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Yochai Benkler

  • Illustration showing Pinocchio caught in a spider's web with social media icons

    Oh, what a tangled web we weave

    July 7, 2021

    Deception spreads faster than truth on social media. Who — if anyone — should stop it?

  • iPhone 11 Pro showing Social media applications on its screen

    Should the internet be treated like a public utility?

    April 20, 2021

    At the annual Klinsky Lecture, Visiting Professor John G. Palfrey ’01, president of the MacArthur Foundation, says we need a regulatory regime for technology.

  • Democracy Is Weakening Right in Front of Us

    February 17, 2021

    A decade ago, the consensus was that the digital revolution would give effective voice to millions of previously unheard citizens. Now, in the aftermath of the Trump presidency, the consensus has shifted to anxiety that online behemoths like Twitter, Google, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook have created a crisis of knowledge — confounding what is true and what is untrue — eroding the foundations of democracy. These worries have intensified in response to the violence of Jan. 6, and the widespread acceptance among Republican voters of the conspicuously false claim that Democrats stole the election...Yochai Benkler, a law professor at Harvard, contends in an email that “it’s a mistake to conceive of technology as an external force with a known definitive effect on social relations.” “Radio,” Benkler argues, was as available for F.D.R.’s fireside chats as it was for Hitler’s propaganda. Ten years ago the internet in general, and Facebook in particular, was widely perceived as a liberation. Now it’s blamed for the collapse of liberal democracy. Digital media has distinctive characteristics that “can work both to improve participation and democratic governance and to undermine it,” Benkler adds. “It was citizens’ video journalism capturing the evidence and broadcasting it on social media, coupled with the mass protests,” he notes, “that changed the public conversation about police shootings of Black Americans. And it was also social media that enabled the organization and mobilization of Unite the Right in Charlottesville.”

  • Illustration of a hand holding a mobile phone, pressing a

    Blocking the president

    January 13, 2021

    Harvard Law experts Yochai Benkler and evelyn douek weigh in on the suspension of President Trump’s social media accounts and potential First Amendment implications.

  • The Technology 202: Trump is losing Twitter followers as Biden gains nearly 2 million heading to White House

    December 11, 2020

    President Trump has governed by Twitter for the last four years – using it to announce new policies, fire government officials, and attack his enemies. But there are signs that the power of that bully pulpit is dampening during the lame-duck period of his presidency, even as the president uses it to push baseless claims of election fraud. His account has lost more than 300,000 Twitter followers since Nov. 17, according to data from the Twitter tracker Factba.se. That’s just a tiny fraction of his 88.6 million followers — but it’s a shift for an account that had largely been growing at a fast clip for most of his time in office, even as he attacked social media companies for censoring conservatives. Trump had only 20.8 million followers when he took office on Jan. 20, 2017, per Factba.se...Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and an expert on the news media and misinformation, said he expects a “somewhat diminished" presence from Trump on Twitter after he leaves office. “This initial loss suggests a very small dribbling away,” Benkler said. But overall, he said he continues to have stable support from his base, and the drama and entertainment that comes from his feed could keep drawing people in. “I would be very surprised if he goes quietly into the night either willingly or unwillingly and just gets ignored by people,” Benkler added. “He's going to keep being a player.”

  • Social media bet on labels to combat election misinformation. Trump proved it’s not enough

    December 8, 2020

    Around the election, social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter were praised for how quickly and widely they applied warning labels to misinformation. But President Donald Trump's 46-minute video last week, which was riddled with election misinformation and conspiracy theories discredited by his own officials and the courts, has made unmistakably clear what many digital democracy experts have been warning for months: labels are not enough. Social media platforms' misinformation labels, they've said, are inadequate and ill-matched for the torrent of false claims that continue to divide Americans and jeopardize their faith in democratic processes...Twitter's label on Trump's video perfectly captures how outgunned the companies still are. Trump didn't just make one claim about election fraud in the video. The speech contained a multitude of debunked allegations, baseless conspiracy-mongering and unproven complaints...Legacy news outlets handled the posts very differently, according to Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. "We saw much more explicit treatments of the video as false or without basis, by centrist professional media, in a way that is likely to help the millions of people who are not already committed to a partisan interpretation of the election deal with this steady flow of disinformation from Trump," Benkler said.

  • Network map with different colored dots representing media outlets.

    Political discourse and the 2020 U.S. Election

    November 24, 2020

    The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society researchers Yochai Benkler and Robert Faris document how polarized media in the United States shape political discourse and the 2020 election.

  • Tucker Carlson Dared Question a Trump Lawyer. The Backlash Was Quick.

    November 23, 2020

    For more than a week, a plain-spoken former federal prosecutor named Sidney Powell made the rounds on right-wing talk radio and cable news, facing little pushback as she laid out a conspiracy theory that Venezuela, Cuba and other “communist” interests had used a secret algorithm to hack into voting machines and steal millions of votes from President Trump. She spoke mostly uninterrupted for nearly 20 minutes on Monday on the “Rush Limbaugh Show,” the No. 1 program on talk radio. Hosts like Mark Levin, who has the fourth-largest talk radio audience, and Lou Dobbs of Fox Business praised her patriotism and courage. So it came as most unwelcome news to the president’s defenders when Tucker Carlson, host of an 8 p.m. Fox News show and a confidant of Mr. Trump, dissected Ms. Powell’s claims as unreliable and unproven...A question for conservative media that are more independent of Mr. Trump is how much of the market the unabashedly pro-Trump media dominates in the future. Some scholars said they expected that audience to be substantial. “Drudge and Fox can try to pull back from the abyss,” said Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School who studies conservative media. “But the audience is going to get what it wants and reward those who give it to them.”

  • Trump’s power on Twitter, Facebook will outlive his presidency

    November 9, 2020

    President Trump will leave the White House with a massive social media following that he could use to shape the nation’s politics throughout his successor’s administration and beyond. When Trump started his first campaign in 2015, he had just 3 million Twitter followers and 10 million on Facebook. But should Democrat Joe Biden’s apparent electoral edge withstand legal challenge, Trump would leave office with a singularly powerful online megaphone — at least 88 million followers on Twitter, 31 million on Facebook and 23 million on Instagram — that will give him a unique ability to communicate his thoughts to legions of supporters accustomed to hearing from him more than three-dozen times a day...One critical test of whether Trump’s megaphone will be as potent after he leaves office will be whether he can forge the same close alliance with Fox News that he enjoyed during his presidency, said Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and an expert on the news media and misinformation. Fox pundits have consistently repeated White House talking points, as has the news side of Fox, Benkler said, giving significant credence to and amplification of Trump’s messages. Another issue will be whether Trump tries to capitalize financially on his audience in the months ahead, Benkler said. He suggested Trump could go into competition with Fox if he doesn’t regain the same level of support following a bruising election in which the president and his allies criticized the network for its polling and its election-week declarations about which states had been won by Biden. So far, he said, the news network has shown “restraint,” in its coverage of the Trump campaign’s allegations of voter fraud and attempts by Democrats to steal the election. “But I’m not sure it will hold,” he said.

  • Hard lessons from a tough election

    November 6, 2020

    It was a presidential election befitting the past four years, unprecedented and contentious...The Gazette asked scholars and analysts across the University to reflect on lessons learned in a variety of areas...Tomiko Brown-Nagin: “This election crystalized American promise and American peril. Fifty-five years after passage of the Voting Rights Act and 100 years after ratification of the 19th Amendment, the fundamental right to vote — the essence of a democracy —remains ferociously contested and deeply cherished. Turnout was extraordinary! An estimated 67 percent of eligible voters cast ballots — almost 160 million people — the greatest number in more than 100 years...At the same time, we witnessed a concerted effort to suppress the vote, to intimidate voters, and to delegitimize legally cast votes.” ... Sandy Levinson: “What we learned was that the uncertainty of this election is entirely a function of the crazy way that Americans elect their president, which is through the Electoral College. This means, for example, that [President] Trump gets nine electoral votes for carrying the two Dakotas plus Wyoming, which collectively have only about 200,000 more residents than New Mexico, which contributed only five votes. What remains an ‘interesting’ question, if one is an academic, is why Americans persist with such a truly dysfunctional system of presidential election.” ... Carol Steiker: “What I have learned in this election is that despite, or perhaps because of, the anger and divisiveness that have marked this political season, it is possible to substantially shift the needle on popular political engagement. We are seeing levels of voter turnout in this election not seen in more than a century, since William Howard Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1908.” ... Kenneth Mack: “What I have learned from this election so far is both a lot and a little. Historians typically look at elections as vehicles for possible political, economic, or social change. Certainly in the run-up to this year’s election we’ve seen some things change significantly. We have the first woman of color on a major party ticket (who now seems poised to become vice president), Black candidates seeming to run competitively statewide in several Southern states, and efforts to suppress minority voting of a kind we haven’t seen in decades.” ... Yochai Benkler: “ The right-wing propaganda feedback loop, anchored in Fox News and talk radio and supported by online media, has played two critical roles in the election. The first, and most foundational, is that throughout the presidency of Donald Trump it offered an alternative reality, in which the president was a strong, effective leader hounded by an alliance of Democrats who hate America and Deep State operatives bent on reversing the victory of Trump, the authentic voice of the people.”

  • Where Is US Election Misinformation Coming From? Hint: It’s Not Russia

    November 3, 2020

    A new report finds that President Trump and the Republican Party are driving online misinformation this election, not shady actors on Facebook or Russian trolls. When it comes to false claims about mail-in voting, Trump’s Twitter account functions as a press release, says Yochai Benkler, who led the team of researchers at Harvard University's Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society. Trump’s tweets make their way into headlines, which are amplified by the Republican National Committee, his campaign staff and the White House communication team, Benkler says. Both right-wing outlets and mainstream media have helped Trump spread false messages, Benkler says. Journalists don’t want to take sides or appear biased, he says, so Trump’s “outrageous” claims are put in headlines with a fact-check saying they’re false a few paragraphs down in the story. In August, the researchers started seeing more use of the truth sandwich. “Early on, this basic desire to grab a headline really helped him get his message outside of those inside the propaganda feedback loop and into the more mainstream,” Benkler says. A Cornell University study that analyzed 38 million articles about the pandemic found mentions of Trump made up nearly 38% of what they call “the misinformation conversation.” This makes the president the largest driver of falsehoods about the pandemic around the world. And here in the United States, Benkler’s team finds Trump and other Republicans are the biggest drivers of falsehoods about voting. Many media outlets have adopted a “dual-track” where they report Trump’s claims to look balanced and then go back to fact check, Benkler says. But what’s initially reported matters most, he says. “Nobody reads the fact check except for people who already want to find out that the president is lying,” he says. “You really do need to do the fact-checking before the headline is written. And the headline and the lead need to teach the audience what you're about to hear is false. Then you can really contain it.”

  • Overestimating the foreign threat to elections poses its own risks, U.S. officials and experts say

    October 29, 2020

    Iranian government-backed hackers last week pulled off a feat few were expecting. They became the first foreign adversary to interfere in the 2020 election by sending threatening emails to voters. But that action — so far the only confirmed intelligence operation by a foreign government that directly targeted specific voters in this election — had far less impact than Moscow’s hacking and leaking of Democratic emails four years ago. Officials and disinformation experts warn that overestimating the threat posed by foreign spies and hackers plays into their narrative that they have the power to sow chaos, and undermines the ability to fashion the most effective and proportionate response...Much of the disinformation circulating today is driven by domestic actors, including the White House, said Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at HarvardUniversity. Occasionally the Russians may have amplified some of President Trump’s false claims that mail-in ballots are insecure or the pandemic has been stanched, he said. “But I haven’t seen anything meaningful.” To overstate the effect of Russian efforts, he said, is to enable their success. If policymakers respond out of fear or anger, they risk compounding the problem, he said. A number of researchers have concluded that the effects of Russian efforts on social media in 2016 likely were overstated, and that by contrast, the Russian hack and subsequent leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta in 2016 arguably had an impact. The leaks led to the resignation of the DNC leadership and disrupted the Democratic convention, and also shaped the media and debate narratives in ways that undermined Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

  • As U.S. election nears, researchers are following the trail of fake news

    October 27, 2020

    It started with a tweet from a conservative media personality, accompanied by photos, claiming that more than 1000 mail-in ballots had been discovered in a dumpster in Sonoma county in California. Within hours on the morning of 25 September, a popular far-right news website ran the photos with an “exclusive” story suggesting thousands of uncounted ballots had been dumped by the county and workers had tried to cover it up. In fact, according to Sonoma county officals, the photos showed empty envelopes from the 2018 election that had been gathered for recycling. Ballots for this year’s general election had not yet been mailed. Even so, within a single day, more than 25,000 Twitter users had shared a version of the false ballot-dumping story, including Donald Trump Jr., who has 5.7 million followers...Not all election disinformation is coming from the bottom up, however. Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, and colleagues recently examined how claims of potential fraud associated with mail-in ballots entered public discourse. The researchers analyzed more than 55,000 online news stories, 5 million tweets, and 75,000 posts on public Facebook pages between March and August. They found that most spikes in media coverage and social media activity on the topic were driven by Trump himself—either through his own hyperactive Twitter account, press briefings, or appearances on the Fox TV network. “Donald Trump has perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and reinforce his disinformation campaign,” the researchers write in a preprint posted earlier this month.

  • Fearful calls flood election offices as Trump attacks mail-in voting, threatening participation in GOP strongholds

    October 26, 2020

    Weber County, a majority-Republican community of 260,000 on the eastern shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, held its first by-mail election in 2013. The process gained such widespread confidence that by June of this year, more than 99 percent of ballots cast in the primary were placed in the mail or deposited in a drop box. But something has changed in Weber County, which now requires three full-time phone operators to field calls from residents “suddenly worried about voting by mail,” said Ricky Hatch, the county clerk and auditor... In many cases, the worries can be traced to baseless or alarmist statements by President Trump and posts on his Twitter feed. Others have been fed by headlines stripped of context and misleading reporting in the mainstream media, according to election administrators, voting rights advocates and experts in online communication...A study released this month by Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society offered fresh evidence of the dangers posed by homegrown misinformation. For months, Trump has generated entire news cycles that serve to cast doubt about mail-in voting, which mainstream outlets have at times covered uncritically, the report found. The president’s influential allies have eagerly shared these and other stories with their vast online audiences, enhancing their reach and fomenting fresh doubt about the legitimacy of the 2020 vote. “With respect to mail-in voter fraud, the driver of the disinformation campaign has been Trump, as president, supported by his campaign and Republican elites,” said Yochai Benkler, who leads the center and co-wrote the report. In these and other cases, ­Benkler said, misconceptions and hoaxes that take root in the White House come to frame reporting in mainstream and partisan news sources alike. Any development related to the process of voting becomes fodder in a competition for narrative control. “The question is, who picks up that formal announcement and reframes it, or retells it, as a narrative of rampant fraud,” he said.

  • The first amendment in the age of disinformation.

    October 14, 2020

    This summer, a bipartisan group of about a hundred academics, journalists, pollsters, former government officials and former campaign staff members convened for an initiative called the Transition Integrity Project. By video conference, they met to game out hypothetical threats to the November election and a peaceful transfer of power if the Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, were to win. Dividing into Team Trump and Team Biden, the group ran various scenarios about counting ballots and the litigation and protests and violence that could follow a contested election result. The idea was to test the machinery of American democracy...The conspiracy theories, the lies, the distortions, the overwhelming amount of information, the anger encoded in it — these all serve to create chaos and confusion and make people, even nonpartisans, exhausted, skeptical and cynical about politics. The spewing of falsehoods isn’t meant to win any battle of ideas. Its goal is to prevent the actual battle from being fought, by causing us to simply give up. And the problem isn’t just the internet. A working paper from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard released early this month found that effective disinformation campaigns are often an “elite-driven, mass-media led process” in which “social media played only a secondary and supportive role.” Trump’s election put him in the position to operate directly through Fox News and other conservative media outlets, like Rush Limbaugh’s talk-radio show, which have come to function “in effect as a party press,” the Harvard researchers found...In a 2018 book, “Network Propaganda,” Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard, and two researchers there, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts, mapped the spread of political disinformation in the United States from 2015 to 2018. Analyzing the hyperlinks of four million news articles, the three authors found that the conservative media did not counter lies and distortions, but rather recycled them from one outlet to the next, on TV and radio and through like-minded websites.

  • American-Made Disinformation Strains Social Media’s Safeguards

    October 9, 2020

    Facebook Inc.’s announcement Thursday that it had shut down a network of phony accounts attempting to influence the November elections reinforced fears that people are working to use social media to undermine U.S. democracy. But unlike 2016, when most attention focused on campaigns associated with the Russian government, this year’s wave of disinformation is coming largely from President Donald Trump and his American supporters, a growing body of research shows, raising new challenges for social media companies.  Facebook tied the campaign it exposed Thursday to Rally Forge, a U.S. marketing firm hired by Turning Point USA, a conservative youth organization that has already been linked to other attempts to manipulate online political debate, and an advocacy organization called the Inclusive Conservation Group. The social network removed 200 Facebook accounts, 55 pages, and 76 Instagram accounts. It also banned Rally Forge.  The fake accounts, created to look like real Facebook users, posted commentary parroting Trump administration talking points on the pages of news organizations...A study published last week by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center showed how the president promoted disinformation largely by manipulating the mass media into repeating his claims. “There's no question that the leading force of this disinformation campaign has been President Trump himself,” said Yochai Benkler, the study’s main author, a stance that has been echoed by numerous other experts in the field. Benkler thinks the fixation on social media has overstated its relative importance compared to traditional news media in spreading disinformation. “We always focus on Twitter because that's the new shiny object in the media ecosystem, but when we actually looked at the last six months, Trump uses press briefings and news releases every bit as much as he uses Twitter,” he said.

  • Yochai Benkler on Mass-Media Disinformation Campaigns

    October 8, 2020

    On this episode of Lawfare's Arbiters of Truth series on disinformation, Evelyn Douek and Quinta Jurecic spoke with Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. With only weeks until Election Day in the United States, there’s a lot of mis- and disinformation flying around on the subject of mail-in ballots. Discussions about addressing that disinformation often focus on platforms like Facebook or Twitter. But a new study by the Berkman Klein Center suggests that social media isn’t the most important part of mail-in ballot disinformation campaigns—rather, traditional mass media like news outlets and cable news are the main vector by which the Republican Party and the president have spread these ideas. So what’s the research behind this counterintuitive finding? And what are the implications for how we think about disinformation and the media ecosystem?

  • Want to fight online voting misinformation? A new study makes a case for targeting Trump tweets

    October 7, 2020

    As the 2020 presidential election approaches, social networks have promised to minimize false rumors about voter fraud or “rigged” mail-in ballots, a mostly imaginary threat that discourages voting and casts doubt on the democratic process. But new research has suggested that these rumors aren’t born in the dark corners of Facebook or Twitter — and that fighting them effectively might involve going after one of social media’s most powerful users. Last week, Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center put forward an illuminating analysis of voting misinformation. A working paper posits that social media isn’t driving most disinformation around mail-in voting. Instead, Twitter and Facebook amplify content from “political and media elites.” That includes traditional news outlets, particularly wire services like the Associated Press, but also Trump’s tweets — which the paper cites as a key disinformation source. The center published the methodology and explanation on its site, and co-author Yochai Benkler also wrote a clear, more succinct breakdown of it at Columbia Journalism Review. The authors measured the volume of tweets, Facebook posts, and “open web” stories mentioning mail-in voting or absentee ballots alongside terms like fraud and election rigging. Then, they looked at the top-performing posts and their sources. The authors overwhelmingly found that spikes in social media activity echoed politicians or news outlets discussing voter fraud. Some spikes involved actual (rare) cases of suspected or attempted fraud. But “the most common by far,” Benkler writes, “was a statement Donald Trump made in one of his three main channels: Twitter, press briefings, and television interviews.”

  • How Not to Cover Voter Fraud Disinformation

    October 7, 2020

    An article by Yochai BenklerNo group of people has a more important role to play in shaping how Americans think about mail-in voter fraud than editors and journalists who write for local and regional newspapers, local television news, the broadcast networks, and for those who produce the syndicated news these outlets use. My team and I at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society came to this remarkable conclusion in a report about the months-long disinformation campaign that Donald Trump and the Republican Party mounted to sow doubt about mail-in voting. We analyzed tens of thousands of online stories and Facebook posts, and millions of tweets, using network analysis, text analysis, and qualitative research. Contrary to widespread concern with Russia or Facebook as vectors of election disinformation, our findings told a different story. All peaks in attention and coverage of mail-in voter fraud were triggered by statements or actions of political elites, particularly Donald Trump through three channels: his Twitter account, press briefings, and television interviews on Fox. Trump was, in turn, reinforced by his staff, the RNC, and other Republican leaders. Social media played a secondary role, recirculating stories published by major media outlets about the actions or statements of the political actors pushing the false narrative. President Trump perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and reinforce his disinformation campaign.

  • Trump doesn’t need Russian trolls to spread disinformation. The mainstream media does it for him.

    October 7, 2020

    Voting fraud, according to study after study, is rare. Mail-in ballots are, with a few exceptions, a safe way to vote. But millions of Americans have come to believe something radically different: They think the Nov. 3 election could very well end up being stolen. That the outcome — especially if it relies on counting the votes that come in later than in a normal election year — might well be illegitimate. Where would they get such an idea? Conventional wisdom might say it comes from false stories and memes spread on social media, originating from foreign troublemakers trying to influence the election results...Not so, says a major new study: It’s the American mainstream press that’s doing most of the dirty work. Eager to look neutral — and worried about being accused of lefty partisanship — mainstream news organizations across the political spectrum have bent over backward to aid and abet Trump’s disinformation campaign about voting by mail by blasting his false claims out in headlines, tweets and news alerts, according to the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University... “If Biden wins clearly by mail-in voting and not in-person voting, you may well have tens of millions of people persuaded that the election was stolen,” Yochai Benkler, the center’s co-director and a Harvard Law School professor, told me. And their outrage could translate into violence. The disinformation campaign “is transmitted primarily through mass media, including outlets on the center-left and in the mainstream,” Benkler said. In particular, it may be those outlets that try hardest to seem unbiased that are doing a lot of the heavy lifting, he said — in part because of their broad reach and their influence on less-partisan voters.

  • voting image

    Tracing the disinformation campaign on mail-in voter fraud

    October 2, 2020

    A new report from Harvard Law School Professor Yochai Benkler ’94 and a team of researchers from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society shows that the mail-in voting fraud disinformation campaign—intentionally spreading false information in order to deceive—is largely led by political elites and the mass media.

  • TV Ratings for Biden and Trump Signal an Increasingly Polarized Nation

    August 31, 2020

    Americans who watched the political conventions on television opted for news networks with partisan fan bases to a degree unseen in recent years, another sign of an increasingly divided electorate as the nation hurtles toward the November election...Television viewers’ turn to perceived safe spaces raises questions about the ability of political conventions — which reached a broader TV audience in the pre-internet era — to persuade undecided voters. And it underscores fears about a polarized information environment where Americans can receive little exposure to political ideas that run counter to their own...On MSNBC, three Trump critics — Rachel Maddow, Joy Reid and Nicolle Wallace — lambasted the president’s address and interrupted the convention for several fact-checking segments. The channel’s ratings for the Republican convention were among its lowest prime-time weeks of the year. For the Democratic convention, the picture was sharply reversed. MSNBC clocked its highest-rated prime-time week in the network’s 24-year history, with a 10 p.m. average of 5.7 million viewers. Fox News’s viewership fell far below its usual prime-time average. “What we saw in the last presidential election was that Clinton supporters distributed their attention much more evenly among a broader range of outlets, and Trump supporters concentrated much more heavily on Fox News,” said Yochai Benkler, a co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. “The fact you have such a high proportion of viewers of the Democratic convention on MSNBC does suggest, to some extent, a gravitation on the Democratic side toward a more partisan, viewpoint-reinforcing network,” Mr. Benkler said.

  • Alarm, Denial, Blame: The Pro-Trump Media’s Coronavirus Distortion

    April 2, 2020

    On Feb. 27, two days after the first reported case of the coronavirus spreading inside a community in the United States, Candace Owens was underwhelmed. “Now we’re all going to die from Coronavirus,” she wrote sarcastically to her two million Twitter followers, blaming a “doomsday cult” of liberal paranoia for the growing anxiety over the outbreak. One month later, on the day the United States reached the grim milestone of having more documented coronavirus cases than anywhere in the world, Ms. Owens — a conservative commentator whom President Trump has called “a real star” — was back at it, offering what she said was “a little perspective” on the 1,000 American deaths so far...Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of a book on political manipulation called “Network Propaganda,” said that as the magnitude of the virus’s effects grew and the coverage on the right shifted, Mr. Trump’s loyalists benefited from having told people not to believe what they were hearing. “The same media that’s been producing this intentional ignorance is saying what they’ve always been saying: ‘We’re right. They’re wrong,’” he said. “But it also permits them to turn on a dime.” “We can look at that and get whiplashed,” he added. “But from the inside it doesn’t look like whiplash.”

  • Marvin Ammori presenting

    A Legal Warrior in the Field of Technology

    January 7, 2020

    Marvin Ammori ’03, a net neutrality advocate, explores the power of the decentralized web

  • illustration of two faces

    Heard on Campus

    January 7, 2020

    From a U.S. Supreme Court justice to the president of Germany to a senator from Utah to a Hiroshima survivor: “I speak because I feel it is my responsibility.”

  • Real news: Hardly anybody shares fake news

    November 25, 2019

    Some people are fuming at Facebook for allowing unfiltered political ads, while others are fuming at Twitter for banning them. There’s lots of confusion and speculation, but what we know is that these social media companies have fundamentally changed how people exchange information. What we need to figure out is whether they also change how people spread disinformation — and if so, how to fix it. It’s a question researchers are actively investigating. After “fake news” became the catchphrase of the 2016 election, experts in psychology, political science, computer science and networks stepped up research on disinformation, learning in more detail how it travels through social media and why some things stick in people’s heads...There’s little evidence that targeted ads have the power to change minds or votes, says Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler, co-author of the book “Network Propaganda.” Belief in targeted ads in general is more faith-based than evidence-based, he says. Advertisers assume the targeting causes people to buy things — though this is far from proven.

  • Real News: Hardly Anybody Shares Fake News

    November 18, 2019

    Some people are fuming at Facebook for allowing unfiltered political ads, while others are fuming at Twitter for banning them. There’s lots of confusion and speculation, but what we know is that these social media companies have fundamentally changed how people exchange information. What we need to figure out is whether they also change how people spread disinformation — and if so, how to fix it. It's a question researchers are actively investigating. ... There is still hope for democracy, however. There’s little evidence that targeted ads have the power to to change minds or votes, says Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler, co-author of the book “Network Propaganda.” Belief in targeted ads in general is more faith-based than evidence-based, he says. Advertisers assume the targeting causes people to buy things — though this is far from proven.

  • Justice Hanan Melcer of Israel's Supreme Court.

    Israeli Supreme Court Justice on combatting propaganda in elections

    October 29, 2019

    Deputy Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel Hanan Melcer, who chaired Israel's Central Elections Committee, shared his experience protecting Israel's elections from online manipulation and cyber threats.

  • Innovation, Justice and Globalization

    October 17, 2019

    The “Innovation, Justice and Globalization” conference, hosted by HLS professor and leading intellectual property scholar Ruth Okediji, brought international academics and policymakers to campus to discuss intellectual property issues.

  • Fox News has no comment on its venomous rhetoric

    August 13, 2019

    In his 2,300-word manifesto, the gunman who killed 22 people in El Paso earlier this month laid out his views on many topics including the environment, corporations, economics, automation and, most forcefully, the “invaders” who arrive in the United States from other countries. Speaking of Democrats, he wrote, “They intend to use open borders, free healthcare for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup by importing and then legalizing millions of new voters. Compare those thoughts to what Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on air on May 17. In a standard anti-immigration riff, Carlson laid out what he saw as the partisan dimensions of the topic ...[I]t’s hard to avoid Fox News’s influence on immigration or any other contemporary controversy, especially for those inclined to seek out conservative news on the Internet. The influence is malign, too. Yochai Benkler, a scholar affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, has studied the network’s ability to seed its ideas across the web. He told The Post last year: "Our data repeatedly show Fox as the transmission vector of widespread conspiracy theories. The original Seth Rich conspiracy did not take off when initially propagated in July 2016 by fringe and pro-Russia sites, but only a year later, as Fox News revived it when James Comey was fired. The Clinton pedophilia libel that resulted in Pizzagate was started by a Fox online report, repeated across the Fox TV schedule, and provided the prime source of validation across the right-wing media ecosystem.

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    Are Americans Getting Enough Fiber?

    July 23, 2019

    The U.S. is falling behind in fiber optic technology, but cities and localities are leading the way.

  • Americans think fake news is big problem, blame politicians

    June 11, 2019

    Half of U.S. adults consider fake news a major problem, and they mostly blame politicians and activists for it, according to a new survey. A majority also believe journalists have the responsibility for fixing it. Differences in political affiliation are a major factor in how people think about fake news, as Republicans are more likely than Democrats to also blame journalists for the problem...Republicans take the idea of made-up news to “mean news that is critical of Trump,” rather than nonsense stories, said Yochai Benkler, a Harvard Law School professor who wrote a book on disinformation and right-wing media.

  • How tech companies are shaping the rules governing AI

    May 16, 2019

    In early April, the European Commission published guidelines intended to keep any artificial intelligence technology used on the EU’s 500 million citizens trustworthy. The bloc’s commissioner for digital economy and society, Bulgaria’s Mariya Gabriel, called them “a solid foundation based on EU values.” ...Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler warned in the journalNature this month that “industry has mobilized to shape the science, morality and laws of artificial intelligence.” Benkler cited Metzinger’s experience in that op-ed. He also joined other academics in criticizing a National Science Foundation program for research into “Fairness in Artificial Intelligence” that is co-funded by Amazon. The company will not participate in the peer review process that allocates the grants. But NSF documents say it can ask recipients to share updates on their work, and will retain a right to royalty-free license to any intellectual property developed.

  • Don’t let industry write the rules for AI

    May 2, 2019

    An op-ed by Yochai BenklerIndustry has mobilized to shape the science, morality and laws of artificial intelligence. On 10 May, letters of intent are due to the US National Science Foundation (NSF) for a new funding programme for projects on Fairness in Artificial Intelligence, in collaboration with Amazon. In April, after the European Commission released the Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI, an academic member of the expert group that produced them described their creation as industry-dominated “ethics washing”. In March, Google formed an AI ethics board, which was dissolved a week later amid controversy. In January, Facebook invested US$7.5 million in a centre on ethics and AI at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. Companies’ input in shaping the future of AI is essential, but they cannot retain the power they have gained to frame research on how their systems impact society or on how we evaluate the effect morally. Governments and publicly accountable entities must support independent research, and insist that industry shares enough data for it to be kept accountable.

  • Is America’s media divide destroying democracy?

    April 16, 2019

    Sometimes it seems as if the deepest divide in American politics is not so much between Republicans and Democrats as between voters who watch Fox News, and those who don’t.  ...What do the courses run by these stories say about the structure of American media today? What they illustrate is that there is not one media ecosystem, but two separate spheres that respond to different incentives and operate in very different manners, says Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization of American Politics.” One of these spheres is comprised of right-leaning media, from Fox News to Breitbart and talk radio hosts such as Mr. Limbaugh. The other is a center-left composite of everything else, from the legacy newscasts of the old broadcast networks to most daily newspapers and new liberal internet sites. To find out how news moves through these spheres, Professor Benkler and his co-authors used data analysis tools to study hyperlink connections, Facebook shares, and other marking aspects of some 4 million stories from the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the first year of the Trump presidency. Their study showed that right-leaning audiences concentrated to a large extent on right-leaning outlets insulated from the rest of the media. Center and left-leaning audiences spread their attention more broadly and focused in particular on what is often labeled the MSM.

  • Case Against Julian Assange Raises Press Freedom Questions

    April 15, 2019

    When U.S. prosecutors unsealed a March 2018 indictment accusing Julian Assange of conspiring to illegally access a Department of Defense computer system, they sparked more than just an examination of the case and the accused. ...Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler has written about the legal implications of prosecuting WikiLeaks. He told The Guardian he believes the indictment contained “dangerous elements that pose a significant risk to national security reporting. Sections of the indictment are vastly overbroad and could have a significant chilling effect.”

  • Julian Assange in a police van

    Benkler, faculty experts discuss the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

    April 12, 2019

    Nearly a decade after Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning shared classified materials with WikiLeaks, the site’s founder, Julian Assange, was arrested in London for his role in the disclosures. The Harvard Gazette recently spoke with three faculty members, including Yochai Benkler, the Harvard Law professor who has publicly defended the disclosure as whistleblowing.

  • Journalist, whistleblower, or dangerous security leak?

    April 12, 2019

    Nearly a decade after Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning shared classified materials illegally downloaded from Defense Department computers with WikiLeaks, the site’s founder, Julian Assange, was arrested in London for his role in the 2010-11 disclosures. ... To better understand the legal, national security, and journalistic tensions at issue, the Gazette spoke with Harvard faculty members Yochai Benkler, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, and Nicco Mele.

  • Julian Assange’s charges are a direct assault on press freedom, experts warn

    April 12, 2019

    The charge sheet accusing Julian Assange of engaging in criminal theft of US state secrets contains a direct assault on fundamental press freedoms and could have a devastating effect on the basic acts of journalism, leading first amendment scholars and advocacy groups have warned. ... Yochai Benkler, a Harvard law professor who wrote the first major legal study of the legal implications of prosecuting WikiLeaks, said the charge sheet contained some “very dangerous elements that pose significant risk to national security reporting. Sections of the indictment are vastly overbroad and could have a significant chilling effect – they ought to be rejected.”

  • The Making of the Fox News White House

    March 4, 2019

    In January, during the longest government shutdown in America’s history, President Donald Trump rode in a motorcade through Hidalgo County, Texas, eventually stopping on a grassy bluff overlooking the Rio Grande. The White House wanted to dramatize what Trump was portraying as a national emergency: the need to build a wall along the Mexican border. The presence of armored vehicles, bales of confiscated marijuana, and federal agents in flak jackets underscored the message. ...As Murdoch’s relations with the White House have warmed, so has Fox’s coverage of Trump. During the Obama years, Fox’s attacks on the President could be seen as reflecting the adversarial role traditionally played by the press. With Trump’s election, the network’s hosts went from questioning power to defending it. Yochai Benkler, a Harvard Law School professor who co-directs the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, says, “Fox’s most important role since the election has been to keep Trump supporters in line.”

  • On Twitter, limited number of characters spreading fake info

    January 24, 2019

    A tiny fraction of Twitter users spread the vast majority of fake news in 2016, with conservatives and older people sharing misinformation more, a new study finds. Scientists examined more than 16,000 U.S. Twitter accounts and found that 16 of them — less than one-tenth of 1 percent — tweeted out nearly 80 percent of the misinformation masquerading as news, according to a study Thursday in the journal Science. ...Their conclusions are similar to a study earlier this month that looked at the spread of false information on Facebook. It also found that few people shared fakery, but those who did were more likely to be over 65 and conservatives. That makes this study more believable because two groups of researchers using different social media platforms, measuring political affiliation differently and with different panels of users came to the same conclusion, said Yochai Benkler, co-director of Harvard Law School's center on the internet and society. He wasn't part of either study but praised them, saying they should reduce misguided postelection panic about how "out-of-control technological processes had rendered us as a society incapable of telling truth from fiction."

  • The Digital Destruction of Democracy

    January 22, 2019

    Disinformation and propaganda spread by media have long been a staple of politics. But the 2016 elections raised new questions about the role of new media. What role did the interplay of new and old media play in getting authoritarian demagogues elected? How do new media platforms supercharge the spread of conspiracy theories and false ideas? Is there something different about the way Facebook and Twitter spread hate and lies? How can we stop them from doing so? Yochai Benkler and his co-authors Robert Faris and Hal Roberts have amassed reams of data tracing how extreme propaganda and disinformation seeped from the edges to the center of U.S. discourse in 2016. Much of this was done via social media platforms, of course, but the authors of Network Propaganda explain how Breitbart and Fox News also played a pivotal role in disseminating extreme ideas to a broad swath of the U.S. population.

  • Prosecuting Wikileaks, Protecting Press Freedoms: Drawing the Line at Knowing Collaboration with a Foreign Intelligence Agency

    November 19, 2018

    An article by Yochai Benkler. The inadvertent disclosure of the likely existence of a sealed indictment against Julian Assange raises the question of what the constitutional implications of such an indictment might be. Only an indictment narrowly focused on knowing collaboration with a foreign intelligence agency, if in fact the evidence supports such a finding, would avoid the broad threat that such a prosecution would otherwise pose to First Amendment rights and press freedoms.

  • Julian Assange Charge Raises Fears About Press Freedom

    November 19, 2018

    The disclosure that federal prosecutors have brought an unidentified criminal charge against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks leader, follows years of government deliberations over the dilemma raised by competing desires to put him out of business and fears that doing so could create a precedent that would undermine press freedoms....Yochai Benkler, a Harvard Law School professor who testified at Ms. Manning’s court-martial in 2013 that WikiLeaks played a watchdog journalism role, denounced any charging of Mr. Assange for his work with Ms. Manning and Mr. Snowden. Mr. Benkler described Ms. Manning and Mr. Snowden as “patriots” and “whistle-blowers” and who, even if one did not agree with their actions, “are clearly trying to do something to keep the government accountable.” But, he said, if there turns out to be evidence that Mr. Assange knowingly coordinated with a Russian intelligence agency trying to undermine democracy, “I don’t think you have the same kind of protections from prosecution.”

  • How the ‘propaganda feedback loop’ of right-wing media keeps more than a quarter of Americans siloed

    November 7, 2018

    Why is there so often no overlap, no resemblance whatsoever between the news events reported in mainstream print and broadcast coverage, and even on liberal outlets like MSNBC, and the topics that get broadcast as news on the Fox network and its fellows on the right? What process lets even the most outlandish conspiracy notions survive and flourish in the right’s echo-chamber ecosystem, in a way they don’t come close to doing elsewhere? Yochai Benkler is a Harvard law professor, the co-director of the university’s center for studying the internet and society, and co-author of a new book with the unmistakably alarming title “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation and Radicalization in American Politics.” The book is a work of anatomy, dissecting how this deep disequilibrium is imperiling the nation’s civic and public life. Benkler has also rethought the part that social media play in all of this, beginning with our perceptions of what free speech has come to mean in the age of Facebook and Twitter.

  • Blame Fox, not Facebook, for fake news

    November 6, 2018

    Yochai Benkler, Rob Faris and Hal Robert, three scholars affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, have a new book, “Network Propaganda:Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics,” presenting major new research about the political consequences of American media. I asked Benkler, who is the Berkman professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, and faculty co-director of the Berkman Klein Center, about what they found..."On the right, audiences concentrate attention on purely right wing outlets. On the left and center audiences spread their attention broadly and focus on mainstream organizations. This asymmetric pattern holds for the linking practices of media producers. Both supply and demand on the right are insular and self-focused. On the left and center they are spread broadly and anchored by professional press."

  • The Russians didn’t swing the 2016 election to Trump. But Fox News might have.

    October 24, 2018

    An op-ed by Yochai Benkler...But research I helped conduct has found that the fundamental driver of disinformation in American politics of the past three years has not been Russia, but Fox News and the insular right-wing media ecosystem it anchors. All the Russians did was jump on the right-wing propaganda bandwagon: Their efforts were small in scope, relative to homegrown media efforts. And what propaganda victories the Russians achieved occurred only when the right-wing media machine picked up stories and, often, embellished them.