The selfish giants
The rise of the internet and social media has been accompanied by optimistic claims that the new technologies are leading to a great democratization of the media. After all, now anyone can report the news or share their opinion on Twitter. For many commentators, the 2017 UK general election results signalled the toppling of the press baron and the news corporation. Leftwing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did better than anyone expected (though Labour did not win). While much of the press branded him a terrorist sympathiser, he managed to generate a lot of positive chatter on social media.
However, the proliferation of voices online doesn’t automatically mean democratization or real pluralism. In the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, it is the mainstream brands like the BBC, CNN, ABC News, CTV News and the Mail Online that still dominate the media landscape, both off- and online (see the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, Ofcom’s News Consumption in the UK Report (2015), and ‘The Modern News Consumer’ from the Pew Research Center).
Google, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – which don’t produce content but deliver it – are also popular means of consuming news. These huge international distributors are no doubt changing the shape of news, delivering more ‘eyeballs’ to non-conventional outlets. However, their algorithms actually tend to favour well-known big media providers that pursue a dominant news agenda (see Justin Scholsberg’s book Media Ownership and Agenda Control). So, returning to the 2017 UK election, traffic to news websites remained dominated by established brands: the Daily Mail received 717 times as many page views as pro-Corbyn upstart The Canary (see here and here).
The truth is that news content provision, across large swathes of the globe, is still highly concentrated. In the social media age, barriers to access might have lowered, but barriers to prominence remain high. In other words, if you have a decent internet connection, you might be able to state your view. But that doesn’t mean anyone will hear you.
Another, crucial, point is that the likes of Google and Facebook, whether they direct traffic to conventional or non-conventional news outlets, are themselves massive media conglomerates. The internet may have led to a profusion of voices online, but according to communications professor Robert McChesney (in J Curran, N Fenton, and D Freedman, Misunderstanding the Internet, 2016), it has also created the biggest monopolies in economic history.
Why should we care?
Does it really matter who owns the media? Press barons like Rupert Murdoch would have us believe not. They argue that the consumer is king – we consume media that suits us as individuals and news providers gear their content to the tastes of their readers or viewers. However, in reality, ownership has a huge influence on shaping content and public opinion. We need only consider the role of Fox News in the Trump election win or the part played by the pro-Brexit press in the UK referendum.
Social media companies may seem far removed from this sort of ideological reporting. However, as gatekeepers to news, they have enormous power to set the news agenda – power that goes largely unchecked.
And there are other problems with media concentration on this level that are not to do with content but can nonetheless have a serious impact on the functioning of democracy. Almost all of the social media giants’ profits come from advertising. This means they are constantly acquiring data about us and using it to sell advertising space. This raises a host of questions around the commodification and profiling of users, complicity in state snooping, and the potential for discrimination on an industrial scale.
While social media corporations make their profits by violating their users’ privacy, they are supremely precious about their own – especially their finances. Social media companies are notorious tax avoiders (as are old-school media barons like Rupert Murdoch). They are also highly financialized and in some cases financially unstable – and we know the risks posed by financial bubbles to real people’s livelihoods.
The bottom line is that the wealth accumulated by oligopolies is siphoned up from the rest of society. We shouldn’t forget that only 42 per cent of the world’s population even has access to the internet (see N Fenton, Digital, Political, Radical; 2016). Meanwhile, the underside of digital media involves poor working conditions and environmentally destructive practices, especially in the Global South.
Tackling media concentration needs to be at the centre of any media policy. A cap on how much of national market share one company can dominate is one option. By mid-2016 the Murdoch empire owned 32.5 per cent of the British and 57.5 per cent of the Australian media. In the UK it is trying to buy the 61 per cent of Sky TV it does not already own.
Top-down dismantling of media oligopolies could be accompanied by support for non-corporate media. Press subsidies, for example, exist in Sweden for smaller-circulation papers to increase diversity. Ownership caps and public subsidies for small news titles are two basic steps that could help increase pluralism.
Some propose that public oversight and funding of media should go much further. In the US context, media analysts Robert McChesney and John Nichols advocate an ambitious intervention costing some $35 billion a year. It would include subsidies, a contribution to journalists’ salaries, and financial support for high school journalism and trainees. In addition, every adult would get an annual $200 voucher to donate to news media of their choice.
In countries that have a strong tradition of public service media, there are calls to establish independently dispersed funds to pay for expanded public service journalism, especially online. Christian Fuchs argues for both public and civil society provision of social media too. He writes that we ‘need a YouTube run by the BBC and a Facebook organized by Wikipedia or a global network of public universities’. Public money could also be used to support the development of open access and community-controlled infrastructure initiatives.
Where would this level of funding come from? Taxing the media giants, of course. The authors of Misunderstanding the Internet claim that a modest one per cent tax on the operating profits of computer software and hardware, internet services and retailing, entertainment and telecoms companies in the Fortune 500 list alone would raise some $1.7 billion annually worldwide (see J Curran, N Fenton, and D Freedman, Misunderstanding the Internet, 2016). There are two crucial features of these kinds of proposals. They call for public funding through the state, but insist on public journalism ventures being independent from the state as well as the market. And they recommend that funding be created through progressive taxation.
Other proposals are more ambitious. Back in the 1960s, the cultural scholar Raymond Williams argued that media workers should have collective control over the means of mass communication. Media infrastructure would be taken into public trusts and leased to those who make content (see R Williams, Communications, Chatto and Windus, 1966). More recently, Dan Hind has put forward a proposal for a public commissioning system, in which members of the public vote on what kinds of investigations they would like journalists to do and how to disseminate the findings.
These kinds of ideas may seem remote from where we are now. The political and economic climate in which most of us live favours large corporations, and this goes for media as much as any other sector. However, it is important to consider a range of possible remedies to the problem of media concentration and to campaign for the kinds of media systems we want. The struggle over media is part of the wider struggles over resources being fought between the many and the few. We will need ambitious ideas and joined-up thinking if we are to achieve a more sensible allocation of those resources.
Laura Basu is an affiliated researcher at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry, Utrecht University and a visiting fellow at Goldsmiths London. She has just published two new books – Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis, from Pluto Press, and The Media and Austerity co-edited by Laura Basu with Steve Schifferes and Sophie Knowles, from Routledge. Her website is at laurabasu.com