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Editor’s Note: Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.
A couple of years ago, I participated in a “Journalism in the Digital Age” panel and the discussion turned to the future of the news media business. These panelists included young, progressive and thoughtful representatives from two now-defunct websites, HuffPost Hawaii and The Offsetter, as well as staff from Civil Beat.
When we began discussing potential funding models, one member of the audience suggested something to the effect of “more benevolent billionaires,” like Pierre Omidyar, the key funding source of Civil Beat. And it’s true, money raining from the sky to make more and better journalism in this world would be wonderful.
Realistically, though, only so many billionaires exist (fewer than 600 in the United States), and very few of them even support journalism. Those who do also can turn their backs on such goodwill ventures at any moment, as happened earlier this month in New York when billionaire Joe Ricketts decided to shut down DNAinfo and Gothamist when its few dozen employees had the audacity to unionize to collectively bargain for better working conditions.
Those cases illustrate the folly of a highly centralized support system for media, especially one at the unfettered whim of just a single individual or a few people.
The Federal Communications Commission, under new Trump appointee Ajit Pai, unwisely decided last month to eliminate even more of the rules regulating media consolidation, which is going to mean more of the media you consume will come from fewer sources. Under these new FCC philosophies, one proposed merger by Sinclair Broadcasting, for example, would give that company access to 70 percent of all television viewers in the country.
This consolidation-of-power issue is not isolated to the journalism business. We live in a country now where just three people — Bill Gates (Microsoft’s founder), Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com’s founder) and investor Warren Buffett — have amassed the equivalent wealth of the poorest 160 million people in the United States (or roughly half of the country).
Two of those modern-day robber barons, who even live in the same area (Seattle), have used their innovative technopolies to suction up much of the country’s wealth, along with a gaggle of other unconscionably rich folks at Google, Facebook and Twitter — all companies brought before Congress recently to testify about their media-business practices.
Their luxuriously paid lawyers like to argue that they really should be considered nothing more than simple extensions of internet service providers. They do not want to be classified as infrastructure, like electric companies, and especially not, at any cost, as “publishers,” to avoid the regulations that others in those industries face.
Tech giants really are experimenting with all of us.
The contorted joke of all of this is that by any measure of common sense, of course, Facebook and its ilk are publishers. They curate content, through sophisticated algorithms but also using thousands of humans (previously, we called these folks editors) as a way to package information in order to sell advertisements juxtaposed to that content, making billions upon billions for its employees and especially its founders.
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the de-facto “most powerful editor in the world.” He also clearly misled all of us when he dismissively claimed it’s “a pretty crazy idea” that fake news on Facebook had any impact on the U.S. presidential election (a statement he since has sort of apologized for). Facebook didn’t even question funding for political ads that were paid in rubles (Russian currency), as pointed out by U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
In fact, as recorded in recent congressional testimony, inflammatory Russian propaganda actually reached 126 million people on just Facebook alone, not counting messages propagated on other social-media publishing platforms, such as Instagram (also owned by Facebook), which has been spreading propaganda on par with Twitter.
Twitter is President Donald Trump’s favorite lie dispenser, and if you think the billionaires running that social media platform are going to save us from misinformation or disinformation, even when it violates its own explicit Twitter Rules, maybe you should join the first lady’s clearly ironic campaign against cyberbullying.
Tech giants really are experimenting with all of us, as one of Facebook’s founders, Sean Parker, recently acknowledged. They are “exploiting” human psychology to keep people in a constant “social-validation loop.” In other words, our minds have adapted to respond to certain stimuli, such as “someone likes me!” They give us more of that. In exchange, we give them our attention.
Unlike traditional news organizations operated under a journalistic ideology by humans with ethical and moral codes, these social media sites often use mercenary computer programs to ruthlessly hook people into the system, then constantly provoke and cajole them, while filling their eyes and ears with advertisements.
These publishing platforms are protected by a legal immunity established about 20 years ago, in a case involving the antiquated ideas around America Online. Reflecting upon these ensuing psychological experiments conducted by Facebook on unwitting participants, Parker remarked, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Because the advertising processes on social media platforms are almost entirely automated (reaping ridiculous amounts of riches), congressional testimony revealed that these companies could determine who their advertisers are, like any regulated company would have to do, but they don’t. That would slow down the waterfall of gold coins pouring into their businesses, regardless of the communal costs.
In the regulated world, like with newspapers and television stations, someone has to buy an ad, and someone has to approve its publication or airing, with special human attention paid to political ads, determining the explicit fate of our democracy.
To put this into an analog metaphor, mysterious and unknown people are allowed to drop off bags of money on the social-media platform’s back porch, in the middle of the night, even if those bags are filled with rubles or won, and then they get to slide the political ads through the mail drop directly onto the printing press, never seen by anyone but the targeted recipient.
Should we, as a society, just continue to allow that?
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.