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Over the past year of publishing this podcast, we’ve looked again and again at the issue of the power of tech platforms in society. Now, there is a book titled The Power of the Platforms: Shaping Media and Society, by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Sarah Anne Ganter, just published at the end of last month by Oxford University Press.
I had the chance to catch up with Rasmus, who is the Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford, about what they learned in writing the book, and the complexities of the subject.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.
So you are the author, with Sarah Anne Ganter, of The Power of Platforms: Shaping Media and Society. And you start with two quotes in this book at the outset. One is from Ernest Burgess from 1928. “Modern social organization is formed and reformed by means of communication. Changes in communication may therefore afford indexes of wider and more complicated changes taking place in society.”
And the second quote comes from someone my listeners may be more familiar with, Mark Zuckerberg from 2018, in which he said, “we didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility and that was a big mistake, and it was my mistake and I’m sorry. So now we have to go through all of our relationships with people and make sure we’re taking a broad enough view of our responsibility.”
Why did you start with these two framing quotes?
Rasmus Kleis Nielson:
Well, I’m a communications researcher first and foremost, like my colleague Sarah. And I suppose that the Burgess quote is there because I believe both intellectually and substantially that communications, the way in which people share symbols in time and space, is one of the defining features of our societies. And I think we often look at it in a way that looks at the outcomes of communications without looking that much at the institutional processes and how they change over time. And that of course is a sort of central focus of the book analytically.
The Zuckerberg quote we picked because I think one of the things that both journalists and scholars have analyzed, in the last decade or so, is that we have a limited number of very large, predominantly US based, for profit platform companies that have become a small part of almost everything that almost everybody with an internet connection does online. And in the process of that, they become entwined with a whole range of human practices, ranging from the mundane to the profound, often in ways that are quite ambiguous, and even very controversial or harmful in some cases.
And I think it’s clear that the Zuckerberg quote illustrates that the people who run these companies themselves have realized often belatedly that, with that incredible commercial success and that incredible uptake across individuals and institutions, common responsibility and a responsibility that companies that were founded to help college students figure out who of their classmates you thought were hot or find things in the internet, weren’t necessarily thinking about, as they succeeded and grew very rapidly, but they are defining features. Those responsibilities are defining features of our societies today. And it’s clear that the companies need to content with what they have wrought, but we as societies need to understand what has been wrought and how we think about the way in which they phase up to those responsibilities.
So I teach about these issues of tech, media and democracy, looking at the relationship between platforms and publishers. And I think it’s fair to say that there’s a sense in the people that work in this space that, certainly democracy is in a moment of crisis. We’re seeing democratic backsliding all over the globe. Here in the United States we have our own particular brand of it, as you do in Britain. Do you agree that we’re in a kind of civic emergency in democracies? And do you situate this relationship between platforms and publishers as part of that emergency? Or as separate, but related to it?
Rasmus Kleis Nielson:
Well, I mean, I think it’s abundantly clear that we are in a period of democratic recession, as many political scientists have argued over the last 10 years or so. And I think it’s very clear that the way in which the rise of platform companies play out in different societies must be understood in the context of that democratic recession. And it’s also clear I think, that we have seen that in societies in which the governing elites either make no pretense of abiding by any kind of democratic norms or small-l liberal values, such as the rule of law, they will use all sorts of their disposal, including platforms to engage in any kind of behavior, including genocide and the like, as they see fit.
And that the platforms have not always acted to inhibit them in any way from doing that. So I think that the way in which platforms operate in our societies are profoundly impacted by the democratic recession with great, great differences. I’ve heard many people attribute the election of Donald Trump with this many votes from retirees watching TV to the rise of social media. I’ve heard rather fewer attribute the many successive election victories of Angela Merkel in Germany to the rise of social media. So I don’t think there is sort of a simple relationship between the two, but it’s very clear of course, in societies with asymmetrical elite polarization and weak institutions, the emergence of new platforms that play a very important role in our societies and aren’t necessarily themselves interested in directly governing the politics in a way that might alienate some powerful actors, and may not feel it’s their responsibility to do so, is playing out in very troubling ways. In liberal democracies, but even more so in many countries in the global south.
So you used a word there, asymmetric, which is another word that appears in the book in a different context where you’re talking about the relationship between platforms and publishers in particular. And the book is about that, the book is about that relationship. You write, “our core argument is that the power of platforms is deeply relational based on their ability to attract end users and partners like publishers. Platform power is a generative form of power exercised through socio-technical systems built by companies that draw many different third parties in by empowering them to do things that each of them value and want, while in the process leading them to become ever more dependent on the platform in question, increasingly intertwined in highly asymmetric relations.” This doesn’t feel like a good trajectory.
Rasmus Kleis Nielson:
I think it’s a trajectory that I like to think we identify many problematic or troubling aspects of. And like any concentration of power in our societies, the concentration of platform power too, is something that merits constant scrutiny, from a sort of democratic point of view. I mean, I think the asymmetry there is very clear. I think for anyone who has been at the receiving end of treatment from a platform company that they were discontent with, whether they were an individual who saw a piece of content that they had posted being reduced or removed by content moderation practices, or for that matter a business that may be discontent with the terms of trade or their ability to collect data or the like, that the moment in which the relation becomes not just empowering, but also in some way inhibiting or challenging for the partner at the other end of that relationship with the platform, the asymmetry becomes very clear.
And when a partner or an individual user tries to raise the issue or affect some kind of change, it often becomes clear that this is largely at the platform’s discretion, whether they want to respond to something and sometimes it can be quite hard to even get any reaction at all. So that’s core, I think to the argument in the book, and I think this is something that is well understood and has been for years amongst publishers in particular, that while there are some big publishers who as one CEO confidently told us, “if I have a problem with Facebook, I call Mark.” That’s not the experience of the vast majority of publishers, even very big publishers across the world as we document throughout the book. Even very strong and confident publishers will often, at least in private and off the record, recognize that they have very limited leverage, ultimately with the platforms.
Now, a feature of this though, that we grew increasingly interested in over time is, well the risks that come with embracing the platforms are very clear. They’ve been illustrated many times over the years, most dramatically with demand media being hit by an update to the Google search algorithms, or for that matter Upworthy being hit by changes to the Facebook newsfeed ranking algorithms. And if a growing number of publishers are quite vocal and quite public in their criticism of the platforms and their reservations about the way in which platforms exercise their power, we highlight in particular the many reservations expressed publicly by News Corp led by Rupert Murdoch of course, and by Axel Springer led by Mathias Döpfner. Why is it then, that publishers continue to engage with platforms? Not just the big incumbents, Google for search, Facebook for a long time for social media– in particular Big Blue, the original Facebook offering– but also continually engage with new products from the same companies, as well as new entrants or other platforms that compete, even if they might be much smaller with the biggest incumbents.
And I think that’s where we wanted to highlight also, if you will, the generative aspects of platform power, the way in which they enable things that we as individuals, but also publishers at organizations want to achieve. And I think over time leads to a situation in which again, publishers like many of us as individuals are both empowered by and dependent upon the platforms and continue to engage with them. Not because they are naive about the risks involved, not because they misunderstand a relation with a symmetrical or equal relation, but because they on balance believe in the light of their own ideals and interests, that they are willing to accept the risks and accept the compromises because they consider the upsides of engaging to be bigger than the risks, the opportunities, if you will, to outweigh the risks or downsides of engaging with the platforms.
And we can see this in the book. I suppose one example we focus on– one of the high points, there have been many– of very public confrontation between some publishers and Facebook was also a time in which Facebook launched several new video focused offerings. And they had absolutely no problems finding publishing partners, including some publishing partners that were quite vocal critics of Facebook but were, again, more than happy to engage with a new offering often without being paid anything. Though of course, one of the key concerns often has been the question of enumeration for content.
So these platforms that you say are enabling us to acquire what we want to achieve– I think that you said something along that line, this idea of helping us get what we achieve, what we would like to do in the world– aren’t they also changing what we want to achieve?
Rasmus Kleis Nielson:
I think that’s a really important point. And again, I want to recognize that we’re building on the work of many other social scientists here that are great to respect. I mean, in particular José van Dijck from the Netherlands who’s written, I think insightfully both on her own and with coauthors about these issues for some years. She’s long talked about what she calls the culture of connectivity, where each of us as individuals begin to think that terms such as “like,” or a term such as “friend,” acquire new dimensions of meaning as we become acculturated to using platforms that employ this terminology. Now we like things in a somewhat different, if supplementary not substitutional, way from what we might have done for 20 years ago. A friend too, has required new additional meanings to what it may have had before the rise of Facebook. To follow someone, it used to be considered quite creepy and I suppose the mentions of it still are, but now we use the term in an additional and supplementary way.
So yes, I think this is the case for organizations too, to some point that, in particular in the early days of the relationship between publishers and platforms, some of the ways in which platforms present themselves to the world involve all sorts of metrics. These metrics have an underlying component that is data, measurable, quantifiable data. But of course they also involve a set of choices about what is measured, how that is defined. How does one define a view, for example, is it two seconds? Is it three seconds? Is it more than that? What does it mean to have an impression? What is a user, for example? What does an active user?
All these choices that were at, the same time informing the decisions that publishers made about how to engage with different platforms, but of course also were often made in a way that incentivized engagement with the platform and gave publishers reasons to think that if they started behaving in certain ways, that would ultimately be rewarded with things that they sought either expressed in the different sort of currencies offered by the platform or ultimately expressed in ways that publishers would more conventionally think of success.
This could be editorial, but of course also commercial. Would it contribute to loyal returning users on the app or website of the publisher? Would it result in advertising revenue? Would it result in conversions to subscriptions for those who offered such? So, yes. I mean, I think over time it is possible that this will influence the way in which organizations, as with us as individuals, think about what good looks like. And that’s one of the reasons that we write in the book that in the short term actors make choices, but in long term these choices become structures and begin to influence the choices that we make in the future. What I would add is that I think it’s very important to recognize how thoughtful people are about this. The same way that I have just said that the term “friend,” has acquired a new meaning, additional meaning, in everyday language, for those who use Facebook for example.
I would also say that most of us are perfectly capable of using the term in that way without confusing that meaning of the word “friend,” with other meanings of the word “friend”. And similarly, I would also say that the research that Sarah and I did for the book suggests that, not necessarily all publishers all the time, but most publishers most of the time and I would say increasingly so over time, are growing wise to the important of clarity about what they are trying to achieve and what they will know whether they are succeeding, rather than letting their decision making be guided by what they hear is fashionable to do on platforms and solely be guided by metrics that platforms are, for metrics that of course will be at least in part informed by the strategic priorities and interests of the platform company in question.
So you talked about three types of power that the platforms have over publishers in general. They have hard economic and political power, that they can use of course to influence or prevent decisions, including influencing governments. And they have soft forms of cultural power. And then they have sort of distinct and very kind of tactical power over publishers, quite literally knobs and dials that they can turn that back to the publisher’s business, sort of their ability to reach audiences. This book’s a great text for taking anybody through the specifics of those forms of power. I think you sort of theorized it very well. Do you feel like there are people who are in the publishing community who are actively rebelling against those various forms of power? And are there any publishers that you think are successful in so doing?
Rasmus Kleis Nielson:
I’m glad that you find it generative and I also want to really want to stress that the book deals with platform power in many different ways, and hard power and soft power remain very important forms of power. These are not unique to platform companies, but obviously large profitable companies that employ tens of thousands of people also wield both hard and soft power as publishers do too.
But platform power, I suppose we believe is at least to a degree distinct and new and novel. The power to set standards, the power to make and break connections, and the systems that the platform companies offer up to users and third party complementers. The power of automated action of scale, where things happen near instantaneously when you search for something or when you open an app that offers you a social feed. The sort of power that comes with the opacity of much of this, where the asymmetry is not just about power, but also information symmetry where the platform will know much more about what happens on its products and services than anybody else. Why it happens and the like. And of course a power that often operates across the domains where data that’s collected say through a video sharing side is in turn also used to inform advertising display decisions across programmatic network or something like that.
I think the way in which publishers have responded, I think many of our interviewees would themselves point out to us that there were early years where some of this was quite diffused with sort of a FOMO, a fear of missing out, that many of us also know as individual users of some of these platforms, I suppose. And there’s a classic scenario often described to us in conversations is that, your boss sent you an email at 11 at night, “why does Digiday report that Buzzfeed is generating a gazillion views across all known planets in the universe from users of this fancy new social media app? What is our strategy for it?” And people would have to sort of, quite often hustle and improvise and respond to what was reported in the trade press or what the platform companies themselves said about some new venture.
And it could often be quite hard to determine, is this actually something that fits us? Is this something that is successful for us? Is this something that will generate a reasonable return on investment from an editorial point of view or commercial point of view, for us given our ambitions and our position in the market? Over time I would say that our research suggests that more and more publishers have become clear about what they are trying to achieve, and we sketch sort of a continuum from publishers who are primarily focused on onsite reach, building up loyal, returning users on their own apps or websites, often with the aim of converting them to subscribers, though it can also be public service media who in effect, require a strong, direct connection with much of the public to legitimize the funding markets that they rely upon.
Versus at the other end of the extreme, if you will, publishers who deliberately and knowingly pursued offsite scale, often because they came to the conclusion that given the intense competition for attention, their chances of really building the audience that they sought for editorial and commercial purposes by privileging an onsite approach was very limited, and that in this very competitive environment where platforms are more and more important for how people find and access information including news, in fact, while it would increase their reliance in platforms, they saw the opportunities in the offsite reach that could be delivered through a plethora of different platform products and services. And deliberately doubled down and invested in that.
So I think we’ve seen a greater and greater differentiation of what different publishers want and a greater and greater clarity amongst many publishers as to how to measure whether they are in fact achieving what they want and whether they are able to balance out the risk that necessarily comes, whether relying on any one platform, by building up quite a diverse portfolio of different platforms that they rely on so that they pursue the opportunity that offered primarily really by Google search and for a long time, Facebook is the two by far most important drivers of referrals and offsite reach. But also built a diverse portfolio of other platforms to hedge against the risk of relying on any one of them.
And I suppose that is a form of success in itself, the greater clarity amongst many publishers about what are we trying to achieve? What are the means that our disposal? What are the risks that come with those means? And how do we hedge against those risks by ensuring some diversity? That I think is a form of success and something I think suggested a maturation, if you will, of the industry that has happened over the last years. And again, I really want to stress, I think any kind of discourse that suggests that publishers are naive about these things or stupid about these things is disrespectful and frankly wrong, I would say based on our interviews. And this is from a wide range of different publishers. But it’s also, I think, important to recognize that while they are few, there are important examples of individual publishers who have decided that, “you know what, we are not going to join this and we are not going to chase every platform or every protocol service offered by every platform. We will be a bit more selective about who we engage with and what we engage with.”
Some of this is quite discrete, if you will, and not necessarily shouted from the rooftops. And our individual publishers will say, “well TikTok, that’s very exciting and we totally see why some people are embracing it, but it’s not right for us.” Or who look at Twitter and says, “well Twitter, that’s all very well and good, but it drives so few referrals and converts so little to subscribers that we will automate our Twitter feeds because we’re not going to invest time and effort into a human editorial…”
So you have these, I would say sort of quiet, below the radar tactical decisions by individual publishers. We’re going to bet on this, not on that, or we’re going to bet this amount of time and effort into this and much less in this other thing. But of course you also have some important and very public examples of publishers who have said very explicitly, “we have decided that the risks, often long term risks that come with a particular platform or a particular platform product are risks we’re not willing to take, and we will not be part of it.” I think the most famous, rightly so example of this is in the wake of Rupert Murdoch declaring the first, what he called a poke-hole debate over the value of content in 2009, the decision by the Times of London to use robot exclusion protocols to not be indexed in Google search for quite a long time.
I thought that was a very clear decision, a very clear example of a publisher who cited that this is not something we want. And when you speak to people at the Times of London, we don’t name people we talk to in the book, but I think I can safely say that such a choice of course comes at a price, when a single search engine is very, very dominant in the market for search and delivers a large share of referral. And so there is a prize for such a decision, but it’s a decision that publishers could take and have taken on a few occasions where they decided this was better for them long term.
Another example of this is Stuff, the publisher from New Zealand that stepped back from Facebook a few years ago, and I believe that Falha de Sao Paulo in Brazil has also stopped publishing to its Facebook page. Though of course, in both cases, neither of those publishers do anything to try to limit individual citizens’ ability to share their stories on Facebook, for example. So presumably still get at least some Facebook referral traffic, even though they’ve clearly reduced their investment in the platform and thus also their reliance on the platform.
You have five chapters in this book. The second chapter, you chart the history of the relationship between platforms and publishers. The third you look at how publishers are adapting, adjusting to the existence of the platforms. The fourth you look deeply at Google and Facebook. And then the fifth is more of a kind of summary of this idea of platform power, and you put forward a variety of questions about the ecosystem more generally. One of the things I’m interested in is what you describe as this way that the platforms have evolved in this policy and regulatory vacuum. And just on the heels of that, we talk about the ambivalence of platform power. Can you talk about how these two dynamics have shaped the media and information ecosystem we have at the moment?
Rasmus Kleis Nielson:
I think the first thing to recognize here is that there is a very clear historical precedent for what we’ve seen with the rise of platforms, which is that in most of the world in which we have good scholarship, it’s very clear that the early years or even decades of new information and communication technologies are often characterized by a combination of attempts to use existing policies, often in quite half-hearted fashions and often in ways that don’t fully capture what is emerging in a society, to regulate and oversee new median technologies. With what policy scholars call negative policy, policy of deliberate non intervention, of course often in part informed by lobbying from growing companies who don’t want to be regulated anymore than most other companies want to be regulated, and often have been able to influence decision makers and make the case that this is a new sector of the economy. We don’t know what’s going to work. We don’t know how regulation will impact it. And often in that sense have been quite successful at starving off or shaping any new kind of regulation.
We know this development from radio in many parts of the world, United States being a key example of this. And also in some markets parts of the television industry has worked like this. And of course in much of the world, print for a long time, was subject to very limited regulations and publishers, I think toast every year to long may it remain so.
So the policy vacuum is real, even as of course at the same time platforms are subject to many kinds of regulation like all businesses are. There are very real vacuums here and I think we are seeing a response to this now, where the platforms have grown in importance and in power, in basic economic terms, in terms of the number of users. We’ve also seen as you said at the onset of our conversation, that politicians are clearly aware that many citizens rely on platforms for information and many political campaigns in turn embrace their advertising products and services with great enthusiasm and very significant spending.
So it’s very clear that both citizens and elected officials are recognizing the growing power of platforms in our societies. And also beginning to ask questions about whether the regulatory frameworks we have are fit for purpose, or whether we want to, develop new additional policies or think about enforcement. So our book is not primarily about policy and regulation. I mean, I think these are very specialized and detailed areas that I think there would be a risk of detracting from the main purpose of the book, of understanding the relationship between publishing platforms and what that tells us about our societies and the future of communication in democratic countries, but also other countries perhaps. And also frankly, there are smarter people than me, perhaps not smarter than Sarah but certainly smarter than me, that people should read on this. Dina Srinivasan, Ariel Ezrachi, Lina Khan of course, has taken on a new role in this respect in the United States recently.
But I think it is worth recognizing some of the options that are being discussed in societies across the world. One of them of course, is competition. Whether primarily through changing enforcement practices or possibly changing the regulatory framework, where of course, in the European Union in particular, there’s been a lot of work going on with the digital market act that is moving forward now. Whereas in the United States, there’s been much talk but little action so far. We also of course have calls for breaking up some of the biggest platforms. This has been very clearly called for by the Open Markets Institute in the United States, for example, and individual critics of the platform such as Tim Wu and of course Lina Khan in her previous incarnation. There are attempts underway to force platforms to pay publishers. The most high profile example of that of course, is the news media bargaining code in Australia that has just celebrated its first anniversary.
And there has been discussions in some parts, primarily but not only of the left in Europe, of the idea of creating public service platforms that would bring a different funding model and a different set of sensibilities to the platform economy. This is a model that’s been proposed very publicly by the former leader of the labor party here in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn. But I think it’s interesting to note that another big proponent of this idea is Ulrich Wilhelm, who before taken up a role in German public service broadcasting was the speech writer and chief spokesman of the conservative German chancellor, Angela Merkel. So it’s not an idea that’s limited to the political left.
And I think it’s really important that each of us as citizens in societies that have to contend with the rise of platform power, makes the effort to try to understand how it’s exercised, which is the main focus of our book. Recognize the ambiguity of it, the way in which we argue in the book it’s driven in part by attraction, by the way in which platform power is generative and empowering. And in the process of end users and third party complementers engaging with the platforms, that in turn leaves us more dependent upon them and enhance their power.
Think about some of these policy options that are being offered up for our consideration by elected officials, by public intellectuals, by people with strong opinions who write for newspapers or on blogs, and start to think about, as we write in the book, what do we want as individual citizens? Each of us, individually? And Sarah and I in the book, take a particular approach to that, which is that I think there is a really rich range of different views being expressed on these matters. Very full throat and clear opinions. The stance we take in the book is that it’s incredibly important that we have these debates and very valuable that we were hearing a range of different versions of what might be done. We would just hope that people take the time along the way to think about what is it actually that we are observing in our societies?
How does that actually work? And then on that basis, think about what might we then with that understanding, do about it or want to do about it? And I suppose in that way, while we are both scholars, there are some affinities between that approach and then the approach of many journalists and editors who I think would often say that their job is to seek truth and report it, present people with facts and analysis, and then leave it to individuals to make up their own minds about what they think should be done about the matters at hand.
And you do at the end of the book, quite literally say, “we’re not going to preach to you. We want to end with a question mark. Given what you now know about platform power and how it works, what do you think we should do next?” So you put it to the reader. But let me just press you on this. You’ve just completed this book, there’s here over 200 pages of research and appendix and bibliography and the rest. You’ve spent years thinking about this. If you’re not willing to say what we should do, are you willing to say perhaps a couple of things we shouldn’t do?
Rasmus Kleis Nielson:
Well I mean, I think it’s important to be conscious of the threat that the concentration of unaccountable power represents to any democratic society or any form of smaller liberal values. And this is something that is, I think a common concern of many different political persuasions, ranging from many forms of conservative thinking to many forms of liberal thinking to many forms of social democratic and socialist thinking. It’s a concern about the risks that are inherent in the concentration of unaccountable power in the state, but also in the marketplace, or for the matter, in a few cases in the judiciary. So I think that is an issue that, it’s urgent and in many cases, I think overdue, that we really wrestled with the societies, what such a concentration of power might mean for our societies.
Now because platform power is also enabling, it is also empowering, and is also driven by the choices that billions of us make as end users, but also untold thousands of third party complementers such as publishers make in engaging with the platforms. I think we also need to sort of confront the ambiguity of what it is that we are dealing with here. And also I think recognize that, as with any decisions about how we want to live together in our societies and how we want to structure politics, the disagreement about who we are, who gets what, when and how, and who gets to decide who we are. People will have a range of different views about how much we need to agree on the rules of the game, if you will. How much we need to agree on what good looks like.
And I think there are a range of different positions open on that. There is sort of a maximalist stance where one might say, “I know what’s good. I know what’s true. And if I can get a majority for implementing what I think is good and what is true, then I’ll do it. And we should all just abide by that.” And then of course, at some point in time, a new majority will come along and they too may believe they know what’s good and what is true. And they too may push for making those the rules of the game for everybody.
There is another possible position of course, a range of options here that believes that even as we vigorously disagree about what is good and what is true, it’s important we also have a set of minimal shared rules of how we structure, how we disagree about these things. And that it’s important that there is broad based public and political consensus, or at least broad based political and public support for those rules. And that there is there, I think a trade off between credibility, the breadth of support of a set of interventions, and then how much change they can affect.
It’s very rare I think, to find very broad based political and public support for a major change that everyone will accept to be good and true, if you will, and much more common that bigger changes are pushed through by narrower majorities. Sometimes that’s the right option, that’s for each of us to consider when we think that’s the right option. But sometimes of course there is a price to be paid for that, which is that then a new majority comes along and they too will change the rules of the game and on and on it goes, back and forth.
I suppose one way to think about what we might want when we look more narrowly at the question of the relationship between platforms and publishers, which is again the core of the book, though it does deal, I think with bigger issues around the role of platform companies and their power in our societies, I think are really things that we would probably want from any kind of media policy. And in that sense I think it is not so categorically different from how one might think of other forms of state intervention in the media sector, in the media market, whether those interventions are public service media or direct and indirect subsidies for private publishers.
I think scholars would say that whatever options elected officials and policy makers want citizens to consider should offer precision– what is the problem that we are trying to address, exactly?– and should offer specificity about how will the proposed measure address the exact problem that we are trying to achieve, that we are trying to address. They should protect the independence of media organizations from the policy makers or elected the officials who are intervening in the market, so that the media organizations can continue to serve for the state and try to hold power to account, while at the same time also ensuring transparency– who gets what, when and how, off the basis of these media policies– and accountability, a way of measuring whether one is in fact achieving what one sets out to achieve, or just taking money and giving it to private interests of various sorts, in this case publishers. And of course, fundamentally consider whether there might be unintended or negative consequences of the policy in question. Such as, for example, if one is trying to enhance the independence and autonomy of independent private publishers from other institutions in society where they’re increasing their reliance on platforms, in a situation which many of them are already somewhat reliant on the platforms, is in fact achieving the goal one has set out to pursue.
So I get the sense from your comments today and from generally reading this book and from other conversations I’ve been having lately, that we are at a kind of turning point with regard to our relationship to these platforms. So much is sort of understood to some extent now, or at least the contours problems are understood. Certain issues are better theorized, et cetera. What do you think the next decade looks like? What are some of the key questions that you think you’ll pursue in your research going forward now that this book, which quite literally is kind of the history of this problem to date, as well as the prospectus about the future. What do you think will dominate your consideration and should dominate the consideration of the field?
Rasmus Kleis Nielson:
I think there are some really important pieces of scholarship being done around the world right now. They’re really moving the needle on this and I’d like to think that they will help inform public discussions and policy discussions as well. So a lot of great scholars who work in this area. So what I’m outlining now is not something that I believe that I can do or even Sarah and I, but it’s something that I know that the community of scholars I think are rising to these challenges across the world.
I think we’re seeing more and more nuanced and precise analysis that tries to really pin down and elucidate the differences between different platforms and between different platform companies, and don’t resort to sort of polemically satisfying and attention grabbing, but analytically probably not that useful terms such as big tech. But really try to tease out the differences between different big platform companies or even between different products offered by the same big platform companies.
And of course, as part of that also begins to more systematically recognize that while, for very understandable reasons, a few very large US based companies and their mainland Chinese counterparts and a few large platform companies from Japan and South Korea, are really the face of this globally. 10 or so, if you will. Platform as businesses and as products are much more diverse. And of course there are smaller platforms, indeed very small platforms. And we really, I think, need to think about that intellectually and in particular, in terms of regulatory terms. I mean, right now as we speak, the UK is debating an online safety bill that will put upon platforms, obligations around assessing the legality of content that will be met, not just by Facebook and by Google and their various properties and their other big competitors. But I estimated 25,000 different platform companies in the UK alone.
So the incredible variety of the platform sector if you will, we use terms like their media to encompass something that ranges from Fox News to the New York Times to Alden Global Capital owned newspapers, to really exciting new entrants that are aligned with Capital B or The 19th or others. But of course, similarly platforms is an even bigger and even more diverse arguably, ecologies. That’s one thing I think is really, really key to really begin to understand factually and empirically, what are the differences between these companies? What are the difference between the different products and services they’re offering? And how can we use that insight to better think about what we want in the future?
I also really want to stress that I think that it’s clear that while one part of the regulatory developments that will shape the future of the internet are being hammered out in Brussels, even as Washington DC, continues to be sort of largely paralyzed by levels of political disagreements. That means it’s hard to imagine that Congress can agree on much more than celebrating the 4th of July. At the very same time, I really want to stress that I think that the developments we have seen in India, the developments we have seen in Brazil, the developments we have seen in Nigeria, these are not dictatorial states, these are not utilitarian states, where governing parties and the executive have taken a lot of sway over how platform companies carry themselves. That’s going to be a defining future of the future of the internet. And I think in developments it’s well understood in sort of specialist circles and of course, in particular among scholars and activists and journalists in the countries in question.
I’m not sure that journalists and intellectuals and policy makers in Europe and North America really understood, or even thought very much about what it means that the government in Nigeria just banned Twitter from one day to the other. Or that legislation in Brazil poses to make all politicians exempt from any kind of content moderation by platforms. Or that we have seen actors aligned with the governing party in India, engage in many different practices that I think the platforms would often have found to be in contravention of their terms and service in other markets, but where they have curiously not enforced those policies against the governing party in the case of India, even as the very same government has also been incredibly industrious in asking the platforms to remove all sorts of other things that often come from independent media, from activists, from civil society critics, and from opposition politicians.
So Hobbes called the state “leviathan” and I think we will be reminded that even as we see the power of platforms grow in importance, this is not a zero sum game and political power is real. And even if it’s not always exercised, we talked about policy vacuums and deliberate non intervention to the negative policy at the outside of this conversation, it is still there. And there are countries around the world where we are seeing it being exercised, and it’s not always being exercised in a way that liberals or progressives would consider it to be for the better.
The full scale Russian invasion of Ukraine occurred after you were long finished with this book, but I’m struck that the role of the state and the power of the state in even to some extent, directing the power of the platforms is apparent in this last few weeks, that we’ve seen the power you’re talking about sort of rear its head.
Rasmus Kleis Nielson:
Yeah. I mean, absolutely. We write in the book that the power of platforms is exercised in the shadow of the state, and the state doesn’t always act, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. And of course there are differences in state capacity from society to society and differences in degree to the terms of how much elected officials choose to exercise this power. But yes, while in no way, shape or form comparable to the way in which the Russian state is intervening very directly to limit Russian citizens’ ability to freely access, receive and impart information even more than they were already restricted before. It is I think, noteworthy to see that the European commission simply decided that European citizens should no longer be able to access RT or Sputnik. And platforms complied with that executive decision.
And we shall see what the European court of human rights say as to whether that decision was in fact based in law, whether it was in fact a decision that defended legitimate values and interests as specified in the European Human Rights Convention, and whether it was proportional to the threat that the rather minute reach of RT and Sputnik and much of the European Union, though not all of the European Union, represented to those specific values or interests. We shall see. But it was a very clear example of how also policies with the strong commitments to liberal values and democratic norms are not above banging the table and shouting, “something must be done.” And that indeed, sometimes platforms will decide well, if they say so, we will do so.
I trust you will continue to analyze that form of power alongside the power of the platforms and the power of the publishers. And I thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
Rasmus Kleis Nielson:
Thanks, Justin. Real pleasure.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.