By Meyer Gorelick
Facebook, Google, and Apple have grown into insurmountable competitors and obstacles for many local news outlets according to a panel of journalists at the Diego Rivera Theatre at City College on Wednesday, Nov. 20, discussing the impact of Silicon Valley giants on how the public gets its daily news.
They collectively said these corporations have become gatekeepers who soak up all of the advertising revenue that local publishers rely on to stay in business, and although social media has provided a voice for people who hadn’t previously had access to a platform, there needs to be more regulation and reform around the spread of misinformation by companies like Facebook.
Panelists included Danish journalists Peter Keldorff, a foreign correspondent at government-owned subscription television station TV2, and Johanne Hesseldahl Larsen, the digital editor at Denmark’s national public service broadcaster, as well as stateside journalists Josh Wilson, lead editor and publisher at “The Daylighter” and former editor at SFGate, and Ryan Singel, who wrote for 10 years at the popular tech news organization Wired and co-founded “Threat Level” blog.
The event was co-sponsored by City College’s department of journalism and the San Francisco Press Club.
A short video clip before the discussion detailed how in 2018 Google made $4.7 billion in revenue by utilizing content from news publishers in its search and news features, according to a study by the News Media Alliance. News publishers received no compensation from the technology behemoth, despite its massive profits.
Findings like these prompted congressional hearings in the summer of 2018 where U.S. lawmakers investigated, among other things, whether companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon have created unfair monopolies, and if they should be held liable for the harmful content that gets shared on their platforms.
The panelists agreed that these hearings may be a matter of “too little, too late,” and the growth of these corporations within the U.S. should have been slowed long ago.
Keldorff and Hesseldahl Larsen brought valuable insights on the damage large technology companies have dealt to local media outlets in Denmark versus the U.S.
“The impact is less exaggerated in Denmark. There are still cuts and closures at the regional and national level, but there are not the news deserts that you have in America, where there is no local coverage,” Keldorff said.
He attributes Denmark’s resilience to “the BBC model” where there is a powerful government-funded media organization that provides some security in terms of protecting journalism jobs.
Larsen discussed the landmark lawsuits that the European Union won against Google in 2018 for a total of almost $8 billion. The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, ruled that Google was in violation of antitrust laws when they unfairly promoted Google shopping services over European alternatives, as well as when they forced Android phone manufacturers to install Google applications.
When asked whether or not social media platforms should be responsible for regulating the content that users post, there were mixed responses from the panelists.
Wilson said that Facebook’s refusal to regulate content in the name of freedom of speech has led to the spread of misinformation.
“I don’t expect them to (regulate themselves),” said Keldorff. “But we should make them, it has to be done.”
Singel, who wrote for City College’s student magazine Etc, before going on to cover Silicon Valley, said that although Facebook needs to take more responsibility in terms of regulating its content, he doesn’t think that they should be held accountable for everything that is posted on their platform.
“Regulating content is a traumatic job for the regulators,” Singel said, referring to workers whose job includes flagging and removing beheading videos among other graphic and harmful content.
“If platforms are responsible for everything that gets posted, how could something like Craigslist exist?” Singel said.
Singel does believe that real harm has risen out of Facebook’s “cult culture” and its belief that whatever they do is a gift to society without stepping back to evaluate the harmful impact of their platform.
According to the New York Times, in 2018 Myanmar military officials utilized facebook to spread misinformation that incited a genocide of their Muslim Rohingya population. The Times also reported that the Internet Research Company, linked to the executive branch of the Russian government, reached 29 million people in the U.S. with divisive content to sow discord among voters during the 2016 presidential election.
Wilson discussed Twitter’s recent ban on political advertising. “That makes sense to me,” he said and contrasted this practice to Facebook, a more powerful influencer of voters than Twitter, who refuse to censor political advertisements even when they are clearly spreading misinformation.
Beyond regulation, Singel talked about the mass exodus of advertising money from print journalism to online where targeted advertisements brought in more revenue. He said news publishers contributed to the rise of Facebook when they took advantage of the platform to spread their work, but are suffering for it now.
Wilson said that today, Facebook has become a major obstacle for smaller publications, making them pay money in order to reach wider audiences.
In an effort to help local news outlets survive, Wilson recently founded the Northern California Media Co-op. By sharing costs and resources, Wilson hopes to allow local media to achieve scale and focus on important local coverage rather than having to create “outrage media.”