Global tech giants control our news consumption

| 14 December 2020

Sign with Google's logo reflectning in the main building's glass facade.
Photo: Thomas Hawk

Global tech giants, with Google and Facebook in the forefront, have increasing power over the news media. Being in a monopoly-like position on the digital advertising market, they are indirectly able to control what kind of journalism reaches digital media users, according to a new study, published by Nordicom. To resist the power of the tech giants, media organisations, as well as countries, have to cooperate.

Silicon Valley is known for the technical and economic dominance growing in the area over the last decades. The region in northern California is home to several big technology companies, including Google and Facebook, that have come to completely dominate the digital advertising market, making the news media dependent on them to reach their audience.

In the new study, Silicon Valley och makten över medierna [Silicon Valley and the power over the media], media researcher Carl-Gustav Lindén examines the tech giants’ power over the news media, the consequences of it and what is needed to reduce it.

Trapped in digital ecosystems

One concrete example demonstrating the tech giants’ power is the so-called digital ecosystems – in other words, closed platforms where the big technology companies work to gather both customers and suppliers.

– I call them prisons where the media is locked in, forced to play by the rules of the “prison guards”, says Lindén.

– The tech giants’ economic and technical resources give them the ability to design the Internet like they want it. Companies like Facebook and Google decide the forms of content publishing, and what type of content is interesting to their large audience.

Due to the dominating position of the platforms, the media has become dependent on them in order to reach news consumers. This means that the media is losing control over how journalism is produced, according to Lindén.

– The media is forced to adapt their journalism so that it suits the big platforms and their advertising-financed models. For example, headlines, texts, and images must be designed to attract as much attention as possible, at the expense of journalism with lasting value.

Increased importance of paying news consumers

In the last chapter of the book, Lindén discusses if there is a way for the media to break free from their dependency, and in that case, how it can be done. For instance, Lindén means that the advertisers should take on their responsibility and work together with the media to counteract the monopoly-like situation created by Google and Facebook.

However, one of the most important actors in the liberation of the media is, in fact, the media. Lindén emphasises that the media have to take their future in their own hands, and that paying news consumers have increased importance since the media can no longer rely on financing from advertising sales.

– What the media can do is to re-establish the relationship with their listeners, viewers, and readers, make sure that relationship is strong and prevent the platforms from deciding what it should look like, says Lindén.

Several Nordic examples of media companies having succeeded in re-establishing a relationship with their users are given in the book. These companies are primarily financed by subscription revenues – a system with benefits lacking in the previous advertising-financed model, according to Lindén.

– For journalism, it is truly interesting that the readers themselves decide what type of content they want to pay for, rather than having the advertisers determine, for example, which supplements should be produced.

– In one way, journalism has liberated itself from the advertising market thanks to this. But it’s not only a good thing, since financing from advertising sales doesn’t exist in the same way.

Cooperation is a must

Resisting the tech giants’ power by focusing on paying news consumers is, however, not an easy task, especially for smaller media companies.

– You need power to resist. You need technical development that requires resources, which means that big companies get even bigger, while smaller ones struggle. This is something we see all over the Nordics, says Lindén.

Consequently, cooperation is needed for the media to break completely free from their dependency. According to Lindén, the media does not have a great history of cooperating, but now it is required if they want to survive. In addition to cooperation between media organisations, cooperation across countries is needed, in terms of legislation.

– It is also necessary that the EU enforces stricter requirements for the tech giants, mainly regarding the securing of competition on the digital market, and the handling of user data. A common Nordic policy is also required. 

The European Commission is shortly expected to present proposals for policy changes, probably leading to reforms in how the tech giants can run their businesses in the EU.

About the study

The book Silicon Valley och makten över medierna clarifies and discusses some of the ways in which the news media and journalists have become dependent on the infrastructure of global tech giants. The study is based on interviews with about 60 researchers and journalists and it provides a broad overview of Silicon Valley’s power over the media.