Disrupting the information ecosystem
We’re living in a new reality, where economic inequalities, climate change, migration flows and technological disruptions are shaping the world. It’s also a time of strong men and of the rise of authoritarianism. We tend to talk and worry a lot about Donald Trump, but it’s not only him. There’s Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, and Putin in Russia. And many others.
And there’s a fundamental question I’ve been asking myself the last years: Where does all this rage come from? In my former job as Political Editor-in-Chief at Aftonbladet I could feel the rising anger in a very concrete way, in my inbox and my social media feeds. Year by year, the level of hate and threats and aggression grew. I am an economist by education, and my instinct is to look for answers in the economy; disrupted labor markets, globalization, people being left behind. All of these factors are important. But as I traveled a lot in Eastern Europe last year, in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, the story still just didn’t add up. These are countries with high growth and low unemployment. Despite that, the rage, the explosive media and political climate was the same as in the US, the Philippines, Turkey and yes, in Sweden.
Something has gone wrong
The level and intensity of rage just does not seem proportionate to the underlying, observable changes in economy and culture, as historian Anne Applebaum put it when I interviewed her in Poland last fall. The X factor seems to be how today’s internet and social media are shaping our public discourse. I used to be a fan of Mark Zuckerberg. Or at least of the tools he built. But something has gone wrong.
The problem at the core of this is that the content that’s most misleading or conspiratorial is what’s generating the most engagement, and that’s what the algorithm is designed to respond to. The stronger you react to the content you see on Facebook or YouTube, the more likely you are to remain on the platform. And the longer you stay, the more money they make from your data. In this way, the tech giants’ business models create the economic incentives now driving outrage, disinformation and polarization.
Tech giants distort competition
In today’s world, the logic of the attention economy overlaps with political forces with the stated aim of undermining liberal democracy. This is disrupting the ecosystem for information and challenging the ethos of journalism. But there is more to this story. The tech giants are also disrupting our economic structures. We see them growing data monopolies, using that advantage to distort competition. Google is pushing its own products with the power of its massive search engine. And Facebook is rolling out its own marketplace that the users cannot avoid. Their dominance is hurting jobs, innovation and our basic ideas of fairness and competition.
Change and pressure need to rise on many levels. From consumers, citizens and politicians. We need to understand how economics plays into this, the logic of the attention economy and the business models. Because at this point the sheer size and power of these companies are a threat to how we organize our societies. The good news is that the time is right and we see reactions.
Like from Margrete Vestager, the Danish EU competition commissioner. Or, as the Financial Times calls her, the “slayer of big tech”. Vestager has ruled that Apple needs to pay more taxes and has twice heavily fined Google for illegal behavior. GDPR and privacy is part of the backlash, as is the copyright vote in the EU. The world is slowly waking up and starting to realize what values are at stake.
Schibsted has a role to play
In the end this is about standing up for what we believe is important, and the truth is that companies like Schibsted can play a role in all of this. Schibsted has been careful in the past not to go all in on the platforms. We have kept the relationship with our readers and users in our own hands, to a large degree. We are small compared to the giants, but we are not owned by them – and we have a history with legacy. We are in the middle of this perfect storm in these pretty dramatic times and it’s a challenge, but honestly it’s also exciting and interesting.