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February 18, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:02am

Craig Newmark interview: Social media’s disinformation pandemic is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation

By William Turvill

To his critics, Craig Newmark – the Craig of Craigslist – is one of the tech pioneers who contributed to the financial demise of journalism with the invention of his classified advertising website.

To his supporters, he is the entrepreneur who has shunned serious Silicon Valley wealth to focus his time and money on saving the news industry and fighting disinformation.

Newmark – a self-confessed over-thinker (when I tell him I live in Vancouver, Canada, he says: “Please watch out for tsunamis!”) – admits that, for a while at least, he was concerned about what effect Craigslist might have had on journalism finances.

However, in an email exchange and then via a Zoom interview (highlights below), Newmark reveals his conscience is clear – and not just because Craig Newmark Philanthropies has donated millions to the journalism industry in recent years.

“I’m very concerned about jobs for journalists, and the future of local journalism, and had always guessed that Craigslist might have an effect,” he says.

“[But] in the last two or three years, industry analysts have pointed out that when you take a good look, newspaper revenue began to fall after the introduction of television news in the early fifties [he points to Thomas Baekdal’s “The Updated (and scary) Circulation and Revenue Figures for Newspapers”].

“They tell me… that if Craigslist had an effect, they can’t find it. But, regardless of that, I’ve chosen to spend lots of resources supporting journalism.”

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‘Trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy’

Although Craigslist still bears his name, Newmark’s involvement in the website he founded in 1995 is “pretty minimal” nowadays.

He remained a customer service representative for many years after standing down as chief executive in 2000. But today the 68-year-old has little time for Craigslist in between his “40 hours a week or more” of philanthropic work.

Newmark – a “1950s nerd” who gets his news online and via the radio, rather than in print or on TV – has long had an interest in journalism.

He started investing large amounts in “trustworthy journalism” in 2016 through his foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, which hands out grants to worthy news organisations.

Why start in 2016?

“The trustworthy press is the immune system of democracy,” he says. “And even in my naivety, I could see that the immune system was failing pretty badly.

“And instead of limiting or stopping this spread of disinformation, I could see that frequently the press was being gamed into spreading disinformation. And so intuitively I recognised that something was going very badly wrong.”

One of the specific issues Newmark identified was the spread of Russian state disinformation. “The Russians are not quite as good as they claim they might be,” he says. “But they’ve been very, very busy in the US and Europe and elsewhere, and they’ve successfully destabilised governments.”

Since 2016, Craig Newmark Philanthropies has awarded grants to ProPublica (whose president, Richard Tofel, was recently interviewed by Press Gazette), City University of New York’s graduate journalism school (which is now named after Newmark), PEN America, the Poynter Institute and Wikipedia.

Why does Newmark use his money to donate rather than invest in journalism like fellow tech entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos and Marc Benioff, who own the Washington Post and Time magazine respectively?

“My philanthropic model is to find people who are good at their job, and give power to them, in the form of influence and money,” he says. “That’s better with respect to news ethics, and, they really don’t need me to be a pain in the butt.”

And which journalism models does he expect to succeed in the future? “I think we’ll see a mix of models, with a diminishing role for advertising. My favourite, personally, is membership and subscription models.”

We do need to work together – much like people worked together in World War Two’

Through his Twitter account, Newmark has recently shared several news and opinion articles that are critical of Facebook’s handling of disinformation and misinformation. But he is hesitant to share his own opinions or insights too strongly.

For example, asked for his opinion on how tech companies handled the spread of misinformation on social media in 2020, he says: “Perhaps they could enforce their terms of service better, and better combat disinformation.”

Has Mark Zuckerberg done a good job of managing Facebook through disinformation issues?

“I don’t really know. And I guess – again, do no harm – I want to focus on things getting better rather than blame. That seems to be working… The only way I get results is by gently nudging and just doing so relentlessly over a long period.

“My horizon when it comes to acting is only 20 or 30 years, because I’m 68. I’m planning for action beyond that timeframe, and I’ve started planning the Craigbot.”

What’s that?

“Mostly a joke. But it does indicate my intention that the actions I’m taking now I’m considering for the next two centuries.

“I’m guessing that at the end of two centuries, we’ll either be extinct or post-human, so I don’t want to think that far ahead. Because I really can’t empathise [with] the needs of a post-human with gills living in the ocean.”

Newmark really does appear to be thinking that far ahead.

“I don’t want to take any special credit for that,” he says. “The literature of my people – you know, the nerds – is science fiction. And contemporary science fiction heavily explores issues relating to media.”

Back to the present day, does Newmark think social media companies like Facebook can be trusted to tackle the ‘infodemic’ plaguing their platforms, or is regulatory action required?

“I’m focusing on this being an all-hands-on-deck situation,” he says. “We’re in this together. My strength is in working with those people, across the US primarily although somewhat in Europe as well, to work together to move things ahead.

“That includes people at think tanks, universities, individual researchers, and quietly people at the social media companies, to pull together. My instincts tell me that that’s the way to make things happen.

“I’ll chat with people in government. But my intent is that no matter what people are required to do, it’s still… fighting back against those who wish us harm means that we are all in this together. We do need to work together – much like people worked together in World War Two.”

Photo credit: Stephanie Canciello, Unali Artists

This article is part of a series running across our sister titles in the Monitor Network and the New Statesman, looking at the backlash against the big tech companies. If you enjoyed this article, you might like:

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