DRAFT Chapter 3: The New Media Landscape

For comment, draft third chapter of “Renewing Trust in America,” from the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy

Chapter 3: The New Media Landscape

The Power of Exponential Technology
The Early Internet and the Web
Sidebar: The Decline of the Newspaper
Chart: Declining revenue for Newspaper Industry
Chart: Decline in Newspapers and Circulation
Growth of Broadband and Mobile
Chart: Daily Time Spent with Digital Media, 2008–2017
Advent of Social Networks
Chart: Users of U.S.-Based Social Media
From Social Networks to Social Media
Four Factors Responsible for Decline in Trust of the Media
Chart: Does Increase in Information Available Today
Make Being Well-Informed Easier or Harder?

Chart: Americans’ News Sources, 2017
A Perfect Storm
Sidebar: Emerging Technologies
Findings: Chapter 3

Editor’s note: The original version of this draft misstated the number of monthly users for WeChat, the Chinese messaging app. The correct statistic is one billion monthly users.

The decline in trust in government described in Chapter 2 has been closely paralleled by a similar decline in trust in media. Whether one has caused the other or whether the same factors are responsible for both declines, it is likely that the loss of faith in media is responsible for some portion of the loss of faith in American democratic institutions. Even if causes of both declines are similar, there are some distinctive factors that appear to be contributing to the decline in trust in media. These include: media proliferation, blurring between news and opinion, media disintermediation, and misinformation and disinformation.

In order to fully understand these factors and to help devise strategies for restoring trust in media and democracy, it is useful to consider the underlying digital revolution that has been reshaping the media landscape. This chapter begins with a quick historical review of the current media environment as a means of understanding where the media are today and how they got here. The second half of the chapter discusses how these technological changes, and other factors, may have contributed to declining trust in media.

The Power of Exponential Technology

New technologies have the power to disrupt existing institutions and open new possibilities. But most technologies evolve gradually after their initial introduction. Railroads, for example, are faster and more efficient now than they were when they appeared in the mid-19th century, but they still operate in essentially the same way today as they did when they were first introduced. Much the same is true of other technologies like automobiles, aircraft and even broadcasting.

But digital technology is different: Since digital computers were created some 70 years ago, the technology has evolved dramatically and has gone through a series of transformations that have taken it — and its users — far from its origins. The development of the integrated circuit, which is at the heart of modern digital technology, gave rise to Moore’s Law (1965) that states that the number of elements (transistors) in an integrated circuit doubles every two years, thereby enabling raw computing power to increase at the same rate. As a result, digital computers have steadily gotten faster, smaller, cheaper and more powerful at an exponential rate. Uses that had seemed like science fiction at one point have become ordinary reality a few years later. For example, the smartphones that millions of people now carry in their pockets are more powerful and much less expensive computers than the most advanced supercomputers in operation a few decades ago.

The impact of the exponential improvement of digital computers has been magnified by two related trends, also driven by digital technology: the growth of the Internet that now reaches billions of people, and the rise of mobile communications that has transformed the way people connect to the Internet and to each other. The most recent exponential shift has been the emergence of social media platforms. As described by Tom Friedman:

In the early 2000s, a set of technologies came together into platforms, social networks and software that made connectivity and solving complex problems fast, virtually free, easy for you, ubiquitous and invisible. Suddenly, more individuals could compete, connect, collaborate and create with more other people, in more ways, from more places, for less money and with greater ease than ever before. And we sure did![1]

The result of these developments has been the emergence of a dramatically new media landscape, creating an environment that has profound implications for many aspects of life, including how citizens get access to news, how they judge its veracity, and what uses they make of it.

The Early Internet and the Web

Before the Internet became popular, online services were dominated by commercial companies such as CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL. Each of these services was essentially a “walled garden” that required the use of its own software and only allowed users to communicate with other users of the same service.

Compared to commercial online services, the Internet offered a radically different paradigm. No one entity owned or controlled it and anyone who conformed to its standards could use it to connect with anyone else on the Internet. Launched in 1968 to connect just six locations, the Internet grew steadily but was initially confined mostly to users in universities. The problem was that the Internet was challenging to use: early applications were intended mainly for experts.

But in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee, an engineer working at the CERN research lab in Switzerland, invented a way to make the Internet much easier to use. His scheme, which he called the World Wide Web, made it possible to use a single piece of software, a browser, to navigate the entire Web just by clicking links on a “page.” And software for making Web pages made it simple to create attractive content that combined text and graphics.

Before long, there were millions of Web sites online. (As of 2018, there are more than 1.5 billion sites.) In 1995, online merchants like Amazon and eBay appeared on the Web. Search engines such as Yahoo! (1994) and Google (1996) emerged to help users find content they were interested in. Traditional print publications also started to move onto the Web: In 1994, Time Inc. launched Pathfinder as a portal to its magazines. In 1996, both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal began publishing digital editions, and within a decade almost every print magazine and newspaper in the U.S. had established an online presence.

Most publishers in this early era chose to place their content online for free. Some saw the Web as a place to experiment with the new medium. Others believed that making content freely available would help to grow their readership or viewership, which they could sell to advertisers. The Wall Street Journal was an exception, requiring a subscription to access its content. Others, like The New York Times, tried out other business models, such as “freemium,” that offered free access to a certain number of articles per month, after which there is a charge. Newspapers, in particular, have grappled with the balance between free and fee access. This choice became even more vexing when it turned out that advertisers were willing to pay less than one-tenth as much for access to online readers than for the same readers of print publications. In fact, the movement of news and, especially, advertising from print to online has had severe economic consequences for many traditional newspaper publishers (see sidebar).

Sidebar: The Decline of the Newspaper

Perhaps no industry has been more deeply disrupted by the Internet than newspaper publishing. For more than a century, newspapers had an effective monopoly on reporting of daily news. While the advent of radio and television provided a formidable challenge, the industry managed to continue to grow during much of the 20th century. But newspaper subscriptions peaked in the 1980s and began a steady decline as readers switched to media that provided more rapid accounts of the news. Daily newspaper circulation fell from a high of about 60 million in the 1980s to 39 million in 2018. However, revenue from circulation continued to increase slightly as publishers raised their subscription prices (see Figure 3.x).

Starting at the turn of the 21st century, the economics of newspapers changed dramatically as retail and classified advertising — the major source of revenue for newspaper — shifted from print to online. Ad revenue for print newspapers declined from a high of $49.4 billion in 2005 to $18.3 billion in 2016.

Chart: Declining Revenue for Newspaper Industry

Source: Pew Research Center

The impact of this revenue loss has been devastating. More than a thousand newspapers have gone out of business, leaving cities that had multiple papers with just one, and smaller towns that had a single newspaper with none at all — creating what have been described as “news deserts.” Even newspapers that have survived have experienced deep cuts in their staffs. There are now approximately half the number of working reporters today compared to a decade ago.

Chart: Decline in Newspapers and Circulation

Source: Penelope Abernathy, Presentation to the Commission, Nashville, April 29, 2018.

As Penelope Abernathy of the UNC-Chapel Hills School of Media and Journalism testified to the Commission, local newspapers have traditionally served a number of critical functions in their communities: setting the agenda for debates of important policy issues, supporting economic development, and encouraging social cohesion and local community activism. To keep communities healthy, whatever replaces the traditional newspaper should serve these functions.

Even in the relatively early days of the Internet’s growth, other problems became apparent. For example setting up a decent Web site required few resources, and it was challenging for users to differentiate between established, credible institutions and more dubious sources online. It was, as one observer noted, “hard to distinguish between the towers and the flowers.” It was also difficult to figure out where Web content was coming from or who was creating it, which offered opportunities for bad actors to provide fake or misleading content. Viruses appeared that could rapidly spread through the Internet and infect millions of computers. Spam began to clog users’ mailboxes.

Still, the Internet grew rapidly. While just a few percent of Americans were on the Internet in the early 1990s, more than half were on by 2000, and by 2017 more than 90 percent of Americans were using the Internet. In addition, how they accessed and used the Internet changed dramatically, due to two more technological advances.

Growth of Broadband and Mobile

A key development that spurred growth of the Web was the arrival of broadband access, beginning in the late 1990s. All-digital broadband connections were not only faster than previous “narrowband” connections, but they were “always on” and did not require a time-consuming logon process. Within less than a decade, broadband was the dominant means by which Americans were connected to the Internet

Thanks to the advantages of broadband, the psychological distance between users and cyberspace shrank substantially. As getting online got easier, people went online more frequently, did more while online, and stayed online longer. Sharing rich media like music, photos and video became feasible. YouTube was launched in May 2005, and by the end of the year, it was generating eight million video views a day. In 2007, Netflix, which had started by distributing movies on DVDs through the mail, introduced a broadband streaming service, and rapidly shifted from being the fastest growing customer of the U.S. Postal Service to being one of the largest generators of Internet traffic.

The next big revolution was the move to wireless connections. Cell phones were initially introduced in the mid-1980s, butut for two decades they remained just portable telephones. That changed in 2007 with the introduction of Apple’s iPhone, the first true “smartphone,” which was as much a miniature computer as it was a mobile phone, and could support a wide variety of uses. Notably, it included a Web browser designed for the iPhone’s small screen, which enabled mobile access to the entire Web. In addition, Apple introduced “apps,” tiny programs, available through Apple’s App Store, that each performed a single function. By creating a platform that allowed anyone to create and distribute their own iPhone apps (subject to Apple’s approval), Apple helped build a rich ecosystem for new uses of mobile devices. This model was quickly emulated by competitors, most notably Google, with Android, its own smartphone software.[2]

Just as wired computer networks evolved from narrowband to broadband, so wireless networks steadily increased in speed. With each new generation of wireless technology, carriers upgraded speed and accessibility, while fast (and often free) Wi-Fi access became increasingly pervasive.

Thanks to smartphones and other connected devices, it has increasingly become a “mobile first” world. While 80 percent of Americans’ online time was spent on laptops or desktops in 2008, just eight years later, more than half of online time was on mobile devices.

Chart: Daily Time Spent with Digital Media, 2008–2017


A walk down any urban street, a visit to a coffee shop or time spent in the gate area of any airport will quickly confirm how tied Americans have become to their phones. Daily mobile use has grown from less than 20 minutes a day in 2008 to more than three hours a day in 2017.[3] Users check their phones an average of 47 times per day. Nearly 90 percent check their phones within an hour of waking up in the morning and 80 percent check them within an hour of going to sleep.[4] And a 2018 study from Pew found that more than a quarter of U.S. adults (26 percent) say that they are online “almost constantly,” up from 21 percent just two years earlier. The Pew study also highlights the importance of smartphones to usage levels: 31 percent of smartphone users are online constantly, compared to just 5 percent of non-owners.[5]

Thanks to the popularity of smartphones, cyberspace has become a pervasive digital environment that accompanies people wherever they go. It is always available to answer questions, deliver news, communicate with family and friends, guide travels, track activities, share text, photos and videos, manage finances or appointments, or entertain users with music and games. And within a few years, the next generation of mobile technology (5G) will provide even faster, more pervasive wireless connections.

Advent of Social Networks

The most recent chapter in the evolution of cyberspace has been the shift from a focus on providing access to information and transactions to connecting people to each other through social networks. Although communication functions like email, bulletin boards, texting and chat have long been popular, the rise of social networks has vastly increased the person-to-person function of the Internet, and inspired people to share the most intimate aspects of their lives, even in real time. Social media provided a new kind of platform that allowed individuals and groups that had not previously had a voice, to express themselves and connect with others with similar interests.

The most dramatic example of this shift is the spectacular rise of Facebook. After it was founded in 2004, it took Facebook four years to reach its first 100 million users (2008). In the next four years, Facebook grew to one billion users (2012) and since then has grown to over two billion users.[6] About 10 percent of its current user base (214 million people) is American. For many people around the world, Facebook is the Internet.

Though not as massive as Facebook, other, newer social networks are still impressively large: Twitter, started in 2006, has 330 million monthly users and over 100 million daily users. Instagram, launched in 2010 and now owned by Facebook, has 800 million users worldwide, and 78 million in the U.S. Snapchat, started in 2011, has 187 million daily active users and 10 billion video views per day as of 2017.

Not all popular social networks are U.S. based: As of the end of 2017, Tencent’s WeChat, a Chinese-language social network, has reached one billion monthly users inside and outside of China.[7]

Given their scale, these services are often described as platforms. Though the nature and specific function of platforms vary, they are large enough to be the foundation of their own ecosystems that can athat because of their scale attract users as well as advertisers and developers interested in reaching large numbers of users.

Social networks have helped connect people in new ways. They have helped countless families to stay in touch even while they are geographically separated. They have been used for many pro-social campaigns, including encouraging people to become organ doners and youg people to register to vote. They have also been used by activists to raise awareness of social injusticers and by citizens of repressive regimes to organize protests, which have led to the fall of some governments.[8]

Chart: Users of U.S.-Based Social Media


With the proliferation of smartphones and other mobile devices, it is possible to stay almost continuously connected to social networks — and many people do. Of the 1.4 billion users who log on to Facebook daily, more than a billion do so from a mobile device.[9] And services like Instagram and Snapchat have been designed specifically as mobile applications.

From Social Networks to Social Media

A powerful force that is shaping these global social media networks is the business model that determines how they operate. As Gina Bianchini explained to the Commission, in about 2011 “social networks became social media,” moving from a focus on connecting users to using the network to sell audiences to advertisers. Since these services are free to users, they are dependent on advertisers for revenue, which provides a strong incentive for operators to attract as many users as possible and maximize the amount of time they spend on their sites.

Because these sites are digital, they routinely capture large amounts of detailed digital data on the interests and behavior of their users. With this data, operators are able to fine-tune the algorithms that determine what users see in order to maximize their appeal. Some critics have charged that the designers of these services have deliberately worked to make them as addictive as possible to keep users coming back.[10] Others have pointed out that “polarization may be bad for democracy, but is a great business model.”[11] But that has also been said for more traditional media as well.[12]

Revelations about efforts to use social media platforms to disrupt the U.S. electoral process and to sow discord and foster doubts about democratic political processes have raised troubling questions about the role of the platforms. The platforms have been criticized for their vulnerability to outside manipulation and for their failure to protect user data. In an ongoing process of development, criticism, and revision, social media platforms responded to these charges by announcing changes designed to improve privacy protection and strengthen mechanisms to detect and remove illegitimate content. For example, Facebook publicly committed itself to work toward a goal of “connecting people more meaningfully,”[13]while Twitter announced a series of changes designed to strengthen privacy protections and eliminate questionable content.[14] In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into force in May 2018, imposes a variety of new obligations on companies operating online in the EU.

Some observers have argued that electronic media, including the social networks along with broadcast and cable television, have in effect become the central “public square” for the U.S. and much of the rest of the world — the primary means by which citizens learn about and debate the meaning of what is happening in the world.

Given media’s critical role in society, it is worth pausing to consider to the factors that have contributed to the decline of trust in media.

Four Factors Responsible for Decline in Trust of the Media

As noted earlier, the decline in trust in media may be part of a larger decline in trust in a range of social institutions. But four specific factors seem to be uniquely responsible for the decline in trust in media and its role as a reliable source of news and information:

1. Proliferation of Sources. The proliferation of media sources, first through cable and more recently through the Internet, has increased the challenge of finding trustworthy sources of news and being well-informed.

A 2018 Gallup Survey commissioned by the Knight Foundation found that almost six out of ten (58 percent) of adult Americans said that the increase in information available today makes it harder for them to be well-informed, compared to 38 percent who believed that more information makes it easier to be well informed. The same survey found that just 41 percent of Americans were confident in their ability to navigate the news environment to remain knowledgeable on current events and determine what is factually true.[15]

Chart: Does Increase in Information Available Today
Make Being Well-Informed Easier or Harder?

Source: Knight/Gallup American Views, p. 17.

2. Blurring of the line between news and opinion. A fundamental rationale for the First Amendment is to protect the critical role of the press in keeping citizens informed about what their government is doing. During the 20th Century, the practice, particularly in newspapers, of separating reporting from editorial comment (usually relegated to a specific page) was widely adopted. During this time, journalists professionalized and strengthened their standards, aiming for more accurate and unbiased reporting.

By the mid-20th Century, thanks to the concentration of major TV and print news outlets and the impact of the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasting, there was a broad consensus on what constituted news, which meant there was relatively little disagreement about what constituted “facts,” even if their meaning was open to debate But with the rise of cable news and the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, that consensus began to break down. With the introduction of 24-hour news channels, the reality was that there was rarely enough “hard news” in a day to fill all of the available time. The solution was to report the news that was happening, then fill the remaining time with (cheaper) analysis and commentary, eventually blurring the line between the two types of content. While the first news channels, like CNN, emphasized the straight reporting of news, a second wave of new, more explicitly partisan channels put greater emphasis on commentary, further blurring the line between the two types of content. (In response to the popularity of competitors that featured commentary, CNN also shifted to giving more prominence to analysis and opinion.) As partisanship grew, even the consensus on what constitutes “the news” began to erode.

During this same period of time, FM radio expanded and offered a technically superior listening experience, especially for music, compared to AM stations. This motivated AM station owners to look to talk radio as a means of regaining audience. Without the constraints of a Fairness Doctrine, they moved toward offering strongly opinionated fare. While most talk radio was local, some partisan commentators were able to attract large national audiences.

The arrival of the lightly regulated Internet further expanded the spectrum of voices offering both news and commentary. One novel development has been the rise of “citizen journalists” — non-professionals who have been empowered by the openness of the Internet to act as reporters and commentators — who often do not accept, or even care much about, the standards of professional journalism. While they have provided valuable new voices and perspectives, they have also contributed to eroding the distinction between fact and opinion.

More recently, conservative media critics have argued that the traditional press — the “mainstream media” — are not truly objective but rather reflect a generally liberal political perspective that is being promoted under the guise of objectivity. For example, a study by the American Enterprise Institute found “the mainstream media was strikingly more skeptical of Republican education proposals than of Democratic proposals while the education-specific media maintained greater impartiality.”[16] Speaking to the Commission, former Presidential Press Secretary Ari Fleischer argued that newspapers have compromised their commitment to objectivity by blurring the line between factual reporting and opinion in their news articles.

Even the choice of what stories get covered and how much emphasis they receive have been characterized as political decisions. Major news media reject this criticism as ignoring the high standards of reporting that they maintain, but there is evidence that this critique has found a receptive audience. In testimony to the Knight Commission, Robin Vos, Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly, was critical of the tendency of reporters to ignore what is working in government in favor of seeking stories about dysfunction, conflict and scandals: “”Good news isn’t news anymore — when good things happen, they are rarely reported, while what is reported is often sensationalized.”[17]

The confusion between fact and opinion is reflected in the skeptical attitudes of Americans about news. The Knight/Gallup survey reported that perceptions of news bias have grown considerably from a generation ago. More than 60 percent of the respondents see “too much bias in the reporting of news stories that are supposed to be objective” as a major problem, while less than half of (44 percent) can identify any news source that they believe reports the news objectively.[18] Additionally, the survey results suggest that perceptions of media bias are strongly related to one’s political leanings with “26 percent of Democrats versus 67 percent of Republicans perceiving a great deal of political bias in news coverage.”[19]

3. Media disintermediation. The new role of social media platforms as a source of news has altered the way in which news moves from creators to consumers. As of 2017, according to a Pew survey, two-thirds of adult Americans were getting “at least some” of their news from social media platforms and 43 percent reported that they “often get their news online,” just short of the 50 percent who cited television is a frequent source, and well above the portion who rely on radio or print newspapers [see Figure 3.5].

Chart: Americans’ News Sources, 2017

Source: Pew Research Center

In the first wave of online news, many traditional publications established online presences and attempted to attract readers to their sites. Some of these publications have, in fact, been successful in attracting a substantial number of regular readers, and even paid subscribers. At the end of 2017, The New York Times had more than 3.5 million paying subscribers[20], and as of early 2017, more than half of the The Wall Street Journal’s 2.1 million total subscribers were online-only[21].

Historically, readers who subscribe to a specific publication have an understanding of and trust in that publication’s perspective and practices. As platforms have become intermediaries between news sources and their readers, many news organizations have become increasingly dependent on these platforms to generate traffic to their sites.[22] In the process, the identities of individual publications can become obscured, diminishing the distinction between major publications that have invested substantial resources in professional reporters and editors, and much less substantial sources whose commitment to quality journalism can vary widely. The result is to dilute readers’ loyalty and diminish their trust in the news they receive.

A related issue is the often-invisible role of “moderation” on social media platforms — the ongoing process of making decisions about the content that users do and do not see. Tarleton Gillespie, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, noted that this function is an inherent and “surprisingly large” part of what platform operators do on a day-to-day basis:

Content moderation is part of how platforms shape user participation into a deliverable experience. Platforms moderate (removal, filtering, suspension), they recommend (news feeds, trending lists, personalized suggestions), and they curate (featured content, front page offerings). Platforms use these three levers together to, actively and dynamically, tune the participation of users in order to produce the “right” feed for each user, the “right” social exchanges, the “right” kind of community.[23]

Gillespie also points out that moderation is quite challenging: “It is resource intensive and relentless; it requires making difficult and often untenable distinctions; it is wholly unclear what the standards should be, especially on a global scale; and one failure can incur enough public outrage to overshadow a million quiet successes.”

The problem with this critical function is that it takes place behind the scenes. Although people are increasingly dependent on social media as a source of news, they have little or no ability to understand or influence the choices made by these platforms that play a part — perhaps a large part — in shaping their views of the world. And as the platforms become ever more dependent on algorithms and artificial intelligence to aid in moderating billions of inputs, some have called for more accountability in how those algorithms operate.

4. The spread of misinformation and disinformation. The emergence of information that is false or misleading, that is intended to persuade or confuse rather than inform, is another likely contributor to the decline in trust in media. The problem is not entirely new. Propaganda, usually manufactured by a government or a powerful interest group to influence the attitudes and opinions of its own citizens or the citizens of another country, has a long history.[24] Nearly 100 years ago, Walter Lippmann expressed his concern about the potential of broadcast media to spread propaganda and to amplify its power. But traditional media had gatekeepers who were responsible for the quality and reliability of the information they provided. The Internet, with its radical openness, has introduced new forms of problematic content.

In a 2017 report prepared for the European Council,[25] Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan of FirstDraft identified seven different types of mis- and dis-information, ranging from relatively harmless satire to more serious imposter content and fabricated content, which they divide into three different categories:

  • Mis-information, when false information is shared, but no harm is meant.
  • Dis-information, when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm.
  • Mal-information, when genuine information is shared to cause harm, often by moving information designed to stay private into the public sphere.

Chart: Types of Mis- and Dis-Information

Source, Claire Wardle, First Draft News.

The Presidential election of 2016 brought into sharp focus the opportunities for exploitation offered by the Internet, and particularly, the major social media platforms. During and particularly after the election, evidence began to accumulate about how a variety of actors used social media to spread false information, including multiple dark but baseless conspiracy theories, about the candidates. The result is what Nova Spivack has described as “memetic warfare”[26] in which a small group of people, perhaps even a lone individual, concoct a false but sensational narrative that is specifically designed to be picked up and spread by others who are attracted to the messages but have little idea of their origin or means (or motivation) to determine their veracity: “If it’s outrageous, it’s contagious.”

Perhaps most alarming has been the recognition that foreign powers, and most specifically Russia and its Internet Research Agency, have systematically used social media platforms to attempt to disrupt the electoral process in the U.S. and other countries. Researchers have now established that during the 2016 election, Russian actors created large numbers of fake accounts on social media to spread mis-information. (Just as Willy Sutton explained that the reason he robbed banks is “that is where the money is,” the social media platforms were prime targets for interference because “that is where the users are.”)

As Wardle and Derakhshan note, the Russian interference in democratic elections is intended not just to favor one candidate or another, but “to sow mistrust and confusion about what sources of information are authentic.”[27] And there is evidence that concern about disinformation is not simply an American problem: A 2017 survey conducted for the BBC World Service found that 79 percent of respondents in 18 countries were “worried about what was fake and what was real on the Internet.”[28]

A Perfect Storm

The dramatic evolution of the media landscape has contributed to the creation of a “perfect storm,” destabilizing citizen trust in media and in democratic institutions more generally. Driven by continuous, exponential technological change, along with other social and business trends, these factors have a large part in creating the maladies described above. Particularly, seven characteristics of this environment are posing new and unprecedented challenges to American democracy:

1. Scale. A majority of the seven billion people in the world now have access to the Internet, many of them via mobile devices. Social media platforms have grown to reach vast numbers of users, challenging our ability to fully grasp their impact. Facebook now has more than two billion users. Twitter, operating in 40 languages and producing hundreds of millions of Tweets and billions of words every day, and YouTube, with users in 88 countries watching four billion videos daily and uploading 60 hours of new video each minute, have attained similar size and complexity.

2. Instantaneity. In this hyper-connected environment, messages can travel quickly and virally throughout the world, which makes correction of falsity all the harder. Winston Churchill’s observation that “a lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots” seems truer today than ever.

3. Multiplicity of voices. The many-to-many nature of the media that allows voices and opinions from anywhere and anyone has vastly expanded sources of information, for good or for ill. Everyone connected to the Internet has, at least in theory, the ability to act as producers of content as well as consumers, and social media platforms have been designed specifically to encourage and facilitate free expression.

4. Anonymity. While the ability to post anonymously can protect dissidents, it has also created an environment in which users do not easily know the source of information to which they are exposed. Hiding behind a screen of anonymity can permit people to be less accountable for what they communicate. Furthermore, this is now a world where it is increasingly difficult to tell humans from artificial bots.

5. An attention economy. In the face of the vast amounts of information that an individual is bombarded with every day, voices need to shout or be extreme in order to get attention, which can encourage sensationalism at times at the expense of the truth. The dominance of a business model that is based on maximizing advertising revenues by maximizing the number of users encourages emotionally charged content, whether true or false.

6. Big data and social engineering. Because an unprecedented number of people now regularly share their attitudes and opinions online, they are contributing to a vast trove of personal information that can be used by platform operators to optimize the appeal of their services and to target groups that are likely to respond to specific messages. A variety of social engineering techniques have been developed with the effect of keeping people online as long as possible by personalizing content to maximize its appeal to each user.

7. Filter bubbles and echo chambers. As described in Chapter 2, one of the most effective personalization techniques has been to promote content that appeals to “people like you.” One result of this technique is to reinforce people’s pre-existing views while isolating them from alternative views, contributing to political polarization and a fragmentation of the body politic.

Sidebar: Emerging Technologies

This new media environment is so recent that we are just beginning to understand how it works and identify the issues that it raises. But this environment is a moving target: As technology continues to evolve, it will continue to change. Existing capabilities will get more powerful and entirely new capabilities will appear, some for good, some that are more problematic Here are just a few of the emerging technologies that need to be tracked:

1. VR. In the narrowband era, Internet content was almost entirely text. With the arrival of broadband, video became increasingly prevalent. The next step in making online content even more immersive may be virtual reality that offers highly realistic three-dimensional experiences that currently require wearing a headset, but may soon be streamed directly through a Web browser. Several news organizations have already experimented with providing VR news stories, and the format may be come more common as the technology is more broadly adopted. VR can provide powerful experiences of “being there,” but will require new considerations on applying journalism best practices around transparency and point of view of the creators of such content.

2. AI. It is already possible to use artificial intelligence (AI) programs to automatically produce news stories from “structured data” (such as sports scores or earnings reports). AI also plays a large role in selecting news that is distributed by social media platforms, including automatic identification of false stories. The next frontier is the use of AI to create stories from unstructured data and to work with human reporters in generating insights. As news creation and distribution gets more automated, we may need new standards and tools to judge its role.

3. Bots. Although bots (a specific application of AI) can be useful tools, they can also be deployed to artificially increase attention to content and to manipulate perceptions of who and what is popular online. Bots are already in widespread use: During the election, According to Twitter, Russian forces deployed at least 50,000 bots during the 2016 election to help spread dis-information.[29] The power of bots will continue to increase. A gathering of technology experts in 2017 predicted that as the capabilities of bots improve, it will become ever more difficult to determine who is human and who is not: “Bots will become even more persuasive, more emotional and more personalized. They will be able to not just spread information, but to truly converse and persuade their human interlocutors in order to even more effectively push the latter’s emotional buttons.”[30]

4. Deepfakes. Software such as Photoshop already makes it possible to alter digital photographs in ways that are difficult to identify. Now, digital technologies are being developed to create videos that are convincingly realistic but are not genuine. “Deepfake” technology, already available in 2018, allows users, foreign or domestic, to place the voice and/or likeness of a person into a wholly different context to create false statements seemingly made by that person, or otherwise place them in a “false light.”[iii] As this technology advances, it will be increasingly difficult to be able to tell whether audio or video content is real or synthetic.

5. Blockchain. Originally invented to support cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, blockchain technology has broader potential uses by providing a decentralized “ledger” that can keep track of transactions of many kinds. Still in its early stage of development, blockchain may have meaningful uses in journalism, including providing a mechanism to document the “provenance” of a news story while protecting the identity of a journalist who is operating in a repressive environment.

This perfect storm has created a society where trust in media and in democracy are at historic lows. It is time for bold new thinking on how to revive the healthy combination of a distrust of power with a broader trust in the democratic institutions that have served the United States so well for hundreds of years.

The Knight Commission is not in a position to recommend changes to the democratic workings of American society, e.g., issues of gerrymandering, money in politics, or specifics relating to political parties. But it can make recommendations that aim to place media in a proper light, hopefully a more trusted one, to address the role of platforms, and to foster a better informed, more engaged Americans. In the next chapters, we offer our recommendations for actions that citizens, governments and business enterprises (including media companies and social platforms) can take to advance these goals.

Findings: Chapter 3

  • Exponential advancements in digital technology, coupled with explosive growth in broadband Internet and ubiquitous mobile access, have dramatically shifted how news and information are produced and consumed.
  • The drastic decline in advertising revenues for print newspapers over the past two decades has challenged the viability of business models for the traditional newspaper industry.
  • Social media platforms connect users across the world, but have raised concerns about privacy, manipulation and foreign interference.
  • The “public square” has become a 24-hour, continuously connected mobile experience supported by social networks, broadcast, and cable television.
  • Explanations for the decline in the public’s trust of media include the proliferation of news sources, the blurring between news and opinion, media disintermediation and the spread of misinformation and disinformation.
  • Navigating the new media environment and separating truth from non-truth will continue to become more challenging as emerging technologies, such as virtual reality, bots and deepfakes, become more sophisticated.
  • A confluence of sociological and economic circumstances, along with technological advancements, have created a “perfect storm” that is destabilizing citizen trust in media and other democratic institutions more generally.

[1] Thomas Friedman, “How Mark Zuckerberg Can Save Facebook — and Us,” The New York Times, March 27, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/27/opinion/zuckerberg-facebook-digital-bullies.html

[2] Although Apple has sold tens of millions of iPhones, Google’s Android operating system now holds a dominant 87 percent share of the smartphone market. “Global mobile OSmarket share in sales to end users from 1st quarter 2009 to 2nd quarter 2017,” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/266136/global-market-share-held-by-smartphone-operating-systems.

[3] Mary Meeker, Internet Trends 2017, Kleiner Perkins, kpcb.com/InternetTrends.

[4] Global mobile consumer survey: US edition, Deloitte, 2017, www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/global-mobile-consumer-survey-us-edition.html.

[5] Andrew Perrin and Jingjing Jiang, About a quarter of U.S. adults say they are ‘almost constantly’ online, Pew Research Center, March 14, 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/14/about-a-quarter-of-americans-report-going-online-almost-constantly.

[6] Josh Constine, “Facebook now has 2 billion monthly users… and responsibility,” TechCrunch, June 27, 2017, https://techcrunch.com/2017/06/27/facebook-2-billion-users.

[7] Simon Atkinson, “WeChat has hit 1 billion monthly active users,” BBC News, March 6, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-43283690.

[8] See, for example, Anita Breuer, “The Role of Social Media in Mobilizing Political Protest — Evidence from the Tunisian Revolution,” Discussion Paper, German Development Institute, October 2012, https://www.die-gdi.de/uploads/media/DP_10.2012.pdf.

[9] The Top 20 Valuable Facebook Statistics, Zephoria Digital Marketing, February 1, 2018, https://zephoria.com/top-15-valuable-facebook-statistics.

[10] See, for example, Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. (New York: Penguin Press, 2017).

[11] See, for example, Gordon Hull, “Why social media may not be so good for social media, The Conversation, November 5, 2017, http://theconversation.com/why-social-media-may-not-be-so-good-for-democracy-86285.

[12] Les Moonves, CEO of CBS Network said of the Donald Trump candidacy in 2016, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/leslie-moonves-donald-trump-may-871464. The difference between broadcast and online media is that the latter have a unique ability to gather and use detailed information about their audience.

[13] Adam Mosseri, “Facebook Recently Announced a Major Update to News Feed; Here’s What’s Changing,” Facebook Newsroom, April 18, 2018. https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/04/inside-feed-meaningful-interactions/

[14] Twitter improves user data policy ahead of new European privacy laws, Reuters, April 24, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-twitter-privacy/twitter-improves-user-data-policy-ahead-of-new-european-privacy-laws-idUSKBN1HV24N.

[15] American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy, Gallup/Knight Foundation survey, 2018.

[16] Frederick M. Hess, Brendan Bell and RJ Martin, “Major Media Plays Favorites in Coverage of Education Policy,” American Enterprise Institute, April 12, 2018. www.aei.org/publication/major-media-plays-favorites-in-coverage-of-education-policy/?utm_source=paramount&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Hess&utm_content=new-research.

[17] Speaker Voss’s complete testimony to the Knight Commission is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=z7RfyNMc3fw&feature=youtu.be.

[18] American Views: Trust, Media And Democracy, Gallup/Knight Foundation, January 15, 2018, https://kf-site-production.s3.amazonaws.com/publications/pdfs/000/000/242/original/KnightFoundation_AmericansViews_Client_Report_010917_Final_Updated.pd

[19] Ibid.

[20] Kevin Tran, “The New York Times soars past 3 million subscribers,” Business Insider, December 8, 2017, www.businessinsider.com/the-new-york-times-soars-past-3-million-subscribers-2017-12.

[21] Chris Roush, “More than 50 percent of WSJ subscribers are now digital,” Talking Biz News, February 9, 2017, http://talkingbiznews.com/1/more-than-50-percent-of-wsj-subscribers-are-now-digital.

[22] Pew Research Center, News Use Across Social Media Platforms, 2017, www.journalism.org/2017/09/07/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2017/pi_17-08-23_socialmediaupdate_0-01.

[23] Tarleton Gillespie, “Moderation Is The Commodity,” Tech Dirt, February 6, 2018, www.techdirt.com/articles/20180206/09403839164/moderation-is-commodity.shtml. This essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Gillespie, Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions that Shape Social Media. Yale University Press, May 2018.

[24] See, for example, Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion (Sage Publications, 2014).

[25] Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan, Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policymaking, European Council, September 27, 2017, https://rm.coe.int/information-disorder-toward-an-interdisciplinary-framework-for-researc/168076277c.

[26] For a synopsis of Nova Spivack’s introduction to memetic warfare, see Richard Adler, Diplomacy in an Age of Networks (Aspen Institute, forthcoming).

[27] Wardle and Derakhsham, op. cit., page 12.

[28] Rory Cellan-Jones, “Fake news worries ‘are growing’ suggests BBC poll,” BBC News, September 22, 2017, www.bbc.com/news/technology-41319683.

[29] Tony Romm, “Twitter has notified at least 1.4 million users that they saw Russian propaganda during the election,” Recode, January 31, 2018, https://www.recode.net/2018/1/31/16956958/twitter-jack-dorsey-russia-trolls-election-us-trump-clinton-propaganda.

[30] Gaurav Oberoi, Exploring Deepfakes, Medium, March 5, 2018, https://hackernoon.com/exploring-deepfakes-20c9947c22d9.

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

Thanks to Nancy Watzman

Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy

Written by

Our democracy is suffering: misinformation is rampant, the news ecosystem is changing rapidly, and mistrust in the press is rising. We want your ideas on what w

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade