This year, media reckoned with technology’s power over its audience relationships and business model. The climax, a November surprise that technology’s power may have enabled an alternate disinformation reality to influence our election, is unlike any we imagined. In response, the media industry has rallied fiercely to remind of its critical role in holding truth to governmental power. The coming year will be technology’s turn to acknowledge media as that essential pillar of democracy.
In the last few decades of internet growth, technology’s democratization of global media has been a mostly positive force against information asymmetry. It has revealed unheard knowledge, empowered new voices, awakened societies, and assembled communities. In addition to giving voice to individuals, technology has increased the reach and immediacy of traditional media companies and enabled the founding of new, digital ones.
Expectedly, the democratization of media by social and publishing platforms has unearthed disruptive actors and discordant views. Where our culture of broadcast media once catered to the center and traded on trust, the age of social media thrives on contagious, memetic ideas replicating via network effects. In oppressed countries, this opportunistic channel enables needed protest to rise from the everyman. In established democracies, it can be rapidly gamed toward destabilization. For technology companies who vow neutrality in their support of all the world’s voices and governing systems that two-headed dilemma is a difficult one. But technology’s values — openness, connectedness, and the individual voice — show they seek to protect the mantle of democracy.
Notably, social media and digital publishing distribution have barely existed longer than a decade. Within history’s long arc, we stand at the dawn of this digital communication paradigm. Now is actually the right time to establish better grounding for this powerful new media infrastructure. While global technology platforms occupy an unusual confluence of corporate and civic duty, it is consistent with both obligations that they work toward stabilizing platform weaknesses against community manipulation.
Technology companies have provided some initial response in this vein, but the continued impact and spread of disinformation alongside trusted media and well intended individuals suggests more is needed. The ask is most decidedly not for censorship but instead for stronger, abler enforcement of their own community standards. This must be the year that technology platforms internally reflect upon their civic responsibility and remember along with it the value of trusted media in society. While they may owe the media industry little in business terms, they owe their existence to a healthy public discourse.
The burden of ensuring media’s place as the fourth estate, that vital check against governmental power, falls on media companies to act, technology disruptors to support, and government leaders to respect.
In 2017, media must act and already is. Now technology must support. But government respect? Don’t count on it.
Erin Pettigrew is a media and tech consultant.