Research fellow at Harvard’s Future of Media project Heidi Legg shares seven US-based media and tech predictions for the future of the news business in 2021.
1) Regulation is coming
“It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm, as well. And that goes for fake news, for foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy,” said Mark Zuckerberg in front of the Senate in April 2018. His exchange with Senator Lindsey Graham is one for the history books where Zuckerberg responded, “Well, senator, my position is not that there should be no regulation. I think the Internet is increasingly…” GRAHAM: “You embrace regulation?” ZUCKERBERG: “I think the real question, as the Internet becomes more important in people’s lives, is what is the right regulation, not whether there should be or not.”
A year later, Zuckerberg penned his own blueprint for such regulations in an op-ed he wrote for the Washington Post resulting in tech lobbyists descending on Washington in multitudes.
Last month, the Federal Trade Commission and 48 attorneys general across the US filed much-anticipated lawsuits against Facebook, accusing the social media giant of gobbling up competitive threats in a way that has entrenched its popular apps so deeply into the lives of billions of people that rivals can no longer put up a fight.
They are calling for a break-up of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. There has also been a flurry in Congress of bills around saving local news, a local-news commission and tax-exemptions for news subscriptions.
Australia and the EU are already further along than the rest of the world when it comes to fines, curbs and taxes on the major platforms. President-elect Biden has said Section 230 (which protects tech platforms from being sued over content created by their users) will be revised and both the FCC and FTC are poised to dive deeper into antitrust and data privacy regulations as we await the new nominees who will transform these regulatory agencies into beehives or sloths, depending on their courage.
For American-born social media giants, the precedence of their home country closing out a competitor and forcing the sale of a Chinese TikTok’s ownership to a proposed US-based entity that would include partnerships with Oracle and Walmart further lends to an increasingly messy global tech regulation landscape.
2) Data will become portable
We are about to see more advancement and transparency in how users remove and carry their data with them. Clarity on when information can be used to serve the public interest and how it applies to AI will also be a key focus for both Big Tech and lawmakers.
California’s new California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which went into effect in January 2020, is the only advancement in privacy laws. However, this is shifting and other states are ramping up.
Similar to the GDPR in the EU in May 2018, CCPA allows residents to discover what personal information a business is collecting about them, their devices, and their children. New York has put its proposed New York Privacy Act (NYPA) on hold due to Covid-19, but if enacted in its current form, it promises to be even more expansive a measure than CCPA. Washington also tried to pass the Washington Privacy Act but it failed for a second time, albeit the state legislature passed facial recognition regulation. Nevada passed a much milder privacy law than California. Regulation across the US inevitable.
3) Micro-targeting of advertising will come under fire
Never before has a more sophisticated advertising machine existed.
Algorithms and AI have allowed social media companies such as Amazon, Netflix, Google, and more to predict our behaviour, serve us our immediate needs, and filter our precise preferences based on our engagement habits, intimate interests, and personal relationships.
This micro-targeting is minting money, having absorbed the majority of ad dollars from the traditional media market.
Using micro-targeting, advertisers not only sell you shoes, a trip, and a new car based on your behaviour but most problematic for elections and society, they are able to refine and hyper-target to sell you a political ideology, often amped up with hate and division. Where this will be turbo-boosted is when IP-TV offers these same capabilities for broadcasters by the end of the year.
Regulators in Australia, the UK, the EU, and soon the US under Biden have announced or signalled that micro-targeting around political and ideological ads is on the table. The categorisation of what constitutes a political ad is vague and left with Facebook’s advertising moderators to sort out. How many of them? No one knows for sure.
Digital ads are also highly customised and tailored to specific micro-groups where an echo chamber further seeds discontent and conspiracy, unabated, as we saw with the rise of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Regardless of the tech industry’s promise that the use of AI will remove hate and misinformation, the industry lags behind media manipulators and purveyors of hate and fear, and their tech solutions have not arrived quickly enough. Regulators and civil society will press to resolve through laws in 2021 to quell the chaos.
4) Tech giants will have to decide if they are publishers or data banks
The 20th Century media industry proved that the company with the advertising revenue owns the news, as I chronicle in Preserving America’s Thought Leader Magazines. Henry Luce, William Hearst, Conde Nast used their power to set the agenda until it was then usurped by the cable companies, ending the century with the arrival of the internet. The early 21st century appears to have adopted the same pattern of consolidated power, but at warp speed, with the unprecedented market-cap and ad-market dominance by Facebook and Google along with their fantastical reach across the globe.
Are they really any different than the media owners of the 20th century?
The new media giants have yet to accept their role as publishers and the responsibilities that come with owning a nation’s narrative.
If Twitter, Facebook/Instagram/Whatsapp, Reddit, Snap, TikTok, Youtube (Google) all refuse to accept their role as publishers and see themselves as apps, not newsrooms, and entirely different from CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, are they willing to accept their role as the massive banks of personal data?
The see-saw between being responsible for protecting user privacy and publishing quality information will continue to be a key area of investigation in 2021.
5) Bundled news subscriptions will improve
Will the improvement and reader-adoption of Apple News or a subscription-based Twitter news feed or other aggregation efforts finally solve how we funnel quality news into one place for consumer ease?
Or will consumer demand for high-quality news from individual journalists on platforms like Substack, a virtual design-your-own-newspaper, gain traction?
What price are readers willing to pay for this service?
I predict that the aggregation of high-quality journalism through platforms like AppleNews Plus and Substack will also lead to the demarcation between “opinion writing” from “straight news” from “user-generated content”, as was once the norm. There will be a clearing of swimming lanes through consumer demand for high-quality newsrooms, vetted columnists, and niche writers. Rumours were circulated that Twitter may be interested in Substack. Substack tweeted an unequivocal no. I predict that users will tire of this mosh pit of news and will be willing to pay for a more high-quality digital feed.
6) National players will move into local news gaps
This year will see new alliances in local news and a transformation of the local market by wheel and spoke national players.
We are already beginning to see this expansion by ProPublica Local Network, Axios announcing it will open four local market newsletters in 2021, Chalkbeat for local education beats, and The Athletic for local sports beats spawning out across the US.
7) Everyone is a media company now
Amazon, Netflix, Walmart, Target, Disney are all collecting data on consumers and have the pipes to deliver content. While Facebook, Google, Twitter, and TikTok claim to be apps on top of the ISPs (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Comcast) who are often referred to as the pipes, what barriers to entry remain for other digital platforms to join them? What is stopping Walmart or Amazon from delivering you news?
As more companies become digital access points for consumers and hold banks of behavioural data, how is NPR any different from The New York Times or CNN or Fox or the Wall Street Journal, other than the content they serve? Today, everyone has the capacity to share stories in audio, video, or text. Everyone has access to consumers through a mobile device, TV, or computer. There is virtually no difference in access anymore other than the followers and content a media company serves up.
Will those who collect behavioural data to sell ads alongside the content and news they publish on their platform, find themselves in more difficult regulatory environments and PR nightmares? How do we cluster these groups when we think about media ethics? Who is now part of the information ecosystem and playing an outsized role in content dissemination that affects the health of our society? All of them? Where are the lines for publisher versus pipe? These are the questions that will play out in boardrooms and Congress in 2021.
As regulators set those lines in 2021, corporates will begin to behave differently and posture to fall under the tent that is most beneficial to their bottom line. Pipes? Publisher? Retailer? What will they be willing to give up to fall under a preferred regulatory tent?
In 2021, we will likely see the clustering of digital giants versus one-stop big tech dominance. Differentiation will emerge and Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon (the data banks) will continue to shift away from Facebook, Google, and Twitter (the publishers) knowing that the role of publisher is one that requires deeper integrity and a more public-facing role along with more landmines than simply selling you books, groceries, and gear.