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Beyond the Vast Social-Media Wasteland

There is no shortage of ideas for tackling the ills of social media. What is missing are political leaders who can forge these ideas into a coherent vision and strategic plan, as Newton Minow, the chair of the US Federal Communications Commission, did with television in the early 1960s.

LONDON – On May 9, 1961, then-Chair of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Newton Minow delivered a transformative speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, DC. Now known as the “Vast Wasteland” speech, it offered a public-minded vision for a fledgling sector – television broadcasting – that was quickly reshaping society. A similar vision should be applied to social-media platforms today.

In 1961, TV had entered its teenage years. American families had adopted the new technology in record numbers. Regular network broadcasts had begun only 14 years earlier, in 1947, when there were 44,000 TV sets in US homes, around 30,000 of them in New York City. By 1960, there were 52 million TV sets in the United States – one in nearly nine out of ten households across the country. Not surprisingly, advertisers were flocking to the medium.

But TV was still immature. It faced accusations of fakery, for example, following a series of revelations in the 1950s that quiz shows were rigged. And, despite countless debates on the subject, the new technology had yet to be harnessed to serve the public interest by providing sustainable spaces for news and education.

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