As the world braces itself for the rapidly descending economic hit to come, a review and reinforcement of media structures cannot be overlooked. Only resilient business models and a healthy public sphere will maintain information sovereignty for democracies.
In the first three weeks of the COVID19 pandemic, there was a massive inflation of narratives, later identified as of Russian or of Chinese origin, that preyed on the initial confusion and fear in democratic societies.
These narratives were neither innovative nor elaborative. It was the old rusty talk about an inept democratic West and the might of autocratic efficiency in the East. This talk was multiplied by the usual suspects, disappearing day-old websites, WhatsApp groups that have mushroomed here are there and the ever-predictable Russia Today (RT), Sputnik and the like.
Unfortunately, there were also powerful voices of dissent initiated, from within the West, that led to such narratives.
On 14 March, Foreign Policy magazine featured an opinion by Elisabeth Braw who falsely claimed the EU is abandoning Italy in its hour of need.
In fact, the EU was doubling its efforts to provide help – not without initial hardships – and Prime Minister Conte was praising the EU for its assistance, and asking for more.
For a number of days, Braw’s opinion was replicated and amplified by many others. I can only speculate how much was invested by organised state trolling in amplifying this message.
Importantly, Braw argued that Italy may reconsider its participation in common NATO efforts (although her argument initially started with the EU) and would even turn more friendly to China if left out in the cold by Europe.
At that time, China was not shipping even a fraction of supplies provided earlier by the countries of the EU to Wuhan. The transports that came was not the state aid provided for free but paid for and donated by private individuals.
While all aid is needed it was yet minuscule in comparison to EU financial assistance or the US dispatch of C-130 with medical resources to Italy.
The article was also overlooking the fact that several EU countries have already used much of their medical reserves, like Slovenia that shipped in February over 1.2 million masks to Wuhan, while China – a global exporter of masks – was hoarding them for profit.
Similar arguments were soon replicated by many other established authors; they were lamenting the weak solidarity response while regurgitating Chinese propaganda messages or claiming that transports from Russia to Italy with useless supplies were a display of how the West was losing. And these Russian transports were meant only as a PR stunt and a test of military airlift to reach a key NATO country.
There is no doubt that the authors’ intentions were in principle pure, wanting to point out our weaknesses and demand more solidarity within the West.
But those who really failed were the guardians of the public space – the editors and publishers that capitalised on our emotional responses instead of fulfilling their factual journalistic duty.
Pay for truth
It is not insignificant that such opinions are chiefly disseminated through media whose business model are dwelling on free of charge, mass readership paid by advertisers.
Controversy, including catchy titles, raises the number of viewers which in turn allows for harvesting more revenue from ads. It is precisely this model that has been falling victim to organised online disinformation.
In recent years, it also was an easy target for digital ad fraud – a growing global criminal activity – and goes hand in hand with disinformation. Fake clicks and artificial trolling that imitate human behaviour and engagement are one of the least elaborate but effective tools that help criminals harvest advertisers.
The Association of National Advertisers suggested last year that around 50 per cent of all clicks on ads online are fraudulent – i.e. not by human but bots. Strangely, it coincides with the development of ‘robotrolling’ – armies of AI bots that imitate trolling behaviour reported by NATO’s Stratcom.
Here we need to rethink the relationship between media business models and societal vulnerabilities to disinformation.
Major players on that market like Marc Pritchard, Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer, were for years calling on redesigning the rules to rebuild accountability, transparency and trust in digital advertising, if not for civility then simply due to economic interests.
If the advertising market slowly deteriorates or suddenly even collapses it will not only have a severe impact on the economy but also on our information security.
But there is some good news too. In the last few weeks, we have seen a surge of online media subscribers, including in Central Europe – the new online battlefield which is heavily exposed to Russian and Chinese narratives.
Dennik N, a Slovak subscription-based daily launched just a couple of years ago, jumped up in national web site traffic to 6th place, growing by over 150 per cent, while all other news sites were also increasing their readership and collectively becoming the most visited sites on the Slovak internet.
A Polish weekly digital edition Polityka.pl, which recently went behind a paywall, has seen double-digit growth rates in the number of subscribers. And those committed subscribers are so far the best vaccine against organised malign influence campaigns.
If this trend continues then the universal demand for credible information might just outpace the demand for infotainment where readers have no agency, and that is good news for democracy.
Prey on the weak
Modern disinformation narratives grow not due to the expansion of digital media but because of the decline of the public sphere.
After 2008 financial crisis, the world saw not only numerous bankruptcies but also the rise of major disinformation platforms like RT and Sputnik as well as an increasing backdoor influence exercised by the Chinese government to suppress freedom of information along their interests, that has been branded by Christopher Walker as sharp power.
The most common media strategy of resilience was to open up to new advertising and sponsorship models that came with a trade-off. The original sin of online media that was enabling access to their content for free, without any form of subscription. The error was recognised too late, but now it is effectively redeeming itself through new, digital subscriptions.
People are ready to pay for truth when they recognise how much false information is around them. The New York Times is in fact most thankful to Donald Trump for boosting the journal’s paid readership, but not all media were early adopters of the innovative strategy set up by the New York Times.
Despite living through the Digital Age, there was overly little investment by media in their digital strategies. Tools were scarce and success rates small with social habits changing reluctantly towards an uncharted and experimental format.
Journalism, for over a decade, has been seriously underfunded, and while digital-savvy urban centres have flourished with media startups, in more remote areas, that often means the end of local press that might be just as lethal to democracy as disinformation.
A democratic virus
The COVID-19 pandemic has sometimes been referred to as very democratic, in the sense of the equal distribution of risk regardless of economic position. That is yet to be verified. But there is a democratic element that this virus will spread.
Perhaps the current pandemic, at a great cost, can reinvigorate trust in media and increase the need for strong journalism. Often a crisis situation exposes the baseline in a political design.
It helps to realise how important the media are in their role of the fourth estate but also to reflect on how great a security risk it is for democracies when key media institutions are allowed to be undermined.
The information framework that allows democracies to thrive is what we call information sovereignty. Access to information is a human right, but it is also the bedrock which democratic societies are built on.
Its absence is like the absence of the judicial or the executive power, without which no democracy could survive.
Information sovereignty should not be confused with the sovereign power of a government to control its media space (through means like censorship), but rather as the accessibility of plural and free media in which more and more journalists can thrive.
Megatrends of media markets
This March, during the week when the pandemic crisis was looming, Visegrad Insight launched a scenario-based report on the Futures of Information Sovereignty in Central Europe. Last week, we held a transatlantic Visegrad Insight Breakfast discussion to highlight some of the report’s findings.
Based on extensive reporting and analysis conducted by fellows at Visegrad Insight #DemocraCE program it explains four different megatrends of media markets, which expose different structural vulnerabilities to disinformation and that will now be only amplified by the COVID-19 epidemic.
It explores a pattern of media centralisation, like in Hungary, where foreign malign influence is replaced by government-sponsored conspiracy theories and amplifies risks of groupthink.
The report also highlights how decentralisation can reinforce a rural-urban divide, a structural weakness exploited by populists, through the affordability of subscriptions for reliable information.
Moreover, it shows how the fragmentation of the market – seen starkly in Belarus – raises the risks of a media takeover by a seemingly plural set of “alternative news” sites and which are open to exploitation by organised foreign agencies that could use it for hybrid warfare.
Finally, it also considers a scenario of the advertising market collapse that might pull out major credible companies from the market and in turn replace them with actors exercising sharp power or condemning vulnerable press to die.
In fact, Harvard’s NiemanLab warned in late March that the coronavirus might bring a total annihilation of alt-weeklies and many local dailies, many of which have started to shut down since the beginning of the pandemic.
Other voices were raised to save journalists jobs and let the chain media die in response to Trump’s administration stimulus package.
None of the immediate solutions are good. While Russia or Hungary are on one side of the extreme – threatening to jail anyone, journalists included, for up to 8 years for disseminating information that would be considered by authorities as fake – there are more market-oriented tools that seem to be working better.
One of them, though not alone sufficient, is to restore paywalls that were initially dropped for COVID-19 related content.
More subscribers are willing to pay for real news. In the potential scenario of a collapsing advertising market, the media will need to increase their resilience in order to survive and provide independent checks on governments.
This article is published as part of the Prospect Foundation project “Online Media Literacy for Editors and Administrators of Social Media Public Pages”, managed by iSANS and supported through grants from the International Visegrad Fund. A Russian version of this article is available on Reform.by. A Ukrainian version is available on Foreign Policy Ukraine. A Czech version is available on Hospodářské noviny.