The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

“It is increasingly clear that the operation of the platforms, both from an antitrust perspective and even more importantly from the perspective of democratic governance, has received remarkably little scrutiny.”

The relationship between publishers of news and the digital platforms (especially Facebook and Google) has been fraught for almost a decade. The platforms, leveraging their sheer scale, have seized ever-greater shares of digital advertising revenue and contributed mightily to the collapse of advertising prices by stimulating the supply of advertising opportunities at a rate faster than the demand for it could ever grow. At the same time, the platforms have also driven huge amounts of traffic to the publishers — accentuating the paradox of growing audiences accompanied by falling profits.

All of this may well approach a crisis point in the year ahead. The crisis, if there is one building, began with the revelations, just after the election, of how the platforms, and especially Facebook, had been employed by the Russian government and the Trump campaign, possibly in collusion, to disseminate what has come to be called “fake news.” But the problem goes beyond that.

It is increasingly clear that the operation of the platforms, both from an antitrust perspective and even more importantly from the perspective of democratic governance, has received remarkably little scrutiny. And it seems unfortunately also true that their executives, particularly at Facebook, feel very little impulse for accountability until confronted publicly.

This all puts enormous pressure on journalists to do their job in holding these enormous enterprises to the standards of decency, legality, and democratic practice that we are all entitled to expect of the nation’s most profitable companies. Some work of this sort is being done. We need more. Journalists would do well to recognize the commercial impulses limiting such inquiries — and not to let that deter them. For the sake of all of us, moreover, they need to do this work before it is too late.

Richard J. Tofel is president of ProPublica.

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