Inside the Digital Society: The press, the internet and politics

Politics, information and communication

Every country has a political ecosystem. Each ecosystem has a framework for information and communication.

These national ecosystems differ in many ways but the channels of information and communication they contain are broadly similar, even across the divide between democracies and authoritarian states: including political parties, newspapers, radio and television, the internet and social media.

Some thoughts on how this is changing, and examples of the challenges it raises.

A changing ecosystem

Political information and communication ecosystems have been changing lately. In many countries, social media and other online sources have been displacing newspapers and broadcasting, especially among the young.

In my country (Britain), television remains the principal source of news (perhaps because it is required to be politically neutral and so is highly trusted), but the internet’s now more important than radio or newspapers, and half the population treats social media as a major source.

Old media, as a result, are generally in crisis. Newspapers are losing readers and revenue, many making losses. Advertising money especially has been pillaged by Google and Facebook. Some papers have made a decent go as websites but the most successful at this have been high-end broadsheets or focused on celebrities not news. There’s less money for reporters and reporting, more reliance on tweets and press releases.

The context of press freedom

This challenges old relationships between the media and politics, especially “press freedom”. But real press freedom’s always been about more than freedom of expression – the right of anyone to say things.

It’s also about influence and reach. People have chosen to own newspapers because it gives them the opportunity to influence how people think and vote. As Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper said after the 1992 election in my country (in which I was a candidate) ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’ for the Conservatives.

And, like Murdoch in the case of British politics, foreign commercial and political interests have often sought to influence other countries’ election outcomes.

Fifteen years or so ago, I spent time in a small island country that was holding a parliamentary election. There were two parties, one backed with money by the government of China, the other by Taiwan. Those governments weren’t interested in domestic politics but in gaining one more vote in international fora. I don’t recall who won, but foreign funding could clearly be decisive.

Is the internet a new “free press”

Newspapers have always been diverse. A few have sought to be neutral ‘newspapers of record’ but most have been politically committed, reinforcing views of readers or channelling those of proprietors and editors. Some have been vehicles for hard-hitting investigative reporting; others for hard-hitting invective against those the owner or the editor disliked. If the internet’s their nemesis, how does it compare?

Internet advocates have emphasised the online world’s ability to let everyone speak to everyone, but while that’s true, in practice most internet users have little reach and therefore little influence. That’s what matters when it comes to winning and to wielding power.

Individuals reach their friends and relatively few others with their online views. A few ‘influencers’ may reach thousands or millions. But commercial businesses and political parties spend massively on getting messages across to both large groups and individual targets. They buy reach in order to gain influence and win support, using the data sets held by data corporations, mostly within the law but sometimes going well beyond it.

Does this matter?

This matters for several reasons:

It matters because the internet is not just the most effective channel for disseminating information that we’ve ever had. It’s also the most effective channel for disseminating information and propaganda that we’ve known as well.

It matters because content on the internet is less transparent than in newspapers and broadcasting. Online messages to individuals can’t be seen, checked for validity or accuracy, criticised or refuted by those they talk about. The short formats of Facebook messages and tweets are more suited to soundbites and rage than to policy analysis and considered discourse.

It matters because democratic processes rely on rules to make them work. Rules, for instance, to restrict spending by political parties in order to ensure a level playing field, or to prevent foreign governments and interests interfering in the choices made by national citizens.  Rules that can be easily bypassed online.

And it matters because market dominance could give more power than in the past to particular media platforms. I’ll give two examples of this – one from old media, the other new.

A newspaper

My country’s capital, London, has one newspaper, the Evening Standard. Its business model’s not unlike those of data businesses. It’s free to readers, funded by advertising. Circulation’s high because it’s given away free on the streets and public transport (which is how most Londoners get into work). It’s therefore widely read and influential.

It’s a decent paper of its type, so what’s not to like?  Well, three problems.

First, it’s a monopoly and going to stay that way. It makes a loss, which is subsidised by its owner.  Nothing in law is stopping anyone from setting up a competing newspaper – but the knowledge that it would make an even bigger loss effectively does so.  Sharing advertising revenue would mean that neither paper could be viable. There simply isn’t space for two titles in London: it’s one or none. No diversity therefore, but plenty of influence and reach.

The Standard’s also foreign-owned: mostly by a Russian businessman, partly by a holding company with money that’s believed to be from Saudi Arabia.

And it's politically partisan.  Its editor was chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) in Britain’s government from 2010 to 2016, effectively its deputy leader. Like the paper that he edits, he's strongly committed to the current ruling party. 

London elects a mayor later this year. There are strict controls in Britain on what political parties can spend during election campaigns. The Standard is nowhere near as partisan as some of Britain’s national newspapers, but it consistently backs one party in elections. That might not be much of a problem if it weren't a monopoly.  As one, however, it's daily backing for one side during an election process acts almost as advertising.  Its reach, its monopoly and its owner’s subsidies mean give it influence that other candidates can’t match.

And the owner’s clearly thinking of a sale. What happens if the paper’s bought by someone who runs it with an even stronger will to power?

A platform

So what about Facebook? – the leading social media platform in most countries, particularly dominant online in many developing countries.

Facebook advertising forms a crucial part of modern election campaign strategies. Very little scrutiny is possible of the different messages that are micro-targeted on it to different voters. Facebook data have been used both legally and not to facilitate this micro-targeting, and there’s been clear evidence of foreign actors exploiting it to spread misinformation and seek to influence other countries’ public votes.

Some of this is similar to what has always happened – see the example that I cited earlier – but the difference now is that there is much less transparency. Facebook’s role at the heart of modern electioneering enables breaches of rules on campaign finance and on foreign interference. Its content is widely felt to facilitate propaganda more than it facilitates debate.

I've not seen evidence that Facebook has sought to influence election outcomes in its own interest, as newspaper proprietors have often done, but it obviously could. For example?  One candidates for the Democratic nomination to be US president has committed strongly to increasing regulation over Facebook, perhaps separating its businesses from one another. How’s Facebook’s participation in the election process going to look if regulation of Facebook itself becomes a major issue in this year’s election?  Who's going to scrutinise its algorithms for bias?  And who's going to believe what about them?

The challenge

I raise these two examples not to offer answers but to raise two questions.

It doesn’t take a lot to swing a vote that makes a difference. Donald Trump is president of the United States because of tiny margins in three states: just over 100,000 votes out of 120 million decided who became the US president. Britain’s economic and political partnership with Europe is ending after a referendum that was decided by less than 2 per cent of those who voted, even less of those who could.

Social media, it’s thought by many, played a decisive role in both those votes. Partly, for sure, that was down to smarter social media strategies by the campaigns that won. But in both cases, too, there are credible allegations of advertising falsehoods and of outside influence being brought to bear – including some directed from foreign capitals.

So those two questions? Is it problematic that the outcome of democratic processes may be decided by who has the smarter geeks? Or that those geeks may be from another country, perhaps one that is hostile or seeking to seed antagonisms among the national electorate? Answers on a ballot paper, please.

Image by rawpixel in pixabay.com.

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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