Large tech companies like Google and Facebook have significant power in the digital media landscapes of countries around the world, and it can sometimes be hard to imagine what online life would be like without them. This article is a contribution from the participants on a panel organised by the Amsterdam-based AI, Media and Democracy Lab which discussed the question: What would happen if Facebook and Google left your country tomorrow?
In February of 2021, Australians woke up to find news outlets and other non-media-related organizations barred from Facebook. The audience was welcomed by a message on the platform stating that “in response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the posting of news links and all posts from news Pages in Australia”. The move came after the Australian government drafted a law requiring some tech giants to pay for the use of news content on their platforms.
Inspired by the Australian case, the Amsterdam AI, Media & Democracy Lab, a multidisciplinary group of researchers working on the challenges and opportunities of AI and digital technologies for media and democracy, organised a workshop around this topic at the Mozilla Festival. For this event, the conveners of the workshop (Natali Helberger, Claes de Vreese, Nanda Piersma, in collaboration with Linda van de Fliert, City of Amsterdam) invited researchers and practitioners to answer a question whose relevance extends beyond Australia: What would happen if Facebook and Google left your country tomorrow? In the following post, we would like to report on some of the main insights from the panel, along with three possible scenarios that emerged from the discussion.
The momentum for media innovation: The first scenario was put forward by Marietje Schaake, privacy expert and former member of the European Parliament, who suggested that after the shock of Google and Facebook leaving a country, a great moment for innovation will follow. Mark Deuze, professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), further argued that there is already great innovation in newsrooms and journalism research ongoing around the world, independently of these platforms. However, Alexandra Borchardt, journalist and senior associate of Reuters Institute,pointed out that even though news media have already started diversifying their distribution strategies, the dependency on funding and infrastructure from Facebook and Google remains fairly high. Thus, if Google and Facebook became less dominant, news media would be encouraged to start innovating and build alternative platforms to fill the void with a more diverse and resilient media landscape. To do so, they would need substantial financial funding for the creation of alternative digital infrastructures, media innovation, skills, and so on. An initiative to mention in this context is the Dutch Public Spaces initiative. This would also require reconsidering the regulatory framework in Europe, including the rules about competition law and state subsidies, and directing current initiatives at the European level towards boosting AI innovation in the journalistic sector. Nonetheless, the prospects for increased innovation inside newsrooms are promising.
The new monopolistic media environment: A second scenario was highlighted by Alexandra Borchardt, who stressed the deep structural as well as financial dependency of the news industry on companies like Google and Facebook for funding and investment. According to Borchardt, a departure could either seriously put journalism under pressure or eventually result in the creation of new monopolies, as a lack of public investment could allow one or two large media organizations to fill the gap. Similarly, a high level of media concentration is likely to come at the cost of smaller outlets. Regarding the Australian case, Rupert Murdoch’s dominant News Corp was expected to fill the void left by big tech. In other countries, including some in Europe, there is the possibility that dominant media players there would fill the void that the platforms left. While the media landscape in Europe is more diverse and pluralistic than in Australia, it is unclear what would happen if big tech left the EU. This reaffirms the need for reformed media concentration laws to avoid such a situation as well as diverse public investments.
The realistic media environment: The third possible scenario is a more realistic case, where Google and Facebook decide to stay in the country. In this case, the journalist on the panel, Hella Hueck, Dutch journalist and critical thinker about technology, was most optimistic about the situation and praised news media’s value. She commented that newsrooms should be more self-confident about their value to tech platforms. Hueck also argued that the Australian case clearly demonstrates news value for technological platforms. The fact that Facebook and Google stayed in Australia exemplifies their need for the media. Otherwise, Facebook would have kept news publishers off the platform. It should be acknowledged that the platforms open up significant opportunities for the news media to reach audiences that have been underserved by journalism before.
The three scenarios unanimously demonstrated the need for media innovation and supportive government policies, as well as reformed rules to avoid new forms of media concentration. The Australian case is an important wake-up call, to be aware of existing structural dependencies and focus supportive government policies on enhancing opportunities for diverse media funding and innovation as well as on reforming rules to avoid new forms of media concentration.
Based on that, the conveners of the workshop, in cooperation with members of this panel, created a list of recommendations for balancing the relationship between technological platforms and the media industry, aimed at preventing situations such as the Australian case:
- Policymakers should set the rules for enabling funding opportunities in innovation without impinging on the independence of the media and bearing in mind the need for diversity in the media ecosystem. Currently, much of media innovation is dependent on big tech-driven initiatives, such as the Google News Initiative. An important step would be to create a more independent funding environment in the media ecosystem. Policymakers and lawmakers alike should create conditions for innovation that is supportive of smaller, independent, and regional outlets, helping to diversify the media landscape and avoid favouring large media corporations at the cost of smaller and local outlets.
- Public institutions, such as research institutes and universities, should enhance collaboration between the public and media organizations. As mentioned by Johan Oomen, head of Research and Heritage Services at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, public institutions have a unique role in boosting cooperation between the audience and the media by creating alternative infrastructures that consider public values when reporting the news. In this regard, Ger Baron, Chief Technology Officer of the City of Amsterdam,also pointed out it is necessary to create better alternatives that enhance democracy. Thus, initiatives such as PublicSpaces could be an example of collaboration between parties to develop alternative platforms following European values. Public institutions should also cooperate to avoid monopolistic infrastructures that limit diverse media environments, fostering the utilization of local platforms with closer relationships to the audience.
- Media partners should gain confidence about the value they add to platforms, bearing in mind their social power. This is key for the negotiations on advertising revenues with big tech platforms, imperative funding for unrestricted media. Although Google and Facebook have a lot of economic power, newsrooms should also be more self-reliant on their social power to create new platforms. Local publishers are established content providers with recognition among their audiences, which could help to establish local platforms with well-addressed regulations and more community contact.
- Academics and researchers should cooperate with different stakeholders for media innovation. Indeed, one of the core ideas at the centre of the AI, Media & Democracy Lab is to contribute to media innovation by combining practice with research. The media ecosystem can boost resilience by innovating and reinventing themselves and by taking advantage of emerging talent. Thus, researchers, journalists, and academics should collaborate on stimulating new talent, building the appropriate digital skills for new media landscapes, nurturing students’ ideas to reinvent ways of communication with the audience, helping journalists to acquire the necessary knowledge to renew the sector, endorsing informed policymaking, and promoting the responsible use of AI and new digital technologies.
The Australian Case is just another example of the power that digital platforms have over media organizations. Other cases, such as Google’s News restrictions in response to the Spanish copyright law or Alphabet’s curtailment of YouTube videos in Germany, also work as wake-up calls regarding the dominance of these platforms over the media landscape, reinforcing the need to set new regulations on tech platforms and promote independent media environments. The initiatives will not be possible without the support of multiple stakeholders including media organizations, policymakers, academia, and most importantly, the audience. Thus, we should bear in mind the social consequences of private, global companies deciding on public challenges as we have seen in previous scenarios. In the meantime, we should also showcase and celebrate extraordinary journalistic initiatives, while incentivizing an innovative independent media landscape.
The AI, Media, and Democracy Lab combine practice with research to solve and anticipate the issues of modern technologies, securing healthy landscapes for our democracy. Learn more about our projects and collaborate with us!
Thank you to all the co-authors of the article:
Valeria Resendez, PhD Candidate, Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) at University of Amsterdam (UvA)
Alexandra Borchardt, journalist, journalism professor at University of Art in Berlin, media consultant and Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
Ger Baron, Chief Technology Officer of the City of Amsterdam, partner of AI, Media and Democracy Lab