11 May 2016
When publishers and media relinquish audience data to companies like Facebook and Google, not only are they giving away profitability, but also losing the power to shape the journalism landscape. This is the takeaway from our conversation with Evgeny Morozov, author of "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom" and "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism". He has dark projections for the future of information and news.
In this interview Morozov, who will also speak at the GEN Summit 2016 in Vienna next month, shares his thoughts about the new role of intermediary platforms and their impact on both publishers and audiences when the money for news coverage is controlled by data analytics.
The headline of one of your latest columns for The Guardian says: "Tech firms now run western politics". What about western media? Are they run by tech firms?
I think you can draw that conclusion, it's just that you are not necessarily going to get to that conclusion by the same chain of logic that I used to talk about the state. What has happened is that they [the tech firms] emerged as new intermediaries, but in the case of the state this means that they can also run services like transportation, location, housing, in a much more efficient way. In the case of media you don't have that variety of services. Nonetheless you do have a major transformation: suddenly, it became obvious that players other than the media companies know how to aggregate audience online, know how to serve the content, know how to establish a relationship between their members and identify what interests them. They have more or less pitched themselves as the new way in which news will circulate. So in that sense you draw structural similarities between the two —logically you can make that case.
From my perspective, this is not a healthy development, solely for the reason that it establishes a new power relationship. The companies who operate the platforms — with an exception of few donations here and there — they don't even pretend to care about anything other than profit, so their logic is entirely profit-oriented.
In the case of journalism, as it has existed for the last 200 - 300 years, you can actually make a case that, even though it was primarily funded through advertising, you still had the space to produce content, investigations and cultural critiques that was not entirely dominated by the logic of profit making.
And this is not true anymore?
No, it's not exactly an either/or. It's that the game has changed, and now that you have this new set of intermediaries that control the data and the gateways. They clearly leave you as a publisher, or as a medium, with less space for projects that do not, by default, aim to make money or hunt for the largest number of eyeballs you could possibly imagine.
And for the audience, what's the risk connected with this rise of intermediaries?
The thing is quite simple, it's that the diversity and depth of coverage and the civic dimension that might have existed before, now suffers. Also, as I said, the way by which the news system makes money is by hunting for eyeballs, and eyeballs have the tendency of congregating around certain issues that are not necessarily of civic or political importance.
Can you give us an example of how this data ownership by platforms affects consumers and publishers?
A platform can say to the publisher: join us and we will use our own platform to distribute your content to your readers, and you'll know your readers better because we track them far more profoundly than you do. So you, as a publisher, might know their postal code, how long they have subscribed to that newspaper; we know their favourite cats and their favourite bands and their favourite everything else. And based on that, of course, the inequality between how much data they have clearly favours the platforms over the publishers. They have the reach, the customisation and the ability to target the precise audience that you want. The service [offered to the publishers] here is not trivial and it's not banal, and that value is in the hands of an intermediary, that now has the power to shape the landscape.
To the reader the pitch is: we will optimise your news feed.
You can more or less abandon the idea that there is a curator with a civic and political agenda. In the past that curator was the editor, publisher or editorial board. You can move to an idea where you have algorithm curating, where Google serves you something in a manner that could either be viewed as more objective or more subjective. Because it takes the humans out, supposedly, the economic and political agenda setting function will disappear; but at the same time it will also incorporate your own interests and desires and hobbies into the selection of these news articles. I do not personally believe the claims that platforms make about their objectivity, because everything has to be filtered through their algorithms, and their algorithms are optimised essentially for eyeball hunting. They replace the somewhat artificial objectivity of newspapers — whose content was driven by some combination of popularity, civic-mindedness, political interest and connection to parties, trade unions or whatever other stakeholders that they had to entertain— with just one objective: hunting for eyeballs and maximising the number of page views.
The idea that algorithms know and pursue an agenda, to me it's a myth, because ultimately they pursue the objective defined by those companies, and that is learning more and more about the users to make advertising money.
Next month you’ll speak at the GEN Summit in Vienna, which is focused on the “Rise of Platform-Driven News”. What, if anything, can publishers and editors do to react to this rise of platforms?
I think that there are macro strategies and micro strategies. I'm more comfortable talking about the macro level. So, on this level, to me it seems obvious that, if you do not control whatever little data you already have on your audience, you abandon that function to intermediaries like Facebook and Google, then you're losing your most important asset and they'll squeeze all the profits out of you.
You see similar responses to these platforms in different vertical industries. If you look at the car companies in Germany: they were terrified, so what did they do? They joined efforts, and they are trying to kind of launch their own data analytics platform. I don't know how far this system will go, in part because the genius of Silicon Valley was to never concentrate on one vertical, and through this diversity they can put the data together. The only way to take over, and that's a radical solution that I've been trying to pitch to various firms, would be to ultimately develop a strategy to build a legal regime around the data and legally take the data away from the intermediaries, who currently say data is theirs because that is the expected and reasonable payment for the service that they are offering. Otherwise, I don't think that much can be done.
What do you think the future of information and news will look like in the next five to ten years?
I think it is going to be very dark.
I think there will be a lot of what we currently see: blockchain for example, and the news decentralisation era that we are supposedly entering. I think a little of this is overhyped, and not in terms of what blockchain can do: it's overhyped in terms of how easily that can be taken over by established centralised players. So I don’t believe that in three or four years Google will not be doing what it's already doing. Because ultimately, we need to understand that there is a convergence between data analytics, machine learning and the collection of personal data through the Internet of Things. Once you put these things together you understand that, if you do not pursue a strategy along each of those paths, you cannot effectively compete with Silicon Valley. Because you can collect all the data you want, but you still wouldn't have the ability to analyse it. You wouldn't have capacity to derive insights from it like Google does.
So, who's going to produce the news? Where are people going to get their information that will make them informed citizens?
Whoever will pay for it will produce the news. The people who'll be able to monetise it will be people with the best data analytics to produce the stories and to produce them in the forms of memes. Right now that’s BuzzFeed. You can produce artisanal news about slow food in Italy and you'll have a small market for it without using any analytics, but you'll never produce and compete with these companies that first have mastered news verticals and now are launching local editions. Ultimately what BuzzFeed does with its local editions is no different from what Uber does: they have a model and they want to scale it.
Then the question is to what extent the amount of capital they have raised and the technologies they have developed will allow them to outperform the local players. They can always tap into some kind of sub-universalistic theme across human cultures, like cute cat pictures, as a magic card they can pull whenever they run into trouble with serious reporting. As long as everything is measured in clicks and eyeballs, I find it hard to believe that they’re going to have real long-term opposition, locally. Now you have a couple of quality papers, who will operate for the next five to ten years, in the major European countries. Their margins are shrinking and the fact is that you are not going to have long feuilleton pages in German papers for very long, it just doesn't pay. The entire model that we should be able to trust cannot possibly continue. I can't see how, who's going to pay for that?
Will there not be journalists anymore? Just bots owned by those who own the data?
It doesn't have to be bots. It's just that you have the same precarity that has hit other professions. I'm not saying anything that has not being said in the last ten years. You're monitored heavily, you need to produce certain metrics, you will need to make sure you have 10,000 hits per day, you'll need to make sure you generate headlines in a certain way.
So it doesn't mean that you'll have bots, you can still have humans, up to a point where the combination of price and quality that you get from humans is better than what you can get from bots, but those two are converging.
Credits background image: Tri Nguyen/Flickr