IGF 2020 OF #20 Attention economy and free expression?

Time
Thursday, 5th November, 2020 (07:30 UTC) - Thursday, 5th November, 2020 (08:30 UTC)
Room
Room 2
About this Session
Freedom of expression is increasingly shaped by technologies that rank speech for profit and alter the business model of news outlets away from reader trust and towards “clicks”. Based on the Committee of Ministers Declaration on the manipulative capabilities of algorithmic processes, the session will discuss how to protect freedom of expression and media freedom in the “attention economy”, where the dominant business models reward engagement and noise over deliberation and facts.
Theme

Round Table - U-shape - 60 Min

Description

Digital technologies have significantly transformed the communication patterns and behaviors of individuals, communities and societies. Algorithmic systems and data-based micro-targeting tools shape our social, economic and political lives, affect our governance and influence the distribution of resources. Freedom of expression, which includes freedom of information and media freedom, is crucial for the fulfillment and protection of all other human rights. It enables citizens to make informed choices, to participate actively in democratic processes, and to help ensure that powerful interests are held to account. During times of crisis, more than ever, we need freedom of expression and independent journalism to keep the public informed, counter rumors and disinformation, and help scrutinize decision-making. Yet, freedom of expression is increasingly shaped in multiple ways by technologies that rank speech for profit, seek to grab attention with sensationalist headlines and alter the business model of news outlets away from reader trust and towards “clicks”. The encouragement of “likes” and “shares” crowds out analysis and nuance in favor of shocking, often hateful exchanges, ultimately silencing many. The shift to digital media and the flow of online advertising revenue towards social media and search engines rather than media websites has caused a precarious economic situation for media and has contributed in many countries to their monopolisation and fragmentation. What was once hailed as a great promoter of freedom of expression – virtually unlimited access to information online – has now been confronted with major challenges: faced with unprecedented volumes of content, it is increasingly difficult for individuals to discern what is true and who to believe. This causes confusion, contributes to ‘information disorder’ and impacts negatively on society’s trust in the media and in democratic institutions more broadly. How can freedom of expression and media freedom be protected in the attention economy, where the dominant business models reward engagement and noise over deliberation and facts?

Organizers

Council of Europe
Hamburg Media School

Speakers

Moderator: Patrick Penninckx, Head of Information Society Department, Council of Europe

Speakers:

• Amy Brouillette, Research Director, Ranking Digital Rights (RDR)

• Joe McNamee, Independent Consultant, Council of Europe Expert Committee on Freedom of Expression and Digital Technologies

• Prof. Dr. Alexandra Borchardt, Media Adviser and Journalist, Journalism Professor, Universität der Künste, Berlin/ Head of Digital Journalism Fellowship, Hamburg Media School

• Aurélien Maehl, Senior Public Policy Manager, Europe, DuckDuckGo

Onsite Moderator

Elena Dodonova, Council of Europe

Rapporteur

Elena Dodonova, Council of Europe

SDGs

GOAL 4: Quality Education
GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
GOAL 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

1. Key Policy Questions and related issues
- Digital technologies have produced powerful impact on the media and information environment. The range of related issues is wide (disinformation, hate speech, and other problematic content online; disruptions in the media ecosystem leading to fragmentation and monopolisation of the media sector; challenges to quality journalism and attention disorder among the audiences) and posing risk to human rights and to democracy itself. Do we have the full picture of this impact? What are the areas affected? What is the root cause of these critical shifts in the media and information environment?
- Business models of major internet platforms are ultimately based on large-scale data exploitation and the use of opaque algorithmic processes. Can there be a viable alternative business model, outside the attention economy? How would it function?
- How can freedom of expression and media freedom be protected in the attention economy, where the dominant business models reward engagement and noise over deliberation and facts? Would regulation help, and if yes, what do we need to regulate?
2. Summary of Issues Discussed

The session discussed the ‘attention economy’ business model in the context of the digital age. Embracing massive data collection and various uses of algorithmic systems and processes to manage attention of individuals and groups in the pursuit of economic/other interests, this business approach produces profound multi-layered impacts on freedom of expression and on information environment.

Such use of digital technologies impacts freedom of expression at several levels. At the individual level, behaviours and communication patterns are increasingly facilitated, structured and shaped by online platforms and social media. In the context of newsrooms and media outlets, the emergence/empowerment of digital platforms has reversed the flow of advertising revenues, prompting a structural shift within media markets and putting into question the sustainability of traditional media, also undermining conditions for quality journalism. At the broader societal level, algorithmic systems and data-based micro-targeting tools shape social, economic and political lives, contribute to information disorder and erode trust in the media and in democratic institutions.

The overall impact on information ecosystem remains largely underestimated. While regulatory efforts are directed at the consequences, causes remain largely unaddressed. Reliance on self-regulation by business platforms allows the latter to only introduce measures that leave the model intact, while focus on the speed of deletion of harmful online content translates into real risks to human rights.

With growing demand for digital services respectful of human rights among wider audiences, we witness the emergence of business initiatives that commit to transparency and data/privacy protection. With forces unequal, compared to major digital platforms, such initiatives have however proved economic viability.

Larger awareness about the root causes of critical shifts in the media and information environment is crucial. Further discussion on the ways to ensue digital platforms’ accountability is needed. Journalism must reinvent and reassert itself, both in equipment and relevance

3. Key Takeaways

Major digital companies’ ‘attention economy’ business model, fuelled by massive data collection and various uses of algorithmic systems and processes to manage attention of individuals and groups in the pursuit of economic/other interests, has profound and multi-layered impacts on freedom of expression.

Rooted in data exploitation and opaque algorithmic processing of data, attention economy lies at the source of a wide range of issues arising in the media and information environment (disinformation, hate speech and other problematic content online; disruptions in the media ecosystem leading to fragmentation and monopolisation of the media sector; challenges to quality journalism), ultimately carrying important risks to human rights and to democracy itself.

Regulatory efforts directed at content moderation therefore only address the consequences, while the underlying causes remain largely unattended. Reliance on self-regulation by digital platforms allows these latter to only introduce measures that leave the profitable business model intact, irrespective of its actual negative impacts.

A wider awareness of the false dichotomy between the amount of collected data and economic viability of digital platforms, as well as awareness about actual root causes of disruptions in the media and information environment should be promoted.

To address these root causes, steps should be taken to ensure digital platforms’ accountability for the business model they employ. Co-regulatory approaches should be promoted (see Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Recommendation (2018)2 on the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries) and further complemented by oversight mechanisms and indicators (see Ranking Digital Rights’ Corporate Accountability Index), to ensure due transparency. Careful and frequently reviewed regulation of content curation/moderation is needed.

For the media ecosystem to recover, media need to reassert control over technology, create their own distribution platforms, regain attention relying on quality content and established relationship with audiences. Indicators for quality journalism are needed to boost trust.

6. Final Speakers

Moderator:

Mr Patrick Penninckx, Head of Information Society Department, Council of Europe

Panellists:

Ms Amy Brouillette, Research Director, Ranking Digital Rights (RDR)

Mr Joe McNamee, Independent Consultant, Council of Europe Expert Committee on Freedom of Expression and Digital Technologies:

Prof. Dr. Alexandra Borchardt, Media Adviser and Journalist, Journalism Professor, Universität der Künste, Berlin/ Head of Digital Journalism Fellowship, Hamburg Media School:

Mr Aurélien Maehl, Senior Public Policy Manager, Europe, DuckDuckGo

7. Reflection to Gender Issues

Due attention was paid to gender balance in the composition of the panel.

8. Session Outputs

The ‘attention economy’ phenomenon is not new in itself. However, with the invasion of digital technologies into the media and information environment, this business model has benefited from the possibilities for covert large-scale data collection and algorithmic processing, expanding still further the possibilities for profiling and micro-targeting. Embracing various uses of algorithmic systems and processes to manage and retain the attention of individuals and groups in the pursuit of economic or other interests, it now produces critical and multi-layered impacts on freedom of expression and on information environment.

Such use of digital technologies impacts freedom of expression at several levels.

At the individual level, behaviours and communication patterns are increasingly facilitated, structured and shaped by online platforms and social media. Digital platforms and social media absorb much of the audiences’ attention that the media used to have. Their emphasis on speed and quantity has changed news consumption behaviours of individuals, leading to the shortening of attention span, erosion of trust in the news brands and growing news avoidance.

In the context of newsrooms and media outlets, micro-targeting techniques have revolutionised the news ecosystem, leading to the emergence and empowerment of new actors, including social media platforms, and to the prevalence of a business model that prioritises “clicks” over readers’ trust. This has reversed the flow of revenues, and advertising revenues in particular, prompting a structural shift within media markets and putting into question the sustainability of traditional media, also undermining conditions and incentives for quality journalism. News outlets are compelled to keep up with the speed of digital platforms’ content production, which drains quality from news, leads to the loss of control over curation and news choice and takes away energy for fact-checking and debunking mis- and disinformation.

At the broader societal level, including in political communication, algorithmic systems and data-based micro-targeting tools shape our social, economic and political lives, affect our governance and influence the distribution of resources. They amplify viral and disputable content, more easily shared, and generate more revenues for data-hungry business models. Faced with unprecedented volumes of content, it is increasingly difficult for individuals to discern what is true and whom to believe. This causes confusion, contributes to information disorder and impacts negatively on society’s trust in the media and in democratic institutions more broadly.

The overall impact on the information ecosystem remains largely underestimated. While regulatory efforts are directed at the consequences (disinformation, hate speech, and other problematic content online), causes (amplification of data exploitation and flourishing of business models based on opaque algorithmic processing of data) remain largely unaddressed. Reliance on, often badly defined and badly designed, self-regulation by business platforms that make vast profits out of this model creates conditions for these actors actors to only introduce measures that leave the business model intact, irrespective of its actual negative impacts. Alongside this, focus on the speed of deletion of possibly illegal or harmful online content translates into real risks to human rights, freedom of expression being the first on the list.

With growing awareness among wider audiences, we witness the emergence of business initiatives that respond to the demand for digital services respectful of human rights and allowing internet users to take control over their personal data (DuckDuckGo , for instance, offers a search engine that doesn’t track users, as well as privacy tools that block third-party trackers and force encryption when browsing). Renouncing data exploitation, such services invest in transparency to gain customers’ trust and rely on alternative sources of revenues (e.g., contextual ads). With forces unequal as they are, compared to major digital platforms, such initiatives have nevertheless proved their economic viability and public demand.

To make the way forward, a wider awareness of the false dichotomy between the amount of collected data and economic viability of digital platforms, as well as awareness about actual root causes of disruptions in the media and information environment should be promoted.

To address these root causes, steps should be taken to ensure digital platforms’ accountability for the business model they employ. Co-regulatory approaches should be promoted (see Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Recommendation (2018)2 on the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries) and further complemented by oversight mechanisms and indicators (see Ranking Digital Rights’ Corporate Accountability Index and indicators evaluating company disclosure of policies and practices affecting freedom of expression and privacy; see also Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Recommendation (2020)1 on the human rights impacts of algorithmic systems), to ensure due transparency. Careful and frequently reviewed regulation of content curation/moderation is needed (see the ongoing work of the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on Freedom of Expression and Digital Technologies).

For the media ecosystem to recover, media outlets need [market and regulatory environment which permits them] to reassert control over technology and create their own distribution platforms, regain attention relying on quality content and established relationship with audiences. Journalism should [be given the preconditions permitting it to] reinvent and reassert itself, both in terms of being fully equipped to keep up with professional standards in the digital age and in terms of relevance, topicality and capability to elicit interest and engagement from the audiences. Indicators for quality journalism are needed to boost quality and trust (see draft Recommendation on promoting a favourable environment for quality journalism in the digital age, prepared by the Council of Europe Committee of experts on quality journalism in the digital age).

9. Group Photo
Council of Europe, OF #20 Attention economy and free expression?