Civic Responsibility in the Internet Age, with Michael H. Posner

May 17, 2019

Historian Ted Widmer and Michael Posner, an NYU Stern professor and former U.S. State Department official, discuss local politics, journalism, and money in elections in the age of ubiquitous Internet connectivity. How can high school students get involved in democracy? What are some ideas to save the media industry? How can--or should--the government regulate the social media giants? Don't miss this wide-ranging talk.

TED WIDMER: I'm Ted Widmer. We're talking about democracy today with Michael Posner. He's the former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, and he's currently the Jerome Kohlberg Professor of Ethics and Finance at New York University (NYU), where he also heads the Center for Business and Human Rights.

Mike, thank you so much for coming today.

MICHAEL POSNER: It's a pleasure to be here.

TED WIDMER: There's a lot of anxiety in the world about the state of democracy worldwide with the rise of strongmen. How would you assess it?

MICHAEL POSNER: We are in a tough period where there are a number of—some call them populists, I would say authoritarian figures who have come into power in places like Hungary and Turkey, and we wind up highly anxious about this moment because there seems to be a threat to democracy. We're less tolerant of each other. We're less willing to debate issues in a civil way. There's a lot of disinformation that has seeped into the system.

All of those things are reasons for concern, but it's also a period I would say that is going to pass. I'm more optimistic in the long term that there is a greater demand for democracy and human rights by people all over the world. They're better informed, they're more demanding of what they see as their entitlement to be treated with dignity.

TED WIDMER: It's wonderful to hear some optimism in a pretty dark media moment. What are the grounds for your optimism?

MICHAEL POSNER: I think a couple of things have happened. One is that we have a much greater media environment where there is more information available. People aren't as isolated as they were even ten or certainly 20 years ago. The Internet is part of that. Visual images—people see that others are living in a better condition than they are.

People are traveling more. We have students in this country from all over the world. They come from places like Saudi Arabia or China, and they see things that they don't see at home, and they wonder why not.

So I think there's a range of things happening in a technologically more open world that are giving people both hope that there's a better way and also making them more impatient that they need to live a better life.

TED WIDMER: Many people watching this will probably be watching through the Internet in some way, and obviously that has lifted up people in profound ways over the last 25 years and spread democratic values to an extent. But we also have seen elections with a lot of misinformation, outright lies, character assassination, and the drift toward politics as entertainment, and we've seen that the Internet can weaken democracy, too. So how do we get it right?

MICHAEL POSNER: That's I think one of the most important questions that we're just beginning to grapple with. When I was in the State Department, I worked with Secretary Clinton on what was called an "Internet freedom campaign." She gave three speeches, we went all over the world, we gave money to train people on how to use technology. It was a period of great optimism.

The Arab Spring was all about people taking to the streets because they organized online. Now we see that as much as those are great opportunities to promote democracy, we're also seeing what you describe, which is a rise of manipulation of online communication. False news, fake news is part of that.

The Russian government, for example, or Alex Jones and InfoWars in the United States are deliberately spreading disinformation, and I think it's a real threat to our democracy. Part of what I would say is the Internet companies bear a greater responsibility for taking down things that are deliberately false and undermining democracy.

TED WIDMER: It seems like we're seeing progress in that direction since 2016. Do you think we're seeing enough?

MICHAEL POSNER: I'm working in a business school trying to look at different industries, and we're looking at the Internet industry—Facebook, Google, Twitter. I would say those companies, Facebook in particular I would say, have been so under public scrutiny that they've begun to do some things around the edges, but they still haven't acknowledged—they still say: "We're not arbiters of the truth. We're not editors of The New York Times. We're plumbers. We run pipes, and stuff runs through the pipes."

The reality is that they're not editors of The New York Times and they're not plumbers. They're something in between, and we need to figure out what that looks like. But they need to have more control. They need to take greater responsibility for things that are on the system that are deliberately false and undermining democracy.

TED WIDMER: It almost seems by the very nature of the Internet, which bases its appeal on how universal it is and how easy it is to get online and post anything you want, that it will never be that easy to control.

MICHAEL POSNER: Absolutely. These are hard issues.

I have sympathy for the YouTube/Google world. They have thousands of hours of video that comes up every day, every hour, and they say it's very hard to patrol that.

I agree with that. It's never going to be perfect. It's always going to be a big, scrappy combination of things that are really interesting and good and things that are bad. But my point is they can be doing more. They need to be doing more.

I'm nervous about governments regulating content, which is the alternative, and I think a little bit we're in a race against time with governments of various stripes thinking, We can control the Internet in our own place. I think that's a dangerous trend.

TED WIDMER: I teach American history, and so I often look for clarity in things that happened earlier. It feels like we might be heading toward a Theodore Roosevelt kind of moment, where maybe even it's a Republican like Roosevelt who comes in with wise, progressive control measures over big corporations. Do you think that's where we're headed, or is it more chaotic than it ever has been?

MICHAEL POSNER: I would say it's still pretty chaotic, but part of what gives me—I'm excited about what I'm doing at a business school because I think more and more businesses are again under scrutiny because of this media environment. They're under scrutiny in part because shareholders, especially women and young people, are saying, "We want to have a world of ethical companies," and so you see more and more companies now kind of struggling to figure out, "What are we supposed to do?"

Some combination of self-regulation by industry and government stepping in I think is the right combination. We have to figure out that combination, and as you suggest it needs to be a bipartisan approach. It can't just be one party or another. There has to be a coming together.

TED WIDMER: It's wonderful to hear that. You feel that corporations are heading in this direction even though there always will be evidence of corporate wrongdoing. But you think the drift in our time right now is toward a higher level of ethical behavior among corporations?

MICHAEL POSNER: Let me put it this way: There are leaders in every industry that are carving a path and saying, "These are things that a smart company needs to do."

If you take a long-term view rather than a quarterly earnings approach, which is unfortunately the way of Wall Street, a lot of companies are saying, "To be strong in 10 years we need to be paying attention to how we run our company, how we deal with our employees, how we deal with our supply chain, the people producing our stuff abroad," and so I can see what leadership looks like in every industry.

I won't say that there's a flood of leadership, but we're beginning to see what the model looks like. Once you have the model, then it's easier to move the center. We're at an early stage, quite an embryonic stage, of trying to figure out what the rules of the road are for this global economy and what that means for big business.

TED WIDMER: It feels like a lot of people, certainly on the left but maybe some on the right, also feel that there's just too much money in our democracy, that extraordinary amounts are spent in presidential elections, but in local elections too, and Citizens United obviously was a landmark that freed up a lot of corporate money. Do you think we should walk that back a little bit to improve democracy?

MICHAEL POSNER: Yes. I worry about the flood of money into our political system. It corrupts the system.

It also puts politicians in the place of spending most of their time raising money rather than legislating and figuring out public policy. People running for Congress, every two years they run, so by the time they get elected they're already thinking about the next election and raising money. That's a real problem. It's a cancer in our system.

But it's also true, I think, that we need to have greater transparency about where the money's coming from, and one of the things, again going back to the Internet, is there is now legislation that would open up that process and make sure that online ads like television and radio ads, the source of the funding for those ads becomes publicly known. It's called the Honest Ads Act, and I think that's the kind of thing we need to be doing, greater transparency, and more restrictions on where the money goes in terms of politics.

TED WIDMER: That's wonderful news. Where is that legislation coming from?

MICHAEL POSNER: It was bipartisan. It was Senator McCain, when he was still alive, and Senator Klobuchar and Senator Warner, but there are also House sponsors now. It will be hopefully discussed in the coming months and years and hopefully will one day be legislation.

I cite that as an example of a broader trend I think, which is to have greater transparency about where's the money coming from, where's it going, so that at least we can be informed about who's influencing our politics.

TED WIDMER: So if you're a high school student watching this conversation, you're feeling like your voice is pretty small in a presidential election, maybe even in a local election. How can you make your voice louder? How can you push back against huge corporate forces, the forces of globalization, these enormous forces that are hard for a single person to fight against?

MICHAEL POSNER: I guess I would say a couple of things to that. One is all politics is still local, getting out and even walking precincts and knocking on doors. My youngest son, who just finished high school, was down in Texas for an election and knocked on 2,000 doors, and the candidate won.

There are lots of young people now I think recognizing they're not going to sit back. They're going to get out there and actually participate directly.

More broadly I would say I really hope—and I can see I'm quite optimistic about young people paying more attention to what's going on in our world, being online and literate to what's going on, paying attention to what's happening, and having aspirations to be involved in public service of one sort or another.

Going into government is an honorable thing. It's not a terrible thing. The more good people that go into government, the better we're going to be.

Doing public service work or even combining commercial work and public service, I think that's really what young people ought to aspire to, but all of us have an obligation to our country and to our community to do more to make sure that our democracy thrives.

TED WIDMER: Unfortunately, it became a very successful talking point to attack the government. It was done on both sides, but I think a little more on the right side. So it's wonderful to hear you say that it's an honorable thing to serve your community or your country, and I hope our listeners will take that under advisement.

How do you feel about the state of local democracy? Brandeis said 100 years ago, "States are the laboratories of democracy." Do you feel that that's true right now?

MICHAEL POSNER: I think it's the most important part of our democracy, actually. So many decisions are made at a local level, things like education and health and housing, the basic things that people need to survive. I think again here, too, there's got to be greater infusion of new people, young people, people who are idealistic and who are trying to kind of change the system.

One aspect of that that concerns me a lot is the demise of local news. We have a range of small local newspapers in our country that are going under, and I think democracy at a local level depends on scrutiny even more than it does at the national level. So if there isn't a local reporter digging around to see how did that contract get let, I think we're going to see a decline. It's really important that we find a way to save local journalism.

TED WIDMER: You're absolutely right. That was one of the unintended consequences of the Internet is that classified sections, which made a lot of money for newspapers, disappeared because of eBay and Craigslist, and so local papers often covered—there was a statehouse desk in every state capitol, and those staffs have been withered by the disappearance of classified sections and sources of revenue for newspapers.

How can we get better coverage of state legislatures especially?

MICHAEL POSNER: I've written an article calling for a new domestic Marshall Plan. In the 1940s, after World War II, we basically rebuilt European economies by pushing billions of dollars into those countries.

I think we have to have a new model that includes both big philanthropists, the richest people in our society, foundations, and companies to come together to basically underwrite local journalism. What we're doing now is a kind of piecemeal approach, and big media companies that are trying to survive in these local markets are really struggling.

I think we have to take a fresh look at that and really try to save local journalism. The number of journalists in the United States over the last 10 or 12 years has diminished by 45 percent.


MICHAEL POSNER: So you see not only do we have the Internet with a lot of false information, but the people who really produce news, people who got a journalism degree and know about editors and all that, they're declining dramatically. There were 71,000 journalists 15 years ago, now there's less than 40,000.

TED WIDMER: Do you think we need structural change at the grassroots level, like different kinds of voter rights or bigger legislatures, a bigger Congress, or modifying the Electoral College? Those are big questions, I apologize, but do you think there are tweaks that we could to make it work better?

MICHAEL POSNER: Some really simple things that we ought to do is just make it a whole lot easier for people to vote. One way to do that is to say, as a lot of European countries do, you vote on a weekend. Why do we vote on Tuesday? We vote on Tuesday when lots of people work from morning until night. They have to go home to their families. Make it easy for people to vote. Make it easy for people to register.

I think there are a range of people who would like to participate. It's really scandalous to me that we have if we're lucky 60 percent or 63 percent of the people in this country who are eligible to vote. In a lot of countries in Western Europe and elsewhere, it's 80-90 percent. Democracy begins with the privilege, the right to vote. Again, people have to be given an opportunity to do that and make it easy.

TED WIDMER: How do you feel about democracy worldwide? Democracies support each other, and one of the reasons to feel some concern right now is that we see on every continent the rise of strongmen, the decrease in efficiency of legislatures or judiciaries. How can we promote a global culture of respect for democratic values?

MICHAEL POSNER: One of the things that has characterized the United States really for the last 50 years or more, really since World War II, has been a foreign policy of the United States that's based in part on ethics and rights and a commitment to what Joe Nye called "soft power," a commitment to being a leader, to recognizing that what we've built in this country with our Constitution and democratic institutions is good for other countries as well, and to not be shy about saying that, without being arrogant, to say there are certain things that we believe in and we're going to encourage elsewhere. People around the world and governments around the world responded to that.

When we take our foot off the pedal and say, "We're not going to push values, we're only going to push our interests," then I think we undermine our own power and our own ability to lead.

This is not just an idealistic point of view, it's a practical point of view. The best allies of the United States are democracies, the countries that we rely on for our security are democracies, the countries that we rely on to get intelligence are democracies. So, for us to kind of not acknowledge that and celebrate that and pursue that really undermines our national security and our national interest on every front.

TED WIDMER: One of the ways I think we lost focus is our politics became a vicious zero-sum game where the other side was not only wrong on the facts but somehow evil, and both sides can be held accountable for some of that. How do we get back to a way of treating all of us in the political body as partners in a common endeavor?

You mentioned the Marshall Plan a few moments ago, and in the 1940s Democrats and Republicans largely worked together in a positive way. How can we get back to that?

MICHAEL POSNER: I wish I knew a simple answer to that. It's poisoning our political discourse.

I think it really begins again at a personal level. We need to relearn how to debate our differences without being acrimonious or hostile.

I always start from the premise that I don't want to assume anybody's motive. I know people disagree with me, and I'm willing to debate, I want to debate those issues, but I don't assume the other person is evil or malicious, and I think we've gotten to the point where we look at the other side, whatever the other side is, and attribute bad motives, and that freezes the conversation from the get-go. So I think we have to find ways to debate things that really matter in our society. That's a starting point.

Then, the second thing is that our politics tends to look at issues that divide rather than issues where we come together. The fact is there is a range of things that everybody can and should agree on. They may be less interesting to people to discuss. It's more fun or more interesting in some ways to discuss those issues that divide. We spend too much time in the places where we're never going to agree. We don't spend enough time trying to figure out where can we agree and how do you move forward. That's a psychological change. We've moved away from that. I think it's incumbent in our political leaders to do that and citizens to demand that.

TED WIDMER: I'm hoping future leaders will remind us of what you just said so eloquently. It seems like recent leaders have found that negativity sells better than positivity. Our endorphins start flowing as soon as we hear the hateful things said about our enemies. Our adrenaline rushes. It is effective politics for winning elections, but it's not very effective for governing, and somehow we need to return to respect for governing.

It's a hard job. We ask a lot of our leaders at the local level and at the national level, and if we can somehow find heroes who serve, I think we'll be a better country. I'm hoping conversations like this and civics classes will bring us back to that.

Have you found any effective strategies for looking up to our leaders?

MICHAEL POSNER: I believe a lot in the concept of leadership, that individuals do make a difference, and we need to again celebrate those who are trying to do the things that are making us all better.

Part of this is again, to me, tied to the Internet. We've done a lot of work looking at what drives people to the Internet.

There's a group up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that has studied what gets people to go to the Internet and stay there, and it's things that are emotionally evocative. If something is emotionally strong, you're more likely to stay there, and negative emotions trump positive emotions. For 10 years they've done lots and lots of studies. Issues of anger and fear are at the top of the list.

So the Internet companies, because they have algorithms that are based on what do you most want to see, what they're doing is taking this stuff that makes us angry and afraid, and they're pushing it to the top.

Then you have these no-goodniks, the Russians, the Alex Jones and Infowars, that's what they do all day. They look for ways in which we hate each other, and they amplify it online. They're actually contributing to this polarization that we were talking about.

So I think part of this is we need to be conscious of that happening. I think the companies, the Internet platforms, the Googles, the Facebooks, can say: "We're not going to play along with that. We're going to change the way we elevate things on the Internet." But we also have a responsibility each in our own way to sort of move away from that and try to talk about things on the merits.

TED WIDMER: It sounds like you're saying companies need to do more. Parents obviously need to step in. Young people won't want to hear that, but one thing I think we both agree on is that every individual, including a young person getting online, needs to be careful, needs to hold his or her emotions in check, and read everything carefully and bring reason into any act of reading.

MICHAEL POSNER: Absolutely. For young people beginning to get their news on the Internet, we all now have a greater responsibility to act in a way as editors or as evaluators of news. There is so much disinformation.

I spend a lot of time looking at things that I know I don't agree with. I just want to be sure I'm getting the full picture, and I'm suspicious of only looking at a certain number of sites that reinforce my views. I'm happier there, I'm more comfortable there. I force myself to look at things that I don't agree with, and I often learn things that I'm not getting from, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post.

I think young people need to be even more vigilant than we were 20-30 years ago when we sort of assumed that the facts were the facts. We're now living in a world where there are disputed facts about almost everything, and as somebody said, "You're entitled to your own opinions, you're not entitled to your own facts." We have to start with a common basis and then debate our opinions.

TED WIDMER: One area where things get heated very fast is climate change, in which there are very small areas of agreement and huge areas of disagreement. That's an issue young people have a real stake in.

Are there ways we can have a better conversation where both sides have something to gain and we can find a consensus in the old American tradition?

MICHAEL POSNER: I think a lot more time and energy has been spent debating whether climate is changing. It's clearly changing. The debate is really about how fast and how much and how severe.

But even if you debate those things and can't come to an absolute answer, there are clearly things that we can and should be doing just in case the science proves that we're heading in a bad direction. We can't afford to be in 10 or 20 years at a place where it's too late.

So I think even if you're a climate skeptic and you say the science is not now definitive, we don't know the answer, it's good for all of us to be thinking about, What are the things we can do just in case?

To begin to think about that, one of the things obviously is to reduce carbon footprint. There are plans out there to have a carbon tax, make it revenue-neutral, look for ways to make it again a bipartisan issue. But I think there is a range of things people can do individually in their own lives but also to think in broader terms about how do you begin to get at the things that we know we can now do—alternative energy sources and the like. Every institution ought to be thinking of a negative or a neutral carbon footprint.

TED WIDMER: A final question: When I was a kid, civics classes were just about the last classes I wanted to go to. Yet we need something like that. We need teachers and students talking about the meaning of our country, the history of our country, what holds us together. We're not held together as well as we should be.

Have you worked with civics instructors? Do you have ideas about how we can do this in a way that doesn't cause boredom and causes genuine engagement?

MICHAEL POSNER: I think this is a burden that is on the world of teachers actually, making history come alive, teaching civics in a way that people want to take it, and it's not an eat-your-peas kind of a thing.

A friend of mine, Kerry Kennedy, has done a book called Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who are Changing Our World, where she has looked at 50 human rights activists and put together a book about them with pictures and great stories. They're great human stories. They've now made it into a play. They've translated it into 25 languages.

It becomes a teaching tool. You learn about human rights and democracy by studying these leaders, the Nelson Mandelas and Elie Wiesels, people who are larger-than-life personalities, but they're a way into a discussion about history and about civics.

So I think there are ways to be creative about this, and I think if I were a student, I'd be demanding that. I don't want to just sit and read something that's boring. I want to understand, but I also want to be excited and educated in a way that relates to my life.

TED WIDMER: Thank you so much for talking with us today, Mike. What an honor.

MICHAEL POSNER: Pleasure. It's great to be here.

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