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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-04-2022 00:01

A bite of the digital apple

The problem with Google and Faebook sucking the air out of the digital advertising market is that it has seriously deteriorated the quality of journalism worldwide.

Over the past several years we have witnessed how the information ecosystem has migrated almost entirely online. While the resilience of traditional media like print, radio, and television has kept them alive, the largest chunk of the audience today is most definitely online, consuming information via smartphones, and probably engaging on social media. 

All this has created huge challenges for the information ecosystem in Argentina and across the globe. The rise of a new, turbo-charged version of polarisation, coupled with misinformation, is directly tied to the rise of the digital ecosystem in its current form, which of course includes an oligopoly that has come to rule our digital lives. When it comes to information, Google and the newly rebranded Meta (formerly Facebook) continue to hold the keys, acting as gatekeepers to both of the news but also the markets in which media companies operate. Almost every newsroom in the world is in some stage of a long-lasting crisis that has been derived from the implosion of a business model that never managed to adapt to the digital world. It is imperative to understand the make-up of the information ecosystem and how different actors affect it, in order to understand how to try and build a framework that is beneficial to society.

In the not too distant past, the notion that the Internet was a place for openness and freedom permeated the way the major technology companies were perceived, allowing them to operate under certain favourable socio-political conditions. The idea that they served as mere conduits for information – be it in the form of Facebook posts, Tweets, or search results via Google – shielded these Silicon Valley giants from certain forms of regulation that would’ve forced them to police the content they delivered to billions of people worldwide. Like a phone company or a cable provider, the content generated by algorithms that these firms returned to users were supposed to be clear of intentionality, just purely and rationally aimed at efficacy and precision. While this model broke quite some time ago, the useful charade was kept alive, and in many cases, it still continues to this day.

When a company like Meta/Facebook decides to take a position regarding the war between Ukraine and Russia, it is no longer a neutral actor. Along with other powerful Silicon Valley juggernauts like Google and Twitter, Meta cracked down on Russian propaganda outlets such as Sputnik News and Russia Today, while tweaking its hate speech rules to allow users to call for physical violence against Russian military personnel and Vladimir Putin. These decisions are similar to when the major platforms went on to ban or “deplatform” US President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol riot. Once again, by deciding to take actions that affect who can communicate and what they can express on the major information highways of our time, these companies are actively skewing public discourse. Of course, followers of Donald Trump and pro-Russian activists will believe they are being wronged by the Mark Zuckerbergs and Larry Pages of the world, and they would be right to believe so. These firms generated a relationship of trust with their users on the back of the aforementioned notions of freedom and openness that no longer rule the Internet. Time and time again they’ve breached that trust.

In Argentina, as is the case in most other media markets, major news outlets are judged by their digital metrics. The number of unique visitors and followers on each social media platform play an important role in the construction of a subjectivity regarding the relative value of these companies. These metrics – controlled directly and indirectly by Google and Meta/Facebook – determine the success or failure of journalistic projects. A few years ago, for example, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook’s news feed would reduce the presence of pages and media outlets while it would prioritise posts from friends and family. Major Argentine publishers lost up to 70 percent of their digital traffic as a consequence. Google, hiding behind a supposed open-source community, built AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) which became a necessary feature to occupy highly-visible sectors of their pages and products, essentially forcing every publisher to adopt the technology. It later manipulated AMP pages to favour its own advertising products and technology, and today denies that it is a ranking factor, despite the exponential traffic growth for publishers that fully embraced it.

The problem with Google and Faebook sucking the air out of the digital advertising market is that it has seriously deteriorated the quality of journalism worldwide. The economic crisis facing the media has pushed publishers to adopt digital strategies aimed at increasing reach and interactions. Following the business models of Google and Facebook, publishers have adapted their newsrooms to create as much “algorithm-pleasing” content as possible, putting the robot and not the human at the centre of things. Unfortunately for traditional media companies, the strategy doesn’t really pan out as revenue generated from digital advertising isn’t enough to sustain a professional newsroom pursuing journalistically relevant stories.

Is there a solution to this issue? Over the past several years the idea of regulating Big Tech has definitely taken hold. It isn’t entirely clear whether it will work out, but already in the European Union and Australia a series of bills aimed at getting Google and Facebook to negotiate with major media companies has had some effect. Both of those companies launched global projects to pay for content and have reached agreements with major publishers, including Perfil. But that’s still not enough. In a recent speech, former US president Barack Obama analysed the situation and proposed a series of principles that should guide tech regulation: an ecosystem that strengthens the prospects for democracy, encourages robust debate, reinforces the rule of law, prioritises the best information, and recognises the rights of all citizens. Those are all content-related conceptions, to which Obama should add the construction of a healthy and vibrant media ecosystem.

Like Adam and Eve after they had a taste of that fateful apple, we are aware that we are naked. We are no longer naively accepting the idea that the web and the major platforms that populate it are neutral. In the same way that the modernist notion of pure objectivity in journalism is dead, the idea that every player in the digital ecosystem will pursue its own self-interests and that different levels of regulation are needed has taken hold. Part of the hard work has been done, but it is not enough and it won’t happen by itself. There needs to be more proactive action if we are to truly make the Internet a force for good.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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