25 July 2024 | 10:52 AM

Comment: Media, accountability & governance

Key Takeaways

amaBhungane managing partner Sam Sole was invited to give the keynote address to Rhodes University’s 21st Highway Africa journalism conference on August 31, 2017.

Sole warned that the global media monopolies constituted by Google and Facebook were a threat to journalism and must be confronted.

Below is a video and text of his speech.


We meet at a time of crisis for journalism, locally and globally.

This media crisis is part of a broader crisis of democracy and society flowing from the malevolent combination of unregulated late-capitalism and unregulated technology that has spawned a kind of techno-fascism.

Media and journalism are at the centre of a civilisational battle about what sort of communication happens and how it shapes our world and our future.

That is because now the billion richest and most influential people on the planet are more or less continuously plugged into a digital reality that has an unprecedented ability to manage their connections and influence their perceptions.

At the same time, if I may quote sociologist Zygmunt Bauman: “We could describe what is going on at the moment as a crisis of democracy, the collapse of trust: the belief that our leaders are not just corrupt or stupid, but inept. Action requires power, to be able to do things, and we need politics, which is the ability to decide what needs to be done.

“But that marriage between power and politics in the hands of the nation state has ended. Power has been globalised, but politics is as local as before. Politics has had its hands cut off. People no longer believe in the democratic system because it doesn’t keep its promises…”

There are other reasons for the growing fissure between populations and the agents of representative democracy.

The first is the increasing role of money in politics – and the related growth of the party machine – an instrument for reproducing power and insulating it from those to whom it is putatively accountable.

The cycle of money and machine-politics has meant that the benefits of power have been squeezed upwards – to the advantage of the 1%, rather than the majority who supposedly deliver political success in a democracy.

The rise of authoritarian populism is a response to a loss of popular agency; but it is also a function of a drive by competing elites to seize control of the party machine – it is a tool as well as a symptom.

The second reason is the globalisation of a free-market fundamentalist hegemony that pooh-poohs the very notion of society.

This ideological miasma undermines the idea that states can be the custodians of social goods, of beneficial social infrastructure that is dependent on the cross subsidising of some spheres by others; it undermines the idea that not everything can be commercially structured; indeed that the incentive systems of late-capitalism can be deeply inimical to building society.

The third reason, and what concerns us most here, is the weakening of the media as part of the architecture of accountability that is meant to keep the excesses of power in check.

My colleague and former editor Nic Dawes, who delivered keynote at this year’s Duke Menell media exchange, spoke about the loss of trust in the mainstream media that occurred in the United States. He showed a graph demonstrating how – around the time of the financial crisis in 2008 – for the first time more people began to mistrust the media than trust it in the US.

Not co-incidentally, this was around the same time that advertising revenue and employment of journalists plummeted, thanks to the hemorrhage of advertising dollars into internet organisations that are not news organisations.

But as his graph showed, the loss of trust preceded the desertion of advertising and seems to me to have occurred in parallel with the growth of a media paradigm that privileged ratings and profit over core social and professional responsibilities and goals, a media paradigm that presented news as entertainment; or as an agency for political or commercial lobbying, or both.

In important ways, this drift towards commercial and political partisanship betrayed core journalistic principles and paved the way for the normalisation of the hyper-partisan propaganda outlets that we are increasingly seeing today, where we are facing a full frontal assault on the media as a bastion of fact-based accountability.

I don’t think that we have fully appreciated the impact this confluence of technology and commerce and ideology, or come to terms with how poisonous it is.

Firstly, we have lost our audiences because we have lost control of the platforms.

Content was a way to deliver audiences to advertisers. Facebook and Google – and the internet more broadly – now allows advertisers to tap directly into audiences without the need to pay anyone to create content.

According to data and analysis agency Zenith, last year Google and Facebook attracted one-fifth of global advertising spending, nearly double the figure of five years ago. Online advertising spend has overtaken television for the first time.

The pure internet media owners: Alphabet and Facebook, Baidu, Microsoft, Yahoo, Verizon and Twitter accounted for nearly three-quarters of all internet ad spend, and nearly one-quarter of total ad spending.

In the US, Facebook and Google alone account for a staggering 76% of online advertising revenue.

The funding model for professional journalism is broken.

I will return later to some suggestions about what to do, but if I hear any more about digital start-ups, data-journalism and how media owners must innovate, I think my head is going to explode.

On top of this baleful financial scenario, is the emergence what has been termed “Fake News” which is really part of a terrifying new global information ecosystem where both surveillance and propaganda have been digitally weaponised.

Digital reality is now a significant part of our social reality, so the way in which corporations, governments and money shape digital reality has profound real world impact on people’s understanding of the world and their response to it.

It can distort that reality – on a mass, population-scale, level.

That’s because there are few controls over the digital ‘feed’ and the feed is warped by money and propaganda.

Fake news and misinformation is a part of that ecosystem: they represent the way in which power can now make use of technology and the media to undermine the very architecture of accountability.

In fact, this is a business model for some media now. As Nic put it so succinctly, “in a vacuum of trust and economic health – a new set of media complexes has risen up – hyper-partisan; dedicated to the service of power, rather than accountability, and dedicated to the reinforcement of its audience’s prejudices”.

Think Fox News, or, closer to home, ANN7 – or at the extreme end of the spectrum, Breitbart.

Anya Schiffrin, in her foreword to In the Service of Power: Media Capture and the Threat to Democracy, notes that the motives of media proprietors are likely to become more political in nature.

“In an age of declining profitability, when owning a media outlet is not as profitable as it once was, then who would want to own a media outlet? Only someone with a strong desire for political influence.”

In the same book, Mark Nelson writes: “As media capture spreads, especially in concert with authoritarianism, it is a menace that becomes progressively embedded within the political system, impervious to reform. Practiced and perfected by regimes like Russia and China, it is being copied and adopted all over the world… Studies on media capture have shown links to a broad range of negative impacts on society, from global security and stability to income inequality.”

Alternative-facts are an attempt to undermine fact based inquiry and judgment: it is an attack on rationalism itself; in that sense it is profoundly totalitarian.

Andries to du Toit captured some of what’s going on in an article titled Hyper-political anti-politics, in which he points out that, in some ways we in South Africa are ahead of the curve.

I quote:

It is in fact arguable that already from 2008 onwards many of the features of the Zuma presidency foreshadowed some of the distinctive features of present day politics in the global north. Far from Zuma being a South African Donald Trump it may be that Trump is the American Jacob Zuma. Or to put it more seriously, the possibility exists that some of the phenomena connected to the emergence of authoritarian populism and ‘post truth politics’ may represent instances of distinctively new forms of late capitalist governmentality … The result is, paradoxically, that the neoliberal ‘anti-politics machine’ is being displaced by a new kind of hyper-political anti-politics defined by the primacy of the public sphere and the hollowing out of policy content from political discourse.Thus Trump, instead of putting forward a coherent far-right political programme for implementation by government, seems to be in the process of subverting government as such, and replacing it by a kind of perpetual political theatre.

In fact long before Jacob Zuma and Trump, we had Robert Mugabe. Without even the benefit of 21st century communications technology, the Mugabe regime has long perfected the art of disconnecting the country’s politics from any sort of factual or reality-based reference point at all.

I was always struck, in the years when “quiet diplomacy” was still a thing, how impressive Zanu PF politicians and diplomats were in interviews about the dire situation in the country. Urbane and well-educated, they had mastered the knack of letting go of any need to genuflect before facts. They had their own facts, alternative facts, that fit together very nicely, thank you.

Now, globally, to the extent that our reality is so much more mediated by the digital experience, that process is much easier – and surveillance is the other side of that coin.

The ubiquitous smart phone and the dominance of our connectedness via social media means that surveillance of whole populations is now within reach.

What recent events, such as the election of Donald Trump have shown us, is that this technology can now be manipulated to achieve social and political outcomes – the technology makes the manipulation of populations possible in ways that undermine our basic understanding of the authenticity of the popular will, of democracy itself.

The scary thing is that propaganda works: research shows that repeated exposure to false information can propel people to believe that is it true.

Fake news also often plays to people’s emotional responses: the stories tend to try to solicit fear, anger or outrage. Technology can now automate this process, as we saw with Trump’s army of Twitter ‘bots’ during the US election.

One purpose is to create a “bandwagon effect” to create an illusion of massive online political traction, which then gains real traction amongst voters who want to join the herd.

We have our own example right here, where the so-called Gupta trolls – though the links to the Gupta family are not proven – have succeeded in embedding a white monopoly capital discourse – as an alternative narrative to the “state capture” narrative that has been used to frame the Gupta story.

Unfortunately, we are only at the beginning of this revolution. Bots are currently quite easy to spot, but advances in Artificial Intelligence will change that.

Technology is also going to make it easier to produce fake news that looks real: you can already use a programme to make you appear and sound like Donald Trump – or Kim Jong Un – for that matter.

The precise targeting of commercial and political speech at individual consumers, based on a sophisticated and automated analysis of their online personalities, is already reality – and is only going to get more sophisticated and intrusive if we continue on the current laissez faire trajectory.

I have laboured over this dismal picture, because, to the extent possible, I want to sound a loud alarm.

This is not a drill.

We are fooling ourselves if we don’t recognise this as a ‘systemic’ threat that must force us to rethink the boundaries of free speech and media – which is not commercially ‘free’ at all.

In the US, there are a number of factors that have retarded the US media’s engagement with this reality.

  1. The reluctance of the media to engage with its constitutional role and obligations. i.e. its failure to accept it has a deep political role, which is not, however, party political;
  2. An attachment to a fake paradigm of ‘objectivity’ or balance, which makes it difficult to call out bullshit and lies;
  3. on the other hand a hyper-commercial model that rewards partisan comment and audience baiting;
  4. An attachment to access reporting, a sense of the media being part of and being comfortable with the establishment;
  5. A loss of public trust.

So, what is to be done? 

Let me start close to home.

Nic Dawes in his Menell speech made the somewhat optimistic assertion that SA journalists are an example to the world of how to deal with authoritarian populism, demagogy and the new pressures of digital disinformation.

Nic draws hope from the #GuptaLeaks and their fallout. I’ll return to that.

What is true, in my view, is that in South Africa, we have been bequeathed a media culture that has worked to counter some of those harmful tendencies.

The heritage of the anti-apartheid media is one that is ethically aspirational: independent, political in sense of having a commitment to its Constitutional mandate, anti-establishment, skeptical, suspicious of authority and power.

There is a relatively strong professional culture of what doing journalism means – that extends from the public broadcaster to print and online. And here I must pay tribute to the SABC 8, who stood up for that professional culture and helped win back control of the public broadcaster.

I don’t think they would have had the support inside and outside the SABC without the framework of a public culture of independent journalism rooted in the constitutional imperative of accountability. Our media has built that public culture, despite our faults and failures.

We have been relatively successful in building public trust. In a 2015 survey, on a confidence index, South African journalists scored 214 compared with the ANC’s 120 and the police services’ 152.

At amaBhungane we have worked very hard to build confidence in the brand – and we engage online and quite often with the fake news brigade – to build and protect our reputation.

I think we instinctively understood the need to build a “trust economy” to counteract what has been called the “attention economy”.

So in South Africa journalists have held the line, but I don’t think people realise what a thin black line of ink it is, what a thin bright line of pixels it is. The industry and the profession is stretched.

Aside from the same commercial meltdown facing the media worldwide, let’s enumerate the more conventional domestic threats that remain.

  1. The recapture of SABC by forces more in tune with professional journalism remains fragile.It’s hard to overstate how important the dislodging of the Hlaudi Motsoeneng gang at the SABC has been, given it is where most South Africans get their news. I will return to the SABC as a template for action in other areas, but we should not think that the political forces that were dislodged will not mount a counter-offensive. In addition, there are some powerful commercial interests that have a lot to lose from a proper exploration of the SABC’s skeletons. It’s an under-reported story that Hlaudi and the Zuma faction forged an unholy alliance not only with the Guptas, but with the archetype of white monopoly capital – Naspers – to protect Multichoice – the pay television monopoly controlled by Naspers. ANN7 has a platform courtesy of Multichoice.
  2. The purchase of Independent Media by a consortium led by Iqbal Surve has been a blow to journalism at the country’s largest newspaper group. There have been heavy staff cuts, some significant departures of editors and an editorial line adversely impacted by the new owner’s narcism, pettiness and political debts. The group’s largest and most influential publication, Business Report, is now led by a PR lightweight, who has, worryingly, indicated a willingness to use the paper to publish a poorly substantiated smear-story against a commercial target, in this case the listed technology group EOH – a worrying precedent.
  3. The ruling ANC has again raised the bogey of a statutory media tribunal, without being able to present any credible case that self-regulation has failed. It remains a tool to promote self-censorship.
  4. The collapse or capture of state institutions of accountability in South Africa have placed extra focus and pressure on the media as an accountability mechanism.
    Especially in the debate about the Gupta family and State Capture, this has moved the media to the centre of the contestation in the country, making the media a player, part of the story – and a target. Those who have been at the forefront of writing about the Guptas and state capture – including myself – have been smeared as the racists agents of white monopoly capital. The Times Media group’s (now Tiso Blackstar group) Peter Bruce has been followed and had pictures of his private meetings published online with a hateful claim that he was having an affair. Ferial Haffajee has had a whole sexist and demeaning meme library developed around her fictitious relationship with the chosen poster-boy of white monopoly capital, Johann Rupert. I have been repeatedly and falsely been accused of having been an Apartheid spy.
  5. As in the US there has been a very cynical process of using vulgar identity politics as a means of cashing in on and or channeling the discontent being stirred up by the failure to deal with poverty, inequality, racism, state failure, vested interests and structural barriers to finding solutions. The cheap storm-troopers of this process in South Africa have been the Black First Land First movement, who have physically targeted journalists, despite a court injunction. Their slogan “Land or death” echoes the fascists at the other end of the spectrum, who chanted the Nazi slogan “Blood & Soil” in Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago.
  6. As the political conflict mounts, there is more and more pressure for the media to take sides. In this process, the ‘good guys’, the so-called constitutionalists wanting to save the ruling ANC from itself, are as guilty of trying to manipulate the media as the other faction. It’s a siren call to choose political allegiances in a way that shapes coverage and is fed by targeted leaks – and it would be a profound mistake for our media to plant a factional or party political flag, whether overtly or covertly.

Yet our task is profoundly political, and we need to recognise and build on that.

We need to articulate a platform that’s about defending the information infrastructure of democracy.

To quote Nic again: “Press freedom is actually about accountability systems; it’s about everyone’s rights. We have to show people we’re on their side…not of their political party, but of their interest.”

In his memorable phrase: “The standards of journalism as craft are there to support the mission: cleaning out the plumbing of democracy; enabling accountability; afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted; but they aren’t badges of membership that get you access to the back-room where politicians and tycoons and stars welcome you to their club.”

So I want to suggest the outline of a politics or a programme that supports what we should be: a fierce guild, skeptical about all who wield power, loyal to nothing but the painful art of truth-telling and to those of our tribe who uphold its best traditions.

The ideas are by no means exhaustive or uncontroversial

  • We need to build trust in everything we do in the news business. That means accepting and acting on the recognition that being right is more important than being first. That means shunning click-bait ads linking to fake stories – and confronting other business and editorial practices that undermine trust. That means having ongoing and sometimes uncomfortable discussions about ethics. That means questioning the motives of sources and leaks and forgoing the scoop if the exchange is ethically questionable. In South Africa we have a nasty history of the media being manipulated by political factions via such scoops to damage their opponents. That means questioning our own ideological assumptions about the way the world works, about what moves the human project forward and what doesn’t.
  • We need to protect the ground we have not yet lost and prioritise the recapture of institutions that may be rescuable. In this regard, the successful efforts to persuade the Johannesburg Securities Exchange to retain its requirement that companies publish results in a newspaper are an example for other initiatives. We need to defend editorial independence from further encroachment by commercial or political interests. We need to engage with the local free-sheets and those that run them. They are at the coalface of local accountability, which where most of what matters to people happens. I can’t stress enough what a great victory the recapture of the public broadcaster was. The institution and its journalists need ongoing support. At the same time, we should not give up the institutional memory and momentum that still exists within Independent Media. Its journalists need support, its editorial management needs to be engaged and called out where necessary; its corporate architecture needs scrutiny and challenge: this institution was purchased on the back of Public Servants pension funds – it belongs to all of us and can be reclaimed.
  • We need to build solidarity. That means support for each other as journalists – it means realising that collaboration is as important as competition, whatever management might say. In this regard, the way we have pursued the #GuptaLeaks has been significant. The leaks were made initially to the Daily Maverick, which called in amaBhungane for help – and jointly we took the decision to include News24 as part of the collaboration. It means calling out the bullying of journalists, even if they are from ANN7. It means supporting institutions of solidarity like the South African National Editors Forum, which has done such important work promoting a free media and supporting journalists under fire; it means thinking about whether it is possible to resurrect an effective media workers union. It means building relationships with existing donor funders and promoting the creation of new bodies and sources of funding that are willing help expand the non-profit sector, to give us money without wanting to control what we do. It means building public understanding and support of our mission and the space we need to carry it out; it means engaging with some humility with our priorities, our weaknesses and our failures. More controversially, it means building broader alliances for the defence of media freedom.
    The recapture of the SABC was built of a network of formal and informal solidarity from journalists and bodies like SANEF, but it was only made possible by involving NGOs like the SOS Coalition, the South African Communist Party and elements of both the ruling ANC and opposition parties. It means building alliances between media owners and managers, encouraging them to subordinate corporate ego and short term gain for the longer term health of the industry – and encouraging them jointly to resist commercial and political bullying. It means exploring more collaborative forms of working. It also means building solidarity networks globally, because the problem is global. As I began researching for this address, it became clear that journalists – and regulators – around the world are grappling with how to protect journalism as a public good.

Finally: we need to realise that technology is not our friend – at least not while it is controlled by the overlords of Google, Facebook and Amazon. Let me tease that out as well as I can.

Free speech and commercial monopolies

There are two aspects: the free speech and accountability dimension and the commercial monopolies and their effects. In both cases, the responses need to be regulatory.

In regard to free speech, there is the question of who can speak online – and what you may say.

In both cases I find myself at odds with the free speech fundamentalists by virtue of the anonymising and amplifying characteristics of the internet. Free speech, essentially, is a personal right, a right vesting in a human – it does not include the right to a megaphone or a printing press – or a website – and it does not vest in a machine.

The philosopher Karl Popper argues, correctly in my view, that we cannot be tolerant of intolerance because it tends to crowd out tolerance.

Progressive constitutions, like our own, admit to the limitations of speech rights, to the extent that such speech amounts to hate speech or the incitement of violence. It also protects the right to dignity, which in the case of speech every jurisdiction I can think of accounts for by way of defamation law.

In the old world, you could not say hateful things about people if you couldn’t back them up. Freedom of speech was balanced by an architecture of accountability for what you say.

As we have ourselves experienced with the Guptabots, those protections are not working anymore.

Firstly, they are undermined by the ability of technology now to create “fake speakers”. If I can easily and cheaply create the simulacrum of a community of views, then I undermine the very basis of political speech.

Bots do not have rights – and I should not be able to exercise my personal free speech rights by pretending to be 100 or a 1 000 different people.

A starting point for regulating this kind of abuse would be for the platforms to require a ‘proof of life’ requirement – i.e. banning computer driven communication – unless it is specifically identified as such. I have the right to know if I am dealing with a person or a programme.

Secondly, the protections against the abuses of free speech are undermined by the anonymising facility of the internet. Note that this anonymity is reserved for the audience, but not for the platform, which has invested enormously in identifying and tracking its users.

There is not, as far as I am aware, a right to anonymous speech; it is a protection provided by journalists and publishers, who do so for good public policy reasons, but at the cost of assuming liability themselves.

That quid quo pro balance is absent from the internet.

The WMCleaks site, for instance, which published the defamatory material about Peter Bruce and others, is hidden behind an anonymous domain registration – and the domain host generally escapes any liability because of provisions, especially in US law, that immunise web hosts, treating them as mere pipes or conveyencers, with no duty to remove damaging material, even when it is pointed out.

Provisions like these do not promote discourse, they promote stalking, revenge porn and other sorts of impunity. They need to be re-thought. Platforms like Facebook are publishers. They must be made to take responsibility for public content they make money off, like any other publisher.

The big platforms have insulated themselves to an extraordinary degree. They know everything about you, but you cannot even contact them.

I’ll give you an example. At some point we had reason to believe the State might seek a section 204 subpoena to access my emails from Gmail.

We tried to contact Google, just to say, if there is a request, please alert us, so we can challenge the matter in court before you act on the request.

We could not even find anybody to speak to. That includes our lawyer, Dario Milo, who had met one of Google’s lawyers at a conference in New York and actually had a name and an email address. Nothing. A black hole.

With Google – and the terrible impact of their growing monopoly of online advertising – we come to the nub of what I want to say.

We set up amaBhungane as a donor funded non-profit company because we saw the commercial support for investigative journalism was under threat. We want amaBhungane to flourish. We want big donors and the public to continue to provide financial support and we hope we can popularise the idea and practice of crowd-funding journalism.

But amaBhungane is no substitute for a comprehensive news ecosystem.

The #GuptaLeaks, groundbreaking as they are, are no substitute for the sustained everyday accountability journalism that needs to extend from the city hall to the local chemical factory.

And we need to face the fact the exodus of revenue from news organisations is not going to be reversed by paywalls, by data-journalism, by targeting the youth segment, or whatever.

Yes, some big players like The New York Times will flourish, but there will be more and more consolidation and less and less journalism.

Without regulation to force money back into journalism, this situation will not be reversed.

Lawmakers in the European Union, Australia, Canada and elsewhere have been grappling with how to do it, whether by a so-called “Google tax” on aggregators, a levy on online or foreign advertising.

There is no reason why an online advertising tax could not be used to help fund news production via state subsidies of one kind or another.

The pitfalls of dealing with attempts to exert political influence via that funding can be managed. France does it.

There must be innovative ways that subsidies could be distributed to users, such as providing citizens with an annual media voucher that they could direct to a choice of news outlets.

Of course Google and Facebook are pushing back, resisting the idea of such levies and indeed pushing for the extension of flawed “safe-harbour” copyright provisions that have already decimated the music industry, including here in South Africa, where a shockingly bad (and terribly under-reported) copyright amendment bill is currently in Parliament.

Google and Facebook are monopolies in the same way that Standard Oil or AT&T were, except this time they are global.

There is no reason in principle why they should not be broken up into competing entities and forced to provide news content as part of a licence condition, the way broadcasters are.

I don’t know the best regulatory route to fund public interest journalism, but I do know that the task must be confronted.

If I can distill just one takeaway from this address for you it is this: Technology is not going to save us. Politics might just. Get active. Get organised.

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Buyeleni Sibanyoni and Sam Sole

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