Watchdog Reporting On Big Tech is Critical. Here’s How to Protect It.
By Philip M. Napoli
Last week, the Senate held a hearing on potential harmful effects of social media on children, thanks to a series of reports by the Wall Street Journal . The Journal reported that Facebook ignored internal research demonstrating the negative effects of its Instagram platform on teenage girls and has developed aggressive plans to attract pre-teen users despite such indications of harm. Soon after the Journal began publishing this series, the New York Times reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had recently approved a troubling new algorithmic adjustment. The new algorithm will make positive stories about Facebook more prominent in users’ news feeds.
These reports highlight the growing importance of the platform beat. This relatively new, but very active, area of watchdog journalism focuses on holding large digital platforms accountable. Reporters on the beat monitor digital platforms and their actions and inactions. They also track uses (and abuses) of the platforms by third parties.
Specialized technology reporters who focus on digital platforms are increasingly common within news organizations, both within the U.S. and abroad. In the United States, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark gave $6 million to Consumer Reports to support reporting on “digital products and platforms.” This donation followed a previous $20 million gift to support The Markup, a nonprofit investigative news operation focusing on the tech sector.
This kind of reporting is vital. Right now, no systematic government oversight exists for these platforms, which play an increasingly dominant role in our economic and political life. Meanwhile, the platforms’ own efforts at self-governance have repeatedly fallen short. News organizations are essential to filling this oversight gap. News organizations have revealed many significant abuses and missteps by large digital platforms. For instance, reporters revealed how the Myanmar military used Facebook against Rohingya Muslims. News media uncovered how Facebook was allowing discriminatory advertising in relation to housing and jobs, and revealed the radicalizing effects of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. News organizations have also chronicled the severity and reach of coronavirus and election-related disinformation on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. And, most important, these reports do seem to be able to induce change in how these platforms operate.
In some cases, these reports emerge from the accounts of whistle-blowers. In other cases, they result from large-scale social media monitoring and from analyzing of massive amounts of social media data. The New York Times has described journalists as “unpaid content moderators for these platforms.”
Essentially, journalism’s fourth estate role now extends to massive digital platforms that, as Mark Zuckerberg has said, function more like governments than companies. Digital platforms have integrated themselves into the democratic process as key players in news distribution, political persuasion, and political organizing. Reporting on these digital platforms has become essential for protecting the integrity of our democracy.
This is why reporters on the platform beat must be able to do their work without impediment, and with the integrity, rigor and independence we expect of quality watchdog journalism. Unfortunately, we face major challenges on these fronts.
For instance, according to The Markup, Facebook recently altered its website code to prevent automated gathering of news feed stories. News organizations rely on this kind of automated scraping to monitor the platform at scale. Facebook’s actions come on the heels of the company disbanding the team that supports CrowdTangle, a data analytics platform that news organizations use to track user engagement with polarizing content and disinformation. Facebook also recently booted NYU political advertising researchers off the platform, ostensibly to protect user privacy.
In addition, the unique relationship between digital platforms and news organizations complicates the platform beat and can potentially affect the integrity and rigor of platform reporting. For instance, news organizations and digital platforms compete for advertising dollars, though at this point the competition is like the contest between a hammer and a nail. Platforms such as Facebook and Google have siphoned most of the advertising revenue out of the digital media ecosystem, leaving relatively few scraps for news organizations.
Platform executives frequently complain that news organizations have it out for them. They argue that news organizations’ frustration over their failure to compete for ad revenue colors their journalism. Both the Times and the Journal stories elicited aggressive responses from Facebook, in which the company asserted that the newspapers mischaracterized Facebook’s actions, misrepresented their motives and selectively omitted important facts.
Indeed, the competitive dynamics between platforms and the press could potentially taint journalistic objectivity. However, the platform–press relationship could instead skew coverage in more positive directions. For instance, news organizations have become highly dependent on digital platforms for distribution. These days, the pathway to news often involves social media platforms directing users to news stories. This dependency for audience attention could discourage news organizations from aggressive reporting on platforms. If, as the Times story revealed, Facebook can dial up the prominence of positive news stories about the platform, it can just as easily dial down negative stories. Or for that matter, Facebook could dial down any stories from news organizations the company decides have treated it unfairly.
Furthermore, news organizations increasingly depend on digital platforms for financial support. This financial support takes a variety of forms. Facebook and Google give hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to news organizations. They also represent the primary source of revenue for many fact-checking organizations in the U.S. and around the world. And in Australia, in a development that may spread to other countries, platforms are now required to negotiate regular payments to news organizations. One can’t help but wonder whether news organizations may find themselves hesitant to bite the hand that feeds them.
The platform beat is arguably one of the most important and consequential beats in contemporary journalism. Given that, it is critical to disentangle as much as possible the relationship between platforms and the press. We must also assure that platform watchdogs have the data access they require to do their jobs.
Much more growth in the nonprofit news sector would help., There, watchdog reporters can operate free of competitive pressures from the platforms they cover and better positioned to resist the largesse that they can offer.
News organizations also need strategies for attracting audience attention that don’t place them at the mercy of social media distributors. This is certainly easier said than done. ProPublica’s Richard Tofel has analogized the news industry’s dependence on social media distribution to cigarette addiction. Still, recent research suggests news organizations are making significant progress in kicking the habit.
Finally, watchdog journalists and researchers need access to platform content and data so they can do their work. Proposed legislation ensuring researcher access to some categories of social media data is beginning to work its way through Congress. That suggests that the issue of supporting platform watchdogs is now on policymakers’ radar.
More and more evidence suggests that digital platforms are being used to destabilize democracy. As the next round of elections looms on the horizon, protecting and empowering journalistic watchdogs on the platform beat represents an important line of defense.
Philip M. Napoli is the James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, where he is also the Director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy. His most recent book is Social Media and the Public Interest: Media Regulation in the Disinformation Age (Columbia University Press, 2019).