Failure to regulate tech companies
The failure by policymakers to tackle monopolistic behaviour is particularly clear in the digital sphere, where a handful of giant intermediaries dominate their respective markets and where Facebook and Google alone account for such an overwhelming proportion of advertising revenue that, according to The Financial Times, they ‘not only own the playing field but are able to set the rules of the game as well’ (Garrahan 2016). Powered by ever-expanding piles of cash and the logic of network effects which rewards first-movers, these intermediaries are not simply expanding into associated fields but usurping some of the editorial and creative gatekeeping roles previously fulfilled by traditional content companies (Hesmondhalgh 2017). Yet this market power, combined with the specific ways in which their algorithms function, has created giant monopolistic machines for the circulation of misinformation and propaganda that some commentators have argued distorted recent ballots in the US and the UK (Cadwalladr 2017). Whether or not it can be proved that ‘fake news’ has changed the result of elections — and research suggests that its influence may well have been exaggerated (Allcott and Gentzkow 2016) — it is certainly the case that Google and Facebook have created both incentives and systems for low-cost, highly targeted transmission of clickbait posing as news. For Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the web, the
system is failing. . . . We have these dark ads that target and manipulate me and then vanish because I can’t bookmark them. This is not democracy — this is putting who gets selected into the hands of the most manipulative companies out there.
(quoted in Solon 2017)
The problem is that this is a situation generated not simply by the computational power of complex algorithms but by the reluctance of regulators to address intermediary dominance. True, the European Commission did impose a €2.4 billion fine on Google in 2017 for abusing its dominance by unduly prioritising its own price comparison service, but this is likely to be a mere inconvenience to its parent Alphabet as opposed to a structural challenge to its operating model. Regulators refuse to acknowledge Facebook and Google as media companies and instead continue to rely on the same liberal policy frameworks that were developed in the 1990s, which protected them from responsibility for the content they carry. US regulators like the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission do have antitrust remits that would enable them to challenge intermediary power but, wedded to a neoliberal vision of market fundamentalism, prefer to remain silent. Indeed, according to Barry Lynn and Matt Stoller (2017), ‘the FTC itself partially created the “fake news” problem by failing to use its existing authority to block previous acquisitions by these platforms such as Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram’. Shackled by a worldview that still sees regulation as an impediment to innovation, neoliberal governments are happy to rely on industry self-regulation that is insufficiently strong to change corporate behaviour or to pre-empt hateful forms of speech that continue to circulate and that underpin the growth of far-right parties.
Failure to safeguard an effective fourth estate
First Amendment absolutism and libertarian conceptions of speech continue to undergird arguments against regulation of corporate interests. Yet this has not prevented attacks by the state on investigative journalism, one of the hallmarks of a functioning ‘fourth estate’ and one of the great traditional liberal defences against demagogues and tyrants. In the US, before 2008, a grand total of three cases had been brought against whistleblowers and leakers under the terms of the Espionage Act for helping journalists report on classified government programmes. The Obama administration, however, used the act to launch nine cases, leading the New York Tinies to comment that that if
Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.l. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama’.
Similarly, the UK government passed the Investigatory Powers Act in 2016, which provides for unprecedented surveillance and hacking by the security services but fails to guarantee sufficient protection for journalists’ sources. ‘We do have to worry about a UK Donald Trump’, commented one British lawmaker, Lord Strasburger. ‘If we do end up with one, and that is not impossible, we have created the tools for repression’ (quoted in MacAskill 2016). Politicians like Donald Trump have, therefore, inherited anti-democratic tools that can be used against legitimate journalistic inquiry in the context of the rise of surveillance states and anti-terror regimes.
Yet these authoritarian instincts — ones that have been successfully exploited by populist leaders like Orban in Hungary and Kaczynski in Poland — coincide with a reluctance in liberal democracies to create effective systems of fully independent press self-regulation. So, for example, in the UK, the government has refused to enforce the full recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, which were designed to hold the press to account for the kinds of misrepresentation and distortion that were so evident, particularly in relation to coverage of immigration, in the run-up to the Brexit vote in some of the leading tabloids. This failure to ensure that there is low-cost access to justice for those individuals and groups who have been unfairly targeted by right-wing media, together with what Victor Pickard (2020, 4) calls the ‘slow-but-sure structural collapse of professional journalism’, both incentivises journalists to pursue stories that target and scapegoat minorities and undermines their ability to report on issues such as class, immigration, and wealth, which the far right are quick to sensationalise and simplify.
This is magnified by what Sarah Smarsh calls the ‘economic trench between reporter and reported’ (Smarsh 2016) — the fact that the highest levels of journalism are increasingly filled by those who can afford to go to journalism school and who are thus most likely to be drawn from the elites that are targeted by populist rage. ‘That the term “populism” has become a pejorative among prominent liberal commentators should give us great pause’, argues Smarsh. ‘A journalism that embodies the plutocracy it’s supposed to critique has failed its watchdog duty and lost the respect of people who call bullshit when they see it’ (Smarsh 2016). One response to this would be to introduce new levies on digital intermediaries to fund outlets committed to public interest journalism, particularly those from the not-for-profit sector, in order to correct this imbalance. For many years, neoliberal administrations saw this kind of initiative as a tax-raising disincentive to innovation that has no part to play in a dynamic market economy. However, the sheer scale of government intervention into the world economy as a result of the coronavirus has changed the debate, and it is now incumbent on media reform advocates to make sure that subsidies are not ringfenced for the legacy press that helped normalise right-wing populism in the first place.
Failure to nurture independent public service media
One of the great fears of mainstream journalism is that partisan media environments fuel political polarisation (and vice versa) and destabilise democracy by shifting the political centre of gravity away from a ‘moderate’consensus to ‘extremes’. Media outlets in deregulated and highly commercial media systems gravitate towards wherever ratings and profits are to be found while media in authoritarian states are often ‘captured’ by business interests working closely with governments (Schiffrin 2017). In this context, one potential solution is regularly proposed: an independent public service news media that is strong enough to defy the pressure of both government and market and to serve citizens without fear or favour. According to this narrative, it is organisations like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Norwegian NKK, and the Finnish YLE that are claimed to offer the best prospect of impartial, high-quality journalism that is insulated from the partisanship that feeds ‘extremism’. According to the European Broadcasting Union (2016), countries with strong public service media traditions are likely to have greater press freedom, higher voter turnout, less corruption, and lower levels of right-wing extremism.
In reality, far from retaining independence from all vested interests and delivering a critical and robust public interest journalism, public service media are often far too implicated in and attached to existing elite networks of power to be able to offer an effective challenge to them. Indeed, public service media are likely to be intertwined — through funding arrangements, elite capture, and unaccountable modes of governance — with the specific configurations of political power in their ‘home’states in the same ways as are commercial media. The BBC, for example, may lack the shrill tones of a Fox News or a Breitbart and is certainly publicly committed to impartial reporting, but by marginalising voices that are not part of the established liberal consensus and amplifying those closest to official sources (Mills 2016), it generates criticism from both left and right.
In Europe, public service media appears to be a particularly ineffective bulwark against extremism given the sizeable votes in recent years for far-right politicians in countries like Austria, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, all of which have high levels of consumption of public service content. These channels find it difficult either to transcend the tensions and polarisation that mark their wider political environments or to establish themselves as fully independent of power elites. In part, this is because public service media across the globe have been hollowed out — their funding has been cut, their staffing reduced, and their services suffused with a market logic — in ways that make it increasingly difficult for them to provide an authoritative centrist challenge to political polarisation. This is not to denigrate the need for a meaningfully independent form of public media that acts as a counterweight to vested interests but simply to note that existing institutions have all too often been identified with precisely the same power elites that populists claim they are seeking to challenge.