CIMLAPS-supported animated series simplifies internet governance



Accessing news content through the internet is an everyday activity for many people, but the regulations governing these platforms can feel technical and complicated.

With support from The Media School’s Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies, Noah Arjomand has produced an animated video series that simplifies these topics so they’re accessible for everyone.

“The idea is to show how all of these aren’t just abstract legal or technical engineering problems, but all of them relate really closely to issues that all of us care about or should care about — press freedom, the ability of producers of media to reach their audiences, the inequality in who has a voice online,” said Arjomand, a Mark Helmke postdoctoral scholar on global media, development and democracy in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

Arjomand’s series explains internet governance — the structure and regulation of the internet — and its impact on journalism. It addresses issues including Right to Be Forgotten laws, surveillance, traffic-blocking, zero-rating and algorithms.

Internet Governance and Journalism – Part Two: Encryption
A woman is shown reading the newspaper.
Maria is a journalist. She learns that Juan, an activist and researcher, has been investigating possible fraud involving both a large company and public officials.
She is aware that the government monitors journalists and that this will be a politically sensitive story.
Maria reaches out to Juan online.
A smartphone is shown simulating sending a message.
She is sure to use a messaging app with end to end encryption like Signal.
Maria types a web address into the search bar. She enters a password.
She also uses a special software plugin with her web browser called HTTPS Everywhere, to keep the data she sends to websites as secure as possible.
Maria’s phone is shown sending messages to other people, but there’s a lock in the center.
Thanks to the efforts of volunteers who created the HTTPS protocol, eavesdroppers, whether the government or private hackers, cannot see what Maria is doing on websites.
Maria stands and eyes look at her from every direction.
However, at present, Maria’s government still has the ability to see which sites she visits and to limit her access to sites they don’t like.
Maria clicks on a website and gets an error message. Hands type on a keyboard.
Volunteer engineers are only now working to develop encryption for protocols that communicate the web addresses that people visit.
Maria’s phone vanishes in a poof of dust when she tries to look something up. Maria’s notebook and pencil also vanish.
Until those encryption protocols are ready, surveillance and traffic-blocking can inhibit journalists like Maria from doing their jobs in providing the public with an independent picture of current events.
A file folder is shown, and a lock appears in the center.
As important as public access to information is, it is equally important that we develop technologies that protect privacy in ways that allow people like journalists and activists the freedom to communicate and investigate.
Maria and Juan are both shown trying to communicate securely. Eyes watch them from above.
Without secure messaging, Juan might have been afraid to talk with Maria in the first place. Maria might have policed her own internet usage to avoid raising suspicion.
The eyes go away. Fingers type on a keyboard, and Maria gets her notebook and pen back, as well as a megaphone.
If, on the other hand, technologies and policies are put in place which make internet use more secure, it could help Maria to investigate corruption and to speak truth to power.
A computer appears with a lock, a file cabinet, a hand holding a coin and gears representing settings are shown.
The structure of the internet can seem a daunting jumble of jargon: de-indexing, encryption, zero-rating, algorithms. It might seem best left to engineers to tinker with the internet’s technical side. But too much is at stake.
These items are replaced with people.
The foundations of journalism, the quality of the information we receive, the very nature of our public debate. These are all affected by how the internet is governed.
The people talk.
Without greater political attention and public debate, the rules for the internet will be written by those with little concern for, or understanding of, the impact on our democracies.
The credits are shown.

Arjomand created the four-part video series for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance, which works on issues related to press freedom and global media.

The animated videos are intended to educate people who don’t know much about these topics, including younger viewers.

“The idea for the series is to make these ideas accessible to a larger audience in a way that itself isn’t super jargon-y or complicated by illustrating through a series of concrete examples,” he said. “We have a fictional journalist and fictional activist who are trying to get out important stories, and they’re being stymied by the way that the internet in these invisible ways is constraining them.”

He also created two other animated explainer videos, one about media capture and one about journalism ethics, which he co-wrote with professor of practice Elaine Monaghan.

Internet Governance and Journalism – Part Three: Zero-Rating
A woman stands in a street kiosk holding a smartphone.
Gabriela just got her first smart phone and wants to be better informed. Working as a street vendor though, she can’t afford to pay extra for internet access on her phone, so she chooses a phone service offering a bundle deal.
Newspapers and social media apps are shown.
Through this deal she gets access to certain social media platforms without any expensive data charges. She also gets access to a couple of news websites.
A woman is seen typing at a computer.
But what Gabriela does not know is that a journalist, named Maria, has recently published an investigative story on an up and coming online news site.
The story is shown.
Maria uncovered a public corruption scandal involving a powerful oligarch.
That story, however, is not available on the version of the internet Gabriela can access for free.
Many news sites are shown with red Xs through them. Then, they disappear.
In fact, many small independent news organizations are not available on Gabriela’s service, which relies on an arrangement called “Zero-Rating.”
A hand holding a coin appears.
Zero-Rating refers to the increasingly common practice of telecom companies giving phone subscribers free access to specific websites, social media platforms or other types of services.
Gabriela’s phone is shown with connections to the free newspapers and apps she can access. Dollar signs move to the rest of the internet.
As for the rest of the internet, customers have to pay. The telecom services see zero-rating parts of the internet as a way to entice customers. Social media platforms and other digital content providers like it because it gives them access to new audiences.
Gabriela is seen pushing a button on her phone.
This all seems like a good idea to Gabriela, and giving free internet to the poor may seem an admirable project.
Lines are shown connecting Gabriela to services her telecom company offers, and red lines appear attached to the ones she cannot.
But zero-rating can, depending on who offers it and how, create an uneven playing field. The telecom companies, often without transparency, pick and choose which news outlets and other sites to include and which to exclude.
Maria’s story is shown with a red X through it.
In developing countries like Maria and Gabriela’s, smaller news outlets may not even have the technical capacity to participate in a zero-rating project. So Maria’s small independent news startup is not zero-rated, but a well-funded oligarch-owed news site is.
Positive stories about the oligarch are shown, but Maria’s story about his corruption is not because it is not free.
The scoop on the corruption scandal? That’s just too expensive for Gabriela to read.
A computer is shown with a hand holding a coin on it.
In making the cost of connecting to different parts of the web unequal, zero-rating violates net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should not control user choice by discriminating among the contents they transmit.
People are shown discussing this problem.
With a zero-rated internet influencing where citizens and voters get their information, journalists and civil society activists must add their voices to the conversation about the proper values and regulations needed to ensure that zero-rating serves up a balanced news diet.
A computer is shown surrounded by a lock, a filing cabinet, a hand holding a coin and gears representing settings.
The structure of the internet can seem a daunting jumble of jargon: de-indexing, encryption, zero-rating, algorithms. It might seem best left to engineers to tinker with the internet’s technical side. But too much is at stake.
The items are replaced with people.
The foundations of journalism, the quality of the information we receive, the very nature of our public debate. These are all affected by how the internet is governed.
The people talk.
Without greater political attention and public debate, the rules for the internet will be written by those with little concern for, or understanding of, the impact on our democracies.
The credits are shown.

Monaghan has been working with Arjomand on the videos for over a year. She said she was interested in the project because of its international relevance and Arjomand’s goal of educating the general public about issues that can seem only relevant to journalists and academics.

“I’m somebody who’s really interested in international journalism, and there’s a very strong global component to this,” Monaghan said.

Associate professor Anthony Fargo, director of CIMLAPS, helped connect Monaghan and Arjomand. The institute is supporting Arjomand’s project through its Barbara Restle Press Law Project.

Part of CIMLAPS’s mission is to educate people about issues threatening press freedom, and Fargo said these videos help get that message to a broader audience.

Internet Governance and Journalism – Part Four: Sustainability
People are seen sitting around a table in a business meeting.
Maria is the founder of a successful all-digital news site. Over the past few years, her small team has built a following based on hard-hitting exposés and unflinching photo essays on topics that traditional media outlets have shied away from.
News stories and photos are shown on a computer. People appear looking at the stories they found on social media.
A significant portion of the site’s traffic comes from users who click on stories they initially see on social media.
Maria is seen sitting at her computer.
One morning, Maria discovers a drastic decrease in her readership.
Maria looks at analytics for her website. The social media-based clicks are way down.
The referrals to her site’s articles generated by social media have plummeted by more than half overnight. If this drop-off persists, the site’s revenue from online advertising will also fall.
Maria’s team of journalists is shown sitting at their computers, but then they vanish.
Maria may have trouble continuing to pay her team of fearless journalists. She wonders, given that the content her team is producing hasn’t changed, why their audience suddenly shrank?
Maria is shown looking for the reason. She narrows it down to a social media site.
It turns out that the drop-off was due to a policy change at one of the countries most-used social media websites. In response to intense criticism about how disinformation was circulating widely on their platform, and negatively impacting public dialogue, the social media company decided to de-prioritize all content that appeared to be news.
The social media platform is shown drawing a red X through newspapers.
Basically, they decided that the safest, easiest fix was to simply favor personal sharing.
The social media company puts a green check mark through a post of a woman eating an ice cream cone.
The platform’s algorithms ranking the relevance of posts was tweaked so that when users share news articles, those articles are now less likely to appear prominently in friends’ news feeds than photos of pets or relationship status updates.
The social media platforms settings are shown prioritizing personal content over news content. Different posts are shown, and personal posts are taking up more of the space.
The policy change by the social media platform means that disinformation is less likely to reach users but so is Maria’s watchdog journalism.
Maria’s news site is shown. People are shown clicking on her articles. The journalist disappear.
Since her small news outlet depends largely on social media to amplify their message and reach news readers, the change not only buries their reporting but threatens the outlet’s very viability as a business.
Maria tries to call the social media platform, but no one answers.
Maria reaches out to the social media platform but gets no response. She decides it is time for a new plan.
Maria is seen talking directly with her audience members.
With social media platforms now playing a central role as intermediaries between the news and its audiences, it is essential for media entrepreneurs like her to be part of the conversation about how those platforms can best serve the public interest.
All these different players are shown circling around a globe.
Maria becomes an active participant at regional and international internet governance forums, engaging with social media platforms and their regulators. She wants be a part of collaborative efforts to both combat disinformation and ensure that high quality journalism is financially sustainable.
A computer is shown surrounded by a lock, a filing cabinet, a hand holding a coin, and a gear representing settings.
The structure of the internet can seem a daunting jumble of jargon: de-indexing, encryption, zero-rating, algorithms. It might seem best left to engineers to tinker with the internet’s technical side. But too much is at stake.
The items are replaced by people.
The foundations of journalism, the quality of the information we receive, the very nature of our public debate. These are all affected by how the internet is governed.
The people talk.
Without greater political attention and public debate, the rules for the internet will be written by those with little concern for, or understanding of, the impact on our democracies.
The credits are shown.

“It can be very easy to sort of get yourself lost in an echo chamber where you’re talking to other people who already agree with you,” Fargo said. “So the idea here is to try to get the message out about what kind of things are challenging free expression or challenging media development more broadly that we don’t necessarily immediately think about.”

Communicating these challenges in a digestible way allows the public to understand what journalists, governments and internet companies are actually doing. Arjomand said the biggest takeaway from the series should be that these issues don’t have to be intimidating.

Issues surrounding press freedom and internet governance affect everyone throughout the world, and understanding them can empower ordinary citizens, Monaghan said.

“It’s very much intended for an international audience, and that’s what makes them so powerful,” Monaghan said. “Noah’s really trying to connect the dots about issues that affect all of us.”