The global media ecosystem faces clampdowns and corporate concentration, leading to homogenization of information
The current war in Ukraine is exposing, once again, the fragility that exists with the current media ecosystem as freedom of the press comes under pressure everywhere.
In Russia itself, laws have been introduced tightening restrictions on what can be published, specifically about the war. Publishing anything other than the government approved narrative about what is happening — even calling it a war — can lead to severe criminal charges and the possibility of up to 15-years in prison.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), some 30 independent media sites have been closed down in the country in the wake of the clampdown. Russia was already rated abysmally low on the RSFs World Freedom Index, at 150th out of 180 countries in 2021.
In the space of a week, Roskomnadzor (Russian online media regulator) has blocked around 30 Russian and Ukrainian independent media sites. The latest targets are the BBC’s Russian-language news service, the German public radio and TV broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Radio Svoboda — the Russian subsidiary of the Prague-based US broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) — and the independent Russian site Meduza. The remaining unblocked independent media outlets — Mediazona, Novaya Gazeta, Svobodnaya Pressa, Journalist and Lenizdat — are likely to be blocked soon.
The Russian government’s media regulator has also clamped down on social media platforms Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This came in response to those platforms’ widely publicized restriction of access to Russian state-controlled broadcasters.
These restrictions by social media sites have come in response to pressures by governments in the EU, and the UK. In the USA, while there was no official ban, cable providers and platforms like Roku, had revoked their licenses to carry RT.
It is certain that in times of war, governments engage in their most intense propaganda production, to boost fighting morale at home and try to demoralize the other side. But is it the job of private media companies to pick sides by engaging in their own censorship?
This question has special relevance because of the domination by a few social media sites in the distribution of news. A 2021 study by Pew Research found that almost half of Americans got their news from social media. The study drilled down into the specific site usage and reported the following:
In a separate question asking users of 10 social media sites whether they regularly get news there, about a third of U.S. adults (31%) say they get news regularly on Facebook, while about one-in-five Americans (22%) say they regularly get news on YouTube. Twitter and Instagram are regular news sources for 13% and 11% of Americans, respectively.
Regardless of one’s views on the role that social media companies should play, it is certain that the escalation of restrictions from all sides, damages press freedom and the distribution of information — in all countries and for all peoples.
Nor does this end with social media. According to the same Pew study, 57% of Americans get their news from television. And the USA, the world’s largest media market by far at $623 billion in revenue, has seen unprecedented concentration in the control of media.
In the 1980s 90% of American media was controlled by more than 50 different companies. Following the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which deregulated the media landscape, that same 90% soon became dominated by just six mega corporations.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the impact of this unprecedented concentration is with the Sinclair Broadcast Group, examined in a 2021 study by Colorado University — Boulder.
With 186 stations across 620 channels in 82 markets, Sinclair is among the largest owners of TV news stations in the country, reaching about 40% of U.S. households.
Not only did the study find that the quantity and quality of news stories declined when a station was bought by Sinclair. Sinclair also imposes its own bias on its stations, forcing them to carry a show, Bottom Line with Boris, presented by a former senior advisor to President Trump.
In 2018 they also had dozens of news anchors at Sinclair-owned stations across the USA read the same script about “fake news”, a recurring theme of President Trump. A video showing all these anchors saying the same words, side-by-side, went viral and racked up millions of views, demonstrating the anxiety about lack of press freedom.
It is certain that in the context of the current war, there will be further escalations of restrictions. These will come from both states but also from privately owned media companies.
As noted above, social media platforms moved from posting warning labels on Russian media content to outright banning them from their sites. It wasn’t a big stretch to move from that to banning specific content that doesn’t fit the narrative that the platforms want to promote.
Whether one agrees with the specific content being banned, is it really the place of an unaccountable, private company to determine what can be seen by its audience? This is especially concerning when, as the Pew Research study discussed above notes, half of the population is getting its news through these sites.
All of this highlights the need for other, uncorruptible avenues to gain access to the news. CryptoPol News hopes to be one part of the solution to creating that information ecosystem. The current clampdown demonstrates that it can’t come a moment too soon.
CryptoPol News Team
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