The Big Picture: Misinformation Society

This is the 36th installment of The Big Picture, a public symposium on what’s at stake in Trump’s America, co-organized by Public Books and NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. Read IPK Director Eric Klinenberg’s introduction here.
Trump’s election laid bare structural flaws in our news and information systems. As mainstream news media sensationalized and trivialized what was at stake in the elections, social media amplified ...

Trump’s election laid bare structural flaws in our news and information systems. As mainstream news media sensationalized and trivialized what was at stake in the elections, social media amplified misinformation and propaganda. These media pathologies paved the way for the triumph of a demagogue. While criticism of such problems has escalated since the election, the underlying policies that enabled them have largely escaped scrutiny.

Policy decisions and indecisions have degraded our media environment over time and created what might be termed a“misinformation society.” Some of the more pronounced features of the misinformation society are a lack of financial support for accountability journalism, the dominance of infrastructures of misinformation (i.e., the “Facebook problem”), and regulatory capture—whereby agencies harmonize their actions to serve the commercial interests of the very businesses they purportedly regulate—at the Federal Communications Commission, which is facilitating the concentration of media ownership by a handful of corporations and is set to repeal the crucial internet protection of net neutrality.


How Did We Get Here?

These media failures weren’t inevitable. Explicit policies favoring commercial interests over democratic concerns created this system. Unlike its counterparts around the world, the United States never developed a strong public media sector, and it remains unique among democracies in its underfunding of public broadcasting—the United States today spends only about the price of a latte per capita per year on public media institutions. By comparison, Canada spends over $30 per person and northern European countries spend over $100 per person.1

Long under the sway of a corporate libertarian paradigm, the United States lacks a policy discourse that’s sufficiently responsive to what I call “systemic market failure” in commercial media systems. This failure is characterized by the underproduction of public goods, such as quality news and information, which typically are not supported by the market.2

American media reformers have long fought for social democratic alternatives that don’t rely entirely on markets. But these efforts have often been derailed by a combination of Red-baiting, technocratic policy-making, First Amendment absolutism, and, most of all, a commitment to market fundamentalism. The United States has therefore never developed a media regulatory apparatus that could effectively counteract corporate power and commercial excesses.

Today, symptoms of extreme—and largely unregulated—commercialism in our media system include the ubiquity of clickbait, sponsored content, behavioral advertising, and corporate surveillance in our digital news media, along with a tendency toward media monopolies, a lack of public access to high-quality information, a loss of diverse voices and viewpoints, and the evisceration of public service journalism.


A Supply-Side Problem

A diminished supply of reliable news media is a core contributor to the misinformation society. Traditional newspapers—still the main source of original reporting for the American news media system—are gradually collapsing, as both audiences and advertisers move online. Thus far, few news organizations have been able to monetize their online content in any significant way.

This means less revenue and fewer journalists. The number of news workers within the industry has plummeted, dropping by around 40 percent in the past decade. This erosion creates “news deserts,” with entire regions going uncovered. Despite a postelection “Trump bump” in subscriptions for many publications, the drops in circulation, ad revenue, and number of news workers will likely continue in the coming years for the vast majority of newspapers.

In 2016 the Pew Research Center put this situation in stark relief, stating that “this accelerating decline suggests the industry may be past its point of no return.”3 Yet so far no public policy response has emerged to deal with this crisis. Instead, most discussions about the journalism crisis focus on its symptoms, not its core problems. Because American journalism has depended on advertising revenue (with news as a by-product of the main transaction) for so long, this funding model is often taken to be the natural order of things, with alternatives falling outside of the political imaginary. It’s long past time to champion noncommercial methods for nurturing a free and adversarial press. Fortunately some other models, such as that of ProPublica, which relies on a mix of grants and donations from philanthropic institutions and individuals, are beginning to emerge, but we need more. Without public service journalism, democracy itself becomes dangerously vulnerable to a debased media culture of misinformation.


The Facebook Problem

A second broad policy problem is the Facebook-enabled misinformation infrastructure that threatens democratic discourse and elections around the globe. Beyond surface appearances, in reality Facebook is an algorithm-driven advertising company governed solely by profit imperatives. For its two billion users, it yields tremendous gatekeeping power over the distribution and presentation of information. Americans in particular are increasingly accessing news on Facebook, providing an opening for anonymous propagandists and foreign governments to interfere in US elections: indeed, reports suggest that “fake news” was circulated more than real news during the weeks leading up to the 2016 election.4

Such profound media power residing in one monopolistic platform arguably presents a unique threat. Recent revelations about Facebook’s failure to prevent the spread of misinformation during last year’s election have caused a sea change in attitudes about whether the company’s unchecked dominance is a policy problem. For example, Facebook’s sweeping power is increasingly seen as a potential antitrust issue. According to the digital-publishing-analytics company, by the end of 2016, 42 percent of referral traffic to publisher sites came from Facebook. Facebook commands 77 percent of the mobile social-networking traffic in the United States, half of all American adults access its platform on a daily basis, and nearly all new digital-ad revenue is captured by it and Google.5 It’s tragically ironic that Facebook expects struggling news organizations to help stop the spread of fake news while it cuts off much of their economic sustenance.

If consensus continues to crystallize around the idea that Facebook is abusing its monopoly power and represents a serious threat to democracy, a number of potential policy interventions will come into focus. While other countries are increasingly disciplining Facebook with fines, we are starting to see some arguments for structural interventions within the United States, including breaking up the company—or at least having it divest itself of components such as WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram. Users’ privacy protections and advertising regulations are other policy levers that might be considered as Facebook comes under increased scrutiny and governments try to curb its power.

Despite the public outcry, Facebook has done remarkably little to address these problems beyond calling on its user base to fact-check articles and report those of dubious veracity, and by tweaking its algorithms.6 More recently the company has hired additional human screeners and pledged greater transparency behind its ad-buying practices. Nonetheless, Facebook has so far shirked the traditional social responsibilities—lacking as they often are—of news media publishers within a democratic society. Mark Zuckerberg has famously asserted that Facebook is a tech company, not a media company, and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, recently reiterated this absurdity.

But although emphasizing Facebook’s culpability is important, this problem is too large for the company to handle alone. It’s the entire world’s problem, which is why Facebook needs international regulatory oversight. Democratic societies must individually and collectively decide on Facebook’s responsibilities and how they should be enforced. Self-regulation isn’t sufficient.

At the very least, an independent press council of technologists, editors, and public advocates should be assembled to help monitor Facebook’s actions and pressure it to be transparent and accountable. The governance of such a council will need to be determined publicly and internationally, with diverse constituencies participating in a bottom-up process.


Trump’s FCC

It may seem like Trump’s pseudo-populist agenda, absent major legislative victories, has stalled. But while media attention is focused on Trump’s latest tweets, his appointees are inflicting real damage at regulatory agencies, where a virulently pro-business agenda has slipped its leash to run roughshod over society’s interests.

The FCC is Exhibit A for this ideological agenda. Immediately upon assuming control, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai sought to jettison net neutrality and other internet safeguards, and has moved quickly to loosen media ownership regulations, giving internet service providers and media corporations even more power. Under Pai’s leadership, the FCC’s policy changes have been tailor-made to benefit companies like Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest television station owner in the United States. Sinclair is well known for airing right-wing content (such as the notorious 2004 documentary Stolen Honor, which attacked then–Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s Vietnam War record) and for requiring its local stations to run conservative commentaries. The FCC has even rewritten rules to allow media outlets like Sinclair to obscure their actual market share, and it’s likely to green-light various megamergers and repeal cross-ownership bans in local news markets, which may hasten the rise of one-newsroom towns.

Market libertarians typically rationalize these interventions as freeing industry from heavy-handed governmental interference in the name of “deregulation.” A more accurate term for this pro-industry agenda, however, is reregulation. Such an agenda requires aggressive government intervention aimed at restructuring media systems to benefit corporate interests instead of the public. Accordingly, Chairman Pai is rushing to satisfy cable and phone companies’ long-standing policy wish lists.

Ultimately, these moves signal a textbook definition of regulatory capture. This abuse of power is exemplified by the FCC’s plan to scrap net neutrality protections, which would allow internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon  to limit our access to online content, censor particular forms of speech, and create pay-to-play “fast lanes” that would further amplify corporate power. But until we address the larger threat of unregulated monopoly power, we can’t address infrastructure problems stemming from the lack of competition in internet service markets, such as outrageously high costs, slow speeds, and digital redlining (not providing broadband access to poorer communities that are outside of profitable areas).


What’s to Be Done?

The ongoing failures of the commercial media system are deeply structural, and remedying them will require structural reforms. However, discourses about the democratic potential of digital technologies often overlook the policy roots and normative foundations of our communication systems. An abiding faith in technological liberation and a tendency to naturalize market forces have discouraged the implementation of public policies that could prevent corporate capture of our core information systems.

This discursive orientation at least partly explains why American society ever allowed platform monopolies such as Facebook to obtain such tremendous and unaccountable power in the first place. It also helps explain the meager policy responses to our ongoing journalism crisis. The degraded media system resulting from these policy failures created a fertile landscape for various kinds of misinformation to thrive.

The first steps we take toward addressing these policy problems must be discursive. Articulating that our news media are public services and infrastructures—not simply commodities—is an essential starting point. Additionally, we must be adamant that the market can’t provide for all our information needs. Shifting the media regulatory paradigm from corporate libertarianism to social democracy would help facilitate policies that reduce monopoly power, remove commercial pressures, install public interest protections, and build out public alternatives.

Although we can work at the state and local levels to build things like municipal broadband services, few other elements of this program are politically possible in the United States right now. But it’s precisely during dark political moments like this one that we should plan for—and help create—a more enlightened future. The policy interventions enumerated above may not sit comfortably with those more inclined to let technology companies and the market decide for us how our communication systems should be designed. But we no longer have that luxury (if we ever did). The commercialization and corporate monopolization of our news and information systems are significant social problems. They fall within the realm of policy, and therefore, politics.

There is, of course, no easy fix. In the short term, popular pressures must be exerted on multiple fronts, ranging from calls to the FCC and Congress to financial support of opposition journalism. Confronting misinformation requires a diversity of tactics. While it’s not feasible to bring back content regulations like the long-repealed Fairness Doctrine, demanding more social responsibility from major media institutions, especially Facebook, is key. And finding ways to structurally support actual journalism is even more essential. For example, the philanthropy world should redouble efforts to shore up—and reinvent—struggling newspapers as they transition to nonprofit status.

A longer-term agenda should be more ambitious. We need to envision a media system not beholden to monopoly power and extreme commercialism. This means breaking up media conglomerates and oligopolies or, where they’re deemed “natural monopolies,” heavily regulating them. Tim Wu recently suggested in the New York Times that we encourage Facebook to become a public benefit corporation for which profit is no longer the sole purpose.

For the long term we must also establish true public alternatives not dependent on the market—ideally a new public service media system supported through a combination of private contributions and public subsidies (which is how the original PBS system took root7). One intriguing idea is a proposal recently put forth by British reformers for Facebook and Google to allocate a small percentage of their advertising revenue—which could generate many millions of dollars—toward public service journalism.

If we’re to grant monopolies such incredible power over our vital communication infrastructures, we’ll need a new social contract. By regulating these giants and creating public alternatives, we just might create a media system in service to democracy, not to the misinformation society. icon

  1. Rodney Benson and Matt Powers, “Public Media and Political Independence: Lessons for the Future of Journalism from Around the World,” Free Press, February 10, 2011.
  2. For a chronicle of the history of this market failure, see Victor Pickard, America’s Battle for Media Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
  3. Michael Barthel, “5 Key Takeaways about the State of the News Media in 2016,” Pew Research Center, June 15, 2016.
  4. Craig Silverman, “This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News on Facebook,” BuzzFeed, November 16, 2016.
  5. Barry Lynn and Matt Stoller, “How to Stop Google and Facebook from Becoming Even More Powerful,” The Guardian, November 2, 2017.
  6. See, for example, Adam Mosseri, “Working to Stop Misinformation and False News,” FaceBook Newsroom, April 6, 2017.
  7. Victor Pickard, “A Social Democratic Vision of Media: Toward a Radical Pre-history of Public Broadcasting,” Journal of Radio and Audio Media, vol. 24, no. 2 (2017), pp. 200–212.
Featured image: Frederick Burr Opper, The Fin de Siècle Newspaper Proprietor (detail) (1894). Library of Congress