The media crisis could bring the end of democracy

This has been a year when the world’s values changed in ways many people would have believed impossible. The Brexit vote was a vote for disintegration and isolation, rather than integration and cooperation. Hot on its heels came the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

Both votes prove that public opinion is turning away from the liberal values that seemed, only at the beginning of the year, to solidly anchor the Western world. What it is turning towards definitely looks like a not-so-liberal, not-so-tolerant version of democracy.

Perhaps the most worrying thing, one that is not discussed enough, is this: both these shocking choices have been made by people who did not have much respect for facts, preferring to get their “information” from sources who present a distorted version of reality. In fact, these people openly disregarded facts, and they were encouraged by a new breed of “leaders.”

Of course, manipulation and propaganda are as old as language itself, and many people argue that the “mainstream” media have been using them for a long time. But the extent to which lies dominated the public sphere this year and the fact that people did not care about the truth — leading to the invention of the scary phrase “post-truth” — highlight the crisis that humanity faces.

Like it or not, traditional media was, for democracies around the world, the fourth power. It had of course its share of exaggeration and bias, but by and large (and with the exception of tabloids) it has been governed by relatively strict rules about what journalists can or cannot do.

Presenting opinion as fact is, especially in the US traditional media, forbidden. Journalists must make a clear distinction between the two. They must also check facts before publishing them and refrain from publishing lies. Comments that are discriminatory, offensive or racist do not have a place in serious publications.

All this, however, has been eroded since the arrival of the internet; this new medium is threatening newspapers’ business model.

In print, the reputation of the newspaper and the quality of its readership dictate, along with circulation, the amounts it earns from advertisers. Online, the tyranny of precise measurements and the importance of “clicks”, as page views are known, have pushed journalists to desperate measures.

Some have resorted to lightweight, clickbait articles about celebrities’ diets, their relationships and private lives. Others have opted for lots of pictures of cute puppies, kittens, babies, and little text. Yet others have chosen to “embellish” facts with various more or less accurate details and to give prominence to extremist opinions. Anything to get those clicks.

Seduced by the “clicks”, “uniques” (unique users) and other oh-so-precise ways to measure audience and bring in advertising, journalists have gradually abdicated from their mission of presenting an accurate and, as much as possible, impartial picture of the world.

The peddlers of extremist views and of “post-truths” stepped into the void just in time for the referendum in the UK and, later, the US election. It is telling that searches for “what is the EU” out of the UK spiked the day after the referendum.

These two events could serve as a warning for what is ahead. With the wind of “post-truth” in their sails, extremists could well advance in elections due in Europe this year, notably in France and Germany. To stop them, the media model needs to change.

Facebook and Google are finally taking steps to try to deal with the rising issue of fake news, but they are not doing enough yet. Just like in real life, where publishers share responsibility for the content of the materials they publish, in digital life too, the publishers should become more responsible.

I am aware that these companies argue that they are not publishers, one of them saying it is a social network and the other a search engine; but the end result of their algorithms, whether automated or not, looks very much like publishing. So they should abide by the same rules, to ensure that democracy isn’t eroded by their actions.

The optimistic scenario is that, as these two digital giants (and smaller online companies) realise they can only lose if democracy is eroded, they will invest in hiring real editors and journalists who can weed out the fake news (this is already happening up to a point) and correct the “post-truths” that are being spread via their channels.

This will require a change of business model for the traditional media as well. Advertisers should be ready to take into account reliability and quality of content at least in the same proportion as the famous “clicks” (a lot of which aren’t even real, but that’s another discussion).

The pessimistic scenario is that the current business model continues: advertisers will look at the number of page views and unique users, without any regard to content quality, and newspapers will continue their race to the bottom chasing those page views. If that scenario prevails, prepare for the end of democracy.