital infrastructure of society. Thinkers with new visions would be amplified by coverage of their ideas. When journalists turn to these voices more and rely less exclusively on tech executives, those executives will not have as much control over what seems possible in this conversation. Hopefully, tech journalists will develop the reflexes to ask not just whether Zuck sucks, but what else Facebook—and social media and digital technology more broadly—could be, and, crucially, who outside Silicon Valley might have compelling ideas and influence.

Envisioning a different tech world

Imagine the next big tech scandal. Maybe someone has made a large, coordinated effort to use social media to spread disinformation about a 2020 campaign. (This is, sadly, not difficult to imagine.) Journalists covering this story would likely do some or all of the following:

  • Document the deceptions
  • Correct the record
  • Discuss the potential political and social effects
  • Ask who perpetrated the fraud, why, and whether and how they can be punished
  • Ask whether platform moderators could or should have caught the deceptions and/or prevented them

But such a scandal might also train attention on the issue of disinformation in general, and, in doing so, make social progress more possible. If the scandal takes place in the context of a burst of solutions-oriented reporting, there are a few other things reporters could do to take full advantage of the opportunity:

  • Contact civil society organizations, academics, and other community leaders who articulate a different set of values and priorities than lawmakers and tech executives, treating them as sources with a “side of the story” 
  • Make prominent mention of regulations and practices from places experimenting with a different digital organization, so that the current state of affairs is framed as a choice rather than an inevitability
  • Describe policy proposals and alternate technological models that could address the problem 
  • Ask legislators and tech companies to take a position on proposals to change the status quo and, if they dodge, highlight their lack of response.

A highly motivated news consumer can already find some of this information in current tech coverage. But interrogating our digital reality is rare, and hard. Given the enormous complexity of contemporary digital infrastructure, it’s easy to understand how readers might feel powerless or resigned to whatever terms the distant overlords of that infrastructure offer. If journalists more aggressively cover solutions to the problems of Big Tech, and make them an important part of the news, they would promote a sense that the world could be fundamentally different, and encourage readers—and colleagues in the media—to imagine how.

Anthony Nadler, Hamsini Sridharan, and Doron Taussig study technology. Nadler is an associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College and fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. He is the author of Making the News Popular and co-editor, with A.J. Bauer, of News on the Right: Studying Conservative News Cultures. Sridharan is the Program Director at MapLight, where she works on research and policy solutions to reform the political process. She edits a weekly newsletter, the Digital Deception Decoder, that tracks news, research, and analysis about online political manipulation. Taussig is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Ursinus College, where he teaches journalism and political communication. He previously worked for ten years as a journalist in Philadelphia. He is working on a book for Cornell University Press.