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Catching up with “Neuland”

“While a concerted effort from politics, science, and journalism, as well as the civil society, is needed to find solutions to these thorny and contested issues, journalism in particular stands out as being the central chess piece.”

In 2019, journalism will become more critical, less techno-optimistic, and more self-aware. Indeed, it’s not only a prediction, it’s a necessity. If journalism does not catch up, our public spheres will deteriorate even more.

Back in 2013, in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about widespread online surveillance, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that the internet was still “Neuland,” terra incognita. She got ridiculed for this statement, which played right into the overarching idea that German politicians were out of touch and didn’t know what was happening online.

But this is not about Germany and German politicians; it would have most likely been the same in the United States (remember “a series of tubes”?). While journalists were slightly nicer about Merkel’s remarks than users online, there was still a healthy portion of snarky how-could-she-even.

The thing is, Merkel was right.

Since then, fake news, misinformation, disinformation, network propaganda, conspiracy theories, bitcoin, bots (good, bad, and neutral), social media and news feed algorithms, filter bubbles and echo chambers, tweetstorms, memes and memetic warfare, doxxing, hate speech, revenge porn, clickfarms, manufactured outrage, de-platforming, quarantining, data breaches, computer hijacking, Cambridge Analytica, and countless discussions around regulating social media accompanied by half-baked laws like NetzDG, as well as the discovery of social media as an integral part of any communication campaign, have all made their way into the public arena. This, of course, is not a finite list, but rather just some examples that are coupled with ongoing deep societal issues and shifts (Brexit, Trump, the rise of the far right, etc.). This is also not to say that all of these are new — not at all. But it’s probably fair to say that these issues are here to stay and will still threaten our public spheres in 2019.

More importantly: We don’t have proper solutions for them. And it’s important to acknowledge that.

While a concerted effort from politics, science, and journalism, as well as the civil society, is needed to find solutions to these thorny and contested issues, journalism in particular stands out as being the central chess piece. Journalism and the role that it plays in setting the agenda and framing the issues have the power to bring the next Cambridge Analytica scandal to light, to give exposure to movements like #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter, while also understanding that not all hashtags need to be amplified, not all shitstorms covered, and that Twitter is just one of many platforms. Indeed, it is time to develop a patient and holistic perspective on the internet and to see the bigger picture in which misinformation, bots, or filter bubbles are issues, yes, but also not the reason why we are where we are politically.

My hope for 2019 is that newsrooms will become more aware of their own role in this networked public sphere — both as observers as well as active actors in fueling whatever the latest fear/trend/hype is. But even more, I hope that journalism has learned some lessons from the last year: It’s okay to be patient, to be critical, to be honest, to wait instead of making an error, to not oversell, to not fall into the both-sides trap. We can talk about disinformation and foreign interference while still acknowledging the bigger picture of online activity to which it contributed. We can talk about white supremacists without giving them a platform. And we can find stories outside of social media — even if nobody seems as informed/snarky as your well-curated Twitter feed. I’ve seen signs that these changes are happening. And I’m hopeful that they will continue in 2019.

In December 2018, Angela Merkel once more spoke about the internet. She talked about a “sphere that we still don’t know a lot about” and then continued “I’ve called this Neuland before…it’s a terrain we’ve not yet fully crossed.” She was right then, she is right now.

Jonas Kaiser is an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and associate researcher at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin.

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