Inside the Digital Society: The internet and the media

There’s a lot of talk these days about the relationship between old and new media – those that relied on print and broadcasting, and those that are based on the internet. Some thoughts on this: first, on the changes that the internet has brought; then on the challenges it poses for public policy and regulation.

Why does it matter?

It matters because media (or free media) are important facilitators of public discourse and of the environment for democracy and rights.

At their best, they provide citizens with a space in which – I’ll cite John Reith, the first director-general of the BBC – they can be informed, educated and entertained; and in which the information that they provide can be relied on, trusted.

At their worst – the state broadcasters of authoritarian regimes, warlord radio in wartorn states – they’re engines of state control and propaganda, even (in Rwanda) genocide.

They can be watchdogs, lapdogs or attack dogs. As well as enabling people to shape their own ideas, they shape ideas in society.

Journalists and newspapers can enforce transparency and expose corruption, but journalistic standards vary. Investigative journalists are rightly celebrated, but we all know that there are also owners, editors and journalists whose first concern is neither transparency nor truth. Newspapers and broadcasters have always been able to misinform and disinform as well as to inform. Hence the importance of journalistic ethics and professional training.

Regulating media in ways that enable them to play their positive role within society’s a challenge. In liberal democracies it’s been balanced, sometimes tenuously: supporting freedom of expression and diversity of views, holding powerful (political) interests to account (as well as entertaining and informing) without allowing the power of media themselves to be corrupted by overmighty owners pursuing vested interests. For authoritarian regimes, it’s more concerned with the suppression of dissent and promotion of a national ideology.

New media are not entirely new

The internet’s disrupted media markets as it’s done with other markets.

It’s worth remembering that previous generations of ‘new media’ have entered media markets in the past, with similar disruptive impacts to that the internet’s now seen to have, inciting similar fears for the future.

In practice, though, radio did not kill off print media as some had feared. TV did not kill off the radio (or cinema). Both times ‘old’ media adapted, building on their strengths and offering new types of content that newcomers could not deliver easily (‘phone-in’ radio is one example).

It’s worth remembering as well that media ‘ecosystems’ vary significantly between countries.

  • Newspapers have been more widely bought and read in some countries, especially in Europe, than in others. Radio has been more important for people living on the margins, for whom it's often been first choice for news (the reason that radio stations have been top targets for coup-makers).

  • Some national media environments are dominated by their governments; some politically polarised (newspapers in Britain, for instance, or broadcasting in the United States); others, at least in broadcasting, have public interest or public service obligations, such as political neutrality and strong principles of editorial independence.

  • Different countries have different regulatory traditions. In his important new book on the subject, Media Freedom, Damian Tambini stresses the difference between US and European approaches – the former ‘negative’, concerned mostly with restricting government; the latter ‘positive’, concerned also with the responsibilities that should go with media ownership and privilege and the need for governments to act in order to sustain free media.

What changes, then?

The internet’s introduced new media channels into old media environments. So how’s that changed the ecosystem? Four groups of points.

Content and curation

It’s made access to much more content much more readily available – though content’s not the same as information, and maximising content access doesn’t necessarily mean that users are exposed to more diversity.

It’s enabled the curation of content drawn from many sources by aggregating platforms such as Apple News, taking readers/viewers away from traditional providers.

It’s shifted the main source of news for many people from newspapers, radio and television to social media platforms whose news feeds target individuals’ priorities and preferences. Facebook is now the principal source of news for many younger people. It’s harder to distinguish reportage from opinion in its posts than in newspapers or in broadcasts.

Who’s who, what’s what

The internet has added to the range of news gathering, and changed ideas of who are and who aren’t ‘journalists’.

  • Investigative platforms such as Bellingcat have used digital technologies to validate news content and uncover hidden stories in ways that were not previously possible, holding more actors to account, not least in fields of conflict.

  • Crowdsourcing has enabled ordinary citizens – sometimes called ‘citizen journalists’ – to add their voices, some a great deal more reliable than others.

  • Computers, using machine learning, are now writing simple stories for newspapers without human involvement, such as sports reports and summaries of companies’ finances.  More of this can be expected.

The internet’s also enabled propagandists to undermine the work of serious journalists. Disinformation has spread more quickly on social media newsfeeds. Its proponents and opponents decry anything with which they disagree as ‘fake news’. Technology’ enables fake photographs and videos, which are becoming harder to detect. Public confidence in news reporting’s undermined where this occurs.

The loss of older business models

The most important change, many analysts would say, has been the way the internet has wrecked the business models that had underpinned old media.

  • Advertising revenue’s been a mainstay of both newspapers and broadcasting. Its value’s plummeted in recent years as advertisers have transferred their ads to online platforms that provide users with free content in return for advertising access.

  • Newspaper purchases and subscriptions have also dropped dramatically as many readers have preferred to get their news online.  Newspapers and broadcasters themselves have responded by going online too, some free but others behind paywalls.

The result has been a drastic fall in the revenue available for serious news journalism. The hit’s been hardest for two types of media that have had big roles in keeping people informed about what matters to them and enabling democratic discourse.

  • Local newspapers – important everywhere for holding officials to account – have become unviable in many countries, particularly the US. Many of those that survive have few real journalists and cover little local news, relying on syndicated and generic content supplied by corporate proprietors.

  • Public interest/service media – focused on independent and politically neutral news – is also facing existential threats as it loses revenue. So much so that a new Fund has been established to sustain its viability.

These losses have an impact on plurality – the diversity of opinion expressed across a media environment – especially in the print media. It’s not uncommon for proprietors to subsidise newspapers in order to promote their political objectives and their business interests, when similar space is not available to their competitors. This can distort national political debate.

The new gatekeepers

Online and social media platforms are, in many ways, new gatekeepers of the news. They can offer more diversity – greater plurality – because of the near unlimited range of content they can host, but there are four problems that arise from this.

  • First, that content isn’t validated to distinguish what’s reliable from what is not, in the way that can be done by journalists and would be done by those old media platforms that like to be or seem authoritative.

  • Second, it’s increasingly curated, with individualised news feeds directed at specific users on the basis of what the platforms' algorithms think they will find most interesting or agreeable.  This tends to focus users on what they think and know already rather than on diversity of content.

  • Third, the advertising revenue on which platforms depend is maximised by keeping users hooked, rather than by making them informed.  Clickbait's more profitable than analysis.

  • And fourth, those social media algorithms can be exploited by political actors keen to obscure the boundaries twixt news and propaganda in order to influence the outcomes of elections and policy debates.

What does this mean for media regulation?

This disruption of the media environment’s a challenge for media regulation.

Dr Tambini’s book – mentioned above – tries to provide a theory for this, building on experience in press, broadcast and internet experience, and relevant to all types of media within the evolving, complex media environment today and yet to come.

Media freedom’s critical, he argues, to democracy and rights, but isn’t absolute. The privileges that media enjoy come (and should come) with responsibilities. Forms of accountability are needed to protect the public from abuse of media privilege (for instance by governments, political and business interests), but that accountability must be exercised independently and in ways that enhance expression and plurality.

The goal, it follows, should be a positive right to media freedom, cutting across all platforms (offline and online) that sustains the public sphere and democracy. There will be differences on how to do this in different national contexts – and achieving it may require active incentives that subsidise, stimulate or sustain expression and diversity.

As with all regulation, this all needs careful thought on the part of politicians, media and civil society. There are no simple answers here, of the kind that are sometimes offered by proponents of the old or new. Things will continue to evolve, quite rapidly. Old media have adapted in the past to the challenge of the new, and may well do so again, though there’s no guarantee. There are values we can lose as well as gain as the media environment evolves.


Image: Screenshot from Tele Tchad report as part of Bellingcat's investigative work.

Read also: 

APC policy explainer on Disinformation

Disinformation and freedom of opinion and expression: Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

Disinformation and freedom of expression: APC submission in response to the call by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom expression.

The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists

Disinformation Tracker: An interactive map to track and analyse disinformation laws and policies in Sub-Saharan Africa


David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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