A proposal for democratic media

December 9, 2008

The term “censorship” describes the act of suppressing certain ideas by those who control some distribution channels. Despite regular attempts by interested parties to limit the term to describe very restricted or extreme cases of suppression of ideas, the term is usually, and very reasonably, understood to cover any attempt at reducing the circulation of an idea, by any person or organization. The negative view, which most of the population, as well as official ideology, take of censorship therefore encompasses any such activity. According to this view, the desirable media system is democratic – i.e., one which allows all people an equal opportunity at presenting their ideas and having them considered by others.

The implicit universal rejection of censorship notwithstanding, much of the communication patterns that dominate Western society are inherently censoring activities. The members of the elite group that influences (to varying degrees) the content of wide circulation media – publishers, broadcasters, advertisers, editors and reporters – routinely make decisions that amount to suppressing some communications, containing certain ideas, in favor of other communications, containing different ideas. Those decisions, although usually purporting to reflect only objective accepted standards, are in reality almost completely subjective. They therefore reflect the ideas and biases of the very select and atypical group of people who make them.

Because the ability to command attention translates to political power, a society that relies on undemocratic systems of communication is necessarily undemocratic – that is, such a society distributes political power unevenly. This situation must therefore be amended, if the society is ever to become a democracy.

I wish to suggest a path toward comprehensive democratization of media. The guiding principles of such a solution would be:

  • The resulting system should be truly democratic – that is, it should not merely transfer censoring power from one elite to another, or merely distribute censoring power within a somewhat expanded elite group.
  • The system should support democratic control over a wide variety of media and content forms – print, electronic, periodicals, books, opinion, news, investigative reporting, entertainment, etc. – while providing high quality content through and within each of these forms.

The crux of proposed system can be stated as follows:

Using public funds, “media sections” (TV and radio channels, newspapers, book publishers, etc.) are created and sustained. The media sections are controlled by citizen-editor boards, a role that would rotate within the entire population. Each citizen-editor board has a budget and complete control over a section – i.e., over a certain part of the public media – in the same way that present-day editors and media outlet owners have today.

In future posts I wish to analyze and articulate this idea.


8 Responses to “A proposal for democratic media”

  1. Harald Korneliussen Says:

    This is all very well, but what path do you see society following to end up at this goal? If there is no realistic path to its implementation, I see talking about it as an almost pointless, depressing exercise.

    There is one kind of media, however, in which these ideas can be tried out, and that is online news aggregators. So far, aggregators percieved as more democratic (reddit, digg) have had success against those with a more traditional editorial board (slashdot).

    However, the “democratic” systems these webpages use are less a result of careful design than random experimentation. In all of them there is a tendency that an already highly rated comment gets more attention, thus even more upvotes, and so the first persons to grab attention get it at the expense of later contributors. Thus, sensational headlines rule the day at reddit and digg.

    Also, when people get to moderate all comments all the time, most usually forget about the moderation buttons until they come across a comment that provokes an emotional reaction one way or the other.

    I think designing a well-thought out news aggregator is the path to sortition, if there is one at all.

  2. yoramgat Says:

    Hi Harald,

    Regarding news aggregators: I have never really used any of those systems, but your description of the dynamics involved sounds convincing. Such dynamics seem almost an unavoidable result of the “economics of attention“, and are quite similar to the dynamics that work in an electoral system.

    Having an editorial board is a way around those problems: the editorial board can concentrate attention and material resources in order to look at material in depth and support quality work. Such quality work requires the allocation and concentration of resources – it cannot be carried out by a multitude of people, each putting in very little work. The drawback of the traditional board is that it is non-representative – it forms an elite group. I suggest to use rotation (or sortition) to resolve this drawback.

    As for your first comment, regarding a realistic path to creating the suggested mechanism: This is indeed an important question and it is one of the matters that I planned to address in follow-up posts. To me this proposal does not seem utopian. For one thing, it can be implemented incrementally: news sections can be created one at a time, as funds become available. At first, the needed funds may be raised privately from foundations or individuals. If and when the value of the model is demonstrated (through the production of quality content), attaining public funding may become easier.

    Some media sections can be relatively cheap – 2 million dollars a year, for example, can support 10 full-time investigative reporters together with the editorial board (working part-time) and some logistics. Such a team will probably produce items that are unlike anything available these days. An even cheaper media section could rely exclusively on available material, or on contributed work. That is, it would function very much like a news aggregator, but would be controlled by (rotating) editors instead of relying on voting. Would that fall within your definition of “a well-thought out news aggregator”?

  3. Harald Korneliussen Says:

    The cheaper alternative you mention, which relies exclusively on available material, is closer to how online news aggregator works, with user-submitted links to (mostly) mainstream news.

    Sure, it would be a good system, but I still think it’s ambitious to get even part-time employed editors. However, news aggregators are really quite simple pieces of software. Even if you settle (for now) for the limited time and attention users of aggregators have, I think there is much room for improvement.

    Say that active users of the service, every day they log in, have a chance of recieving a random selection of submissions which they should rank in order of quality (useful contribution to the site, as they see it). That would avoid the self-reinforcing economy of attention problems. It would only be democratic in a very narrow sense, to the active users of that particular service, but hopefully it would be enough to take market share from the more unreliable aggregators, and gain traction for the idea on a larger scale.

  4. yoramgat Says:

    Giving this some thought, your suggestion sounds like a Good Idea.

    I think that the restriction to “active users” and the use of ranking rather than voting are not really necessary. The system can be open to all and use the traditional up/down vote. The key difference as compared to the current system is that the readers can only rate randomly selected items. In this way, the self-reinforcement phenomenon that you described is eliminated.

    What do you think?

  5. Harald Korneliussen Says:

    Yeah, simpler is better. This would be seriously easy to implement. It would be vulnerable to manipulation through high numbers of junk accounts, but this could perhaps be monitored for and dealt with at the time it becomes a problem.

    The reddit sources are at http://code.reddit.com/, I’ll grab a copy and see what I can do. I have a bit to do at the moment, but I hope to do something about this idea.

  6. yoramgat Says:

    If you have the time and inclination to give me a primer, I would be interested in getting involved in the development. I am an experienced C++ programmer but have no experience in web application development.

    As for the vulnerability to manipulation: this is much less of a weakness in the system we are talking about than in the current systems which allow voting on items selected by the voter. In the proposed setup the attack would have to employ a number of identities that is a noticeable fraction of the total number of users of the system. In the current setup the attack would be successful even if the number of identities it employs is a small fraction of the total number of users, as long as it is a noticeable fraction of the number of people that rate the popular articles, since the attack concentrates its votes while the other users do not.

    This robustness is in fact the same feature that makes sortition-based government less vulnerable to elite manipulation than election-based government. In the latter system, the elites can determine who are the credible candidates by resources behind those candidates. The majority of the population may dislike those candidates, but unless they organize they cannot produce alternatives that are well known enough to become credible.

  7. […] 30, 2008 When considering the form that a democratic media could take, it is important to consider whether mass media – with its inherent potential for […]

  8. […] February 4, 2009 The aim of this post is to provide some particulars for the proposal for democratic media which I made: […]

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