Another media regime is possible

From the liberal public sphere to the information commons

In response to political pressure, digital platforms are abandoning their laissez-faire approach to content and allying with legacy media to provide ‘reliable’ news and information. But this is the wrong way to create the conditions in which disinformation becomes vulnerable to challenge.

‘Media regimes’ can be described as distinct historical combinations of technology, regulation and professional norms that have come to seem natural but are the result of an intensely political and fiercely contested process.1 Until recently, English-language media regimes were characterised by a mixture of regulated broadcasters and privately owned print media. The importance of public broadcasting varied from country to country, from the relatively insignificant PBS in the United States to the well-funded and influential BBC in the United Kingdom. But even when broadcasters were private, regulation meant that television and radio, by far the most important media in the period after 1945, were aligned with the needs and perspectives of a ‘national interest’ established by elites in the state and the economy. American network owners enjoyed massive profits from licenses granted by the Federal Communications Commission. They knew, without having to be told, that the government could withdraw licenses from operations who questioned the orthodoxies of the Cold War consensus.

In these broadcast-plus-print media regimes, attempts by hostile foreign powers to influence the news agenda faced formidable obstacles. Editorial decision-makers in the mainstream press and broadcast sector identified closely with their ‘home’ states and were accustomed to working within an understanding of the national interest, which they shared with other elite groups in and around the state. Their employers were integrated, through the advertising market, with a corporate system that was itself largely national in character.

Smaller magazines and newsletters could challenge this shared understanding in matters of political economy and foreign policy. They could even publish material that was sympathetic to Cold War enemies. But those that did so struggled to find advertising revenues and for the most part remained marginal.

The move to digital

In its early years the internet acted as a supplement to this broadcast-plus-print regime. What had been the underground press proliferated as communities of interest used the technology to explore more interactive forms of engagement. Niche publications and individual bloggers could reach much larger audiences. At the same time, broadcast news retained its overwhelming preeminence as a source of information about the public world.

But over the last decade, digital platforms have emerged as important, if not dominant disseminators of news and current affairs content. Google, Facebook/Instagram and to a lesser extent Twitter now assemble and retain attention on a truly vast scale. Online advertising accounts for almost half of the global expenditure on all kinds of advertising. It is clear that the old broadcast-plus-print regime is giving way to a digital-first organisation of information. We are still trying to come to terms with this rapid shift in the centre of gravity in the media.

Corporate American platforms provide new opportunities to publish and discuss politically significant speech – and to do so across national boundaries without significant obstacles. Individual articles and interventions on micro-blogging websites like Twitter can reach even more readers. Audio and video content also finds global audiences without the assistance of the regulated broadcasters.

This has opened up political discourse to voices from outside the mainstream. It is very hard to see how figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn could have countered the scepticism of mainstream journalists and the hostility of their respective party elites without the opportunity to connect with potential supporters provided by Facebook and Twitter. But the platforms have also proved vulnerable to foreign and domestic actors who seek to subvert the democratic process through disinformation. Sensational and misleading content has been an important driver of their growth.

Bringing the platforms to heel

The intelligence agencies of the United States and its closest allies have established close links with the digital platforms. According to files leaked by Edward Snowden, the NSA now has effectively unlimited access to data collected by Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Its sister institution in the UK, the GCHQ, also conducts massive surveillance of online communications. According to the Guardian in 2013, the GCHQ, has attached ‘intercept probes to transatlantic fibre-optic cables where they land on British shores carrying data to western Europe from telephone exchanges and internet servers in north America’.2 In an interesting echo of the broadcast era, The Guardian’s anonymous source said that ‘there’s an overarching condition of the licensing of the companies that they have to co-operate in this. Should they decline, we can compel them to do so. They have no choice.’

The rest of the state has been slower to react, particularly as regards the content hosted by platforms. But in recent years elected politicians have started putting pressure on them to drop their laissez-faire approach. Party elites shaken by the insurgent campaigns have good reason to resent the ‘content agnosticism’ that characterised the platforms in their early years. They have been supported in their efforts by the legacy print media, whose business model has been undermined and who are seeking to restore their position by becoming favoured content providers for the emerging digital regime.

Their combined pressure has already had effects. In August 2016, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, told an audience in Rome that ‘we are a tech company, not a media company’.3 In December of the same year, after the presidential elections in the US, he was sounding less emphatic about the distinction: ‘Facebook is a new kind of platform. It’s not a traditional technology company. It’s not a traditional media company. You know, we build technology and we feel responsible for how it’s used.’4

In the Spring of 2018 Zuckerberg acknowledged to the US Senate commerce and judiciary committees that ‘it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.’5 In October 2018 Facebook banned hundreds of pages which it accused of ‘inauthentic behaviour’.6 In January 2019 the company announced a $300 million commitment to support news publishers7 and, in September, that it was creating an ‘oversight board’ to monitor Facebook’s own content decisions – and, if necessary, reverse them.8 A month later Zuckerberg assured American lawmakers that ‘we are partnering with a lot of folks to build a new product that’s supporting high-quality journalism’.

He was referring to a ‘news tab’ on Facebook’s mobile app which would feature content from a select group of publications. In an article headlined ‘Facebook Calls Truce with Publishers as it Unveils Facebook News’, the New York Times described how Facebook News will ‘offer stories from a mix of publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, as well as digital-only outlets like BuzzFeed and Business Insider. Some stories will be chosen by a team of professional journalists, while others will be tailored to readers’ interests over time using Facebook’s machine-learning technology.’9

In the same article, Zuckerberg was quoted as saying that he felt ‘acute responsibility because there’s obviously an awareness that the internet has disrupted the news industry business model’. Facebook News gives us some sense of what qualifies as ‘high-quality journalism’ in the emerging, digital-first regime. The launch roster includes the notorious alt-right website Breitbart News, but as far as we can tell (Facebook didn’t provide a full list) there were no socialist or even left-liberal publications, despite Zuckerberg’s stated desire to include ‘content that kind of represents different perspectives’. This is in a country where Bernie Sanders regularly tops polls as the most popular politician.

Alphabet, the company that owns Google, Youtube and a number of other key internet assets, has adapted to the changing political environment more quickly and more smoothly than Facebook. Back in August 2017, Google announced that it would favour ‘authoritative’ over ‘alternative’ outlets in its search results. Immediately after the change, the World Socialist Web Site reported a 75% fall in traffic.10 In March 2018, almost a year before Facebook announced a similar commitment, the company pledged to support publishers with $300 million through its Google News Initiative.11

In October 2019, Alphabet stated that it had again altered how its search algorithm ranks news stories. According to the company, it is aiming to promote original reporting over commentary that piggybacks on it.12 It seems likely that this too will favour large, established operations over smaller, more marginal ones. Other social media companies that have become venues for political debate are now looking to reduce their exposure to controversy. In October, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey announced that it was banning political advertising altogether. Quite how this ban would work is not yet clear, since it later emerged that ‘issue advocacy’ would still be allowed on the platform.13

The emerging digital regime

In America the coalition of party elites and legacy media companies seems to be getting its way. Facebook very publicly, and Google more discreetly, are re-establishing the separation between the mainstream and the margins that characterised the broadcast-and-print regime. A relative handful of companies will provide the news and current affairs content that most users of the internet access regularly. Professional editors, working with their colleagues in the political and corporate sectors, will once again be in a position to police the boundaries of permissible public speech. A lively fringe of smaller operations will survive in various forms. But they will be denied advertising revenues and struggle to find paying subscribers when so much content online is subsidised by advertisers and delivered free. Opportunities for political discussion between equals will be squeezed and passive consumption by isolated individuals will once again become the norm. The underground press will be forced back underground.

But there is a glaring problem with this approach. Restoring the authority and centrality of ‘responsible’ news operations will only protect us from fake news in the future if they were able to do so in the past. It takes only a moment to recognise that they weren’t. From the invasion of Iraq to the financial crisis, the major media have repeatedly failed to resist manipulation and intimidation by powerful actors in the state and the economy. They have repeatedly misrepresented matters of the most profound importance, when telling the truth would jeopardise advertising revenue or licences.14

The installation of these legacy institutions at the centre of the emerging digital regime is a priority for those who want to make coverage plausible, while insulating politicians and their allies in the private sector from the kind of challenges made possible by new technology. But it is entirely inadequate if we are trying to create the conditions in which misinformation, disinformation and manipulation become vulnerable to effective challenge.

Media democracy and the information commons

The media’s relationship with the political system and society as a whole rarely features in mainstream media coverage. It is even rarer for obvious facts to intrude on proceedings when their doing so might disrupt the favoured assumptions of those who own and control the major institutions in the sector. Perhaps their most cherished notion is that they are able to stand apart from other power centres and subject them to disinterested scrutiny. But in truth, all the major media, including the digital platforms, are structurally integrated with both the political and corporate systems.

The elites within these media institutions experience this integration as a relationship of complex interdependence with their counterparts elsewhere in the apparatus of power. Far from standing at a distance from the world of power they describe, the media are better understood as forming part of a state that has managed to capture and immobilise civil society. As it stands, most of us have almost no power to share ideas, descriptions or proposals for action. Nothing approaching a liberal public sphere, where we can converse as rational civic equals, can exist in such circumstances.

We do not have to accept clearly false ideas about the autonomy of the media relative to state and private power. We can instead recognise that how we learn about matters beyond our immediate experience, and especially about the beliefs, values and interests of other citizens, cannot ever be an apolitical matter. If we do not take deliberate and carefully reasoned steps to assert public control over the production of public opinion, others will be all too eager to take on the task.

There are political traditions that we can draw on when thinking about how to re-organise our systems of communications in the digital age. While we usually think about things like lakes and forests when we think about common pool resources, the stock of generally available descriptions of the world provided to us by the media has many of the same features. We all depend on these descriptions when making individual and collective decisions about how to navigate the world.

If relevant information is removed from general consideration and hoarded by a few insiders, the community as a whole suffers. And if inaccurate or misleading information finds its way into our shared account of the world, we are all affected. Even if we don’t ourselves come to believe falsehoods, the fact that other people are deceived will have real consequences for us. Like natural commons, information systems can become degraded if people take more than their fair share, or if they pollute a pool of descriptions on which everyone relies.

Elinor Ostrom has set out some features that tend to be found in sustainably managed commons.15 Perhaps the most important is that of participatory governance. Those who rely on a shared resource must have the power to set the rules that determine how it is governed, and those responsible for enforcing these rules must be accountable to users. The governance of a particular commons must be proof against meddling from above. Power must track responsibility.

We can immediately see what this implies for the structure of an institution like that BBC – the single most important means through which British people become acquainted with the public world. At the moment, viewers and listeners have no meaningful say in the rules that shape it, and no meaningful control over those who are responsible for monitoring its performance. Its information products might be free from contamination by special interests. It might provide the full range of relevant information about particular issues. But we cannot be confident that it is a well-managed commons.

Another, more familiar, register for thinking about the challenge of designing a digital regime that supports democracy is that of classical democracy itself. From Polybius to Madison, constitutional theorists have understood that democracy is inseparable from the communicative possibilities of assembly. It is the equal right to speak to one’s fellow citizens, not election, that defines both Athenian and Achaean democracy. At the scale of the nation-state, mediated communications are best understood as a disembodied and virtual version of the ancient, flesh and blood assembly. At present this virtual assembly allows only a few to make their voices heard throughout the citizen body.

If we all want to have access to reliable information, and to be confident that our fellow citizens are adequately informed, we need to embed systems of communication in a democratic, as well as liberal public sphere. Our thinking about the constitution needs to encompass the assembled citizenry as a persistently effective element in the operations of the state. The citizenry becomes effective through its participation in decisions about the priorities of news and current affairs reporting – and through working collaboratively to understand present conditions and to develop proposals for changing them.

At the moment only a tiny handful of people – elected officials who occupy influential positions in their parties, editorial decision-makers in large media operations, wealthy individuals and those who manage great wealth, and celebrities – enjoy communicative power. The technical term for a polity in which only a minority can speak publicly while the majority remain silent is an oligarchy.

We urgently need to re-establish the core democratic principle of communicative equality in order to reduce our vulnerability to manipulation based on falsehoods, half-truths and the suppression of information. Each of us must demand an equal claim on the means by which we make sense of the world around us. We need to be able to identify agents of disinformation and impose effective penalties on them, so that debates cannot be derailed by the powerful and their sycophants. A consequence of this change will be a system of communication that is much more able to identify propaganda. If there really is an information war, an engaged and informed citizenry is the best possible defence.

Ecosocialists, who see the media system as a common pool resource, and democrats, who see it as part of the constitutional order, are drawn to similar conclusions about the policy implications. In the digital era, both approaches lead us to require that the state provides a public platform architecture that is transparent, secure and governed directly by those who rely on it. They also point to the need for decisions about the content of news and current affairs production to be made subject to sustained supervision and direction by the public.

Only a platform architecture characterised by democratic and participatory governance will be sufficiently robust in the face of well-funded attempts at subversion. This platform architecture will permit egalitarian discussion of news and current affairs content and egalitarian control of the public subsidies that support journalism and research. Most importantly, it will allow each of us the same ability to shape the content of politically significant speech, the same power to add to the stock of things considered consequential, the same opportunity to make a claim on the attention of our fellow citizens. Only then will media production cease to be a space in which elite interests compete and cooperate behind a veil of mystifications. Only then will it become a truly public matter.

See Michael X. Carpini and Bruce A. Williams, After Broadcast News: Media Regimes, Democracy and the New Information Environment, Cambridge 2011.

‘GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications’, Ewen MacAskill et al., Guardian, 21 June 2013, online at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/21/gchq-cables-secret-world-communications-nsa

‘Facebook CEO says group will not become a media company’, Guilia Segreti, Reuters, 29 August 2016; online at: https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-zuckerberg/facebook-ceo-says-group-will-not-become-a-media-company-idUKKCN1141WN

‘Zuckerberg implies Facebook is a media company, just ‘not a traditional media company’’, Techcrunch, 21 December 2016; online at: https://techcrunch.com/2016/12/21/fbonc/

‘Zuckerberg’s testimony: CEO will defend Facebook as a ‘positive force’’, Dominic Rushe, Guardian, 9 April 2018.

‘Facebook accused of censorship after hundreds of US political pages purged’, Dan Tynan, Guardian, 17 October 2018.

‘Facebook says it plans to put $300 million into journalism projects’, Mathew Ingram, Columbia Journalism Review, 15 January, 2019

‘Facebook unveils its plan for oversight board’, Dave Lee, bbc.co.uk, 17 September 2019.

‘Facebook calls truce with publishers as it unveils Facebook News’, Mike Isaac and Marc Tracy, New York Times, 25 October 2019. Some of the featured publications would receive payment for at least some of their content.

‘Google intensifies censorship of left-wing websites’, Andre Damon, wsws.org, 19 September 2017.

‘Google unveils its $300M News Initiative’, Anthony Ha, Techcrunch, 20 March 2018.

‘The Pentagon wants more control over news. What could go wrong?’, Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, 5 September, 2019.

‘Twitter’s political ad ban raises one big issue: what exactly is an ‘issue’’, Adi Robertson, theverge.com, 31 October, 2019.

I discuss the failings of the broadcast-plus-print media regime in detail in Dan Hind, The Return of the Public, London 2010.

Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons, Cambridge 1991.

Published 21 December 2019
Original in English
First published by openDemocracy / Eurozine

Contributed by openDemocracy © Dan Hind / openDemocracy / Eurozine

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