Who Is Call­ing the Shots: Social Media Plat­forms or Media Companies?

Dr Rieke C. Harmsen

Just how free and inde­pen­dent are the media? Are the social net­work plat­forms the ones who are call­ing the shots? Is there still a way for media com­pa­nies to hold their ground by means of their news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, and online offers?

in her Duet inter­view with Dr Rieke C. Harm­sen, Dr Cal­daro­la, author of Big Data and Law, dis­cuss­es the cur­rent influ­ence of digi­ti­sa­tion on jour­nal­ism and media.

The way media gath­er rev­enue is chang­ing owing to a lack of income from their tra­di­tion­al source, adver­tis­ing. Mean­while, social media plat­forms are tak­ing over the mar­kets once held by the media. At the same time, how­ev­er, the qual­i­ty is chang­ing because the con­tents are no longer being curat­ed or the cura­tion process is being han­dled dif­fer­ent­ly. What chal­lenges do the media face?

Dr Rieke C. Harm­sen: The pol­i­tics sur­round­ing media have been the sub­ject of heat­ed dis­cus­sion. How can we han­dle the new atten­tion-depen­dent econ­o­my? Renowned media com­pa­nies are under a lot of pres­sure as they must fig­ure out how to improve the way rev­enue is being gen­er­at­ed? Entire mar­kets and adver­tis­ing earn­ings are dis­ap­pear­ing and are land­ing at the door of plat­forms, such as Google, Face­book or YouTube. These plat­forms are reg­u­lat­ing our infor­ma­tion streams by means which are any­thing but transparent.

At the same time, how­ev­er, it has nev­er been more impor­tant for read­ers to obtain qual­i­ty jour­nal­ism. Pub­lish­ing hous­es and jour­nal­ists have to walk a tightrope between rapid online infor­ma­tion und reports which have been thor­ough­ly researched. For the lat­ter we require in-depth knowl­edge and a good fac­tu­al basis in order to ori­ent our­selves and form our own opin­ions. For this require­ment to be met, we need good and secure infor­ma­tion – not to men­tion a respect­ful atti­tude towards dif­fer­ing opinions.

My opin­ion is:

The cri­te­ria for qual­i­ty jour­nal­ism in a dig­i­talised world have not changed. We need objec­tive, fact-based and inde­pen­dent report­ing, con­tents we can eas­i­ly under­stand and as much vari­ety as pos­si­ble in the news cov­er­age.
Diver­si­ty is an impor­tant prin­ci­ple of our democ­ra­cy which we should fuel and support.

Dr Rieke C. Harmsen

As we have already wit­nessed, media com­pa­nies are often being pur­chased by mul­ti-mil­lion­aires from indus­tri­al or com­mer­cial sec­tors or by politi­cians who then influ­ence the con­tent of what is being report­ed or ensure that what is being report­ed is in their favour. What do you think about the rela­tion­ship between the media and social networks?

First of all, it is very impor­tant to dis­tin­guish among the var­i­ous types of media. In Ger­many, for instance, we have a great vari­ety of media: clas­sic news­pa­pers and news por­tals such as SZ, Spiegel or Zeit, pub­lic broad­cast­ers, pri­vate ones, region­al offers, non-prof­it media but also small media com­pa­nies, mag­a­zines, or famous blog­gers. On the oth­er hand, we also have social media, large plat­forms, who also mar­ket them­selves as “media” but have lit­tle in com­mon with qual­i­ty jour­nal­ism. These chan­nels are mere­ly dis­tri­b­u­tion machines, but they are not edi­tors. The fact that they are labelled as “media” puts them in the same cat­e­go­ry as edit­ing desks, a sta­tus which they real­ly do not deserve.

Edit­ing desks, such as those at Spiegel or SZ, have an edit­ing staff which works sep­a­rate­ly from the pub­lish­er or pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny. Many pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies oper­ate in accor­dance with detailed cri­te­ria to ensure qual­i­ty, have legal guide­lines, trans­paren­cy cri­te­ria etc. In this way, edit­ing can remain inde­pen­dent, free, and fol­low our demo­c­ra­t­ic legal frame­work. The press is free and pro­tect­ed by the con­sti­tu­tion and has a checks and bal­ances func­tion in our soci­ety, which is impor­tant and necessary.

How­ev­er, the finan­cial sit­u­a­tion of many pub­lish­ing hous­es has become dif­fi­cult. They are sim­ply no longer able to finance them­selves by means of adver­tis­ing nor can they live off of online sub­scrip­tions.  Rough­ly 90% of media com­pa­nies which pro­duce jour­nal­is­tic con­tent are con­vinced, accord­ing to stud­ies, that the rev­enues from sales, adver­tis­ing and sup­ple­ments are no longer suf­fi­cient to finance clas­sic print media. They have to come up with new solu­tions. They run events, sell wine or pro­duce oth­er prod­ucts which have noth­ing to do with the clas­sic news busi­ness. Nev­er­the­less – at least accord­ing to a 2022 Reuters study con­cern­ing media – the pro­por­tion of online users who employ a news ser­vice which has to be paid for (often a sub­scrip­tion) is on the rise, albeit slow­ly, and has reached the 10% mark. Users have seem­ing­ly realised that qual­i­ty jour­nal­ism comes at a price.

A lot of dif­fer­ent media – espe­cial­ly social media – con­sid­er them­selves to be a mar­ket­place for infor­ma­tion and refuse to take on respon­si­bil­i­ty – at least in the US – for the con­tent of their mar­ket­place. Will this atti­tude remain or is it chang­ing and break­ing down already?

Social media have been under an increas­ing amount of pres­sure late­ly, which is a good thing. Par­tic­u­lar­ly when they dis­trib­ute mes­sages and news, social media must attain the stan­dards of qual­i­ty media and have to do their share to fight fake news. Organ­i­sa­tions, such as Algo­rithmwatch, have good rea­son to com­plain that we do not have enough trans­paren­cy. We must know what the data basis is of these sys­tems and how deci­sions are being made. 

Many plat­forms explain they use likes and com­ments to deter­mine what con­tents are to be shown to users. Stud­ies have shown, also those by Algo­rithmwatch, that many algo­rithms employ a vari­ety of dubi­ous func­tions, such as pref­er­ences or emo­tions, for exam­ple. An exper­i­ment was able to prove that pho­tos with naked skin, for instance, were dis­trib­uted more wide­ly, regard­less of whether the user want­ed to see them or not. A solu­tion could be to allow research insti­tu­tions to have a look at these func­tions, a process which would have a legal basis of course, or at least be able to get a hold of the data in question.

Infor­ma­tion appears on end devices with­out hav­ing a real per­son actu­al­ly say­ing them face-to-face. Because of this imper­son­al nature, it becomes eas­i­er to spread false­hoods and car­ry out smear cam­paigns and bul­ly­ing quite freely, for exam­ple. Are dig­i­tal media feed­ing grounds for con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, rumours or extrem­ist views?

The cred­i­bil­i­ty of the media has suf­fered in the past years, to be sure. The com­pa­ny Medi­aL­ab Bay­ern put togeth­er a study which con­sid­ered the rela­tion­ship between the audi­ence and jour­nal­ists or media. The result was that, although Ger­man media had not lost any of their cred­i­bil­i­ty, the read­ers had still reduced their media con­sump­tion because they sim­ply no longer wished to read so many neg­a­tive reports. Many pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies react­ed by chang­ing the way of report­ing and using meth­ods like “solu­tion jour­nal­ism”. Jour­nal­ists still bring up the prob­lems but sug­gest solu­tions or make clear how a sit­u­a­tion could be changed.

There are also quite a few organ­i­sa­tions and net­works which are all work­ing against con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries and fake news. Many edi­to­r­i­al desks have set up their own fact check­ing units to ver­i­fy state­ments and put them in their prop­er con­text. In this way, emo­tion­al debates, even those appear­ing in social net­works, can be made more fac­tu­al. Among these we can include the “fact find­ers” of the Tagess­chau which specif­i­cal­ly checks and eval­u­ates arti­cles. The Bavar­i­an broad­cast­ing sta­tion has devel­oped a “fact fox data bank” and, at the same time, a num­ber of inter­est­ing start-up com­pa­nies have sprung up, such as the start-up “Facts for Friends” which was ini­ti­at­ed by Katha­ri­na Klimkeit (CEO) and Valerie Scholz (CCO). Final­ly, let’s not for­get about the col­lec­tive group called “Cor­rec­tiv” which offers top notch jour­nal­is­tic reporting.

A num­ber of large com­pa­nies, such as Google and Face­book, have been invest­ing sub­stan­tial amounts of mon­ey in jour­nal­ism. In this way, they help to finance media com­pa­nies, research projects, con­gress­es, train­ing pro­grams and pro­fes­sor­ships. What have been the effects of this type of financ­ing on the world of media?

The infra­struc­ture of the media changes dra­mat­i­cal­ly depend­ing on which coun­try you are con­sid­er­ing. In the US, for instance, there is a long tra­di­tion of sup­port­ing projects and sys­tems. This trend has been mak­ing head­way in Europe now. I view this devel­op­ment with some con­cern. We need to have a debate in Ger­many where we con­sid­er the pub­lic financ­ing of inno­va­tion in the media sec­tor. The sup­port pro­grams of Google and Face­book are mere­ly PR mea­sures, as a poll of media rep­re­sen­ta­tives has made clear, which serve to patch up the shaky rela­tion­ship to the media and, most impor­tant­ly, to avoid regulation.

A study by the Otto Bren­ner Foun­da­tion has shown that finan­cial sup­port is not being dis­trib­uted even­ly, thus lead­ing to an even greater lack of bal­ance in the media world. The ten­den­cy is towards large, com­mer­cial­ly dri­ven media com­pa­nies gain­ing more and more pow­er and influ­ence while small pub­lish­ing hous­es and organ­i­sa­tions, like NGOs or NPO media hous­es, are grad­u­al­ly dis­ap­pear­ing from the world of pub­lish­ing. Oth­er prob­lem­at­ic issues are the lack of trans­paren­cy of the funds, the increas­ing influ­ence on media com­pa­nies, which is lead­ing towards a hes­i­ta­tion to “draw blood,” as it were, and “self-reg­u­la­tion” on the part of jour­nal­ists. Media com­pa­nies are becom­ing tech­no­log­i­cal­ly speak­ing more and more depen­dent while, at the same time, plat­forms are suck­ing away knowl­edge – and we just don’t know what they plan to do with the knowl­edge they have acquired.

I think we need more reg­u­la­tions and state-run pro­grams. We have to push for tech­no­log­i­cal change in media. This could be fund­ed by pub­lic pro­grams and test­ed at uni­ver­si­ties. We should also not for­get about var­i­ous ini­tia­tives and small organ­i­sa­tions as well as NPOs and NGOs and ensure they get their share of the lime­light. How can they be sup­port­ed by larg­er media com­pa­nies with­out being swal­lowed up? How can inno­va­tion in small and mid-sized media com­pa­nies be encour­aged and financed? A foun­da­tion could help to unite the big play­ers at the Euro­pean level.

The media have increas­ing­ly become more influ­en­tial and are becom­ing the instru­ments of pow­er of just a few peo­ple. Media can also be used to ensure that politi­cians, civ­il ser­vants, CEOs and so on lose their posi­tions. They can also serve to fur­ther the inter­ests of cer­tain sec­tors. Have we reached the point where we should start con­sid­er­ing the media to be the fourth area of power?

At the moment, we are expe­ri­enc­ing unprece­dent­ed changes in the media. Large media com­pa­nies are buy­ing up small region­al news­pa­pers which is lead­ing to a real con­sol­i­da­tion of media sys­tems. I have my doubts whether small­er and medi­um-sized pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies will sur­vive, for the legal, statu­to­ry, and tech­no­log­i­cal require­ments have sim­ply become too com­plex. At the same time, I believe diver­si­ty to be an impor­tant prin­ci­ple of our democ­ra­cy. For this rea­son, we have to fig­ure out which instru­ments can be used to pro­tect those small and medi­um-sized pub­lish­ing hous­es, to strength­en their inde­pen­dence and to retain that diversity.

Eth­i­cal ques­tions relat­ing to the media are more rel­e­vant than ever. Dur­ing the past years most edi­tors and news­rooms have under­gone a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. They have had to com­plete­ly change owing to decreas­ing rev­enue from adver­tis­ing, increas­ing glob­al­i­sa­tion and ongo­ing tech­no­log­i­cal trends. Edi­tors have also had to restruc­ture them­selves in terms of organ­i­sa­tion and con­tents. Nowa­days most work fol­low­ing spe­cif­ic guide­lines and press reg­u­la­tions. Val­ues such as pre­ci­sion, inde­pen­dence, objec­tive­ness, human­i­ty, and account­abil­i­ty are being list­ed specif­i­cal­ly in oper­at­ing pro­ce­dures and rules of con­duct. Nam­ing one’s sources is now expect­ed, along with fact check­ing and turn­ing down finan­cial favours. In my opin­ion, many pub­lish­ing hous­es have become more cred­i­ble rather than less in the last few years.

Will new laws be need­ed for dig­i­tal media and tools?

The EU has made a good start con­cern­ing new leg­is­la­tion for the media, par­tic­u­lar­ly with regard to con­sumer rights. The so-called “Dig­i­tal Ser­vices Act“ pro­vides for social net­works and online busi­ness­es to have mea­sures in place to pro­tect users from ille­gal con­tent, goods and ser­vices. Hate post­ings and mis­in­for­ma­tion have to be removed quick­ly by law. In addi­tion, there are also organ­i­sa­tions such as the Euro­pean Jour­nal­ism Obser­va­to­ry which are try­ing to influ­ence EU pol­i­tics as far as qual­i­ty, ethics, free­dom of the press and media poli­cies are concerned.

There are, how­ev­er, some dis­turb­ing devel­op­ments. Crises and wars are endan­ger­ing free­dom of the press at the glob­al lev­el. Free­dom of the press is declin­ing in Ger­many accord­ing to the organ­i­sa­tion Reporter ohne Gren­zen (reporter with­out board­ers). One of the rea­sons for this can be attrib­uted to the hos­tile reac­tions and vio­lence faced by many jour­nal­ists who report­ed on those who were deny­ing that there was a pan­dem­ic, to name one exam­ple, or about var­i­ous crises, gen­er­al­ly speaking.

Fur­ther­more, not all legal devel­op­ments in Ger­many are to be viewed in a pos­i­tive way. The Cyber Secu­ri­ty Strat­e­gy of the Ger­man gov­ern­ment, for instance, is going to lead to more sur­veil­lance. Over 200 jour­nal­ists, for instance, were being mon­i­tored by the spy­ware “Pega­sus”.  We need to strength­en the rights for infor­ma­tion and pro­tect­ing the sources for those work­ing in the media.

Final­ly, the media com­pa­nies will also have to change. Some edi­tors have blurred the dis­tinc­tion between edi­to­r­i­al and com­mer­cial con­tents and are sell­ing “native adver­tis­ing”, mean­ing adver­tis­ing texts which have been inte­grat­ed in the lay­out of the edi­to­r­i­al work. This devel­op­ment harms the cred­i­bil­i­ty of inde­pen­dent news reporting.

How is this sec­tor being affect­ed by AI and Big Data? What devel­op­ments can we expect to see?

Algo­rithms are chang­ing our world. The math­e­mati­cian Cathy O‘Neil said “Algo­rithms are opin­ions embed­ded in code”- and this holds true for jour­nal­ist reports which are based on algo­rithms. We are expe­ri­enc­ing a dra­mat­ic change in how jour­nal­ists work: Many media com­pa­nies are using so-called “robot jour­nal­ism” for weath­er reports or for report­ing on sports. There are speech assis­tance sys­tems and rec­om­men­da­tion algo­rithms on news websites.

Algo­rithms sim­pli­fy our lives and improve many process­es – even in jour­nal­ism. At the same time, how­ev­er, we can see how algo­rithms rein­force the con­tents of fil­ter bub­bles and help spread con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. Of course, this affects our soci­ety. As jour­nal­ists, we have to think about how we want to work and use algo­rithms. We need trans­paren­cy, a code of ethics and need to broad­en the dis­cus­sion about Big Data.

The task of qual­i­ty media is, among oth­er things, to expose wrong­do­ings and to reflect the com­plex nature of soci­ety. For this task to be ful­filled, we need to make sure that a bias is avoid­ed when using algo­rithm-based sys­tems and to sup­port under­rep­re­sent­ed groups.

Dr Harm­sen, thank you for shar­ing your insights with regard to the cur­rent influ­ence of digi­ti­sa­tion on jour­nal­ism and media.

Thank you, Dr Cal­daro­la, and I look for­ward to read­ing your upcom­ing inter­views with recog­nised experts, delv­ing even deep­er into this fas­ci­nat­ing topic.

About me and my guest

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola, LL.M., MBA is the host of “Duet Interviews”, co-founder and CEO of CU³IC UG, a consultancy specialising in systematic approaches to innovation, such as algorithmic IP data analysis and cross-industry search for innovation solutions.

Cristina is a well-regarded legal expert in licensing, patents, trademarks, domains, software, data protection, cloud, big data, digital eco-systems and industry 4.0.

A TRIUM MBA, Cristina is also a frequent keynote speaker, a lecturer at St. Gallen, and the co-author of the recently published Big Data and Law now available in English, German and Mandarin editions.

Dr Rieke C. Harmsen

Dr Rieke C. Harmsen is passionate about digital transformation, innovation and leadership in media and NGOs. The journalist is Chief Editor of Sonntagsblatt.de and Head of Digital for the Media Association EPV in Munich, Germany. The social entrepreneur runs the international photo award “Lagois-Wettbewerb“ as well as a rental-platform for exhibitions (www.ausstellung-leihen.de).

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola, LL.M., MBA is the host of “Duet Interviews”, co-founder and CEO of CU³IC UG, a consultancy specialising in systematic approaches to innovation, such as algorithmic IP data analysis and cross-industry search for innovation solutions.

Cristina is a well-regarded legal expert in licensing, patents, trademarks, domains, software, data protection, cloud, big data, digital eco-systems and industry 4.0.

A TRIUM MBA, Cristina is also a frequent keynote speaker, a lecturer at St. Gallen, and the co-author of the recently published Big Data and Law now available in English, German and Mandarin editions.