The challenge of platform capture

February 27, 2023

Table of Contents

Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

This is part of a series on platforms and the press published jointly by CJR and the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy.

When Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, the Facebook page of Ukrainian TV news channel 5 Kanal was deleted and lost more than half a million followers after reporting on abuses by the Russian army. When it was reopened, the station was warned that its accounts could be restricted and regularly experienced content moderation obstacles resulting from its coverage. 

News organizations are dependent on platforms for access to their networks, audiences, data, publishing protocols, advertising revenue, and funding, a dependency that shapes editorial, organizational, and business choices. 

Policymakers around the world, from Australia to Canada to India and the US, are trying to make Big Tech pay for the news they use, whether by taxing adtech, granting new licensing rights to news publishers, or improving their collective bargaining rights. A dizzying array of new and innovative journalism initiatives, such as those highlighted by Michael Karanicolas and Preethi Nallu in their articles for this series, have breathed new energy into efforts to save local news. 

And despite warnings from internet pioneers and self-serving private actors, these efforts have not broken the internet. In fact, they have resuscitated Australia’s news industry and prompted a hiring bonanza fueled by an influx of platform funding into the sector.

Which sounds great. Sure, some big media conglomerates will benefit, but so will local journalism. Australia has shown us that. 

But the deals that Google and Facebook made with individual publishers have been shrouded in NDA-enforced secrecy and provoked criticism that risk derailing similar bills elsewhere. The lack of transparency related to the value of the deals is problematic not only because it breeds distrust and hostility, but also because it fails to address information asymmetries that are part of the imbalanced relationship between publishers and platforms. 

But even these aren’t the biggest concerns. The main problem with these policy interventions is that they further entrench platforms and reinforce infrastructural dependency by linking publisher revenue even more directly to platform profits.

Taxing adtech, granting new licensing rights to generate news media revenue, or improving collective bargaining for publishers reinforces the infrastructural dependency of news media on platforms. In the effort to redistribute the spoils of the platform economy, policymakers have failed to grapple with the implications of tying financial sustainability of news media even more closely to the platforms in which they are embedded.

Capture is a long-standing concern when it comes to media freedom and independence and the design of regulatory systems that enable editorial autonomy and impede political intervention. This regulatory “capitulation” to the platformization of news and advertising is fueling a new type of media capture: platform capture.

Platforms provide the technical infrastructure for contemporary journalism, with the largest and most popular platforms controlling not just vast swaths of both the publishing and advertising infrastructure but also access to audiences and control of the AI that fuels content moderation systems.

Content moderation systems determine visibility, monetization, and reach of content and accounts based on opaque rules and even more opaque enforcement. José Cabrera outlined some of these challenges with respect to search engine optimization, which similarly compels newsrooms to adapt to the impenetrable logic of algorithmic intermediation. As a result, journalism must adapt to the technical requirements for each platform and the forcing function of their algorithms while navigating the complex and evolving community standards and terms of service as they try to optimize engagement without violating the rules. 

It’s exhausting and expensive. And it robs journalism of its editorial independence.

The over-moderation and censorship of Palestinian news outlets trying to cover local politics, as Mona Shtaya also wrote about, is illustrative. “The fact checkers in Palestine, they cannot work,” Tunisian fact checker Zyra Mejri, whose outlet Falso is part of the Arab Fact Checking Network, told me. “If they use Hamas for a fact-checking video or something, they get banned or the post disappears for whatever security reasons. But it’s fact checking.” 

Similarly, in the wake of the 2021 Myanmar coup, independent Burmese media outlets saw their pages slowed and sharing restricted, and experienced other measures that reduced traffic and reach for potential violation of policies against graphic content, said Burmese journalist Soe Myint.

A year later, when Russia invaded Ukraine, a country where more than half the population get their news on Facebook, independent Ukrainian media saw unprecedented global traffic. Yet content moderation systems erroneously restricted independent media, and account shutdowns threatened the viability of these Ukrainian and Russian media. 

The dependency of media outlets and freelance journalists on Facebook, Google, Twitter and similar platforms to publish and disseminate their content means that when they lose access to or have their accounts or content blocked or removed it can have devastating impacts on their journalism, on their traffic and monetization, and on their relationship with their audience.

Ukrainska Pravda, founded by murdered journalist Georgiy Gongadze, saw its average 100 million monthly page views soar 900 percent as people tuned in to a trusted local news source for coverage of the invasion. Yet programmatic revenue dropped 90 percent while native ads on its website virtually disappeared. 

Content moderation systems end up censoring and defunding reporting on newsworthy issues, creating additional burdens on news outlets that are already under strain, have limited resources, and are often struggling to evade censorship and repression. This is platform capture at work.

Yet the requirements for algorithmic transparency contained in the Australian News Media Bargaining Code, and contemplated in draft laws elsewhere, are limited to requiring advance notice about changes that could substantially affect news traffic. This isn’t about content moderation, which preoccupies journalists and ends up shaping news coverage.

Improved transparency requirements would not only help to redress some of the information asymmetries that have given platforms outsize power over publishers; they would provide the data and information policymakers need to make evidence-based interventions and assess their efficacy. 

And meaningful transparency should be part of any new law because it can help build trust. 

Too many policy recommendations conceptualize platforms and markets as neutral and propose small tweaks (let the journalists collectively bargain, make the platforms tell us their terms of service more clearly) rather than addressing the underlying political, economic, and technological power structures embedded in the infrastructure of our public sphere. 

Just as innovation is needed in the tech sector, it is also needed in the policy world. Why not try taxing Big Tech or consider how copyright and licensing could be reimagined? Or experiment with new types of subsidies, like those envisioned in Brazil, Canada, or South Africa? The EU’s recent efforts to legislate greater transparency in the Digital Services Act is also a welcome effort to rethink how we can address some of the underlying information asymmetries that make it so difficult for news media to navigate content moderation systems and understand the link between traffic and revenue. 

Some of these approaches might help stave off declining revenues or revitalize some markets, and are worth trying at a time when alternative models of sustainability are desperately needed. But many are short-term interventions that do little to address the fundamental structural imbalances in contemporary journalism, and do not address the core challenge of preventing the tech sector from capturing journalism and further entrenching platform logics in the news industry. Policymakers, platforms, and the press must reenvision how to achieve free, independent, and pluralistic news outlets in the platform era if we are to secure a future for journalism.

Courtney Radsch is the advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists and author of Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt: Digital Dissidence and Political Change. A veteran journalist and free-expression advocate, she writes about the intersection of media, technology, and human rights.