In many countries advertising revenues were vital in helping keep “old-fashioned” newspapers and other types of journals alive, particularly smaller, local ones. Typically these would be in printed form but they all soon had an online counterpart.
In addition there was a vast array of smaller or specialist publications and magazines which, in varying degrees, also depended on advertising revenues.
The people employed to write for or edit the above, by and large, had learnt the trade of journalism. The importance of checking facts was dinged into them and they were bound by a code of professional ethics, reinforced by laws about liabilities.
Of course there were failures, sometimes spectacular ones, and there were always issues around how to select, interpret and present “facts”. Typically, any bias correlated either with the individual author’s views or the owner’s interests. Minority opinions would often struggle to get an airing or a fair hearing.
What was NOT easy to find
Yet for all of its many and obvious failings, under the muddled ancien regime barefaced lies, straightforwardly insane or calculatedly manipulative explanations of world events were NOT that easy to find, certainly not on any large scale, or via any easily accessible, readily available outlets. Self-correcting mechanisms were in place. You had to hunt for the dark side and that alone tended to keep the numbers and the level of interest down.
But look where we are now. Platforms which have starved journalism of an important part of its lifeblood, advertising revenues, have now become major promoters, conduits, providers, call it what you will, of the exact opposite of what good journalism is about. And societies all over the world are hurting because of it. In several ways.
If the internet was just a large seminar room
If the internet was just a large University seminar room, none of this would matter, or at least not very much.
But the internet is not a seminar room. Misinformation spread to serve a specific project has huge real world effects and rarely are these pretty. On the contrary they pose a direct threat to liberal values and democratic institutions. Global warming deniers and anti-vaxxers threaten human life itself.
Nobody should refuse to take sides
Nobody should refuse to take sides in this debate, particularly if our children risk being gulled into becoming pawns or spear carriers for incendiary, hate-filled rabble rousers carried along by destructive ignorance.
Specifically, tech companies’ pervasiveness in the modern world means they cannot claim to be innocent ingénues, bystanders with minimal or no interest in the outcome.
Myopic Utopianism is not the answer
Saying the answer to bad speech is more speech is the kind of myopic Utopianism that was partly responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place. The answer to bad speech is don’t give it a megaphone. Apologising afterwards just won’t do.
It’s easy to state the problem. Not so easy to come up with solutions if your company’s income depends, not upon the truth or any recognisable version of it, rather it depends on something other than truth.
The Mel Gibson School of Philosophy
Silicon Valley pulled off a remarkable trick when they managed to convince so many of us that the absence of regulation was a synonym for “freedom” therefore any attempt to regulate them was an attack on “freedom”. I think Mel Gibson must have been their philosophical reference point. “Freedom” in this case was really a synonym for the ability to make money. In that respect they succeeded brilliantly.
Get “digitally literate”. Really?
We are now being told to chill. Digital literacy is the answer.
Who could be against digital literacy? I’m not. It should be encouraged to the greatest extent possible. But it is sort of dragging us back to the idea that the internet is a seminar room. If we are all just well educated enough virtue will triumph, evil will fail. Er, no.
The digital literacy schtick shifts the responsibility back to us to get ourselves up to speed so as to negate or nullify the very things the platforms are doing.
For adults there is a stronger case for this. But for children?
Or pay for quality journalism
Alternatively we are told to chill for a different reason.
Good journalism is not dead. You just have to pay. Where does that leave kids and the poor? Some of the subscriptions are substantial. I know. I have several.
Countries which have public service broadcasters not dependent on advertising revenues e.g. the BBC in the UK, are very fortunate but money is tight and they are under constant attack from commercial interests who would like to see them dead and buried or at any rate reduced in size and reach.
Public service and other broadcasters and publishers are having to compete against a variety of platforms not bound by their code of ethics. These platforms are not even bound by the same laws. They enjoy massive immunities.
And worse, they think nothing of cannibalizing’s other people’s output, providing it for “free” while they, not the originator, pull in even more advertising dollars off the back of it, in turn making it harder…..you get the picture. This is one of the reasons why the authorities in Australia are trying to find a way to get the big platforms to pay.
Misinformation/disinformation/fake news is a child protection concern
The Online Harms legislation will begin in the UK Parliament soon (we hope). The EU’s Digital Services Act is beginning its journey through the EU institutions. This question of misinformation/disinformation is clearly going to be important to several interests. Children’s organizations will be making the case that it is very much a child protection concern as well.