If the ‘fifth estate’ is a publisher, it needs to be regulated




Whether posting your own ideas, participating in discussions or just passing on the latest news, our own everyday conversations on social media are part of the bigger picture of today’s global communication.

These conversations range from our thoughts on major global events to everyday personal topics like politics, fashion, economy, food, sports and entertainment.

The traditional role of the media acting as the fourth estate of vibrant liberal democracy has suffered as a result of technological development, particularly the rise of the internet in the past 20 years.

Social media and the rollout of wider digital capabilities have overturned the classical Western democratic model based on a marketplace of ideas. With the rise to dominance of Facebook, Twitter and Google, the idea of a cohort of recognised opinion leaders and power-checkers central to the political process is breaking down.

In many countries, more than 70% of adults who have internet access and smart devices and 80% of 16- to 24-year-olds consume news mainly online, rather than through traditional radio or print.

Online content aggregators, mainly Google, Apple News, Facebook and Twitter, are the main conduits for traffic to traditional news websites. Away from these websites, news also competes with friends’ updates, advertising and other clickbait on social media.

According to Hootsuite, a leading firm in social media data management, about 500-million tweets are sent every day and more than 2.4-billion daily active users on Facebook upload 350-million photos a day. More than five billion hours of video are watched on YouTube each day and more than 500-million Instagram accounts are active every day.

These numbers indicate the sheer scale of information flow in today’s global environment where attention, as opposed to information, is the scarce — and therefore valuable — asset. Along with the user’s cognitive ability to process information, this has a direct effect on the nature of information in the digital age.

Journalists and the wider mainstream media (owners, editors) are facing a considerable professional challenge in today’s fervent public discourse.

This challenge is one that questions key tenets of journalism: credibility, impartiality and balance. In a balanced political arena, both sides are traditionally given time in the media space. But this balance is hard to maintain when minority, extreme views, with little evidence for their claims, may have a significant and loud profile on social media and clamour for equal airtime or print copy with established, evidence-based voices.

And, as regular visits to Twitter prove, failures to provide such can create considerable backlash, as most traditional media organisations have found. The market dynamics of the digital age have hit the mainstream media hard. The decline in sales of newspapers and the closure of many, alongside the relative weakness of regional and local broadcasting, are now seen as directly contributing to a democratic deficit. It is not peculiar to Global South countries alone, as similar trends have been seen in Western democracies.

But, in a fragmented digital world where anyone can be a citizen-journalist and bloggers and celebrities can have huge influence, the question is: Who can seriously influence, even control, the media agenda?

In place of the old mass media — the fourth estate acting as information gatekeepers — we now have the “prosumers” and “produsers”, in various guises, capabilities, collectives and intent, extending out in a long tail amid a lawless digital landscape, and with the potential to capture widespread public attention at the expense of the mainstream media.

Further, online platforms now exert a degree of algorithmic control that affects the media agenda. As more tech giants adopt the typical market-based business model, the value of attention over accuracy increases.

The biggest question is whether the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google are publishers or platforms? While calling these platforms publishers is to presume that their task is merely to produce content, it will also imply that social media should be produced, packaged and polished; be regulated and public content on it be controlled.

What we must not forget is that, despite social media’s usefulness in mining all kind of information, it houses issues that are serious threats to society. Online information disorder and its power in shaping public opinion lead the category of those issues.

Samuel Olaniran is a PhD resident fellow in the department of media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand

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Samuel Olaniran
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