Hello from Palo Alto,
For the autocrats, 2023 was a pretty good year. For the rest of us, not so much.
New wars emerged, old ones persisted, and a global rift over reality and truth deepened further. Divisions over how to interpret the world around us have, of course, existed since time immemorial, but we often forget that the yawning gulf between societies today is driven by algorithms engineered in my unlikely new home in Silicon Valley.
A few months ago, just as generative artificial intelligence took the global spotlight and we all buckled up for another tech shake-up, I landed in Silicon Valley. Every year, the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University brings together a small but mighty cohort of journalists and tasks them with figuring out the future of our embattled profession.
We couldn’t be in a better place. The technology that this valley has birthed has played a key role in creating the very problems we are here to solve: the demise of journalism’s old business models, proliferation of viral disinformation and the global rise of authoritarian populists, for whom journalists are public enemies number one.
Living here, I often wonder if this is what ancient Rome felt like: a place of incredible financial and intellectual abundance, limitless possibilities and terrifying detachment from the rest of the world.
Most conversations I have here don’t dwell on the troubles of people affected by technology. Instead they focus on the exciting frontiers of generative AI. “Collateral damage,” one ex-Googler told me when I challenged him.
Meanwhile, Coda’s intrepid journalists spent 2023 on the ground, reporting on the “collateral damage”: real men and women whose lives are maimed by algorithms they can’t control.
We produced a multi-part podcast called “Tech, Tyrants and Us,” together with our partners at Audible. We investigated how a EU-funded agency uses surveillance tech to keep migrants from reaching Europe’s shores, how flashy but misleading posts on TikTok emptied a town in Albania and how AI-generated deepfakes are changing the nature of military intelligence. We reported extensively on the efforts of those in power to manipulate collective memory, we traveled all the way to the Swedish Arctic to tell the story of “green colonialism,” and we even tried our hand at a new genre: a true crime podcast called “Infamous International.” I am happy to report that it’s blazing a trail, ranking among Spotify’s top 5 true crime podcasts.
I couldn’t be more proud of the journalism we’ve done in 2023, but being in Silicon Valley has given me a front-row seat to the advances in generative AI as well as an insight: Our information ecosystem is about to change beyond recognition and producing great stories is no longer enough.
NOISE IS THE NEW CENSORSHIP
My project here at Stanford focuses on figuring out how high-quality journalism like Coda’s can punch through the deafening noise of the modern-day information ecosystem. Years on the disinformation beat convinced me that when it comes to disinformation, the real problem isn’t the fake news but the noise. Social media moved most of our conversations online and turned them into a shouting match, in which the loudest, most obnoxious voices are always poised to win and it is easy to manipulate and override reason.
Noise is the new censorship. It rips our communities apart from the inside and builds walls that run through the middle of them, polarizing us and rendering us unable to have a conversation about any subject — be it climate change or the war in Gaza.
With the rise of AI, this cacophony is poised to grow. Just to be clear: I am not worried about killer robots. But I do think that we will have to reimagine what it means to be a journalist in the age of AI. It is time to accept that we will never again be the gatekeepers of information and focus instead on providing the important service of helping people navigate the cacophony and access the information they need. We have to find a way to punch through the noise and get the attention of our audiences.
As the world heads into 2024, a key election year in the U.S. and around the world, our team will continue to put a spotlight on stories that are shaping our lives: from memory wars and the war on science to disinformation and — of course — tech, which is emerging as the linchpin connecting all of these crises. But we will also be bringing you new formats and new collaborations that focus on creating, curating and connecting conversations that matter.
And so, buckle up. 2024 is going to be quite a ride. Make sure you are strapped in next to people you like and join us! Subscribe, share or — even better — tell a friend about Coda. And please consider supporting us. Every dollar makes a huge difference.
Happy New Year!
Editor in Chief, Coda Story