From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the media have been accused of creating a false image of the situation and fuelling the negative mood in our society. The word “media” has been used to paint all with the same brush, the criticism is aimed at everyone, and the guilt is collective, writes Libuše Šmuclerová.
Libuše Šmuclerová is the chair of the board of directors of Czech News Center and a member of the board of directors of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN IFRA) and Czech Publishers Association.
But what is actually happening in the world of media? The fact that social networks and worldwide search engines have come into play is common knowledge. However, the way in which this fact has changed the entire system of distribution and consumption of news is less well known.
One might think that the fake news is the unique source of problems. Unfortunately, not even close. Let’s take a deeper look.
This doesn’t just tell the story of the Czech Republic, but the universal experience of almost every publisher out there. It is about technologies, human nature, mutations of capitalism, lawmakers who have missed the train and it all boils down to one idea: we should protect the traditional media rather than criticize it.
The Goliaths of the modern era
The size of social networks and Google alone is breathtaking. The Internet has about 4.4 billion users worldwide today. Facebook represents approximately 72% of the share of all social networks across the globe, with about 2.7 billion monthly active users, and is also the owner of Instagram, which stands for about 1.1 billion users, as well as WhatsApp and Messenger.
The world’s largest search engine, Google, manages approximately 92 % of the world’s search engines, and is used by about 4 billion people. Its sister company, YouTube, (both owned by Alphabet), has 2.3 billion users which is why we refer to Google and Facebook as the Duopoly.
In Czechia, the sizes of Facebook and Google are optically blurred. Official national measurements outline the parameters of the media market, but Facebook and Google are not subject to it. This creates the optical illusion that they do not exist, especially for people outside the media industry.
Today, there are almost 8.5 million Internet users in the Czech Republic, of which 5.7 million and 3.2 million use Facebook and Instagram, respectively. Google holds an 84% share among search engines in the Czech Republic (only 11% is attributed to Seznam, once the largest in Czechia).
The boom in digital technologies has been accompanied by a boom in online media. However, this is accompanied by an overall decline in quality (a lot of projects aim at “clickbait” advertising rather than journalism) and the homogenization of news.
News spreads like wildfire through websites but even more so through mobile devices who’s unified formatting provides no distinction between sources for the reader. At present, approximately 70% of users consume web contents through their mobile phones. The origin of the news and the messenger have become less clear.
That is why it is so important which pieces of news are provided as primary news in web feeds, and by what principle of selection and hierarchy the internet gatekeepers – the main dispatchers of news distribution – drive them into the bloodstream of the Internet. The decision on what we will or will not see is in their hands.
Protection of traditional media
Anyone who wants to judge the role of the media in the Covid-19 era must know that Google and Facebook have the same impact in the Czech Republic as the big Czech TV stations. Czechs spend 159 minutes a day on social media, consuming almost half of their information from there.
What news this will be, is controlled by commercial algorithms that automatically, by definition of the system, amplify only some news, especially that which is emotionally expressive.
The result is what we are living in: an epistemic crisis, an absolute relativization of any information, transfer, melding of bonds of faith, rules, and values. To quote the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman: the liquid reality of everything.
And what about COVID-19? According to a STEM survey carried out in March 2021, almost 40% of Czechs believe the conspiracy theories around Coronavirus, with 10 % of Czech being inclined to believe that vaccination is intended to control people through the use of microchips.
The traditional media will also have to do their part, of course. They will have to understand that they must not let their brand, a beacon of orientation, professionality, and substance in an over-informed society, be ruined.
They will have to find their way to the young generation that is excellent at getting all their information in three clicks. They must be able to offer them information advantages, stand out thanks to other, distinctive levels of services, to help improve media literacy. And, first and foremost, to further improve their own contents.
It’s the traditional media that need protection. Not because they are a preferred scapegoat of politicians and sometimes also consumers, but because the traditional media must be able to protect what they are meant to do.
They should provide a comprehensive view of society, giving it feedback that ensures the ability to solve problems, strengthen civic pride, reveal the potential of positive changes, and promote understanding.
In short, secure the key social and democratic benefits, including the protection of the values of a democratic society and its principle of ethics and morality. If this is not the case, we are very likely to lose them.
It is no coincidence that the Royal Swedish Academy has recently published a report on social media. The Academy is concerned about the impact of the spread of disinformation on social networks.
“Social media reports have created a toxic environment where it’s now very difficult to distinguish facts from fiction”, said Owen Gaggney, the co-author of the report.
“One of the biggest challenges now facing humanity is our inability to tell facts from fiction. This is undermining democracies, which in turn is limiting our ability to make long-term decisions needed to save the planet.”
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