As commercial journalism collapses around the world, the platforms’ culpability for defunding news media has attracted increasing scrutiny. Journalism’s sustainability is increasingly threatened by the Facebook and Google duopoly, which devours the lion’s share of digital advertising revenue, at a time when democratic societies desperately need reliable news and information. Thus far, policy measures to rebalance this power relationship have been limited. Moreover, policy debates focused on these issues too often elide the core root of the problem in both diminishing journalism and driving the platforms toward antisocial behavior: namely, unbridled capitalism. With this problem in mind, this essay explores more radical options toward buffering our core news and information systems from corrosive commercial logics.
- Political economy
Many of the world’s print news media outlets today are facing existential threats from the collapse of their advertising revenue-based business model. Much of the blame for this decline has focused on the role of platforms such as Facebook and Google, which devour the lion’s share of digital advertising revenue. The sustainability of journalism in general, and local news in particular, is increasingly threatened by this duopoly. In the U.S., the duopoly controls over 70% of the total online advertising market (including roughly 85% of all new U.S. digital advertising revenue growth), leaving only a pittance for news publishers (Kafka 2018; Myllylahti 2018). Meanwhile, institutions that provide actual quality news and information are being weakened by the loss of audiences and revenues to platforms at a time when democratic societies desperately need reliable journalism. Thus far, however, policy measures to rebalance this market power have been limited at best.
With its massive lobbying power, Facebook wields tremendous political-economic influence over not just information and communication systems themselves, but also the debates about how to regulate these systems. This regulatory capture helps explain how Facebook has been able to deflect responsibility for its actions for so long and maintain its posture as a neutral technology platform. While many argue that Facebook should be treated as a media company and held to relevant legal duties and obligations—as well as norms of social responsibility—Mark Zuckerberg has long refused to even acknowledge that Facebook is anything more than a technology company. While this problem deserves close public scrutiny, history shows us that expecting good corporate behavior simply by shaming information monopolies is a dubious proposition at best and arrangements for self-regulated “social responsibility” are often insufficient (Pickard 2015; Nurik 2021). Building on recent work that draws from historical lessons to argue for a “new social contract” (Pickard 2021) and a “reckoning” with the predictable threats to democracy posed by a lightly regulated, highly commercialized media system (Pickard 2022), my analysis in this essay moves beyond the critique of monopoly power to consider systemic solutions for sustaining digital journalism, especially public alternatives.
After addressing key debates around the harms that Facebook inflicts upon democratic societies, I discuss proposals for platform regulation that range from compelling platform companies to fund a journalism trust to reinventing a new public media system for the digital age. I conclude by focusing on more radical proposals for alternatives to the current profit-driven system, including public ownership. While much of this analysis centers on the U.S. political economy, it holds important implications for democratic nations around the world.
Facebook’s Negative Externalities
Given that media markets produce various externalities (Baker 2002), it is the role of government policy to manage them—to minimise the negative and maximize the positive externalities for the benefit of democratic society. As Facebook extracts profound wealth across the globe, it has generated tremendous negative externalities by mishandling users’ data, abusing its market power, spreading dangerous misinformation and propaganda, and enabling interference in democratic elections in places such as the US and the Philippines (Vaidhyanathan 2018), and even playing role in facilitating ethnic cleansing in Myanmar (Stevenson 2018). As Facebook hurts democracy around the world and disserves its nearly 3 billion users—through mass surveillance, discrimination, and amplifying dis/misinformation and hate speech—it continues to shirk the democratic responsibilities that should automatically attend to any firm that controls such far-reaching communication infrastructures (Pickard 2020b). Given its record thus far, it is now abundantly clear that the firm has garnered far too much power and must be reined in, a concern reflected in chapters across this collection. Amid all this scrutiny, one area of harm is increasingly capturing the attention of policy analysts, critics, and scholars in recent years: Facebook’s effects on news media and journalism (e.g., Bell and Owens 2017; Myllylahti 2018; Martin and Dwyer 2019; Meese and Hurcombe 2020; Napoli 2019; Pickard 2020a).
In various ways, Facebook’s monopoly power corrupts the integrity of vitally important news and information systems. It acts as an algorithm-driven gatekeeper over a primary information source for its billions of users. In the U.S., where Americans increasingly access news through the platform (Gramlich 2021), Facebook’s role in amplifying disinformation has drawn well-deserved scrutiny. Moreover, Facebook’s Basics project has made it the sole portal to the internet for some countries, creating an unhealthy dependency. And, as noted earlier, Facebook and Google are siphoning most of the digital advertising revenue and starving the traditional media publishers that provide original news and information—the same struggling news organizations that these platforms expect to help fact-check against dis/misinformation (Kafka 2018). Journalism’s financial future is increasingly threatened by the Facebook-Google duopoly. At the same time, Facebook in particular is accelerating the spread of dis/misinformation online.
Research consistently shows that commercial news organizations are increasingly relying on social media—especially Facebook—to reach audiences (Cornia et al. 2018), which has several troubling consequences. For starters, it incentivizes editors and journalists to make editorial decisions based on how news stories will likely perform on Facebook, thereby pandering to Facebook’s algorithms and users’ behavior. This exploitative and corruptive relationship pervades every aspect of journalistic labor and content. Facebook’s position as the primary news portal to millions of readers forces precariously employed journalists to tailor their reporting according to what is essentially click-bait criteria.
Making matters worse, editors often reinforce this warped power relationship by constantly informing reporters how their work is faring on Facebook with real-time analytics flashing across their screens. Some newsrooms reportedly display wall-mounted data scoreboards provided by platforms such as Chartbeat, Parse.ly or Google Analytics that display social media metrics of specific stories and audience analytics (Petre 2021; Lamot and Van Aelst 2020; Fürst 2020). Moreover, the newsroom adoption of metrification underpins the ecosystem of companies like Chartbeat, which further intensifies and reinforces this logic (Martin and Dwyer 2019). These dynamics incentivize reporters to churn out controversial, trivial, and sensational content, that, in turn, encourages more people to engage with the Facebook platform for longer periods of time and, while under surveillance, producing more valuable information about themselves. Ultimately, this process generates more advertising revenue that mostly funnels back to Facebook instead of the news organizations and journalists who originally created the media content.
While public scrutiny of these unsavory practices continues to grow, much of it overlooks the structural roots of these problems, especially the commercial motives that accelerate it. Because its business model depends on user engagement and it profits handsomely from the attention paid to viral disinformation, hate speech, and other processes that cause social harm, Facebook is not incentivized to address these problems and is highly unlikely to do so to the extent that is necessary. This systemic failure underscores the need for structural reform. As this edited collection indicates, while there is no shortage of regulatory plans to address this long and growing list of negative externalities, thus far, the platforms have largely abdicated responsibility for taking action on them. One general reason the tech companies—and Facebook in particular—have been able to stave off regulatory interventions and greater accountability is their invocation of freedom of expression and other U.S. First Amendment rights. I interrogate these claims in the following section.
First Amendment Arguments
In the fall of 2019, Mark Zuckerberg made a highly publicized speech at Georgetown University (Kang and Isaac 2019), where he suggested that Facebook’s first concern is to protect freedom of expression. Zuckerberg’s speech was widely panned (and rightly so), but much of what he said reflects common contradictions of liberal democratic discourse. These ideological tensions create openings for someone like Zuckerberg to make outlandish claims that draw on common tropes but fail to withstand even the slightest scrutiny. From First Amendment absolutism to public sphere analysis, liberal/libertarian theories often ignore preexisting structural inequities and therefore often fail to acknowledge how some voices silence others. They conveniently presume a level playing field—an egalitarian “marketplace of ideas”—in which questions of power and exploitation have no purchase. And they typically conflate this marketplace of ideas with the capitalist market that directly and indirectly corrupts so many processes and practices within our communication and information systems.
According to this implicit “pay-to-play” logic, our media and communication systems function effectively if wealthy individuals and corporations can pay to be heard. Any attempt to confront this concentrated power—to create through regulation more opportunities for others to speak or to access information—is condemned as an illegitimate foray into the natural marketplace, seen as an attack on our core freedoms, and amounting to egregious censorship. But the market, itself an artificial creation, routinely censors and distorts speech and expression, especially when driven by advertising revenue (Baker 1994). For example, commercially-driven systems sort us into groups, surveil and target us with specific advertising, and ensure that some types of news information are not as readily available to certain audiences while privileging the access of others—especially those audiences most coveted by advertisers. Internet access itself is often determined by who can afford to pay for it, and according to specific corporate-friendly terms.
To pretend that the capitalist market is the best arbiter of permissible discourse is a core plank of “corporate libertarianism,” defined by the notion that government has no legitimate role in media markets other than facilitating capital accumulation for a small number of elites (Pickard 2015). Of course, the state has always played a key role in designing information and communication systems and remains deeply involved in their governance; pretensions to the contrary are a libertarian fantasy. Nonetheless, it has been particularly challenging to have conversations about policy interventions in the U.S., where for many years discourse has been constrained by this corporate libertarian paradigm and First Amendment absolutism.
These inherent contradictions are rarely called out and provide cover for Zuckerberg to conflate his personal profit motives with the broader interests of democracy. The American media system’s ideological foundation relies on an impoverished view of the First Amendment as dedicated to upholding negative liberties (“freedom from”—usually translated as “freedom from state interference”) instead of positive liberties (“freedom for”), which might include protecting public access to a diverse and informative news media system (Berlin 1969). While the First Amendment encompasses both positive and negative liberties as essential to free expression in a democracy, the latter are easily captured by media corporations. These firms often exploit the libertarian qualities of negative liberties to use as a shield to deflect public interest regulations and public investments in alternative media infrastructures. It also naturalizes the unregulated market as the great defender of democratic discourse.
Public pressure can help steer monopolistic firms toward more responsible behavior for a time, though even that modicum of success is often contingent on a credible threat of regulatory intervention. And indeed, we have witnessed Facebook change course at times—for example, when it finally banned Trump in 2021. But the fact that it took an assault on the U.S. Capitol— an action that was in no small part organized on the platform (Mack et al. 2021)—to finally force Facebook’s hand is very telling. In the next section, I look more closely at the political economic conditions that gird Facebook’s position—and present opportunities for necessary structural reforms.
Political Economic Arguments
Many of the harms that Facebook externalizes to societies across the globe stem from its core business model, which relies on what is essentially a massive surveillance machine.1 While many observers may have once viewed Facebook positively, the American public increasingly sees the company as a monopoly intent on doing whatever it takes to make as much money as possible (e.g., Reilly 2017). Moreover, like all monopolies, Facebook has shown that it will fight tooth and nail to retain that market power, even resorting to unsavory methods. A November 2018 New York Times story revealed that Facebook hired a disreputable public relations firm to smear adversaries with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (Nicas and Rosenberg 2018). Pursuing profit to the detriment of democratic considerations, Facebook continually dodges efforts toward transparency and accountability.
At the same time, growing concerns about Facebook’s unregulated power has engendered a rare bipartisan consensus that government must rein in platform monopolies. Until recently, the concept of regulating technology firms seemed unfathomable, but now even Republican policymakers—sometimes for ill-founded reasons such as the belief that Facebook is politically biased against conservatives—believe they have become so powerful that government must intervene. Even Zuckerberg, who is notoriously reluctant to take responsibility for causing social problems, has had to shift his rhetorical strategy to concede that perhaps Facebook should be subject to certain regulations (Isaac 2019). Facebook has continued to profess a pro-regulatory stance for several years.2 On Valentine’s Day 2021, Facebook even ran a full-page ad in the New York Times announcing that it supported “updated internet regulations.” Of course, this begs the obvious question: what kind of regulation? Tamping down public criticism and responsibilities for content moderation—if it preserves profits—serves Facebook quite well.
Answering the question about what regulation should look like requires us to directly confront the impact of platform monopolies on journalism. Monopoly ownership is a broad structural threat to a healthy information system, affecting everything from control of internet access to the range of voices in our news media. Fortunately, a growing anti-monopoly movement in the US, as well as stronger stances toward platforms from many countries around the world, has offered some hope that these giants might be cut down to size. Indeed, in recent years have witnessed a growing clamor of antitrust initiatives, championed by politicians such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and advocacy groups such as the Open Markets Institute.
At the ideational level, this movement benefits from a growing consensus that something must be done to confront concentrated corporate power in general and the new tech monopolies in particular, coinciding with a growing “techlash” against Silicon Valley-based internet firms (The Economist 2018). A lively debate has emerged in recent years—mostly on the left but also including people from across the political spectrum—that champions what is sometimes referred to as the Jeffersonian or neo-Brandeisian approach, which emphasizes breaking up monopolies.
The neo-Brandeisian approach (named after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis), which sees centralized control to be the most worrisome evil that must be prevented at all costs, focuses on breaking up concentrated market power and encouraging competition, primarily through antitrust measures (Wu 2018).
This framework underpins much of the U.S. anti-monopoly movement, whose main objective is to break up monopolies into smaller units along structural lines, thus creating a much more decentralized economic environment in which numerous firms compete for consumers. Anti-monopoly activists rightly identify the Chicago School of Economics as responsible for reorienting antitrust law toward what is known as the “consumer welfare standard,” which emphasizes purported consumer benefits over public interest considerations such as unemployment and protecting small businesses. During the Reagan administration, this approach became the dominant paradigm, with the government willing to approve mergers so long as companies promised to keep prices low. Regulatory bodies exhibited less concern toward other well-known problems related to concentrated economic and political power, which led to highly concentrated industries exacting terrible social costs (Khan 2017).
There is much to admire in the anti-monopoly arguments. The platforms are, after all, simply too big. They have become vertically integrated monstrosities, wielding a degree of political power incompatible with a functioning democracy. Calls for “smashing them to bits” may sound quite appealing, even radical. But on closer examination we can see that this would not solve many of the information problems we face. While it is true that American antitrust enforcement has been overly lax for decades, leading to highly concentrated news and information industries, an over-emphasis on this strategy has drawbacks. Certainly, the ideal of maintaining robust competition among many small producers is noble—and the desire to break up vertically integrated monopolies, oligopolies, and cartels a legitimate and necessary objective.
A major limitation to the neo-Brandeisians’ anti-monopoly approach, however, is its tendency to critique the size of monopolies and the lack of competition, rather than the commercial values that drive them toward perverse incentives. Such a critique tends to overlook structural questions about whether media systems should be governed by commercial motives and relationships in the first place. Simply reducing the size and multiplying the number of commercial outlets that depend on surveillant advertising, disseminating low-quality content, and undervaluing democratic concerns will likely not solve all our challenges. In other words, Facebook presents a capitalism problem, not just a monopoly problem.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, some progressive advocates argue for maintaining centralization. Part of this position rests on the notion that greater efficiencies stemming from scale and scope may create benefits for workers and consumers because large producers are easier to unionize and regulate. Within this regulated monopoly paradigm, big government can serve as a countervailing force against the excesses of big capital. The neo-Brandeisians, for their part, criticize this position as overly accommodationist, locking in and legitimating concentrated corporate power. The neo-Brandeisian notion that “big is bad”—or, as Brandeis himself referred to it, “the curse of bigness”—benefits from an intuitively resonant rhetoric of justice. Moreover, the desire to trust-bust monopolies has a populist appeal, connects with a rich history, and often presents itself as the radical—or at least the more progressive—option in policy debates. But in fact, the neo-Brandeisian approach is, in some ways, a deeply conservative position; it sees a fair and orderly market as the proper regulator of news media. In other words, it assumes that a highly capitalistic media system can serve democracy well, if only we managed it appropriately, especially via competitive markets.
It is becoming increasingly clear that antitrust is a necessary but insufficient intervention in designing a democratic communication and information system. While some advocates take this recognition to suggest the goal should be break-up and regulate (Kimmelman 2019), there is also a third way. What both the regulatory and antitrust approaches lack is a systemic critique of the market’s failure to support public goods—that is, private firms’ underproduction of the high-quality information that is fundamental for a democratic society to operate effectively. Unaccountable monopoly power is both a contributing factor to, and symptom of, this structural problem. If our ultimate goal is to create something different from the “surveillance capitalism” that drives so much of our digital news and information systems (Zuboff 2019; Foster and McChesney 2014), then it is clear that we need publicly-owned, democratic alternatives.
Much of the low-quality information that permeates through our news media system results from commercial pressures that privilege particular types of news coverage over others—not the malfeasance of a few bad journalists or news organizations. For example, Facebook designs its algorithms to encourage its users to engage with content on the platform primarily to sell targeted ads and drive corporate profits. As users, we are more likely to engage with material that has an emotional pull—for example, if something makes us angry or scares us. Hence, Facebook’s algorithms reward content that fuels outrage—which mainstream news media produces by emphasizing social and political conflict. Consumer tracking and profiling encourages advertisers and news outlets to focus their efforts on narrowly tailored clickbait, regardless of a story’s veracity. In the end, commercial logics and, specifically, the need to maximize profits via advertising revenue over all other concerns, drive our news and information systems, thereby enabling and amplifying misinformation. Low-quality information is not a defect of these systems, it is an essential feature.
The assumption that digital media somehow magically transcended these capitalistic imperatives was always an ideological assumption, not an empirical one—as even a cursory glance at the long historical record would indicate, from telephony to broadcast media. Indeed, by now the data are incontrovertible in demonstrating what happens when corporate monopolies dominate a highly commercialized information system. These systems are typically beset with predictable harms, hazards, negative externalities, and perverse incentives that might be good for business but are often very bad for democracy. The recurring unwillingness to see something so obvious is another reminder that if we do not understand the logics of a commercial media system—and the resultant effects of capitalism on news and information systems—we will always be taken by surprise by bad actors’ bad behavior, and we will always ascribe this behavior to individuals—that of outliers and “bad apples”—instead of fundamental systemic flaws. Nonetheless, the never-ending quest for a self-regulatory fix continues apace, which I turn to next.
The Problem with Social Responsibility
The assumption that a social contract should guide corporate giants’ operations is a recurring theme in policy history (Pickard 2021). Yet, unlike “natural monopolies” or public utilities of old, Facebook has avoided close regulatory oversight and shirked meaningful public interest requirements in exchange for the many benefits that society grants it. One possible approach toward finally establishing a new social contract might include a revamped “social responsibility” regime. On the surface, this may appear to be a positive development. And indeed, such an arrangement would likely be a marked improvement considering our current predicament. But democratic societies might consider cautionary tales and historical lessons before going too far down this path.
Social responsibility harkens back to earlier formations regarding regulation—or lack thereof—of the press. One key example is the U.S. Hutchins Commission—a blue ribbon panel tasked with defining press freedoms in the 1940s—which was famously tasked with the core question of “whether the giants should be slain or persuaded to be good.” Ultimately, they decided that it was better to try to publicly pressure media firms into good behavior instead of aggressively regulate them. Although such experiments with media self-regulation have failed in many ways (Pickard 2015), this is precisely where we seem to be headed today with the Facebook Oversight Board and similar efforts that appear to show a self-reformed Facebook take on more responsibility. The reality, however, is that Facebook’s political economic power—with all its attendant harms—remains intact.
At the same time, we are beginning to see interesting resolutions around the world that aim to recalibrate some of these power relationships. For example, the Australian approach to platform regulation recommended by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC 2019) has led to an instructive power struggle and gives us an opportunity to see a more aggressive standoff between platform monopolies and national governments. Generally speaking, this legislation forces platforms like Facebook and Google to compensate media companies for using their content. In actuality, however, many flaws and uncertainties compromise this plan, which has received critical scrutiny from academics and sundry critics, many of whom cast doubt on the efficacy of such policy interventions in saving local, independent journalism (Meese and Hurcombe 2020; Pickard 2019; Winseck 2020). Too often, this “platforms vs. publishers” frame emphasizes an aggrieved industry over the information needs of democratic societies. Nonetheless, this plan is serving as a default model that many countries are currently considering around the world.
While silver-bullet policy solutions are elusive, increased public scrutiny offers a fleeting opportunity to hold an international debate about what interventions are best suited to address informational deficits and social harms. Above all else, these problems necessitate structural reforms. Shaming digital monopolies into good behavior or tweaking market incentives are, in the end, of limited utility. With platform monopolies accelerating a worldwide journalism crisis, a new social contract is required that, at the very least, includes platform monopolies paying into a global public media fund.
Taxing the Platforms to Fund Journalism
Although platform monopolies have not single-handedly caused the journalism crisis—overreliance on advertising revenue and structural shifts in the transition to digital formats are the primary causes—they have exacerbated the overall precarity facing the newspaper industry by defunding and compromising news content. Not only do these firms bear significant responsibility, they also command profound resources. But thus far, the platforms have funded only modest initiatives to support journalism, mostly bound up in optimizing news outlets’ performance on Facebook (for an overview, see Pickard 2019, 2020a). Meanwhile, proposals have proliferated for more meaningful reforms that seek to redistribute revenues from the platforms to news publishers, with some seeking a more radical redress than others.
As noted earlier in discussing the ACCC plan, a general proposal that has gained much mainstream support—especially from politicians and publishers—is that the platforms should more fairly distribute their digital advertising revenues back to news media industries. At first glance, this seems fair and reasonable. But this proposal neglects the fact that there simply is not enough money in digital advertising to support the level of journalism that democratic societies require. In the U.S. alone, the newspaper industry has lost tens of billions of dollars since the early 2000s, predating the rise of Facebook. Thus, platform monopolies are responsible for only a percentage of such losses—even if the newspaper industry would argue that it is a very significant percentage (MaLoon 2019). A key concern with such schemes based on compensation to the aggrieved commercial news industry is the risk that these plans will disproportionately help incumbent big publishers who are themselves complicit in exacerbating the journalism crisis through consolidation and job cuts. Such restorationist proposals would arguably only reify the worst tendencies of commercial media, and likely make communication problems even worse, especially for disadvantaged communities (Pickard 2020a). Instead, privileging smaller independent, nonprofit organizations is arguably a better plan to ensure that such money actually goes toward sustainable, local journalism that societies need.
Another growing argument, one that I have also made (Pickard 2018, 2019, 2020a), is that the platforms should help fund the journalism that they are depriving of resources, but to direct that money towards funding public media. I propose that platforms pay a small percentage of their ample profits toward a journalism trust, which would generate hundreds of millions of dollars per year. The media reform organization Free Press (Karr and Aaron 2019) has similarly called for a digital advertising tax (which, of course, would be applied almost entirely toward the two big platforms), and the advocacy group Public Knowledge has called for a creating a “super fund” that the platforms pay into to help finance public service journalism (Stella 2020). Another proposal has called for establishing a $1 billion international public interest media fund to support investigative news organizations around the world, protecting them from violence and intimidation (Lalwani 2019). Similarly, the Cairncross Review, a detailed report on the future of British news media, called for a new institute to oversee direct funding for public-interest news outlets (Waterson 2019).
While all these proposed plans would be positive steps to varying degrees, ultimately such “offsets” do not strike at the core problem and could even be counterproductive for the long-term goal of taming and democratizing platform monopolies. In the following final section, I briefly discuss more radical and structural interventions.
Radical Imaginaries and Possibilities
Democratic societies faced with run-amok monopoly capitalism have three general tools at their disposal. First, they can break up monopolies and trust that a more competitive market will help tame destructive behavior. Second, they can regulate monopolistic firms and attempt to offset against social harms and negative externalities. Or third, they can try to create public alternatives that are not subject to the same market pressure and therefore, if designed and governed appropriately, can operate according to more socially beneficial logics. I have touched on the first two of these approaches but now will turn to the third option as I conclude this essay. While short-term reforms aimed at curbing Facebook’s power and any efforts toward bolstering journalism should be applauded, we also must recognize that these are not, by and large, long-term, systemic solutions. In my view, only deep structural reform can assure democratic outcomes and more permanent solutions to the many problems we currently face.
To create the information and communication systems that democracy requires necessitates more radical, structural reform. While many such reforms—nationalizing the platforms, for example—are often cast out of bounds before the conversation even begins, and, moreover, the prospects of such radical futures are always remote, there are some promising signs afoot that suggest we can dare imagine more meaningful change. At the very least, it stands to argue, we should begin with attempting major structural reform before we fall back on less ambitious measures.
These more radical trajectories of change typically fall along several axes. One is the attempt to radicalize from within, especially among the tech workers themselves, who have been one the strongest vectors of political action against the platforms. For example, in recent years Google workers have made important political interventions, such as in 2018 when 20,000 employees staged a global walkout to protest sexual harassment. Given their key positions within the platform monopolies’ larger power structures, tech workers could play an important role by organizing at multiple levels and democratizing these firms from the inside (Petcoff and Tarnoff 2021).
Another argument for reform—one grounded in mainstream economic theory and American history—is the notion that these platforms should be seen and treated as public utilities (Srnicek 2019; Schiller 2020; Muldoon 2020). If we start to move in that direction, we can easily imagine a host of new—and meaningful—public interest obligations (Pickard 2020b, 2021, 2022). While calls for renewed regulations from the broadcast era such as the Fairness Doctrine are likely implausible and unworkable for platforms, we could certainly argue for sensible protections and guardrails against the worst excesses (Pickard 2015; Napoli 2019). This might include “signal boosting” reliable information within Facebook news feeds and Google searches to increase its visibility in feeds and searches (Kornbluh and Goodman 2020).
Beyond regulatory measures, however, a more effective approach might be outright public ownership, including cooperative movements (see, for example, Hanna and Brennan 2020). Any move toward this direction would, over time, radically restructure labor relations and ownership structures, ultimately democratizing not only platform monopolies but entire sectors of our news and information systems. Some discussions around such proposal have emerged—for example, talk of a “public interest social media platform” in Australia and the notion that the BBC can be redesigned and expanded to compete with search engines and social media in the UK by presenting a non-commercial alternative. Even if, overall, these more radical reformist proposals are still in their infancy and remain mostly discursive, they are increasingly being taken seriously and may offer glimmers of hope for a more democratic future.
Ultimately, we must recall that media corporations are a social construct and their values, design principles, and relationships to individuals and communities are malleable according to social needs and public policies. As members of democratic societies, we have the power to change platform monopolies if we collectively decide to do so and make new policies for the greater good. It is up to us to decide that our media institutions must serve democracy first and foremost as opposed to mere profit imperatives. Our concerns should not be guided by the expectations of established industry players since this ongoing debate is not really about them, it is about us.
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Pickard, V. (2022). Can Journalism Survive in the Age of Platform Monopolies? Confronting Facebook’s Negative Externalities. In: Flew, T., Martin, F.R. (eds) Digital Platform Regulation. Palgrave Global Media Policy and Business. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-95220-4_2
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