In summary

Many of our societal ills can be traced to systems of disinformation that have proliferated through digital technologies and social media.

By Karthick Ramakrishnan, Special to CalMatters

Karthick Ramakrishnan is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside, and director of its Center for Social Innovation, karthick@ucr.edu. He is also an advisory board member of Media In Color.

The U.S. Capitol attack on Jan. 6 revealed many gaping holes in the foundations of our democracy, including the role of digital media platforms in exacerbating and weaponizing disinformation. 

Indeed, many of our societal ills – the mainstreaming of white nationalism, losing parties attacking the legitimacy of certified elections, and a growing distrust of electoral and public health systems – can be traced to systems of disinformation that have proliferated through digital technologies and social media.

As Congress begins its new term, there will be a strong push to regulate social media. Bipartisan concern over the concentration of informational power in companies like Facebook and Google have been brewing for some time, with a growing recognition that we cannot simply rely on digital media companies to regulate themselves. Indeed, Twitter’s recent decision to permanently suspend President Donald Trump from its platform increased calls for greater democratic accountability over such consequential decisions.

At the same time, we cannot rely on regulation alone. In addition to stopping the virulent spread of disinformation through digital media, we also need to invest in the production of good, reliable information that can fill the void. 

Think of disinformation as akin to weeds that have over-run our gardens and choked many valuable plants. Our immediate instinct may be to focus on weed removal and weed prevention, both of which are important. However, in order for our gardens to thrive once again, we need to also pay attention to rehabilitating damaged plants, growing new ones and perhaps even changing our watering systems to meet our current needs.

In a similar manner, we need to pay urgent attention to investing in community media – local media as well as “ethnic media” or “media of color” – to build an ecosystem of reliable and trustworthy news that can serve the needs of our 21st century democracy. There are some meaningful efforts already underway, such as the American Journalism Project that has an initial fundraising goal of $50 million to provide investments and in-kind support to 35 nonprofit news organizations around the country. Facebook, too, has taken some meaningful steps by committing $25 million in grants to assist more than 200 local news organizations

These efforts are miniscule, however, compared to the scale of the problem. Researchers at the University of North Carolina discovered a decline of 1,800 newspapers between 2004 and 2018, with losses particularly acute in suburban and rural areas. They also point to the rise of “ghost newspapers” that have very little local or regional news content. Other studies have revealed the alarming growth of national print networks that regularly publish disinformation in hundreds of localities, while political science research has shown that loss of local news coverage in California has reduced mayoral candidate competition and voter participation.

Given the enormous scale of the challenges, we need solutions that can easily scale across the country. One promising option is to reinvest in community media clusters that proved critical for messaging and outreach on the 2020 Census. For example, the state of California dedicated more than $46 million to its Census outreach and public relations campaign, with an emphasis on local ethnic media to “build a base of trusted messengers, break down language access barriers for non-English speakers and facilitate culturally appropriate engagement within communities.” 

In regions like the Inland Empire, Central Valley and Los Angeles County, dozens of community media organizations coordinated and collaborated with each other. These Census media coalitions built valuable relationships as well as expertise, laying the foundations for trusted community messengers that can be activated to address new concerns such as housing insecurity and vaccine hesitancy.

In addition to these local efforts to support trusted media messengers,we also need to find statewide and national solutions for news outlets that serve communities of color. Many of these “ethnic media” outlets have struggled in the transition to digital models, and several face extinction from the latest economic downturn. 

A new collaborative effort and digital platform, called Media In Color, is underway with the support of CalMatters and various leaders in media, research and philanthropy. This initiative will provide digital tools, technical assistance, research and leadership development to various news outlets serving communities of color. In order for ethnic media to fully succeed, efforts like these and others will need considerable financial support from philanthropy and government alike.

Perhaps that is where regulation and financing could meaningfully intersect. As Congress and state governments contemplate social media regulations that better serve the needs of our democracy, they should also consider financing mechanisms like media license fees and general taxes that can support the evolution and growth of community-serving media. In addition, the Biden administration’s desire to “build back better” should consider not only infrastructure projects in energy and transportation, but also the civic infrastructure of communities including reliable voting systems and trusted, well-resourced community news media. 

Investing in more good information, in addition to regulating the spread of disinformation, will be key to the future health of our democracy, from the U.S. Capitol to state houses and local communities.

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Karthick Ramakrishnan has also written about how the 2020 Census count brought together diverse organizations to build stronger communities.

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