Social media complicates mainstream media goals of pluralism and diversity

Photo: Pete Linforth/Pixabay

Not long ago, when the world of media and communication was (apparently) simpler, international law on freedom of expression created a duty for states to enact a legal and regulatory framework that facilitates the development of pluralistic media landscapes. The expectation was that public authorities in a democratic society, while refraining from restricting media independence, should adopt measures and regulate markets to ensure the sustainability of a plurality of media actors (i.e., media pluralism) and the availability of the broadest possible diversity of information and ideas for the general public (i.e., media diversity). This would enable the media to provide the wide range of views that would allow individuals to form their own opinions as informed citizens.

With evidence that a growing part of the population turns to social media for news, it has become important to ask: what do pluralism and diversity become in the context of news distribution on social media platforms? This is a multi-layered question. First, we may look at market concentration on the social media market, where there seems to be little or no plurality of (major) actors. Second, we may ask how the social media business model impacts the existence of a plurality of media actors on a given (national) market—and here, we might for instance wonder how the News tab that Facebook is testing for users in the US—which hosts reporting from big publishers—supports or undermines pluralism in the media market, depending on the criteria that the platform uses to select the news and the publishers to be included.

While these two first questions are relevant, we focus on a third element: the diversity of content. There is a fabulous profusion of online content and the Internet is the true realm of diversity if ever there was one. However, in a world of personalized distribution of content, the question of diversity must be asked in different terms: it is a matter of individuals being exposed to diversity, rather than the mere existence of diversity. So, are users of dominant social media platforms exposed to a satisfying degree of diverse content? In other words, are their rights to free expression and information sufficiently guaranteed when using social media platforms?

In a world of personalized distribution of content, the question of diversity must be asked in different terms: it is a matter of individuals being exposed to diversity, rather than the mere existence of diversity.

While legacy media (which are intertwined with social media) still provide the same content to everyone, social media platforms highly personalize the delivery of content. A combination of algorithmic and human decisions shape the content that is distributed at the individual level. To compose a user's feed, algorithms rely on signals such as trending topics, items liked and shared by friends, and the profile of the user. Indeed, social media platforms harvest a huge amount of data from each user and use this data to segment people according to precise profiles. The more the platforms profile users, the more they can offer highly personalized content. This includes advertising, but also more general content, and news, selected based on the degree of user’s engagement the content will provoke. Individualization does not seek to represent diversity; it fails to provide users with an overview of the complexity of society.

This said, research also indicates that users are exposed to a higher diversity of news sources on social media than in the offline context, which should contribute to keeping regulatory instincts in check. But the question remains—especially around major issues of public interest: how do we ensure that social media platforms provide each user with a representative overview of the broad diversity of the world?

We present here two paths for reflection. First, should social media platforms assume responsibility for some form of “due prominence” that would ensure users' exposure to a broad diversity of views? Certainly, initiatives such as RSF Journalism Trust Initiative, which provide signals that can be picked up by algorithms to distribute reliable news, produced according to high professional standards, can serve to delineate how a duty of due prominence translates to social media platforms. There may be various technical forms to this remedy, such as the display of a snippet or a distinct segment of the feed, and it could be elaborated through the sort of multi-stakeholder dialogue that ARTICLE 19 envisions through the creation of Social Media Councils.

A possible way to guarantee more diversity in content exposure could be to open up the market for content moderation and to allow more providers to offer that service to users.

Second, a possible way to guarantee more diversity in content exposure could be to open up the market for content moderation and to allow more providers to offer that service to users. This plurality of providers will likely compete among each other to offer better services. For example, providers could rely on different criteria for the personalization of content (i.e., not necessarily what engages users the most), could provide a more privacy-friendly service, could be transparent about their business models, and so on. Therefore, a plurality of providers, possibly using different business models, will likely lead to a plurality of models for content moderation, which in turn will enhance diversity in content exposure, especially in the longer term. Users, from their side, would have the possibility to choose how they want their content moderation to be performed and by whom.

To achieve this outcome, dominant social media platforms should be required to keep hosting and content moderation separated,  and they should be obliged to grant  third parties  access their platform in order to provide content moderation to the users. Dominant social media will still be able to offer content moderation to their users, but it will be up to the users to decide whether to use their service through an opt-in system. This form of functional separation constitutes a remedy to a harm (the reduction of diversity in content exposure) that also takes into account the market failures at its source (market concentration, barriers to entry for competitors, information asymmetry between platforms and users).

According to the Urban Dictionary, one of the diverse possible meanings of the expression “riding the dragon” is to venture into the unknown. Now that media landscapes have come under the influence of companies often described as giant monsters, it is time to ride those dragons and explore the various options to promote diversity online. This is the beginning of a collective conversation democratic societies urgently need to have with dominant social media platforms.