UPDATED: 9 August, 2020. Facebook is not alone. Google, Twitter, Amazon, Instagram and other social media outlets do virtually the same thing. If reliable content, coupled with an informed public and democracy, are to survive, these conglomerates, which are not technically publishers (See article on Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked), need to reinvest part of their earnings in journalism that is independent, credible, and above all, in the public interest. For the moment, there is no legal obligation for such platforms to ‘pay’ for the content that is placed online. But this is an issue that needs to be resolved. One workable solution might be to create an independent funding organization similar to the one that finances the BBC or even better, a sort of completely independent Global Fund for Public Interest Journalism. 

Barely around for a decade and a half, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon and similar platforms have managed to dominate social media and earn hundreds of billions of dollars in the process. These modern-day “robber barons” now control an advertising market that once enabled local and international news organizations to operate independently. In the process, an uncritical, anything-goes approach to information has ended up not only subverting journalism, but also our democratic systems. (See Carole Cadwalladr article in The Guardian)

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While news media can be criticized for not keeping up with the times, or failing to develop more effective business plans, access to the Internet has broken all norms. Trusted, reliable journalism is struggling, and the world is poorer for it. According to the Florida-based Poynter Institute, some 1,800 newspapers and weeklies have closed in the United States alone since 2004. Dozens more have collapsed because of COVID-19. It is a similar story in Europe, Australia and elsewhere. Switzerland, for example, has lost several of its best known local papers in recent years. Efforts to produce quality online replacement media all face the same challenges, notably how to engage readers while producing support revenue.

As U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal noted to CNN in late July, the Congressional hearings in Washington would also explore the “suppression” of newspapers by the four tech titans (Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple) accused of breaking anti-trust laws. Yet few expect anything substantive to emerge regarding the plight of the Fourth Estate.

Extract from a Facebook page showing the sort of division that is promoted through misinformation; in this case maintaining that the wearing of facemask with a photograph of epidemic specialist Dr Fauci is all about ‘control’ (Photo from Facebook)

Most people have no idea how disastrous our loss of access to reliable news has become

This is having a devastating impact on access to news. Not only do audiences worldwide find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between information that is credible – and social media which is not – but young people are relentlessly exposed to cyber abuse. (The World Cyber Security Forum in Geneva, which was initiated by the World Economic Forum, acknowledged at its last global gathering in November 2020 that credible media have a critical role to play for countering cyber abuse and promoting digital trust). Viewed as a highly nefarious social media pandemic, this phenomenon risks undermining the future of our children and our societies. As non-journalistic ‘content’ platforms, the Facebooks of this world are heavily responsible for this degradation of information. (See article on how Facebook is unable to control misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic)

Yet many people fail to understand just how dangerous this development has become. As Facebook’s complicity with Cambridge Analytica demonstrated in 2016, not only could a hostile foreign government use Facebook to systematically subvert the U.S. elections, but it could also threaten European stability as was the case when foreign influence interceded in the Brexit campaign. (See Global Geneva article on Mindf*ck) The UK’s decision to leave the European Union was based on a highly flawed referendum fuelled by blatant misinformation. Critics are now worried that the same could happen with the 2020 U.S. elections in November.  

Most newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and online portals are finding it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to survive. Or to find the necessary resources to fund the public interest reporting that is so sorely needed. The end result is that we lack the global coverage required to keep tabs on crucial issues, be they virus pandemics, climate change, food security, conservation and environment, and government repression of information. Many of these challenges are closely interlinked. Yet without competent reporting, the connections are sometimes difficult to see. Experience has shown that most planetary concerns require consistent and long-term, investigative reporting if people, particularly youth, are to better understand the influences affecting their future.

More consistent eporting might have helped avoid a worldwide pandemic by ensuring that countries were better informed and prepared. (Photo: WHO COVID-19 Dashboard 27 July, 2020)

Social media: Undermining democracy through division and “freedom of expression”

While claiming to support “freedom of expression”, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other similar platforms promote social and racial divisions by encouraging angry confrontations, all the while claiming to be monitoring – if not banning – select negative content. Anger is an astonishingly effective tool when it comes to getting the public’s attention, and getting attention is what advertising is all about. The ultimate effect, however, is to undermine basic democracy. An ill-informed or manipulated public finds it difficult to make rational decisions when it comes to resolving social conflicts or deciding on the kind of government it really wants.

Such social media outlets abound with constant barrages of misinformation, such as fraudulent allegations that face masks are not really effective against Covid-19, or that the number of pandemic cases cited by Johns Hopkins University is nothing more than a deliberate ploy by mysterious powers seeking to ‘control’ the public or deny them their constitutional rights. All this contributes toward the expansion of a pandemic that continues to explode across the planet with more and more people dying. Monitoring such content is almost an impossible task. One of the only effective means is to help news media provide the sort of on-the-ground reporting that can offer audiences a better and more reliable picture of what is really taking place.

By disrupting the revenue stream that once enabled independent journalists to report incisively on the daily operations of government and society, or for highlighting issues, such as wildlife trafficking or the need for more imaginative, people-friendly urban development, these companies are eliminating a crucial means of holding key players accountable. We are bombarded by the misleading claims of politicians, lobbyists or various agenda groups ranging from the anti-vaccine movement and tobacco companies to conspiracy factions, paramilitary extremists and populists.

Examples range from the hyperbolic rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump and the authoritarian declarations of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Chinese Communist Party’s rationalizations for crushing independent thought in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. Both Google and Gmail, for example, are being increasingly blocked in Hong Kong, when words such as ‘revolt’, ‘freedom’ or ‘Tiananmen’ are mentioned. Chinese critics in the West also have their social media sites bombarded by pro-Beijing trolls; of course, the dissidents respond in the same manner by having their followers attack official outlets. Likewise, Amazon has been indulging in the removal of book reviews which mention “Palestinian” rights or criticize Israel. For many, such alleged censorship is a threat to real freedom of expression.

Facebook and other social media platforms are partially responsible for the steady collapse of news organizations across the globe.

COVID-19 and insufficient reporting: we only have ourselves to blame.

Stripping the funding that local and international journalists require to report erases the right of ordinary people from Oregon to Bali to access the reliable news and insight that they need to make informed decisions. Better reporting, for instance, might have obliged the governments of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy to pay more attention to the disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. (See articles on how Iceland and Thailand have been dealing with the problem) While some news organizations did indeed seek to highlight since the 1990s the ongoing need for the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Diseases Control (CDC) and other institutions to closely monitor virus surges, budgetary cuts prevented this. And this despite specific warnings in the early 2000s that uncontrollable epidemics or pandemics were more than likely.

More consistent reporting by local and international journalists might have helped prevent the outbreak. Poor or inadequate information, or outright misinformation and political or religious propaganda about what to do, such as whether to close bars, re-open schools or even the prospects of effective vaccines, remain heated points of debate and political division in many countries. We only have ourselves to blame. While good reporting is only part of the solution, similar ongoing battles against corruption, the destruction of cultural heritage or the squandering of natural resources can only be won if we have a public that is made more aware with well-grounded and trusted information.

Journalists can’t do their job without proper resources

More and more news organizations are severely cutting back on their reporting. One of the casualties is overseas coverage which is now more crucial than ever given that what happens in China, Africa, Latin America or the United States has a direct impact on the rest of the world. For example, the ongoing destruction of forests and other natural habitat in Kenya, Brazil and Indonesia need to be reported in a manner that can bring about change. Those news gatherers that have survived until now are grappling with how to create much-needed revenue. This includes investing in outreach to young people, such as collaborating with schools and universities, given that they are hopefully their future audiences. The trouble is that most youth have difficulty distinguishing reliable journalism from wild speculation. Worse, they have no notion of why access to credible information is crucial or why they should pay for online content.

When asked where she got her information from, one European high school student said: “Instagram”. When pushed about which sources, she said, “well, Instagram, Instagram.” Other students said that they procured their information off Google. But when asked how many went beyond page one, almost all said no. The first page of a Google search normally includes four or five paid or sponsored cites; it then remains questionable as to how the other five or six ‘free’ mentions managed to make it to the first page. Even diligent students who proceed beyond two or three Google pages are unlikely to find anything useful. The information, particularly if going back several years, is simply no longer there. As if it never existed. 

An increasing number of news organizations have erected paywalls, but this is a business plan that only works for select, well-established media groups such as the New York Times, The Financial Times, The Economist or El Pais. The NYT, for example, received a massive boost in its subscriptions when Trump came to power. People suddenly realised that, in the end, we really do need good reporting. El Pais is doing well as a paper of substance because it reaches an affluent readership not just in Spain, but Latin America.

In contrast, The Guardian has gone global with its content available for free to all in the public interest. It has now become one of the world’s largest online newspapers. Supported by its own foundation, however, it is gambling on reader contributions rather than subscriptions. The Washington Post, which asks readers to subscribe in order to support journalism “you can trust where it matters most,” has regained some of its previous standing. But this is primarily because Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, decided to purchase the paper for 250 million dollars and then poured millions into the operation. This is commendable, but does not particularly benefit journalism-at-large.

Local and international journalists play a critical role of reporting in the public interest. Yet more and more governments are cracking down on the ability of the independent press to do its job. At the same time, the growing lack of financial resources means that credible journalism is unable to function properly, much to the detriment of the public interest. (Cartoon by Jeff Danziger)

Quality reporting: under threat worldwide

While these publications do excellent reporting, global audiences are best served by diverse local and international journalistic outlets. Numerous cities and towns in the United States and Europe no longer have any local newspaper. Some have only a single news paper with no competition. In France, the regional press – most of which are paywalled and owned by media conglomerates – are still doing relatively well, but do little investigative reporting that might upset advertisers or local interests. The result is that political organizations, such as town councils, are no longer held accountable by independent watchdogs.

The editor-in-chief of Index, Hungary’s last remaining independent news organizations, was fired in late July 2020 after warning about political interference. This prompted its journalists to go on strike. A pro-government businessman supporting right-wing Prime Minister Victor Orbán recently acquired significant control of Index. It is unlikely that the government or any other organ will enable this once significant news portal to retain any of its previously strident reporting. The end result is that Hungary, a member of the European Union which is supposed to embody democarcy, stands out as little more than yet another East-bloc style tyrant state. Other media have been bought by companies more interested in making money than actual news coverage. Such conflicts of interest and political objectives inhibit genuine investigative journalism.

So how should credible journalism fund itself? To an extent, reader contributions, subscriptions, sponsorship and advertising are a significant source of income, but still insufficient when it comes to making content available in the public interest without a paywall. Foundation and donor funding is crucial.

A key element, however, is the need – and obligation – for Facebook and other social media platforms to dip into their massive profits and make an honest contribution as well.

While certain governments, such as Germany or Denmark, and a few specialized organizations, ranging from the Pew Foundation to Soros’ Open Society, willingly support media, it is not enough; worldwide only a very limited treasure chest is available for journalistic initiatives. COVID-19 and the current economic downturn has also severely affected potential support. While some governments offer subsidies or tax breaks, their interpretation of what constitutes “the press” is often limited or unimaginative. The right to independent public information needs to be supported in a manner not unlike education, health or road building. Trusted reporting is an essential component of our democracies and societies today. The impact of the coronavirus is forcing a complete re-thinking of norms, such as the need for a Universal Basic Income. Perhaps public support of independent journalism should be part of this.

Orson Welles in the 1941 film Citizen Kane. (Public domain file photo)

Countering the new Citizen Kanes: critical journalism and new legal parameters

This is where Facebook and the “Silicon Six”, including Microsoft, need to step up, but in a manner that serves the public interest and not just themselves. Facebook, which also owns Instagram, has seen its annual revenue grow from $7.87 billion in 2013 to $70.7 billion in 2018, primarily from advertising. Google, which provides web browsing, email, search engine and other services for ‘free’ has experienced a similar bonanza. In 2019, it purportedly earned $162 billion, also mainly from advertising and selling profile information about the purchasing habits of users.

By piggybacking on free content and free journalism on the Internet, these corporations secured a virtual monopoly over the marketplace. The traditional institutions they have disrupted get little or nothing in return. More disconcerting is the fact that major social media platforms have begun portraying themselves as journalistic hubs, while emphasizing that they are offering all this “for free”. The result is that Internet users have come to regard the ‘free use’ of information as their right. The truth is that these companies function as parasites, feeding off the intellectual content of genuine news media

The bottom line is that social media is not journalism. Far from it. Instead of information, it produces divisiveness, hatred, misinformation, propaganda and abuse. In many ways, Facebook is little more than an evil empire, posing as a convener of humanity. To allow Mark Zuckerberg, its principal owner, to operate as a Citizen Kane is simply too dangerous.

A new Dark Age

Good reporting costs money, and the journalists, writers, photographers, cartoonists, film-makers and others who provide the sort of coverage that democracies need to survive can no longer afford to do their jobs properly. Eventually, even the parasitic social media sites will discover that they no longer have the access to the flow of journalism that has provided their “free” content. It will have died along with the news organizations that produced it. All that will remain in its place is opinion based on nothing except gut instinct, prejudice and stereotypes. We will enter a new Dark Age.

Few social media platforms have given much back to society. Fair Tax Mark’s December 2019 report maintains that between 2010 and 2019 legal tax avoidance strategies across all global territories have enabled these conglomerates to pay $155.3 billion less than required. Even with the cash put aside for future taxes, the gap still stands at over $100 billion.

This has not gone un-noticed. Journalists are fighting back. So are governments, such as Germany, France and Australia. They want Facebook, Amazon et al. to start contributing properly. France – as with most of the European Union – wants them to pay proper taxes. Some of such revenue could be directed toward independent media, much along the lines of the way public broadcasters, such as the BBC, NPR or French public radio and TV – are funded.

Support is now building in Australia to require Facebook, Google and other tech giants to pay for content. COVID-19 has increased the pressure on media whose advertising revenue has been crippled by the social media platforms. The Canberra government would like to “level the playing field”. However, as some point out, such an agreement should not be restricted to news organizations, but also enable individual journalists, photographers, writers and others to benefit.

Amazon, for example, has subverted the world’s book industry by deliberately lowering prices on both print and e-editions, effectively slashing, to practically nothing, the royalties that would normally revert to publishing houses and authors. Online sales have contributed hugely toward the mass closing of book shops, including major dealers, although the coronavirus pandemic appears to have contributed toward a slight upsurge in support for local bookshops. (See Global Geneva article on running an English bookshop in the time of the pandemic) Making a living out of writing books has always been hard; but today successful authors are few and far between. The latter are seeing even fewer returns with as little as $0.01 per Kindle copy (e-format) sold. While e-editions appear to have levelled out and print is making a comeback, this makes little difference to writers.  

Facebook, Google, Microsoft (notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses primarily on health) all argue that they already support media. But what they provide is a drop in the ocean. Facebook, for example, has established a Facebook Journalism project and is purportedly providing $100 million worth of support in 2020 to journalists across the globe. While some of this funding is channelled through partner organizations, such as the European Centre for Journalism Development, Facebook still controls its grant functions. It is also seeking both journalists and media organizations to sign up as partners, which worries some who regard this as a form of control. There is also a tendency to highlight support for media training. But at this point, what journalists need more than ever is not a way to perfect their craft, but to receive the funding support that will enable them to practise it.

Several outside solutions are already being proposed. One is the International Fund for Public Interest Media by the Luminate Group and other potential partners, such as the BBC’s Media Action. Another is the Global Fund for Public Interest Journalism proposed by Global Geneva as means of providing support for both local and international journalists, whether as individuals or working with organizations. The idea would that the digital platforms, but also foundations, corporations, including UN agencies, automatically contribute a percentage of their profits or budgets to such an entity. They would have no control over how the funding is allocated; instead it would be made available in the form of grants for independent reporting by journalists across the globe.

Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent and author based between Geneva and Bangkok. He is also editor of Global Insights Magazine, the print and e-edition of www.global-geneva.com