Category Archives: Comparative media research

Free Media Are Not “The Enemy Of The People”

“Confronting powerful politicians who attack free media is a start. But the real issue is how journalists and news organisations can gain and retain people’s trust. If free media are to win a fight that they never wanted, and hold power to account, they can only do so with the public on their side.”

Today, August 16, around 350 US based news organizations have published editorials challenging President Trump’s “enemy of the people”-rhetoric.

But the problem of powerful politicians actively attacking free media goes well beyond the US.

Self-styled strongmen all over the world, from Italy to India, from Poland to the Philippines, from Ecuador to South Africa are trying to bully journalists and news media into submission.

Free media are not “the enemy of the people” – to the contrary they can at their best inform the public and help them hold power to account. And that is precisely why they are under attack from politicians all over the world.

Standing up to that is not a partisan move, but a public commitment to the values that underpin journalism at its best, a plea that the public trusts trustworthy news media, and a commitment to delivering on and deserving that trust.

I’ve written about that for the European Journalism Observatory here, and why public trust is critical if journalism is to hold power to account.

Advertisements

If journalism studies research want to be part of the conversation about the future of journalism, we need to start showing up

The rise of digital media and the resulting changes in both the practice and business of news, the crisis of confidence in the media in many countries, and growing political pressures on independent journalism in others, animates an increasingly urgent conversation about the future of journalism.

The academic field of journalism studies often seems virtually absent from that conversation.

We might feel that we, like other scientific fields, have “epistemic authority” over our main object of analysis, the legitimate and recognized right to define, describe, and explain specific aspects of reality.

But few seems to care what we know, or find what we do relevant. As former ICA President Larry Gross said at ICA in 2017, we, like other media and communications researchers, may feel we have a lot to offer. But the debate is in practice often dominated by lawyers, economists, and consultants.

Similarly, with some notable exceptions, much of the discussion around what we study—journalism, its output, and the relations that constitute, define, and enable it in different contexts—is driven by practitioners, pundits, and scientists from other fields.

Journalism studies, on the other hand, seems largely absent.

Some of the factors accounting for our relative absence are surely external to our field, things over which we have little control.

But there are arguable also internal factors, factors we might address if we want to be part of the conversation about the future of journalism.[1]

One factor is not showing up.

Consider for example the International Journalism Festival, held every spring in Perugia in Italy. It can serve as a useful illustrative case because it represents a fantastic opportunity to engage with many different voices engaged in the conversation around the future of journalism. (There are many ways to engage, including writing for popular outlets, social media, and private conversations with journalists. But attending professional and industry events like IJF I think are an important example of engagement.)

The festival is free to attend, and draws thousands of people, including hundreds of speakers from news media, technology companies, and policymaking circles. It is genuinely international with participants from many different countries. It is proudly open and inclusive in providing a platform for many different voices from many different backgrounds—those interested simply propose a panel and the organizers work to accommodate all they can, and subsidize most of the speakers.

IJF is fantastically interesting, good fun, and, from an engagement point of view, a cheap, easy, and engaging way for academics to learn from journalists and others and share work with them.

However, it appears that not many academics do so.

Consider the 2018 festival, which hosted more than 500 speakers. Looking specifically at the 386 international speakers, and defining an academic speaker broadly as someone who list their main affiliation as a university and works at least in part with research, I could identify only 40 academics, 10%, amongst the speakers.[2]

Even more strikingly for a festival in (continental) Europe, a full 31 of these worked at UK (18) or US (13) universities. The third largest group by country of work? Canada (!) with 3, followed by Belgium, France, Germany, Serbia, Spain, and Turkey with one each. Leaving aside Italians and the UK, there were just 6 academics from the rest of Europe combined, about 1.5% of all festival speakers.

IJF

If we are serious about being part of the conversation about the future of journalism, we need to start showing up to events like this, and show up in numbers and in all our diversity.

I have no problem with the fact that 90% of the IJF speakers are non-academics. I enjoyed every single panel I went to and learned a ton, often especially from non-academics.

But I do think it is a shame and a missed opportunity for academics, both individually and institutionally, that so few of us show up for events like the IJF that provide such a perfect opportunity for learning from and sharing with practitioners, policymakers, and members of the public interested in what we do.

Some scholars have developed a normative idea of “reciprocal journalism”, based on the idea of mutually beneficial forms of exchange.

Perhaps we need an similar commitment from academics to “reciprocal research”, strengthening our own work while also giving back to the public, the people we study, and policy-making discussions?

Some scholars do already show up, judging by the 2018 numbers especially academics from the UK and the US. What drives this strong representation?

Some of it is surely the added visibility and reach that can come with working in English, and in the case of the US a large field of academics with international interests.

But remember, IJF is open to anyone who pitches a panel. (I have no reason to think the festival routinely rejects relevant proposals, but can’t really know from the outside – if anyone has had such experiences, please let me know.)

So part of the reason is likely that UK and US academics pitch more frequently than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

One possible explanation is the growing number of extra-departmental, inter-disciplinary centers committed to connecting research and practice that seems particularly prevalent in English-speaking universities. (This would include for example POLIS at the LSE in the UK and Agora at the University of Oregon in the US as well as us at the Reuters Institute in Oxford.)

Such centers account for only a tiny part of the overall number of academics researching journalism, but they are important because they operate differently from traditional departments where, I would posit, the informal norms and formal reward systems of our field often do not reward engagement, and often tend to reward inwards discussion and narrow specialization.

Centers, in contrast, can serve as what science and technology scholars call trading zones, spaces where the development of interactional expertise helps people with different practical experience, professional objectives, and forms of substantive expertise collaborate across their differences.

And indeed, if we break down the 40 academics who presented at the International Journalism Festival in 2018, by my count, 13 out of the 31 UK and US academics come from various extra-departmental, inter-disciplinary centers focused on connecting research and practice. 6 are associated with the Reuters Institute alone – more than the total number of academic IJF speakers from Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, and Turkey combined. (I am not familiar with all the academic institutions people work at, so I may have under-counted centers based in countries where I do not speak the language. When in doubt, I have assumed people are based in a department, not a center.)

Some may see this difference between departments and centers as a zero-sum trade-off or a division of labor. From this point of view, departments focus on basic science, centers do applied work and engagement. I think this is often misleading.

A different perspective and from my point of view more useful approach is the one developed by some sociologists of science, who have distinguished between what they call “Mode 1” (an older paradigm of scientific work, driven by academically exclusive, investigator-initiated, and discipline-based forms of knowledge production) and “Mode 2,” the kinds of context-driven, problem-focused, and interdisciplinary forms of knowledge production that are central to some of the most successful fields in science today, like computer science, engineering, and medicine.

From this perspective, all centers can benefit from doing some basic science, and all departments can benefit from more engagement.

I would suggest much of the work done in journalism studies today often aspires to the inwards-looking “Mode 1” model, whereas work done in extra-departmental interdisciplinary centers aspires to “Mode 2” forms of knowledge production in ways that tend to encourage engagement with an evolving set of both inside and outside partners and focus on contemporary issues.

The difference here is not between basic and applied research, or between intellectual substance and practical application, but in how questions are asked, why, how work is done, and how it is published.

At the Reuters Institute, for example, we combine self-published fast turn-around reports with peer-reviewed articles in top outlets like the Journal of Communication and New Media & Society.

Similarly, many other academics who spoke (and listened) at the International Journalism Festival combine a focus on scholarly work with a real commitment to engagement with practitioners, whether already established figures like Charlie Beckett and Regina Lawrence, people like Nikki Usher and Ruthie Palmer from my own generation, or PhD students like Lisa-Maria Neudert and Philip di Salvo. If we as a field are serious about engaging in the discussion, learning from and sharing with journalists, policymakers, and the public, we should recognize and celebrate those who do, especially early career researchers who are frankly taking a risk – one I think they should and will be rewarded for – when they take out time to attend things like this rather than trying to crank out yet another peer-reviewed journal article.

Both “Mode 1” and “Mode 2“forms of knowledge production have different strengths and weaknesses, but there is no doubt which one prioritize engagement the most, nor which of them privilege what former ERC President Helga Nowotny has called “social robustness”, the aim of producing “robust knowledge” that is relevant to and accepted by actors in the context of its application.

My own view is that “Mode 2” offers a very promising model of knowledge production for journalism studies if we wish to produce knowledge that is relevant and robust in addition to being distinct, valuable, and reliable.

From this perspective, more engagement would not be distraction for journalism studies, but a way of enriching our work, while also making a greater contribution to public debate, and perhaps to the public. I think this has great potential, for journalism studies as a field, and for the discussion around journalism, and hope many more academics will join.

At its best, journalism studies can be an important part of the conversation about the future of journalism.

But to do so, we need to start showing up, listening to and learning from those already engaged in the discussion, integrate such engagement in what we do and what we value as a field, and work hard to make sure that our work brings independent evidence and insight to the issues of the day.

As John F. Kennedy is supposed to have said, “Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.” I suggest academics interested in engaging more with those most active in the discussion around the future of journalism, and learning from this conversation start by showing up in greater numbers.

Perhaps try it by coming to the IJF in Perugia next year? It’s April 3-7. Mark your calendar. I’ve marked mine. I hope to see you there.

Notes

[1] I’ve written about similar issues in the field of political communication research here.

[2] This is not a formal content analysis and done quickly on my own by looking through all speakers and categorizing them on the basis of their stated affiliation. The definition of “academic” means that Aron Pilhofer, who does not have a PhD but does important work at Temple University, is counted as an academic, while Guy Berger, who is an accomplished academic but works for UNESCO, does not (nor does Alan Rusbridger who at the University of Oxford, but as Principal of Lady Margaret Hall). I have coded people by the institutional affiliation they provide, not their country of origin.

2018 International Journal of Press/Politics Book Award to “Political Journalism in Comparative Perspective”

I’m happy to announce that Erik Albæk (University of Southern Denmark), Arjen van Dalen (University of Southern Denmark), Nael Jebril (Bournemouth University) and Claes H. de Vreese (Universiteit van Amsterdam) have received the 2018 International Journal of Press/Politics Book Award for their book Political Journalism in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2014).9781107674608

Below is the official announcement of the award from the full award committee, which included Peter Van Aelst (as Chair of the ICA Political Communication Division), Henrik Örnebring (as Chair of the ICA Journalism Studies Division), and myself (as editor of the journal).

2018 International Journal of Press/Politics Book Award to “Political Journalism in Comparative Perspective”

It is frequently recognized that political communication research needs to be more systematically comparative to properly understand the interplay between news media and politics and its implications in different contexts. Actually pursuing such comparative research, especially across production, content, and effects, is much rarer. Because it is difficult, hard, and both time- and resource-consuming, we still often fall back on single-country case studies.

Political Journalism in Comparative Perspective is an impressive exception to the tendency to study political communication and journalism in individual countries in isolation.

Combining surveys of journalists, content analysis, and panel surveys of the public, the team behind it analyze several key aspects of the political communication process across a strategic sample of four systematically different high income democracies. The book demonstrates how these different national contexts create different kinds of political journalism, produces different kinds of news coverage of politics, with different implications for the role political journalism plays in democracy.

We are proud to honor it with the 2018 International Journal of Press/Politics Book Award on behalf of the journal and the award committee, which this year consisted of Peter Van Aelst (as Chair of the ICA Political Communication Division), Henrik Örnebring (as Chair of the ICA Journalism Studies Division), and myself (as editor of the journal).

This is the fourth year we give the IJPP Book Award, which we have instituted to honor “internationally-oriented books that advance our theoretical and empirical understanding of the linkages between news media and politics in a globalized world in a significant way.”

Books published within the last ten years are eligible for the award, and we had a very strong field of candidates, including a growing number of books focused on political communication and news media outside the high income democracies much scholarship has focused on in the past. This is a real testament to the theoretical creativity, methodological rigor, and growing internationalization of this field of research.

In this very strong field, the award committee agreed that Political Journalism in Comparative Perspective provides a powerful example of what truly comparative research can look like, with clear contributions based on an impressive combination of methods as well as intellectual engagement with work from across media sociology, journalism studies, and media effects research illustrating how political communication research can be enriched by engaging with adjacent and overlapping fields.

The book is also remarkable for its explicit engagement with normative issues based on a clear connection between empirical work and clearly articulated theories of democracy, noteworthy in a field where we often link our work with normative issues, but frequently without making our standards, or their basis, explicit.

I hope you’ll join me in congratulating the four authors. The award is simply a way for the community to recognize and highlight their contribution to the field.

What is journalism studies studying? (ICA 2018 edition)

I am at the International Communication Association 2018 annual meeting in Prague. It is arguably the single most important international academic conference for communications research, media studies, and, by extension, work on journalism.

This year, 130 individual papers have been accepted for presentation by the Journalism Studies Division after peer review (the acceptance rate is normally less than fifty percent, this year 45% for full papers).

The ICA papers, most of them work-in-progress, fresh, recent, up-to-date work by a wide range of academics studying journalism from a range of perspectives, from a range of backgrounds, from a range of countries, can provide the basis for at least a partial answer to the question of what journalism studies is actually studying today.

So I did a quick and subjective categorization of all the paper titles by topic, following a similar post I did at the 2017 Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff. (This is not a formal content analysis, and I did this on my own. For a more rigorous recent meta-analysis of the field, see this piece by Laura Ahva and Steen Steensen.)

The results are below. I categorized the 130 accepted papers by their title, and collapsed all topics with less than 5 papers into “other”. Because most codes have only 1 or 2 papers, this account for a large share, almost half.

The results I think are quite interesting – they give a sense of where academic research overlaps with pressing civic, professional, industry, and policy-maker concerns (and where it does not), and provides an illustration of how the academic community collectively gather around certain topics in bottom-up ways with little in terms of explicit, coordinated discussion of what “the field” “should do”.

ICAJS

Please note I coded only the full papers, not panel submissions—if we take these into account, including four full panels more or less directly related to discussions around “fake news” and “post-truth” etc, the overall picture is different, with various “fake news”-related papers then constituting the single largest group.

Because panel submissions are based on short abstracts, I would say they constitute expressions of academic intent, whereas full papers, which require a whole lot more work, constitute revealed preference, what academics have spent months of effort on. Crudely put, panels are what we’d maybe like to do, papers is what we have actually done.

In line with the thrust of the field at large, inequality and other barriers means that the bulk of the presentations are from and focused on high income democracies, so there are a whole range of issues around state censorship, freedom of expression, violence against journalists, media capture, and other very pressing issues that are largely absent.

Beyond that, some stand-out take-aways for me—

  • Has the “fake news” and “post-truth” moment passed already? (Or not found favour with reviewers?) At the 2017 Future of Journalism conference, 17% of all papers including some mention of these terms in the title, at ICA, the figure for full papers is 6%. (As noted above, the picture gets more complicated if we count the panels on this theme.) Perhaps this, like for example “citizen journalism” before it, will be a short boom driven by public and professional interest in a particular word more than something clearly anchored in academic work? Given how little empirical research we actually have on disinformation in many countries, and how urgently such work is needed to inform policy-making and industry responses (whether from the European Commission or from private companies like Facebook), if the moment has passed it may have passed too soon?
  • A lot of work on social media (most of it on Twitter, perhaps because of the availability bias, much less on Facebook and Instagram, a few on Chinese social media platforms). Most of this work is focused on social media content and social media use by professional journalists (for distribution, sourcing, audience engagement, etc). Very little work as far as I could see on the institutional implications of the rise of platforms. This is an issue I am personally very focused on and think is a defining issue of our time (see for example here).
  • Compared to the Future of Journalism papers, many more of the ICA papers are directly and identifiably rooted in established, long-standing areas of work in journalism research, including various forms of content analysis (discourse analysis and especially framing), news production, and professionalism, are much more explicitly evoke theoretical approaches (deliberation, mediatization, etc.), or directly and explicitly connect with other established areas of academic research like audience studies.

Some conspicuous absences?

  • Apart from one paper with the phrase “political economy” in the title I could not find any work on the business of journalism. I find that extraordinary, and extraordinarily troubling. The business models that funded most of journalism as we knew it are being fundamentally challenged by the move to digital media, the proliferation of choice for both audiences and advertisers, and the rise of platform companies, and yet while this underlying structural change influences so much of what journalism studies study, very few seem to study the change itself, how it plays out in different countries, or indeed how research might inform how the industry and the profession responds to this change. Many countries are looking into the sustainability of professional news production, for example in the UK through the governments’ Cairncross review of the sustainability of high quality journalism. If we want to be part of such important policy discussions, we need to engage directly with the underlying questions and bring independent, relevant, and robust evidence-based work to bear on them.
  • There are other issues, including around trust, partisanship, and information inequality, as well as forms of discrimination around for example gender and race, but on the whole I found more ICA papers on this than I saw at the Cardiff conference.
  • More broadly, journalism studies as a field overall seems more focused on studying journalists themselves, their work routines, their professional identity and role perception, and the content they produce than the institutional relations — with audiences, with business, with technology, with politics, etc — that constitutes journalism.

I’d be curious to hear what people think about this attempt to provide a rough overview.

I think we as a field produce some terrific research.

I think we probably also

  1. should argue more “outwards” (engaging with other fields, and other disciplines, as those connecting audience studies with journalism studies do) than “inwards” (talking most to and with other people who identify with journalism studies),
  2. would benefit from being less newsroom-centric and supplementing research on the actions and output of journalists with attention to the institutions that sustain and constrain journalism
  3. and could bring a lot more to public debate, public understanding of the issues of our time, and policymaking if we more often tackled these issues more directly on the basis of independent, relevant, evidence-based work.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt for sharing a spreadsheet with all accepted papers and some further context, including pointing me to the four panels on “fake news” and “post-truth”. She bears no responsibility for the analysis or the post.

Draft chapter on “The Changing Economic Contexts of Journalism”

Here is a a PDF of my draft chapter on “The Changing Economic Contexts of Journalism” for the 2nd edition of the ICA Handbook of Journalism Studies, edited by Karin Wahl-Jorgensen and Thomas Hanitzsch.

I’ve tried to summarize in about 30 pages the most important basic features of the business of news, its historical evolution (like the graph below), and where it is heading. Circulation and advertising

I’ve got a few weeks to finish it – suggestions welcome! (It is far too long, so suggestions of cuts especially welcome.)

I hope the chapter will provide a useful and readable introduction for both journalists and journalism studies students/scholars to key concept like the attention economy, two-sided markets, high fixed cost/low variable cost, news as a non-rivalrous experience good, market failure, media capture, and what the move to digital does and does not change.

Please note, I’ve prioritized media economics, historical background, and key current changes. Can’t cover everything in one chapter. Day-to-day developments are better covered in trade publications. And there is much, much more research out there (though too little I know of from the Global South), by economists, and by others. For those interested in critical political economy, I recommend the work of fx Robin Mansell and Janet Wasko, for those interested in ownership, the immense empirical research efforts lead by Eli Noam, Vanita Kohli-Khandekar’s work on the Indian media business has been really useful for me in other work, for those interested in advertising, the work of for example Joe Turow, and much more beyond that.

CfP: Fourth IJPP conference, Oct 10-12 in Oxford (submit by June 15)

IJPP

October 10-12 2018, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford will host the fourth International Journal of Press/Politics conference, focused on academic research on the relation between media and political processes around the world. (See the program from the 2015 conference, the 2016 conference, and the 2017 conference.)

A selection of the best full papers presented at the conference will be published in the journal after peer review. The deadline for submission of abstracts is June 15 2018. Attendees will be notified of acceptance by June 29 2018.

Professor Andrew Chadwick from Loughborough University will deliver a keynote lecture.

The conference brings together scholars doing internationally-oriented or comparative research on the intersection between news media and politics around the world. It aims to provide a forum for academics from a wide range of different disciplines and countries to discuss the theoretical, methodological, and substantial challenges and opportunities for research in this area. It is open to work from political science, political communication, journalism studies, media and communications research, computational social science, and many other fields.

Examples of relevant topics include the political implications of current changes in the media, the relative importance of new forms of digital media for engaging with news and politics, studies of the role of entertainment and popular culture in how people follow current affairs, studies of relations between political actors and journalists, research on political communication beyond the electoral context (including of government, interest groups, and social movements), all with a particular interest in studies that focus on parts of the world that are under-researched in the international English language academic literature, develop comparative approaches, or represent substantial theoretical or methodological advances.

Titles and abstracts for papers (250 words max) are invited by June 15 2018. The abstract should clearly describe the key question, the theoretical and methodological approach, the evidence the argument is based on, as well as its wider implication of international relevance.

Please send submissions to the email address ijpp@politics.ox.ac.uk with the subject line “IJPP conference submission” including in the email the full title of your paper, the abstract, and your name and professional affiliation. (Please do not send attachments.) Full papers based on accepted abstracts will be due Friday September 14, 2018.

The conference is organized by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (RISJ Director of Research and IJPP Editor-in-Chief) and Cristian Vaccari (Loughborough University). Please contact Rasmus Kleis Nielsen with questions at rasmus.nielsen@politics.ox.ac.uk.

More about the journal, the Reuters Institute, and the keynote speaker:

The International Journal of Press/Politics

IJPP is an interdisciplinary journal for the analysis and discussion of the role of the press and politics in a globalized world. The journal publishes theoretical and empirical research which analyzes the linkages between the news media and political processes and actors around the world, emphasizes international and comparative work, and links research in the fields of political communication and journalism studies, and the disciplines of political science and media and communication.

Keynote Speaker – Andrew Chadwick

Andrew Chadwick (PhD London School of Economics, FRSA) is Professor of Political Communication at Loughborough University, where he leads the Doctoral Training Centre in Online Civic Culture and is a member of the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture. His books include The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power (Oxford University Press, 2013; Second Edition, 2017), which won the 2016 International Journal of Press/Politics Book Award for an outstanding book on media and politics published in the previous ten years and the American Political Science Association Information Technology and Politics Section Best Book Award, 2014; as well as The Handbook of Internet Politics, co-edited with Philip N. Howard (Routledge 2009), and Internet Politics: States, Citizens, and New Communication Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2006), which won the American Sociological Association Best Book Award (Communication and Information Technologies Section). Professor Chadwick is also the editor of the Oxford University Press book series Oxford Studies in Digital Politics and was a founding Associate Editor of the Journal of Information Technology and Politics and continues as a Senior Editorial Board member for the journal. He also serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Press/Politics and Social Media and Society.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism marks the University of Oxford’s commitment to the comparative study of journalism around the world. Anchored in the recognition of the key role of independent media in open societies and the power of information in the modern world, the institute aims to serve as the leading forum for a productive engagement between scholars from a wide range of disciplines and practitioners of journalism. It brings the depth and rigor of academic scholarship of the highest standards to major issues of relevance to the world of news media. It is global in its perspective and in the content of its activities.

Open societies and robust institutions – talking points on how we can fight disinformation

Thursday February 22, I gave evidence at a hearing on “preserving democracy in the digital age” organized by the European Political Strategy Centre (the European Commission’s in-house think tank) in Brussels.

EC

Together with four others (Anne Applebaum from the Washington Post/the LSE, Philip Howard from the Oxford Internet Institute, Philip Lelyveld from the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California and Keir Giles from Chatham House), I participated in a private briefing session with Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society and various officials from a range of European institutions, followed by a public hearing.

The hearing was convened to accompany the European Commission’s ongoing public consultation on fake news and online disinformation (I am a member of the high level group working on this, but took part in the hearing in an individual capacity).

We delivered our evidence verbally in a two-hour discussion structured around questions provided by the European Political Strategy Centre — I post my talking points below as they may be of interest to others working on practical and/or policy responses to “fake news” and disinformation and thinking about the broader issues of what democracy might look like in the twenty-first century.

I have added end-notes to my talking points here (hard to do when delivering evidence verbally!) as I have tried to bring some of the available evidence to the discussion (see this open, collaborative bibliography which I help maintain), as well as outlining my personal views on what could be done.

Preserving Democracy in the Digital Age (talking points)

High-Level Policy Hearing, European Political Strategy Centre, Brussels, February 22

The Hearing will last for 2 hours and will be structured around 6 sessions: (1) self-introductions (5 minutes); (2) introductory remarks (25 minutes); (3)-(4)-(5) core questions (25-30 minutes each); (6) concluding remarks (5 minutes).

(1) Self-introductions 5’

(2) Introductory remarks – 25’ – Views on the context (max 5 minutes each)

What are your general views on global trends linked to the emergence of ‘fake news’ and related issues?

  • This hearing is about “preserving democracy in the digital age”, and before we turn to “fake news” and disinformation, I want to be clear—the main challenges to democracy in Europe today are, first, the erosions of some of the institutions (political parties, member based interest groups, news media) that have historically enabled popular government[i], and, second, some ill-intentioned political actors, including foreign states but also sadly some governments in the Europe Union, who are not committed to the fundamental values that define democratic government and open societies.[ii] We have inherited these institutions and these rights from the twentieth century and it is up to us to renew them for the twenty-first. Problems of disinformation must be understood in this context, and the most pressing question is what we collectively can do to confront these wider challenges, not only those narrowly related to disinformation.

 

  • “Fake news” is a poorly defined, politicized, and misleading term for a wide range of problems of disinformation.[iii] Poorly defined – unless used in narrow sense (false and fabricated, presented as news), politicized – the way it is used by politicians and understood by many citizens (poor journalism and political propaganda), misleading – much of it is neither fake nor news (but content taken out of context, other types of content including opinion, other activities like engagement, amplification, etc.)[iv]

 

  • Broader problems of disinformation – intentionally misleading and often false or inaccurate information produced for profit or for political purposes – must be understood in its political and media context. The political context is one of low trust in many institutions (including media and politics) and high levels of partisan polarization in many countries.[v] In this context, people don’t know who to trust and resort to motivated reasoning and self-selection. The media context is a move to an environment where people increasingly find news online via platform products and services like social media and search.[vi] In this political and media context, people (1) approach content with “generalized scepticism” and (2) don’t always recognize and remember brands behind information they use.[vii] The results is an often rambunctious public sphere. But that does not necessarily mean it is a threat to democracy. Hate speech and incitement to violence are problems that have to be confronted, but beyond that, no one ever promised our politics would be polite, our public debate genteel. We live in irreducibly diverse and often disputatious societies. The critical issue is to defend our fundamental rights and renew the institutions that help us make good use of them.

 

  • Narrowly defined as for-profit or politically-motivated demonstrably false news, there is much we don’t know yet, especially about visual forms of disinformation, but the research done so far suggests false news has limited reach, especially on the web, though some false news providers generate significant amounts of engagement on social media.[viii] The amount of disinformation is likely to vary from country depending on the political and commercial incentives for producing it, and the amount of credible news it competes with vary from country to country, depending on political and media context. We need to measure the actual scale and scope of the problems at hand and should be careful to not exaggerate it unnecessarily.

 

  • More broadly, much disinformation is driven by political actors (foreign and some domestic), some of it is civil society, often in good faith (bottom-up misinformation), some of it is from some news media (clickbait, hyperpartisan opinion) – much of this may be uncomfortable and undesirable, but it is often not illegal, and it is not easily identified in an objective way – it is rarely a matter of simply being true or false, for example. When people want to fight it, we need to consider the possible negative impact of heavy-handed responses to a vaguely defined and inherently ambiguous set of problems, such as the risk of stifling free speech through regulation and the risks involved in forcing private companies to police the boundaries of acceptable speech.[ix]

 

  • The best response in my personal view is instead a combination of (1) protecting our open societies and (2) renewing the institutions that enable to make the most of them. Open societies are what we are fighting to preserve, they protect fundamental rights and give people the freedom to make up their own minds. Robust institutions produce credible information (private sector and public service media, and though open data initiatives and independent bodies like statistical authorities), make it easily accessible (including through platforms’ products and services), and equip people to navigate it (media and information literacy). Open societies with robust institutions will also be better positioned to withstand the coming flood of new forms of disinformation (manipulated images, video, audio editing, content fabrication powered by AI) and deal with the new ways in which disinformation will circulate (private messaging apps, voice systems, augmented/virtual reality, in addition to websites, search engines, and social media). Open societies with robust institutions will not be free of disinformation and pernicious forms of speech. But they will be able to withstand the problems they create.

 

(3) Core question n°1 – 30’ Assessment of the scope of fake news (max 6 minutes each)

What has caused the spread of fake news online and what evidence do we have of its impact?

  • Digital media have made it easier to publish and share any kind of information, including disinformation, we need to see the growth in the amount of disinformation circulating in our societies against the backdrop of the general exponential growth in the amount of all kinds of information circulating.[x] Peddlers of disinformation are often using the very same digital media technologies that entirely legitimate publishers and political actors use, extremist groups are exploiting the same platforms that movements like #MeToo and #NeverAgain are using. Any response to problems of disinformation need to keep in mind that the same tools and technologies that empower potentially harmful forms of disinformation also often empower entirely legitimate and benign forms of information, news, and public engagement.

 

  • The rise of digital technologies is part and parcel of a profound shift in our media systems and political systems and will change our democracies and societies in ways we don’t yet understand well. There are many demonstrable benefits and opportunities ahead of us, but also clear risks. How this will play out will differ from country to country depending on context. The consequences in Bulgaria and Denmark will not be the same. But at this stage, I believe we can identify at least these three impacts of the rise of digital media in my view are the following: First, they have made it easier to publish, leading to greater choice, which in turn is likely to increase the information inequality between those who will use that greater choice to seek out more information about public affairs, and those who will use it to seek out more entertainment[xi], and in highly polarized societies, also potentially increasing polarization along partisan lines.[xii] Second, contrary to fears of “filter bubbles” and the like, while there are clearly serious issues in terms of how some people find and use information online, for most people, the use of the search engines and social media that people increasingly rely on to navigate the digital media environment demonstrably lead most people to more diverse information than they seek out on their own.[xiii] Third, the rise of digital media has existentially challenged the business of news as we knew it in the 20th century, as both audiences and advertisers flock to the products and services offered by large platform companies, many news publishers have to cut costs and reinvent their business, and investment in news – especially locally, in smaller markets, and in member states with no history of robust independent media – is declining as a consequence.[xiv] In short, digital media have made it easier to access and engage with things, allowed many more to raise their voice, led to the emergence of new platform companies as gatekeepers who shape who gets heard and who not and who change the business of media, and is driving a profound institutional transformation in politics and the media that, amongst other things, makes it less profitable to produce professional journalism.

 

  • There is much we don’t now yet about the scale and scope of problems of “fake news” narrowly and of disinformation more broadly, but at this stage, I would suggest that the main impact of disinformation is that it may sow distrust, intensify polarization around divisive issues, undermine confidence in political institutions, media institutions, and platform companies, and increase confusion around public affairs. These are worrying risks, but we need to document them to understand them and counter them, and in doing so keep in mind that most empirical research so far suggest that “fake news” narrowly defined—as worrying as it is—still reaches only a minority of the population and even for those who consume the most of it make up only a small part of their overall news and media use. Disinformation is clearly a serious issue, and represents problems that should be confronted, but if we exaggerate its scale and scope without evidence, we do ourselves a disservice, misinform the public, and risk becoming complicit with the very information operations that we are concerned about. The Russian opposition, for example, has rightly encouraged Western liberals not to exaggerate the effect of Kremlin’s information operations, presenting those aiming to undermine our open societies and democratic institutions as “an almighty force from a James Bond saga.”[xv] Unless we actually know they are, we should not cast them as such.

 

(4) Core question n°2 – 30’ Suggestions on how to address fake news (max 6 minutes)

Based on your professional experience and research, which initiatives do you believe are necessary to tackle fake news online and its related issues?

  • From my point of view, we need to focus on the greater good – we want to (1) protect open societies that guarantee our fundamental rights (and sadly some politicians represent a major threat here) and (2) develop robust institutions that enable us to make good use of our rights. That is at the core of what it means to preserve—let’s say renew—democracy in the digital age. Responses to “fake news” and disinformation should start from these first principles. What can we do, then? I’d suggest three areas, one where we should act with great caution, one where we can pursue specific, narrowly defined targeted responses next, and then a set of broader recommendations to strengthen the institutions that will help open societies resist disinformation.

 

  • First, caution: because “fake news” and disinformation is hard to define clearly and objectively, we should be very careful with vaguely worded legislation, leaving it to judges (or even worse, the executive branch) to decide what may or may not constitute “fake news”, just as we should be cautious with political attempts to outsource the policing of free speech to private companies by forcing them to decide what does and does not constitute legal forms of speech – these types of initiatives are a potential threat to the very open societies we are trying to protect, and both free speech advocates like Article 19 and the UN coalition on platform responsibility have rightly warned against such measures.[xvi] As recognized by the OSCE-coordinated “Joint declaration on freedom of expression and “fake news”, disinformation and propaganda”, free speech protections includes information and ideas that may shock, offend and disturb.[xvii] It is important to consider whether proposed cures are sometimes worse than the disease, a disease which we will know little about because of the dearth of independent, evidence-based, publicly available research.

 

  • Second, targeted responses: direct interventions in my view should be used to address clearly and narrowly defined problems – in some cases this is primarily a question of enforcement of existing regulations. It is already illegal in many countries for foreign governments to meddle with the political process, just as hate speech and the like is already illegal. Where there is evidence of wrong doing, we need document it, publicize it, and prosecute it on the basis of existing regulation. In other cases, it is about putting constant public pressure on advertisers, ad tech companies, and platform companies to take neutral, unbiased, and transparent steps to reduce the economic incentives to produce false and fabricated potentially harmful disinformation and to constantly monitor and consider the social and political implications of their products and services. Enabling this will necessitate new steps to increase algorithmic accountability, ensure an appropriate level of transparency, and make more data available to third parties. Here, platform companies need to embrace the wider democratic responsibilities that come with their prominence and power.

 

  • Third, strengthening our institutions: This involves
    • Protecting news and media against governments using political/economic pressures to control them, against organized crime and extremist groups, and against politically-mandated privatization of the policing of free speech. All European Union member states have signed the Council of Europe recommendation the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors, but so far only Malta has begun to implement the recommendation.[xviii]
    • Creating an enabling environment for news media by reforming existing forms of indirect and in some cases direct support for private sector media (VAT exemptions, state aid/subsides) so they reward the future, not the past, support genuinely independent public service media and ensure they have autonomy and funding to deliver on their remit using all appropriate tools, enable non-profit journalism by streamlining regulation to ease the creation of non-profit news organizations and incentivize supporting them, by making support available for R&D and innovation, and ensuring transparency around media ownership and funding. Strong independent news media, both private sector and public service, demonstrably help produce a more informed citizenry that will be better able to resist disinformation, and policy makers need to create an enabling environment for such news media.[xix] Even in countries with strong, independent public service media, the vast majority of investment in professional journalism comes from private sector news media and it is critically important that policymakers support the industry as it reinvents its business for a digital age.[xx]
    • Creating an enabling environment for journalism by investing in training, life-long learning, up-skilling and by protecting journalists against defamation/libel suits aiming to silence them, as well as by enabling journalists and other third parties through “freedom of information” legislation and open data initiatives, plus support for individual innovation and entrepreneurship.
    • Invest in media and information literacy efforts for citizens at all stages of life.

 

(5) Core question n°3 – 25’ Assessment of the European Union’s efforts to tackle fake news (max 5 minutes each)

Do you believe the European Commission’s initiatives to tackle fake news online and related issues are sufficient?

  • Before turning to the question of what the European Commission specifically can do, it is important to underline that individual member states will have to lead on much of this and to reiterate that because disinformation and broader issues around the future of our democracies are shared issues, we need shared responses, involving all major stakeholders—political actors, news media, platform companies, civil society organizations.

 

  • The main things the European Commission can do in my view include
    • First, if we want to preserve and renew our democracies for the digital age, it is critically important to keep up pressure on those member state governments who do not respect fundamental rights and are using political and economic pressure to undermine independent media.
    • Second, investing money and political capital in helping renew our democratic institutions for the digital age (and encouraging member states to do the same). When it comes to news, that means supporting private sector media in their transition from analogue to digital media companies, pushing for public service media to be genuinely independent of government and have autonomy to pursue their remit with adequate funding and using appropriate means, providing support for professional journalists in terms of training, continuing education, up-skilling, and basic protection from interference including strategic and spurious lawsuits, making public data openly available for fact-checkers and other independent third parties, and making sure that platform companies that provide fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory access to infrastructures for free expression are protected from those who would push them to actively distort public debate. Similarly, support media and information literacy programmes for citizen across the union at all stages of life.
    • Third, investing in timely and accessible evidence-based independent research to inform policy- and decision making as we combat disinformation and renew our democracies for the digital age. We fundamentally know very little about the scale and scope of disinformation problems in Europe. If we want evidence-based policy making, including policy making that consider the likely efficiency and potential negative impact of responses being considered, it is critically important that we have independence, evidence-based research to draw on. To my knowledge, there was not a single publicly available independently conducted study trying to measure the reach of “fake news” and online disinformation in Europe till February 2018[xxi] – and despite this dearth of evidence, many are already talking about potentially very heavy-handed interventions that risk having serious negative consequences for freedom of speech. We don’t do public health policy without evidence, and it scares me we are developing policy that concerns fundamental rights and free media without first developing some sort of meaningful evidence. The European Commission directly and through member states and other stakeholders can make a significant difference in this area by supporting and enabling timely independent, evidence-based research on scale and scope as well as similar independent, evidence-based evaluation of the efficiency of steps taken by different actors.
    • Fourth, continually encouraging multi-stakeholder processes in pursuit of shared responses to shared problems and continually reviewing progress and keeping up the pressure on those actors who refuse to take responsibility for their wider, public role, or who do little to lift it.

 

(6) Concluding remarks – 5’ Speakers’ main ‘take-aways’ (max 1 minute each)

In a nutshell, what is your main message to the European Commission regarding what should (or should not) be done about fake news and disinformation online?

  • We must keep the main goal in mind – renewing our democracies for the digital age. That involves protecting open societies and evolving the institutions that help citizens make the most of them. Digital media are fundamentally transforming our democracies, in beneficial as well as in disturbing ways, but we need to remember that the main threat to democracy remains ill-intentioned politicians undermining fundamental rights and robust institutions. To preserve European democracies, we need to protect them against would-be autocrats and those who are seeking to undermine the institutions—political, legal, and media—that help citizens hold power to account.

 

  • When we respond to problems of disinformation we should therefore
    • (1) be cautious before we consider responses that either through vague legislating regulating speech or through politically-mandated private policing of acceptable discourse risk undermining freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information and views without interference from public authorities, as these are among the very fundamental rights we are fighting to protect
    • (2) develop narrow, targeted responses to specific problems of disinformation, including countering foreign states meddling with our political processes and pressuring advertisers, ad tech companies, and platform companies to develop neutral and transparent measures to make false and fabricated information less profitable and less prominent and help surface credible and trustworthy content, and,
    • (3) perhaps most importantly (though this is also long-term and will be hard work), invest in re-inventing the institutions that enable popular government, when it comes to news and information, by supporting private sector news media, genuinely independent public service media, making public data openly available to independent fact-checkers and other third parties, protecting those platform companies that provide fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory access to open and permissive infrastructures for free expression from those who would force them to restrict public debate, and invest in media and information literacy.

 

  • Our parents’ generations build Europe into kinder and gentler forms of democratic societies from the ruins of empires, Fascism, and Communism. We are not the descendants of fearful men and women. If we protect our open societies and strengthen the institutions that enable us to make the most of it, we can renew our democracies for the digital age. We should aspire to nothing less.

 

References

[i] E.g. Mair, Peter. 2006. “Ruling the Void.” New Left Review, II, , no. 42: 25–51.

[ii] Diamond, Larry. 2015. “Facing up to the Democratic Recession.” Journal of Democracy 26 (1): 141–155.

[iii] Wardle, Claire, and Hossein Derakhshan. 2017. Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policy Making. Report to the Council of Europe.

[iv] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis, and Lucas Graves. 2017. ““News You Don’t Believe”: Audience Perspectives on Fake News.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[v] Newman, Nic, Richard Fletcher, Antonis Kalogeropoulos, David A. L Levy, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[vi] Newman, Nic, Richard Fletcher, Antonis Kalogeropoulos, David A. L Levy, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[vii] Fletcher, Richard, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Navigating News on Social Media: A Four-Country Mixed-Methods Analysis.” Paper presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco, and Kalogeropoulos, Antonis, and Nic Newman. 2017. “‘I Saw the News on Facebook’: Brand Attribution When Accessing News from Distributed Environments.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[viii] This is what we found in France and Italy, see Fletcher, Richard, Alessio Cornia, Lucas Graves, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2018. “Measuring the Reach of ‘Fake News’ and Online Disinformation in Europe.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. This is in line with findings from the United States, see e.g. Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. 2017. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” Working Paper 23089. National Bureau of Economic Research and Guess, Andrew, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler. 2018. “Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the Consumption of Fake News during the 2016 US Presidential Campaign.”

[ix] Belli, Luca, David Erdos, Maryant Fernández Pérez, Pedro Augusto P. Francisco, Krzysztof Garstka, Judith Herzog, Krisztina Huszti-Orban, et al. 2017. Platform Regulations: How Platforms Are Regulated and How They Regulate Us. FGV Direito Rio.

[x] Neuman, W. Russell, Yong Jin Park, and Elliot Panek. 2012. “Tracking the Flow of Information into the Home: An Empirical Assessment of the Digital Revolution in the U.S. from 1960–2005.” International Journal of Communication 6: 1022–41.

[xi] Prior, Markus. 2007. Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[xii] Stroud, Natalie Jomini. 2011. Niche News: The Politics of News Choice. New York: Oxford University Press.

[xiii] See e.g. Borgesius, Frederik J. Zuiderveen, Damian Trilling, Judith Möller, Balázs Bodó, Claes H. de Vreese, and Natali Helberger. 2016. “Should We Worry about Filter Bubbles?” Internet Policy Review, March, Flaxman, Seth, Sharad Goel, and Justin M. Rao. 2016. “Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Online News Consumption.” Public Opinion Quarterly 80 (S1): 298–320, Fletcher, Richard, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Are People Incidentally Exposed to News on Social Media? A Comparative Analysis.” New Media & Society, August, 1461444817724170.

[xiv] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis, Alessio Cornia, and Antonis Kalogeropoulos. 2016. “Challenges and Opportunities for News Media and Journalism in an Increasingly Digital, Mobile, and Social Media Environment.” Commissioned Report for the Council of Europe. Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[xv] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/23/world/europe/russia-vladimir-putin-liberals.html

[xvi] See e.g. statement by Article 19 and Belli, Luca, David Erdos, Maryant Fernández Pérez, Pedro Augusto P. Francisco, Krzysztof Garstka, Judith Herzog, Krisztina Huszti-Orban, et al. 2017. Platform Regulations: How Platforms Are Regulated and How They Regulate Us. FGV Direito Rio.

[xvii] Joint declaration here.

[xviii] See recommendations here.

[xix] Aalberg, Toril, and James Curran, eds. 2012. How Media Inform Democracy: A Comparative Approach. Routledge New Developments in Communication and Society. New York: Routledge.

[xx] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis. 2016. “The Business of News.” In The SAGE Handbook of Digital Journalism, edited by Tamara Witschge, Chris W. Anderson, David Domingo, and Alfred Hermida, 51–67. Los Angeles: SAGE.

[xxi] Fletcher, Richard, Alessio Cornia, Lucas Graves, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2018. “Measuring the Reach of ‘Fake News’ and Online Disinformation in Europe.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.