With Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple dominating their respective online markets, we plebeians visit fewer sites than we used to and spend more time within the confines of these familiar walled gardens. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism has written extensively on the effect of that on publishers. But there are a couple of interesting pieces out this week on how the narrowing and centralizing of the internet has contributed to a negative political environment.
In The New York Times, technology writer John Herrman explains how fringe political groups were able to take advantage of social platforms to spread their message. Social platforms have two goals, which are sometimes in conflict: to be a space for public discourse, and to make money. “How Hate Groups Forced Online Platforms to Reveal Their True Nature” argues that this tension between “strained public dedication to discourse stewardship” and “their actual existence as profit-driven entities” created a space for fringe groups to thrive.
The other strand at work is the platforms’ on-again-off-again relationship with the First Amendment. Sometimes, platforms draw a hard line in favor of free speech. Other times, they draw arbitrary or inconsistent ones. This fuzzy math is a vulnerability that, Herrman writes, the far right has turned into a “persecution narrative”: “In the last year, hard-right communities on social platforms have cultivated a pre-emptive identity as platform refugees and victims of censorship.… Their persecution narrative, which is the most useful narrative they have, and one that will help spread their cause beyond the fringes, was written for them years ago by the same companies that helped give them a voice.”
A paper out of MIT’s Media Lab looks at the consequences of the consolidation of the internet into a few large companies, and at possible efforts to decentralize the Web. Very few people have power over what information is spread online, Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula, and Ethan Zuckerman write. This creates a risk for censorship online, either via intentional bias or content curation (which may hide information, even if it is technically available). The authors acknowledge it will be difficult to turn the tide, but profile a number of attempts to distribute content without a third-party intermediary such as Facebook.
More on platforms and power:
- In a review for The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert asks a related question about the concentration of power: Does the market dominance of a Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon constitute a monopoly worthy of antitrust intervention? She is skeptical, but admits that the gatekeepers for journalism have shifted to a (possibly democratic) hierarchy of clicks.
- For Vice, Noah Kulwin reminds us that Facebook has the data to tell us how much Russia really meddled in the election, and the extent of that country’s information operations. While Facebook says it will cooperate with investigators, its obligation to transparency conflicts with its profit motive.
- Follow-up: In March, CJR published a study by Harvard’s Yochai Benkler and colleagues on the right-wing media ecosystem during the election, led by Breitbart. The team has now released a full report looking at how media agendas were set during the election.
- Medium revealed a plan to pay writers who paywall their pieces by delegating payments based on the “claps” readers give to articles.
- Facebook announced it is introducing publisher logos on its trending and search tools, making publisher brand more prominent and thereby “enhancing people’s awareness of the sources of content they read.” Fingers crossed!
Other notable stories
- “When the government is one of your paper’s biggest advertisers”: For CJR, Natalie Schachar writes about the editorial influence the Mexican government is gaining over newspapers in the country through selective funding.
- Univision is seeking to dispose of a lawsuit against Deadspin, which asks $10 million for alleged libel in a critical piece about RJ Bell and his site Pregame. Univision says the suit is meant to intimidate journalists.
- The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which provides quarterly assessments of the digital ad landscape, has released its first guide for marketers buying podcast advertisements.
- The Village Voice is discontinuing its weekly, free print edition. CJR’s Pete Vernon calls it “a symbolic death knell for the print arm of the alt-weekly industry.” The Voice will continue to publish online.
- “Feeling emboldened and increasingly pissed off, I went back to my stolen account and DMed it, accusing its possessor of theft. Minutes later, I got a response: A single heart emoji.” At Wired’s Backchannel, “How My Instagram Hacker Changed My Life.“