0. Recap: Ranking Digital Rights!

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Thank you!

While many Ranking Digital Rights stories are still coming in, here’s one that is accredited to Aino but that actually is a compilation of several stories of yours.

(I wanted to send a note of correction but, as luck would have it, the editorial team residing in Central European University is  dealing with some more urgent issues at this very moment: The Hungarian government has indicated yesterday that the University might be “illegal” and would need to shut down. Yes. Mind you, this is a university that has highly vetted international staff and regularly visiting professors from the best universities in the world, including one of the top Comm Studies universities — University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg School of Communication. It is also a university that has been organizing regular summer schools for media activists and advocates. We will follow the developments closely.)

We will reflect on RDR when we talk about the digitally-specific (?) issues next time.

But to today’s old-school topic: Media Ownership and Diversity as foci for media reform. We will look at:

  • The paradigm shift from mass to digital media
  • The issue of media ownership and diversity
  • The issue of ownership of content – copyrights
  • The issue of content diversity.

There are many readings involved, and shared with you, this week. Use your discretion and check out those of interest to you.


1. From Scarcity to Plenty: Does Diversity Matter?

It is probably not hard to envision what the mass media era challenges for democratic communication were. These are the questions you most likely have encountered in some classics of communication and media/cultural studies: concentration of ownership, dumbing down of content resulting in distrust in media and political systems, lack of diversity in media portrayals, and harmful effects of media (as opposed to the idea of active audiences).

This may be a crude simplification but let me try to express the overall picture by adding on to the basic analytical axes we have discussed.

Mass Media Era – Defining Concept is Diversity; the core focus is media organizations

  Macro Meso Micro
Local Lack of policy support for localism (news) Lack of diversity in local media (classic case: standardized format radios taking over community –orientated radios) Underserved, underrepresented citizens
National Lack of policy support for diversity (deregulation, ownership concentration). Intensified competition with same/similar content Underserved, underrepresented citizens/ voices/issues
Global “Americanization/ Westernization” of the global media landscape. Rise of copyright regimes to support the media as products. Dominance of global media conglomerates, based in the Global South. Underserved, under-

or misrepresented voices/issues,

both locally as well as in international news

Digital Era – Defining Concept is Access (to technology, to free expression) vs. Safety; the core focus is nations vs. citizens

  Macro Meso Micro
Local Lack of policy support for local services (e.g. broadband access to areas that are not commercially viable). Affordability (lack of) of services in remote locations Underserved citizens – you need online connections for everything
National Re-emergence of state control over communication – restrictions of freedom of expression; misinformation; surveillance “Intermediary liability” – global platforms interacting with national government – and Net neutrality Underserved, underrepresented citizens/voices/issues. National filter bubbles.

Digital unsafety

Global Platform Imperialism; restrictions of freedom of expression; misinformation; surveillance “Intermediary liability” – global platforms interacting with national government – and Net neutrality. Underserved, underrepresented citizens/voices/issues. Global filter bubbles.

Digital unsafety

Food for thought: Do you agree? What would you change or add? Please comment below if you have suggestions – omissions, additions, other criticism?

Let’s now examine a couple of these old-school issues through a couple of activism/advocacy cases:

2. Ownership Diversity

Concentrated media ownership has become an increasingly salient issue in the context of global demands for social justice and democracy.


They were the main concerns of (Western) media reformists in the 1990s, early 2000s – something that brought the movement from grassroots to advocacy. (A seminal text on this is McChesney’s “Rich Media, Poor Democracy”, 2000). This infographic illustrates the issue we all know so well. The Free Press, organization that created this graph, was originally founded by McChesney et al. to gather together different organizations for systematic policy advocacy.

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… But has the digital era changed much? The Economist has famously talked about The Game of Thrones between the four BIG that are trying to conquer each other’s functions and develop a variety of new ones – Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. Similarly, the scholar Dal Yong Jin has argued that the Hollywood-era cultural imperialism of the U.S. continues today — not because all content is American, but because the intermediaries distributing content are:

At a glance, the massive switch to the digital economy has provided a surplus for several emerging powers, including China, India, and Korea with which to challenge the longer-term U.S. dominance … These countries have presumably competed with Western countries, and they are sup- posed to build a new global order with their advanced digital technologies. However, there are doubts as to whether non-Western ICT corporations have reorganized the global flow and constructed a balance between the West and the East. The panacea of technology may reduce imperialism and domination to vestiges of the past; however, technology will always be the reality of human hierarchy and domination, and digital technologies have buttressed U.S. hegemony.

In particular, when the debates reach platforms, non-Western countries have not, and likely cannot, construct a balanced global order, because Google (including its Android operating system), Facebook, Twitter and Apple’s iPhones (and iSO) are indices of the dominance of the U.S. in the digital economy. These platforms have penetrated the global market and expanded their global dominance. Therefore, it is not unsafe to say that American imperialism has been continued with platforms….

So, late last year, the investigative team at the National Public Radio got curious: What is the relationship between legacy and “new” media? Their result: ownership control and consolidation is happening, and fast…

Access Info Europe (Defending and Promoting the Right of Access to Information in Europe) campaigns for more transparency in ownership, noting that

In only 9 of the 20 countries can the public find out who the actual owners of the broadcast media are from reporting to media regulators or to company registers.

… and the Council of Europe has even composed a draft resolution about it.


3. Ownership as Copyrights

The digital era has heightened a specific aspect of ownership, namely authorship and copyrights. As Larry Lessig, a law professor and activist notes in his book “Free Culture” (free for you in Google Drive), the more media production was industrialized, and the more mass markets grew, the stricter the copyright regimes. Lessig’s book is a classic. And his advocacy-action organization, Creative Commons, has created an alternative licensing system for artists wanting to collaborate and offer their work for free to others to recycle.

Henry Jenkins, then, showcases how fan culture in the era of user-generated content, and big mass media moguls, clashed. (Fan culture could be called activism, too. The text, “Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars”, can be found in Mandiberg: Social Media Reader, Google Drive). A report on piracy in emerging economies  also shows how piracy is an important part of certain economies.

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4. The Old and New World Meet, and Clash

Here’s the example I find to be the most poignant about the clash of the mass media and digital media era: the Pirate Bay and the Pirate Party. The former is a Sweden-run torrent (file-sharing) site, the latter a movement – that became a network of political parties – based on the free sharing ethos of online world.

If you only can, I suggest you take time from your busy schedules to screen this documentary about how big Hollywood conglomerates came after a couple on young Swedes running the Pirate Bay. It shows many interesting aspects of the changing media landscapes and the ideas of ownership and free expression; and how technologically savvy individuals can affect and upset big media. It also shows how media governance has had a hard time to keep up with the changing landscape, and values.

5. Content Diversity

Content diversity has been another classic issue of media reform. The impact of ownership on content, especially on news, has been a major concern, as depicted in this (admittedly advocacy-oriented) classic about the rise of Fox News:


The idea that market-driven media is only concerned about ratings, and purchasing-power of its audiences, has sparked many a community/alternative media outlet, and independent citizen journalism around the world. Even more importantly, pirate radios and later blogs, Facebook groups, Twitter, and so on, have enabled communication that in mainstream media, in certain contexts, would be banned. Interestingly, as you also noted, governments are increasingly interested in using power over legacy media, and public broadcasting everywhere is an apt target (easy to get access to,  to take over, and to control?)

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In addition to the economic and political power over content, an  equally everlasting theme is gender diversity (or the lack thereof)  in media portrayals. (OK: this is a question of economic and political power as well, but extends to fields and content beyond economics and politics.)

By everlasting, I mean — literally. The Global Media Monitoring – Who Makes the News project was coined for the 1995 UN Beijing World Conference on Women. It started with some 70 countries where journalists, scholars, and activists monitored news for a day. The research has since become the largest longitudinal research effort with over 100 countries participating – but its main purpose is to inform policy-making (and it’s always featured at the UN session of the Commission on the Status of Women). The coordinating advocacy organization is WACC.

The 2015 results  show that little has changed and the online world hasn’t really made a difference. Just one of the facts that doesn’t seem to change: only 20% of experts in the news are women. Even the Nordic countries, the flagships of equality policies, do not fare any better than other countries in the world:

Hundreds and hundreds of activists and organizations all around the world have addressed this challenge. Just to highlight one: Women’s Feature Service, based in New Delhi, has been working to change this disparity since 1978. Its mission is to create awareness about women’s lives, rights and concerns and generating professionally edited stories on them for the media every week.

But in the enlightened online world, where everyone can participate freely, this problem shouldn’t exist. Or, maybe in conventional news sites, but not in most digital platforms?

You guessed it: Wrong.

Perhaps the most blatant case, the one you probably have heard of, is that of Anita Sarkeesian. She’s a gamer-activist who has begun to review video games from a feminist perspective. Her observation is that gender roles and portrayals in games are severely stereotypical:

This may sound like an obvious statement. One may also dismiss this as silly complaint: She’s talking about gaming, not the news. However, the rape, bomb, and death threats Sarkeesian constantly receives because of her vlog on gaming are very real and vicious. There are also hundreds and hundreds of YouTube videos like this mocking her. Her experiences are shared with many women journalists who publish online. (Here’s a report by OSCE, written for public discussion and policy purposes, with many case studies and angles. It’s interesting that academic researchers haven’t written much about this. Some of you want to embark in the challenge?)

These are just some examples. Issues related to gender are plentiful (see, e.g., the Gender and the Media Global Agenda for Scholars by UNESCO).


6. Assignment: Filter Bubbles and Diversity

As Phil Napoli (1999) famously wrote about the mass media media governance (and as we have also noted) DIVERSITY was the key term. That era focused on DIVERSITY OF mass media OWNERSHIP in the macro level of media markets because it was thought that monopolies create “more of the same”, less diverse media CONTENTS. The concept of the “tyranny of ratings” was discussed as well: Content provides would go with the kind of content they thought would produce largest audiences.

Oh well.

In our era of infinite content the OWNERSHIP still influences CONTENT. Now this dynamics has just moved from owning content production to the owners of distribution platforms. We have an infinite amount of content, that we, too create. How is diversity doing? Instead of being challenged by new things and different views, services recommend  us more of the same based on our previous consumption, and offer news and opinions that we and our friends like. We live in filter bubbles. Here’s a famous data visualization of the phenomenon in social media, case Israel – Palestine conflict:

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Many of today’s media reform projects are not about changing legislation. Test your filter bubble! If you are on Facebook, and use Chrome, let this tool  help you.

Alternatively, since the tool is focused on US and international sources (or, if you wish, in addition), test one of these US-based tools, or this EU-funded one featuring many, many tools — for journalists and enterprises —  that help us in fact-checking and governance of fake news. (Here’s a warning from a US-based media reform organization to European fact-checkers.) As Jessikka Aro, in Finland, has proven, misinformation is rampant and inforwars are ongoing, although Finland has fared well as a nation, at least so far.

Any other related tools for individuals to enhance diversity and quality of their media content that you know of?

Please share about the results and your thoughts of your experiment below, 1-2 paragraphs. What do you think of the tool/s? Can this/these be considered as “media reform”? What do they do, don’t do? How might they inspire / help a scholar?

And, inspired by hshshs and Mimmi, I add this question: What are the possible limitations of these tools (apart from geographical bias)? To put it provocatively: Are they data equivalent to the fun cutesy quizzes (are you a type A or B in a relationship?)  or are they “real” media reform tools?  Due, as always, in a week.