Media Policy in the Digital Age

“Digital Age” and “Communication Society” have become clichés used in different contexts by a variety of scholars in the Social Sciences.  Both expressions usually refer to phenomena such as the emergence of the Internet and social media, as well as the massification of new communication technologies. Despite the different meanings associated with them and the lack of consensus regarding their conceptualisation, the changes currently affecting mediated communication are irreversible. These changes pose multiple challenges to the formulation of media policy.

The transition between two historical periods is often characterised by uncertainty and confusion. In the case of the media, far-reaching debates occurred every time a technological innovation established a new and more advanced form of mediated communication. Such moments of transformation demand novel approaches and regulatory frameworks that reflect, if not a common understanding of the new reality, a different balance of forces between the multiple players involved in policymaking. Media policy, as any other type of public policy, is the result of different (and often antagonistic) interests that converge or collide in the so-called public sphere.

Freedman (2014) argues that the Internet produced a power shift in comparison to the previous period. This shift consists mostly of two broader phenomena, namely, the emergence of new giant corporations, such as Facebook and Google, and the possibility granted by the World Wide Web for new counter-hegemonic narratives to counterbalance dominant discourses. Making sense of these two asymmetric tendencies and how they influence the media environment today is perhaps the most challenging task for media policymakers.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed almost two years ago by the Guardian is only the tip of the iceberg of how critical the situation has become and how deficient the control exerted by governments over the use of the Internet currently is. The company has harvested and manipulated for political purposes data from approximately 87 million Facebook users, according to a Guardian article. The scandal shows that, notwithstanding the attempts made to restrain mega-corporations, they still act as if having carte blanche to use as they please the colossal amount of private data they accumulated. We cannot forget that, as private organisations, companies such as Facebook and Google have a primary drive for profit and larger market shares. If the state does not monitor and restrict their activities, which can only be done by approving regulatory legislation, similar cases in which Internet giants misuse personal information will come to the surface.

A second challenge that researchers and policymakers alike must spare no efforts to tackle is the spread of fake news on the web. We live in an era that sees governments of different ideologies and other political agents relying more and more on false or inaccurate information to promote their political agendas. The elections of Donald Trump in 2016 and the Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 can be seen as two occasions when a massive and targeted distribution of desinformation played a decisive role. Since the 1930s, the number of populist, authoritarian governments had not been as high as we presently witness. They represent a real threat to the democratic institutions built throughout the last 150 years in various parts of the world. Have the Internet and social media become a tool for undermining citizens´ self-determination to elect their leaders and shape their societies freely, or are other social phenomena – such as growing inequality, economic crisis, migration, and growing media ownership concentration – equally to blame for the spread of populist ideas?

Media policymakers face the enormous challenge of creating legal frameworks to prevent influential political players from using technology for questionable ends. In the case of Brazil, for instance, evidence shows that Bolsonaro´s campaign team produced most of the false information used by his supporters to attack his opponent and ultimately win the elections. Which mechanisms can be set in motion to counter such practices without restricting individual rights? Undoubtedly, the terrain is slippery. Worryingly, politicians such as Trump and Bolsonaro see their relationship with the media as a crusade against evil.

Hallin and Mancini´s book Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics (2004) laid the groundwork for the understanding of how media and political systems interact. However, it is necessary to move the discipline forward and reassess the meaning of media power. Media organisations became more global and integrated. CNN, Al-Jazeera, the New York Times (and many others) do not see their audiences as restricted to one country or region. Regularly, they address transnational publics. Nevertheless, legislation and other types of regulations and frameworks are set on a national level. To what extent does this represent an obstacle for formulating media policy in the digital age?

These are some of the questions that media academics and policymakers need to address. A productive debate about topics such as media ownership concentration and the spread of fake news is currently taking place in academia. It is time now to shift the focus to how the research and policymakers communities can channel this effort to designing new policies that live up to the challenges that lie ahead.

Freedman, Des. The Contradictions of Media Power. 1st edition. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.

Hallin, Daniel C., and Paolo Mancini. Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics. Cambridge, UNITED KINGDOM: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

The Guardian. Cambridge Analytica a year on: ‘a lesson in institutional failure’. The Cambridge Analytica Files, March 17, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-year-on-lesson-in-institutional-failure-christopher-wylie.

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