Defend Truth

Opinionista

Big tech giants play destructive and positive roles in news media industry

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Anton Harber is executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression.

Tackling the likes of Google and Facebook to save our news media requires a strong heart and deft hands.

Governments might hit out at those who speak out and corporates might sue editors. Faceless individuals might harass journalists online. Editors might abuse their power as gatekeepers to suppress uncomfortable material. These traditional kinds of attacks on our free expression are visible and tangible. Less obvious is the role played by the big tech platforms — like Google, Facebook, Instagram, X and TikTok — in distorting and suppressing our access to information and media.

These platforms were originally hailed as enablers of free expression, as they cross borders and are powerful enough to withstand pressure from would-be censors. That was their strength — and also the source of the problem. What we have come to learn over the years is that these platforms can do a lot of good — but also a great deal of harm.

Google has given us quick and easy access to a vast amount of information and knowledge and made research and fact-checking much easier. Facebook links us to friends, family and communities and allows us to share our lives and thoughts, as do TikTok and Instagram. X at its best can be a “digital town square”, even if it increasingly feels like a haven for the far right and a purveyor of dangerously false information and hate speech. All of them together cross borders in a way that makes censorship much more difficult and empowers citizens to organise and confront power and authority.

We can appreciate all of this, but there is another side. Their size, scale and sometimes greed are destroying our local media industry. In South Africa recently a procession of media owners and publishers, big and small, told the Competition Commission how they are losing money and audience because of what they view as the platforms’ “theft” of their material. Daily Maverick this week suspended publication for a day to drive home the point.

It happens in multiple ways. The local news media spends a lot of money on gathering and processing news. It is an expensive business, especially if done with the care and attention needed to win audience attention and trust. Then along come the likes of Google and Facebook to scoop up the headlines without paying for them and offer them to their audience. Most news consumers now get their news first on social media.

Secret algorithms

But, these platforms say, we link back to you and bring you a bigger audience. That’s true, the news publishers say, but then you tweak your secret algorithms — often without any warning — and our audience disappears. The only way we can get it back is — you guessed it — to pay the platforms to promote those headlines.

In other words, they take the material without paying, make them dependent and then toy with their audience, including gathering all their data and using it to add to their profits.

Google and Facebook also control the online advertising market. The pesky ads that pop up automatically and seem to know what you have been doing — called programmatic adverts — mostly go through the big platforms, which skim off a big chunk of the news sites’ revenues and collect more data.

The effect — not just here but in many countries — has been to hollow out our news industry. And what is the value of free expression if the primary producers of information collapse and there are no journalism jobs? We might have free expression in principle, but it will be an empty promise. We might be free to cover the news, but not have the institutions to gather and publish it.

So the news market — not just here, but in most countries — is dysfunctional. This is why the Competition Commission has been running an inquiry to understand — and try to prevent — its collapse.

If we were talking about baked beans, then we might shrug our shoulders and say the market has spoken and will probably fix itself. But we are talking about news and journalism, without which our democracy, our economy and our society cannot function effectively. What will take its place is disinformation — because those with political and profit motives will move into the gap to spread falsity and conspiracy. Without trustworthy economic, business, political or civic information, we will be in the hands of those who wish to do harm by spreading fear and hatred.

And there are plenty of those.

There are other issues too with the big tech platforms. Under US law (what is known as Section 230), they have been freed from responsibility for their content. They are treated like the telephone rather than the media, where publishers can be sued or prosecuted if they carry material that breaks the law. This is why we see so much disinformation and hate speech on these platforms.

Under popular and political pressure, they have put in measures to contain this, but it has become clear that most have only done the minimum they feel obliged to do to lessen the pressure. X does not even do that, as Elon Musk — supposedly in the name of free speech — has removed most of his predecessors’ attempts to contain harm. They are also secretive about it, refusing to give details of what and how they do it.

Coming election

So, for example, some of them tell us that they have taken steps to defend our coming election from online disruption, but they will not tell us what they do, how much they do and such critical things as whether they do it in all of our official languages or what steps they are taking to prevent online attacks on journalists. They want us to trust them — but give us little reason to do so. Some of them hide behind the fact that their head offices are not here and the local office does not have this kind of information.

These platforms are our modern gatekeepers, those who decide what information is important for us to know and what is less important. Editors used to do this, imperfectly for sure, but they were held responsible for their decisions. Now it is done by a ghostly algorithm which contains all the biases and prejudices of those who write them — and this is what shapes our news and information environment. If cat pictures get more audience than the threat of climate change — and earn more profits for the platforms — then that is what we will see.

The world would be a better place if the US changed Section 230 and forced the platforms to self-regulate, the way other media do. But in the absence of this, jurisdictions such as ours have to try to find ways to hold them to account.

It is not easy. They are big and powerful and have huge resources at their command — more than our government, for example — to block measures against them and undermine attempts to make them accountable. Alphabet (Google’s parent company) made $74-billion profit last year, a 23.05% increase from 2022. Meta Platform’s (Facebook’s) gross profit was $108-billion, a 19% increase. So they have some room for manoeuvre.

We also have to be careful to ensure we do not over-regulate in a way that will enable the authorities to block uncomfortable views or hinder the positive role these platforms can play. We are seeing even apparently open countries block pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli views in ways that are harmful and destructive and deepen the conflict. We are seeing our neighbours Zimbabwe and Botswana use disinformation laws to target government critics. Censorship and opinion control are on the up.

Our Film and Publication Board tried last week to introduce internet content regulations, but it was so misguided and hamhanded that their rules could be used to shut down much of the free debate and discussion we need in the election run-up. Fortunately, we forced them to withdraw.

We need to find a way to call the platforms to account, to make them self-regulate to prevent harm and to pay for the material of others that they use. It will require both a strong heart and a deft hand, a rare combination. DM

*Harber gave evidence before the Competition Commission.

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  • Bobby 10 says:

    It’s ironic how publications like Daily Maverick unashamedly supported the Copyright Amendment Bill by publishing dozens of articles written by its advocates and hardly any by its critics. SANEF too supported and even “celebrated” the Bills which – via the “Fair Use” principle, predictably promoted to Govt by lawyers and advocates representing Big Tech (surprise surprise!), – will deprive authors, composers, musicians, filmmakers etc of their rights. It seems the chickens have come home to roost and suddenly DM (and others in the media) recognise the dangers! The real pity is that these industries do not support one another in their fight against the common foe but only change their perceptions once they find themselves in the firing line. The Copyright Amendment Bill was a cautionary tale which the media failed to heed – now they face a similar fate!

  • Tim Bester says:

    The goose and the gander, all over again. The ultimate irony is the news 24 sqeal appeal. As Die Nasionale Pers (then a virtual monopoly on everything that was publihed is Afrikaans) they saw the future, conived to obtain an hour on the then SABC controlled television brodcast for Mnet. This gave them the platform to launch Multichoice and to get involved in Chinese digital platforms. The managers and shareholders did very well.
    The simple truth is adapt or die.
    Blaming “monopolies” for business myopia is a dogma attempting to revive the dead.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      Adapt or die. I don’t use Google, Facebook or and of the others for News perse, Wikipedia quite a bit. Otherwise on line news or paid overseas subscriptions, the local media is so poor in general, TV and Radio not excluded.

  • District Six says:

    Maybe the reason people “trust” social media is they have the illusion that it is personal, ie they know the sender or poster. But that is a veneer, a misdirection and a deceit. We saw how Cambridge Analytica manipulated voters with Russian propaganda and got trump elected. And, as if we learned nothing here from that sad episode, here he is again, the putrid orange swindler, tapping his pal Putin for a reprise of the con.
    On balance of it, social media has done much more harm than good.

  • Keyan Tomaselli says:

    To return to the topic, Anton Harber’s article is a most welcome eye-opener on the opaque, complex and beguiling operation of the big tech mining of smaller newsgathering organisations, which impoverish them, their journalists and the media industry in general. We all like to get our information for ‘free’ but we do not admit that someone else is paying for this benefit – without exception. We do not thank these unknown backroom benefactors who produce the information appropriated by Big Tech as we justify our participation under the guise of ‘information justice’. The latter argument is the basis of the pro Copyright Amendment Bill lobby, who want to ensure the current rights of Big Tech to continue engaging in information prospecting, repackaging and redistribution, while they skim billions, evade taxes, and ruin local media industries – everywhere.

    As Bobby 10 points out, curiously, Harber does not mention the Bill, or the fact that that this will be the final nail in the coffin, especially as far as the South African educational sector is involved. The DM has been ambivalent on the matter, and closed its offices for a day, trying to recruit more reader-pays subscriptions, that will enable non-payer readers to read for ‘free’. What is happening, in fact, is that it is the subscribers, labelled ‘insiders’, who are sponsoring those readers of DM who do not subscribe or buy tyhe print copy. We pay up because, even though we feel exploited by the non-payers demanding information justice, we want to protect the small media like DM that sadly have to rely on Big Tech to operationalize their business models. Such contradictions can be productive, indeed capitalism thrives on them, but the real victims are the grunts at the printface who produce the information that is unethically appropriated by Big Tech that the enriches their shareholders, while impoverishing those who generate the information fodder in the first place.

    For an analysis of how the Bill is anticipated to affect the educational sector, do access this open access article which the two authors themselves have paid for so that any readers can read for ‘free’: Amendment Bill: Contradictions to Hit the South African Education Sector | Education as Change, Vol 27, 2023.

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