Category Archives: Media policy

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.


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.



[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.


[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.


New report for the Council of Europe

The Reuters Institute has just published a report that Alessio Cornia, Antonis Kalogeropoulos and I wrote for the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee on Media and Information Society reviewing challenges and opportunities for news media and journalism in today’s changing media environment.

I presented the report Dec 1 in Strasbourg at the CDMSI Workshop: ‘The Future of News: media and journalism in the age of digital convergence’.


It was a day of interesting discussions with participants from member state governments and the other speakers, including Nabil Wakim (Director of Editorial Innovation, Le Monde), Matt Rogerson (Head of Public Policy of Guardian News & Media), Pierre France, Founder of Rue 89 Strasbourg, Renate Schroeder (Director of the European Federation of Journalists), Wout van Wijk (Executive Director of News Media Europe), Benedicte Autret from Google’s Digital News Initiative, Alexandre Brachet (Founder of Upian), and Gabriele Bertolli (Team Leader – Future of the Media, Media Freedom and Media Pluralism, European Commission).

Key take-aways from the report (pp.6-7)–

The precise nature of change in the media environment varies in important ways from country to country, but there are some clear, high–level commonalities that represent both opportunities and challenges for journalism, media organisations, and public debate. The three most important developments driven by technological and market forces today are—


  1. The move to an increasingly digital, mobile, and social media environment with increasingly intense competition for attention where legacy media like broadcasters and especially newspapers, while remaining very important news producers are becoming relatively less important as distributors of news and are under growing pressure to develop new digital business models as their existing operations decline or stagnate.

  2. The growing importance of a limited number of large technology companies that enable billions of users across the world to navigate and use digital media in easy and attractive ways through services like search, social networking, video sharing, messaging, etc. and who as a consequence play a more and more important role in terms of (a) the distribution of news and (b) digital advertising.

  3. The development of a high–choice media environment where internet users have access to more and more information in convenient formats and often for free, across a range of increasingly sophisticated personal and mobile devices, and in ways that enable new forms of participation—an environment where those most interested in news embrace these new opportunities to get, share, and comment on news, but a larger number of people opt for more casual and passive forms of use.

Predictions for journalism in 2015–politicized digital intermediaries

The good folks at the NiemanLab at Harvard have asked a bunch of people to offer their predictions of something that will matter for journalism in 2015.

I wrote my piece about the increasing politicization of spectacularly successful, incredibly useful, and more and more powerful U.S.-based digital intermediaries like Google and Facebook, companies that face push-back and pressures from other interests.

“Just as the popular and commercial success of Google and Facebook is virtually global, so are the questions raised by the increasingly powerful position they occupy in the media environment. But because the answers are in part political, and (much) politics is local, the reactions are likely to vary from country to country. In 2015, we’ll see this discussion intensify and develop.”

With high-profile cases of this in for example France, Germany, and Spain, it is easy to charicature this as an legacy-old-media-old-world-Europe vs innovation-new-media-new-world-US issue (as it frequently is).

This is a misrepresentation. First of all, the issue is much broader than US-Europe. Second, many companies in the US itself are pushing back against Google and the like by all means available, including lobbying etc.

Lot’s of terrific pieces, all collected here.

Following up on the Oxford Media Convention 2014

The Oxford Media Convention 2014 was great. Interesting keynotes, panels, and discussions, very well organized by Damian Tambini and co. Superb tweeting from Emma Goodman and the LSE Media Policy Project and lots to look at under the #OMC2014 hashtag for those interested.

It also struck me—and many others, judging from conversations had and overheard—that the stuff that was missing was often as important as the stuff that was featured.

As Damien Tambini rightly said in his closing remarks: “we can’t do everything.” And what was done was done well. But many important issues that it would have been useful to take up with this intelligent and diverse group were mostly taken up, if at all, in questions from the audience.

Things not addressed to the same extent included—role of new US-based global digital intermediaries like Google, Facebook, and the like, concerns over copyright in content production, regulation in an increasingly converged media market, impact of NSA revelations on future directions for media policy, balance between national media policy, European Union media policy, and potential transnational/global policy frameworks, (there was a panel which dealt more directly with data/privacy issues, but I missed it).

What was debated was mostly fairly well-known national (UK) media policy issues. Domestic media plurality. The role of the BBC. The possibility of industrial policy when it comes to the creative industries. The role of Ofcom as a regulator.  Many speakers articulated fairly well-known views and defended well-known positions. (Tony Hall from the BBC thinks the BBC is value for money but can always be better, etc.)

This is important, for people to remind each other where they stand, nuance their position, evolve, etc. And all the issues discussed have been and remain very important (and there were other panels I didn’t attend and where I’ve only seen the tweets). But there are larger and perhaps more future-oriented media policy questions that were not discussed in similar detail.

In part this is probably due to the nature of the OMC and the crowd there. It is a conference for discussion, and it is co-sponsored by a think tank, it does draw academics. But it is also a very public event. It is an event where a lot of stakeholders and interests are represented. It is a quite political event. Not the best place for difficult questions with few answers and for blue sky thinking perhaps.

We hope to arrange some seminars for constructive, future-oriented discussions around media policy at the Reuters Institute in the fall. We’ll build on all the discussions coming out of the OMC and then see if we can find a format and a line-up for also taking up some of these bigger issues.

Frozen media policies during a time of media change—new paper out

This year, we mark the twentieth anniverary after the Mosaic browser and affordable dial-up connections began to make the internet accessible for ordinary people, disrupting almost every aspect of the media business along the way as much of the population in high-income democracies started going online, moved from modems to broadband, from desk tops to lap tops, went from phones to mobile phones to smart phones, and as their TV was digitized and later connected.

And yet, despite all these changes in the media—and close to twenty years of media analysts arguing that they in turn necessitate changes in how media are regulated and underpinned—many areas of media policy remain essentially unchanged, especially when it comes to the forms of direct and indirect public support for media, including news media.

Across otherwise quite different countries including Finland, Germany and the United States, countries with different media systems and political systems, we have generally seen little reform of media policies, in particular those policies more important to democracy than to commerce (broadband policy and transition to digital television has been high on the agenda in many countries). The media industries are in upheaval. Media policies are being tweaked.

In a paper just published in Global Media and Communication (abstract below, full article here), I try to explain why many media policies seem “frozen” during a time of media change, looking at six high income democracies (Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US) and drawing on interviews with media managers, media regulators, and media policymakers in each country.

I point to three factors that cut across all six countries and are likely relevant in many other places too.

I call them “the devil that don’t care”, “the devil you know”, and “the devil you don’t know.”

  1. “The devil that don’t care.”—a relative lack of interest in media policy from many leading politicians. The top people have a lot on their plate during a time of economic crisis, war, and all the rest, and changes in the media business has mostly not been put on their agenda.a
  2. “The devil you know.” The role of industry incumbents who are, whether in public service media or in the private sector, (predictably and understandably) keen to protect their existing privileges and who fear that any reform will leave them worse off. In some cases, this is close to “regulatory capture”, but in every case, incumbents can at least oppose reform proposals that hurt their interests.
  3. “The devil you don’t know.” Real, substantial uncertainty about what reform would look like and how it could be made both effective and governable. Anyone who talks to media regulators and serious media policy scholars recognize this. It is a lot easier to call for reform than to specify which reforms are simultaneously politically legitimate, cost-effective (especially during a time of austerity and budget-cuts), and ensure accountability.

The lack of high-level interest, the incumbents protecting their own interests, and the lack of clear blueprints and best practices for what could be done all help explain why media policies remain “frozen” in many respects in many countries.

Of course, the absence of major reform combined with major changes in the media industry means that many media policies are increasingly subject to what political scientists call “policy drift”, a process by which the operations and effectiveness of policies change not because of deliberate reform, but because of changing conditions on the ground.

The changes in our media are not going away. They are in fact likely to accelerate. And while we can understand why our media policies do not always change at the same pace, that does not mean change is not necessary. We need 21st century media policies for 21st century media. (See? I told you it was easier to call for reform that to specify what reform should look like more concretely.)

a) With regards to the first factor: France under Sarkozy was a partial exception to this (and has seen some changes in media support arrangements during his presidency) and Italy, because of Berlusconi, has been an obvious exception to this (though changes there have mostly taken the form of cuts). The period I examine ends before the Leveson Inquiry began in the UK, but keep in mind that despite the best attempts of the Media Reform Coalition and others, that has been more about press regulation than about the framework conditions of media.

Abstract etc below.

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Genachowski did little to help journalism—will the next FCC chair act differently?

On March 22, the Federal Communication Commission Chairman, Julius Genachowski, confirmed that he is stepping down.

Much of the discussion of Genachowski’s legacy has focused on what the FCC did and didn’t do during his tenure on important core issues like internet access and mobile service, as well as questions concerning the commission’s overall regulatory authority in an increasingly convergent media sector.

What about journalism? This is not a core concern for the FCC, but it is important, and with the publication in 2011 of the “Information Needs of Communities”-report, Genachowski at least raised the possibility that the commission would seek to play some role in addressing the democratic challenges that arise from the wrenching transformation that the news industry—newspapers in particular—is undergoing in the United States.

Especially since 2007, the combination of economic pressures and technological change has severely challenged the business models that used to sustain journalism in the United States. Especially local, metropolitan, and state-level issues are in many places no longer covered in ways that ensure people can keep track of public affairs in their community.

The implications are potentially dire—as Paul Starr has put it, it may well be “goodbye to the age of newspapers, hello to a new era of corruption.”

The “Information Needs of Communities”-report recognized the challenges this transformation in the news industry represent for American democracy, and though it did not present major policy initiatives to address the issue, it did make a number of minor recommendations.

Little has been done, however, to act on these recommendations, and there are no signs that the fundamental challenges—of how to serve, in the future, the democratic information needs of communities—have been met.

Here is how the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism summarizes developments in the news industry since the publication in 2011 of the “Information Needs of Communities”-report—

In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.

Signs of the shrinking reporting power are documented throughout this year’s report. Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978.

[…] This adds up to a news industry that is more undermanned and unprepared to uncover stories, dig deep into emerging ones or to question information put into its hands. And findings from our new public opinion survey released in this report reveal that the public is taking notice. Nearly one-third of the respondents (31%) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to.

The problems that prompted the “Information Needs of Communities”-report have not gone away. In fact, in many respects, they are only growing worse. Even as digital technologies empower us in many ways as citizens and consumers, the news that help us act as such is rapidly eroding in many parts of the United States. The possibility that the FCC would seek to play some constructive role in addressing this  problem remains, almost two years after the report came out, at best that—a possibility.

Public policy initiatives in general and the FCC in particular cannot make the challenges that news media organizations and journalism face go away. But policy initiatives can help the news industry and the journalistic profession address these challenges and make the most of the new opportunities that present themselves to ensure that communities across American have access to the information that they need to engage in democratic self-governance.

In terms of doing so, Genachowski leaves no real legacy. The “Information Needs of Communities”-report published under his tenure documented many of the problems at hand. Let’s hope the next FCC chair will start looking for ways of addressing them.

Public support for the media–past, present, future?

Off to Edinburgh to give a talk about public sector support for the media at “New media, old values? Media freedom and independence in the era of convergence”, a workshop hosted by the SCRIPT Centre for Studies in Intellectual Property and Technology Law at the University of Edinburgh law school and the Open Rights Group and co-funded by the MediaDem project that I have drawn on in my own work.

My talk mix a bit of history taken from the work of Richard John and Paul Starr (the “past” part of the sub-title), the overview of current forms of public sector support for the media in six developed democracies based on my own work with Geert Linnebank (the “present” part) and some preliminary observations on the policy and political challenges any attempt at bringing public support for the media up to speed faces (the “future” part)–the kernel basically being that not only the politics, but also the policy, of media reform are so complex and full of veto points, vested interests, and uncertainties that the current combination of essentially unreformed support and policy drift is hard to overcome. (I’ve touched on some of this in a previous post.)

I’m looking forward to what will no doubt be a really interesting conversation, especially since the main organizer Rachael Craufurd Smith seems to have taken such care in getting together a really diverse line-up that includes both academics, professionals, and activists.

Alternative onwership structures and support for news in New York

Making a dash across the Atlantic over the weekend for an event on alternative ownership structures and support for news hosted by the Oxford Alumni Association of New York on Monday.

Robert G. Picard and I will speak about recent RISJ research on the international business of journalism, charitable and trust ownership of news organizations, and public sector support for the media.

Bearing in mind cross-Atlantic differences on issues like subsidy, where proposals for various forms of intervention by people like Len Downie, Michael Schudson, and Lee Bollinger have met fierce resistance, I look forward to an interesting and robust discussion.

Do the British (still) care about phone hacking?

The Leveson Inquiry into the “culture, practice, and ethics of the press” and motivated by the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked the UK media world in general and News International in particular is now well under way.

A large number of important people in and around the UK media industry clearly, and rightly, care deeply about the phone hacking scandal, what it tells us about (parts of) the news media, and what the fall-out will be/what the ramifications and consequences should be.

But does the British public care about the whole thing? Yes and no.

First the “no”—back in July, I used Google Trends to map searches for “phone hacking” versus “David Beckham” (my random choice of baseline celebrity). The data suggested a relatively high level of interest peaking in July around the Guardian’s revelation that News of the World had hacked the missing and murdered girl Milly Dowler’s voice mail. Now, in November, despite the riveting and ongoing unraveling of ever more instances of questionable, often immoral, and sometimes illegal, behavior, the same crude metric suggests interest in phone hacking has faded–as shown below.

Does this mean the whole thing will go away? That we will be back to business as usual in no time? Hopefully not—many people are working hard to make sure that this opportunity to improve the standards of the British media is seized.

Doing so should not be about politicians getting back at the press, hemming it in with needless regulation, or about prudish disdain for the tabloid press. It should be about strengthening the press itself. It should be about establishing a framework that will help British journalism regain the confidence of the British people.

Addressing this crisis of confidence is in the interest of those in the media themselves—and it leads me to the “yes” to the question of whether the British public cares about the phone hacking scandal. Most people do not seem to follow the twists and turns of the case, online or on other media. But many seem to have reacted in a more basic way to the revelations—which more and more evidence suggests has had direct consequences for people’s trust in the media. For a long time, people in the UK have had comparatively low levels of trust in the press, relative to other European countries (see for example Eurobarometer survey evidence–see page 83 of this rather large PDF file). This has only grown worse this year, according to YouGov.

Overtly cumbersome, intrusive, or cumbersome regulation of the media is one threat to the freedom of the press and its ability to serve democracy. But a precondition for this same press to make much of a contribution to the rambunctious running of popular government is that the population has at least some confidence in journalists and their work.

That confidence is low in the UK, the phone hacking scandal has further undermined it, and journalists and media people need win it back—or they will risk commercial ruin and democratic irrelevance. Some form of credible regulation (self or otherwise) and enforceable codes of professional conduct may be a necessary part of that. Oh, and then it also helps to abstain from flaunting the laws of the land in the pursuit of private profit…

The best media in the world?

Together with my near-namesake, Rasmus Helles, I’ve written an op-ed in Berlingske on media trends and media policy in Denmark, arguing we need to support not only content production and diverse provision, but also broad reach in the population if we are to continue to have some of the best media in the world.

Uanset om du læser denne kronik i avisen, på nettet, eller fordi nogen har delt den med dig via Facebook, så tilhører du sandsynligvis den mest overforkælede mediemålgruppe i verdenshistorien. Selv om avisoplagene falder, TV- og radiokanalerne presses af konkurrencen om vores opmærksomhed, redaktionelle satsninger på internettet har svært ved at løbe rundt, og internationale giganter som Google sluger store dele af annoncemarkedet, så har de veluddannede, velhavende byboere over 30 stadig flere medieprodukter at vælge imellem. Men medierne producerer ikke kun indhold til os som individuelle forbrugere. De spiller også en bred demokratisk rolle, der vedrører os alle som medborgere – og selv om Danmark stadig har nogle af verdens bedste medier, er den rolle i dag truet.

The whole thing is here.