Tech companies have transformed the global media landscape and affected the ways we consume news to a large degree. Some of this has been positive. The platforms have made it possible for legacy publishers to find new audiences, for instance. As a result, in some cases, journalism became more accessible to the public.

But the downsides have become more and more clear. Tech platforms have allowed disinformation to spread uncontrollably, posing major threats to democracies. And they enjoy immense power over the news media and publishing industry, influencing which content is seen by audiences.

IPI’s 2022 World Congress brought media professionals from the U.S, South Africa, and Brazil together to dive into the very complicated relationship between media and the platforms – in a panel aptly titled “Best of frenemies”.

“The world has never seen corporations this large and this powerful. And we don’t know what to do”, Julia Angwin, editor-in-chief of The Markup, said. Journalists always had challenges in bringing their content to the newsstand but in the digital age, she said, but these problems have become unprecedented. As Angwin pointed out, before “a newsstand wasn’t a global empire that had $200 billion in revenue and controlled not just your news outlet, but […] every single bit of speech”.

“Journalists need to be aware of what is at stake”, Paula Miraglia, CEO and co-founder of Nexo Jornal in Brazil, said, emphasizing the immense power that tech platforms have over the distribution of news. Miraglia said that while Google and Meta pay publishers in Brazil, these payments lack transparency in terms of amount and criteria, which leads to an imbalance in the industry.

Miraglia urged action against the increasing power of social platforms. “We need a coalition of civil society, media researchers – a strategy that responds to democracy and not a business model”, she said.

The immense power and influence the tech enjoys over African society and media consumption was the focus of remarks from Christoph Plate, director of the media programme for sub-Saharan Africa at KAS Media Africa. Plate described the differences in the relationships of the platforms with the African public, governments, and media, respectively. Although the public has mostly embraced the possibilities that the tech networks provide, the relationship with the continent’s news media is more tense. Media publishers from Africa, Plate said, are growing tired of attending Meta and Google events only to find that, at the end of the day, the companies’ algorithms don’t change and disinformation keeps spreading. As for African governments, their relationship with the platforms is rather “‘cosy”, Plate said.

Can live with them. Can’t live without them.

The panellists agreed that news outlets can no longer live without the platforms. “It’s a fantasy to be completely independent [from tech platforms]”, the panel’s moderator, Emily Bell, director of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, said.

But what can be done to improve the situation? Can new laws and regulations make a difference?

Anya Schiffrin, director of Technology, Media, and Communications at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, focused on the case of the Australian News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, a legislation designed to have large technology platforms operating in the country pay news publishers for the news content made available or linked on their platforms. According to Schiffrin, this initiative provided a lot of support for news media. “That’s to me an example of how government can step in”, she said.

However, the implications of the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code are controversial. During the audience Q&A section, Crikey Media’s Christopher Warren referred to the law as an “enormous disappointment in many ways” and criticized it on the ground of the disproportionate distribution of funds to the traditional media monopolies who had applied the money to boosting profits rather than supporting journalism.

Promise and peril of legislation 

“The international exchange is key. We need to understand what’s going on around the world. This discussion is going on in Turkey, Brazil, and Australia. And we need better literacy, in general”, Paula Miraglia said.

Although the panellists agreed upon the importance of both international exchange as well as regulations to rein in tech’s increasing power, they also acknowledged the difficulty of coming up with effective legislation that can also be widely applied around the world – especially given fears such legislation could be abused by authoritarian governments.

“There are examples where the German Network Enforcement Act was copy-pasted and now the law is used to suppress critical voices”, Plate said. Yet ultimately he agreed with the urgency of regulation.

“We need to encourage and support civil society to press governments to work on national legislation. We need to press the African Union and the African Commission to stand up to those networks”, he argued with regard to the African context – lessons that could be applied elsewhere, too.