IS IT TIME TO EXPAND THE CONCEPT OF PRESS FREEDOM?
IN A NETWORKED ERA, FREEDOM FROM GOVERNMENT INTERFERENCE MAY NOT BE ENOUGH TO GUARANTEE A FREE PRESS
In 2016, a Norwegian writer posted an iconic image from the Vietnam War on Facebook — a photograph of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc naked and screaming, running from an aerial napalm attack that inflicted severe burns down her back. The photo, by AP photographer Nick Ut, was awarded a 1973 Pulitzer Prize and named World Press Photo of the Year. It’s considered one of the most important images of the last century and was largely credited with swaying public opinion against the war.
Facebook, however, removed the 2016 post because it contained “fully nude genitalia” and “fully nude female breasts,” in violation of the site’s content policies.
When the Norwegian writer who posted it, Tom Egeland, protested the removal of the photo, Facebook suspended his account. A Norwegian newspaper then reposted the photo, along with an article on the brouhaha — and Facebook took the story off its site.
The company’s argument: “It’s difficult to create a distinction between allowing a photograph of a nude child in one instance and not others.”
Finally, the Norwegian prime minister posted the photo with her own objections, and Facebook was forced to relent.
“Because of its status as an iconic image of historical importance, the value of permitting sharing outweighs the value of protecting the community by removal, so we have decided to reinstate the image,” read the social media platform’s revised statement.
This incident is just one example of a media business being unprepared for the enormous responsibility that comes with having a highly successful, global reach. It raises the questions: How do we understand and monitor the actions of a private company that touches more human beings than any newspaper in history? What role, if any, should press freedom play in the discussion?
And when Facebook has a ton more power and more money than any news organization, for me the writing is on the wall for how the heck are we going to live together and manage these publics? —Mike Ananny
Among those trying to sort out the thorny issues associated with international news production and distribution is USC communications professor Mike Ananny, whose new book Networked Press Freedom: Creating Infrastructures for a Public Right to Hear offers an innovative way to think about press freedom from the perspective of the public’s right to know.
“When Facebook says, ‘We don’t think that kind of speech belongs on our platform,’ and journalists say, ‘Hold on, we think it’s relevant to the public good,’ that’s an example of networked press freedom,” Ananny said in a recent interview with PubLab. “And when Facebook has a ton more power and more money than any news organization, for me the writing [is] on the wall for how the heck are we going to live together and manage these publics?”
Traditional vs. networked press freedom
For the past several years, Ananny has been advocating for a broader understanding of press freedom as a set of “sociotechnical forces” that impact not just journalists’ right to publish what they consider newsworthy, but the public’s right to hear information it deems valuable.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging freedom of speech, or of the press.” It therefore protects against interference from the state, not private companies or individuals.
For centuries, the biggest threat to press freedom came from governments and their periodic efforts to censor journalists’ work. But what if today that threat also exists in the form of a single content distributor — one with billions of users — refusing to let a journalist publish one of his profession’s most recognizable and powerful works?
This is where Ananny’s concept of networked press freedom comes into play.
Networked press freedom offers a new framework for understanding twenty-first century sociotechnical forces, explained Ananny. These forces include “separations and dependences” that affect the way members of the public live and relate to one another.
In the Facebook example, it wasn’t only up to the journalists and the state to decide whether public interest justified publishing the photo. It was a joint effort by the user who posted it, the platform’s algorithms that flagged it, the content moderation team that removed it, the news organizations that publicized the censorship, the political elites that challenged the decision, the journalism community that conferred the Pulitzer Prize decades earlier, the public that agreed on the image’s historic significance, and the final decision by a private corporation to reinstate the photo.
In this instance, press autonomy depended not just on freedom from government interference, but on a “network of humans and nonhumans that make it more or less likely that a public will encounter media and debate its meaning and significance,” Ananny wrote in a recent article.
You cannot separate yourself from these seemingly low-level, mundane decisions if you want your content circulated. —Mike Ananny
Ananny’s interest in networked press freedom actually began with nonhuman actors. He earned his bachelor’s in computer science, building software and other computer systems before earning a master’s at the MIT Media Laboratory and a PhD in media and communications at Stanford.
“You build an algorithm and you don’t always realize the implications,” he said. “Engineers have a lot of power to make decisions about how the world works. I was seeing engineering power start to collide with editorial power.”
Journalists have always had to contend with certain practical realities, whether it’s filling a set number of newspaper pages based on how many advertisements were sold or planning radio broadcasts to coincide with the morning commute.
But today, editorial decisions, especially those made by digital media companies, are being based more and more on technological forces, including algorithms and social media constraints.
In his book, Ananny identifies 12 dimensions of a networked press. These include news production tailored to specific platforms, the need to respond to changes in algorithms, company partnerships and sponsored content, news timing, audience commenting and engagement, and the myriad new revenue models that have emerged in the digital era.
Many newspapers now highlight “tweetable phrases” within their articles to encourage sharing on social media. Some news organizations are changing the way they break down their audience demographics, going beyond age and location to align more with Facebook’s granular classifications (think: readers living in downtown Los Angeles with a commute of an hour or more).
“The more you dig into the details on this stuff, the more you realize it’s not just about journalists being left alone to pursue their own editorial work,” Ananny said. “You cannot separate yourself from these seemingly low-level, mundane decisions if you want your content circulated.”
Ultimately, technology companies today have a lot of power, he added, and news organizations are stuck trying to respond.
Public speech, private companies
In many cases these tech companies derive their power from something called algorithmic explainability. That’s a fancy way of saying that tech companies run huge amounts of content through their proprietary algorithms and need to be able to explain why their content is circulating the way it is, Ananny explained.
“If the platforms throw up their hands and say, ‘we don’t know why sometimes your content is coming up and sometimes it’s not — it’s just the algorithms,’ that goes to freedom of speech,” he said. “If we don’t know how speech circulates it’s really hard to figure out how speech is being heard.”
The Supreme Court is not likely to reinterpret the First Amendment to include a public right to hear or to cover private media distribution companies. However, antitrust law has increasingly been floated as a possible way to reclaim control over networked press freedom, Ananny said.
One problem is that so far companies have been able to withhold the details of their algorithms and revenue streams as secret, proprietary information.
But if the machinery of public and journalistic speech is housed within private distribution companies, the result is a privatization of the public sphere. The state might therefore have an interest in regulating these new infrastructures, so long as the regulation applies to processes and not the content of the speech itself.
“It might not seem like a press-related thing, but if you have two companies controlling vast amounts of internet circulation, that’s a big deal,” Ananny explained.
Those two companies are Facebook and Google, which together receive 25 percent of all global ad revenue and 60 percent of all online ad revenue, according to the WARC, a marketing intelligence firm. Ad revenue is an indicator of readership: 45 percent of all US adults received news from Facebook in 2017, the Pew Research Center found.
Ultimately, these companies are among the largest distributors of news on the planet. How does the money flow? How do the algorithms work? Is competition even possible? These are the questions Ananny believes are uniquely relevant to press freedom in the networked age.
“Press freedom is mostly the product of private companies right now,” Ananny said. “We need to be asking whether that’s the kind of public life we want.”
45 percent of all US adults received news from Facebook in 2017
Janna Brancolini is an American lawyer and award-winning journalist based in Italy. She writes extensively on law and politics, with a focus on democracy, rule of law and human rights. Her work has been published by NBC, CBS, Thomson Reuters-West, the San Francisco Chronicle and the California Journal of International Law, among others. Janna currently edits Kheiro Magazine, an online magazine covering justice in a globalized world, and contributes to NewsMavens.com, a news round-up curated by women editors from top media brands in Europe. She was previously awarded a Fulbright Grant to research freedom of the press in Italy, and has lectured at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and the University of Bologna in Italy.
Mike Ananny is an Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg, where he researches the public significance of systems for networked journalism. Specifically, he studies how institutional, social, technological and normative forces both shape and reflect the design of the online press and a public right to hear. He is also a Faculty Associate with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University’s Department of Communication (advised by Theodore Glasser), a Masters from the MIT Media Laboratory (Gesture & Narrative Language and Tangible Media groups), and a Bachelors from the University of Toronto (double major in Computer Science and Human Biology)