Liberal democracies and professional journalism face two intertwined challenges: Internet platforms have become gatekeepers of information, and it is increasingly hard for consumers to distinguish information from disinformation. So far, there have been two sets of prevalent policy responses to these challenges. The first set of solutions envisions the news business as competing with both social media platforms and news aggregators and seeks to “level the playing field” by either granting news publishers antitrust immunity, enabling them to engage in collective bargaining to extract higher compensation from digital platforms, or expanding copyright law to require licensing fees for linking to news articles. Alternatively, others demand that internet companies find ways to monitor and censor the content shared in their platforms.
In this article, we expand on the previously identified intertwined challenges to democracy and journalism and argue that the latest misguided policy responses directly harm democracy. First, antitrust immunity creates a media and publisher bargaining monopoly, capable of using a group boycott to dictate advertising and media prices. This strengthens corporate power rather than promote better journalism, as the incentives for media are to profit with the production of quantity instead of guaranteeing the quality of information. Second, as we have seen repeatedly, internet platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google have no intrinsic skill at distinguishing important-but-controversial speech from deliberate misinformation. As a result, pushing internet platforms to develop their own content moderation has resulted in both numerous “false positives” and failures to catch genuinely harmful or misleading content.
We believe the best approach is to support efforts by reporters, who actually have the skills to evaluate news reporting, to develop tools that both empower users and enable internet platforms to evaluate the trustworthiness of news stories. Rather than trying to maximize revenue to news publishers, platforms should buy these tools and services to support journalists. The goal here should not be to try to solve the general problem of financing the production of quality reporting — a problem that long predates the rise of online platforms — but to address the current crisis of trust that undermines our ability to govern ourselves.
Two intertwined challenges to democracy and journalism
Today, with the change of an algorithm, dominant internet platforms such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, or Snapchat can make a certain source of information or specific content incredibly relevant or utterly irrelevant, turning into often involuntarily gatekeepers of information and opinion. For example, after Facebook tweaked its algorithm in 2018 to promote “meaningful interactions” in an attempt to fight disinformation, The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle saw a 50 percent decrease in the interactions of users with their content. Considering that two-thirds of US adults get their news from social media, one can start understanding the impact (intended or not) that any change in a digital platform can have on professional journalism, diminishing the variety and quality of information.
To say that new consumer trends triggered by the internet have accelerated the crisis of journalism is not new. But these trends long predated the rise of the internet. Indeed, every single significant relaxation of media ownership rules beginning with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has been justified as necessary to provide adequate financial support for production of quality news reporting. But increased media consolidation has proven to be the antithesis of good reporting rather than its salvation.
The immediate goal, therefore, should not be to preserve existing business models or to maximize revenue for publishers. The crisis of journalism is a direct threat to democracy itself. A strong media provides the multiplicity of voices and opinions that inform citizens, influence public opinion, and fuel political debate. Journalists promote the culture of dissent necessary for any democracy to function. Certainly the news business must support professional reporters and the enormous expense associated with quality, professional investigative journalism. But there is a difference between ensuring the survival of journalism and enabling publishers to maximize revenue.
In parallel, as if this industry crisis isn’t problem enough, we’re also experiencing the growth of websites that look like legitimate news sources but prove to contain content designed either to deliberately confuse the public or attract visitors to a particular web page. This makes it increasingly difficult for users to distinguish between fact and opinion, and is a situation worsened by automated bots promoting these false materials on social media. Thus, in 2016, a Macedonian teenager made almost $5000 a month — the country’s average annual wage — by producing fake news for millions of Americans on social media, and Russia engaged in a sophisticated campaign of social media manipulation to divide Americans along racial, economic, and political lines. This proliferation of false and wildly exaggerated “news reports” undermines the credibility of genuine reporting.
Disinformation is inherently a challenge for liberal democracies. Effective participation and self-governance depends on people having access to reliable information about the issues and a willingness to engage with each other to debate them. But the crisis of trust caused by deliberate misinformation campaigns undermines our ability to effectively govern ourselves. We cannot collectively debate policy when we cannot even agree on basic facts; we cannot engage with each other when parties deliberately reenforce divisions through sophisticated disinformation campaigns.
Misguided remedies harm democracy
So far, policymakers have tried to solve the above presented challenges with government policies designed to preserve existing business models instead of defending innovation, professional journalism, and an open internet. Policymakers have chosen to deny rather than embrace technological change. Antitrust and copyright law have been victims of this wrong approach.
Since 1970, when Congress relaxed antitrust law to allow newspaper management to consolidate, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have repeatedly adjusted media ownership rules on the grounds that permitting consolidation would create greater financial support for the business of journalism. More recently, news organizations are bidding for an antitrust exemption to open a unified front to negotiate with Google and Facebook — “pushing for stronger intellectual property protections, better support for subscription models and a fair share of revenue and data.”
Evidence demonstrates that such an approach hasn’t worked and on the contrary has even harmed media diversity. In an academic paper, Stucke and Grunes point out that “[t]he broad consensus among the legal and academic antitrust community is that antitrust exemptions are rarely a good thing.” And in fact, the Department of Justice expressed that sentiment in a letter to Congress that reads: “Companies free from competitive pressures have incentives to raise prices, reduce output, and limit investments in expansion and innovation to the detriment of the American consumer. Accordingly, the Department has historically opposed efforts to create sector specific exemptions from the antitrust laws.”
Antitrust exemptions for newspapers have had a perverse effect on the industry and consumers. For many industry players, antitrust exceptions have been a curse in disguise: The lack of competition ensured profitably at the cost of creating complacency. Newspapers didn’t adapt to the changing preferences that the internet brought until it was too late. For consumers, this means that media organizations failed to develop an instrument or mechanism for filtering through the constant barrage of online information in the digital era.
This is a transatlantic phenomenon. In Europe, the Copyright Directive might give powers to media giants to charge licensing fees for posting links through a new type of copyright — the link tax. A similar concept has been floated in America. It is worth remembering that Spanish publishers found that they lost $10 million and innovation was harmed when Google shut down its news service after the country passed a law that charged news aggregators for showing story snippets and linking to news articles. An unintended consequence of antitrust immunity and copyright taxes in Europe and the United States is that industry has focused on producing quantities of content to attract clicks and ads at the cost of quality.
At the same time, in order to fight disinformation, some countries such as Germany have passed laws that fine internet platforms if they don’t take down “obviously illegal” content within hours. But with so little official guidance, legitimate speech is being censored instead. Public pressure has pushed some platforms to hire humans and deploy artificial intelligence in order to censor user-generated content. But without professional journalists to help, the only certainty is that these well-intentioned practices will have unintended consequences.
Policymakers and regulators should think about their public policy goals when dealing with something so central to democracy as information and free expression.
If the goal is to preserve the business model of 20th century big media corporations, then policymakers will continue failing the public by misusing copyright, antitrust, and freedom of expression laws — risking many unintended consequences, and probably without even achieving this narrow goal.
If, however, they believe as we do that the public policy goal is to help professional journalism thrive without harming innovation, while simultaneously defending an open internet and enabling citizens to distinguish fact from opinion, then they should look into the many initiatives developed by the people who know the most about how to inform citizens while being a check on power: professional journalists.
Internet platforms and policymakers should choose and promote these independent products to give their users ongoing information refinement that enables citizens to better understand the quality of what they’re seeing and reading. Given that companies are hiring thousands of new “content moderators” to address the proliferation of false information masquerading as news, a market clearly exists for products and services developed by respected organizations dedicated to promoting journalism and the mission of journalism — not merely the business of journalism.
In other words: Journalists should organize and develop a service run by journalists for helping users differentiate information from opinion, and internet platforms should pay handsomely for the privilege of using it.