Journalism in the Age of Trump
Luncheon address, Senior Fellows, Massey College
Oct. 18, 2019
Thank you, Mohammad and thank you Jennifer, for organizing this and other regular lunch meetings.
New Principal Nathalie Des Rosiers, thank you for energizing and exciting the Massey community. On behalf of all of us here, again, our warmest regards and best wishes.
Today, we have three neighbours from Ryerson, where I’ve just finished a three-year stint. I welcome them to Massey College:
The President, Dr. Mohamad Lachemi. He’s a distinguished engineer who has breathed life into several non-engineering disciplines, including liberal arts. Ryerson’s Vice-President International, Prof. Anver Saloojee. A political scientist, he’s a rare Canadian – having spent four years in his native South Africa on a leave of absence to serve as Advisor to President Thabo Mbeki. And Mohammad Al Zaibak. He’s the longest serving member of the board of governors at Ryerson. A tech executive, he’s the man who brings interesting exhibitions to the ROM and has been president of Lifeline Syria that helped pave the way for the historic admission of more than 50,000 refugees from his native Syria.
On with the topic at hand.
We’re meeting on the eve of the federal election, at the end of a campaign in which our topic did not get much exposure – how the digital revolution, driven mostly by American hi-tech giants, is affecting Canadian newspapers as well as our broadcast industry.
First an overview:
The Internet, one of the greatest inventions in human history, has obviously changed the world for the better. But it has also left extensive road kill.
The surveillance being done on us and the intelligence gathered from our data by the Hi-Tech giants is far worse than what the KGB or the Stasi ever did during the Communist era. The parallel is not exact, but it makes the point.
There’s poison coursing through the veins of Social Media — bigotry, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, nativism, xenophobia. This is challenging long-held assumptions, among others, about free speech, including in the land of the First Amendment. And it is tearing our democratic societies apart.
The post-truth world has proven fertile ground for populists and demagogues, even elected ones — like Donald Trump, who routinely displaces truth with misinformation, disinformation, alternative facts. And he has the Orwellian audacity to brand real news as fake news, and his own lies as facts. Even scarier is the incontro-vertible fact that a significant portion of the American population believes him.
The Hi-Tech behee-moths who are partly or largely responsible for this state of affairs continue to operate with little or no supervision or regulation.
Canada, in particular, has been asleep at the switch, both under the Stephen Harper and the Justin Trudeau governments.
Let’s start with the size and reach of the digital giants
Outside China, we are talking about American corporations.
Amazon is valued at $1 trillion. Apple $1 trillion
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, $900 billion.
Facebook $500 billion, even after losing more than $100 billion following several scandals.
Combined, the stock value of the Big 5 Hi-Tech companies is larger than the GDP of Canada, even larger than the GDP of France.
In terms of reach:
Facebook has 2.7 billion users a month, including 23 million in Canada. It also owns WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram for a total of 5 billion users a month for one that company alone.
YouTube, owned by Google, has 1.8 billion users a month. Nearly 70 per cent Canadians use/watch YouTube.
We might say, So what? People are using these platforms voluntarily, happily and, most importantly, free of cost.
But it’s not free, either to us or to society. It is free only for these digital giants. On Facebook alone, users are spending 40,000 person years a day. That’s 15 million years of free labour a year being donated to Facebook.
This is modern-day serfdom. In the old days, the serfs groaned. Today’s serfs smile as they toil for the masters.
The masters have also figured out ways to make the serfs addicted to the labour. They employ psychologists and algorithms to keep your attention as long as possible – and increase their profits.
The invasion of our privacy is scary. Scarier are its breaches and the the misuses of our data.
There was the 2016 Russian meddling in the American election.
When Robert Mueller charged and indicted 25 Russian nationals with conspiracy to defraud the United States, he cited Facebook 35 times.
This is not to say that social media is bad because it helped elect Donald Trump and was good when it helped elect Barack Obama. Rather, it points to foreign interference using social media to hack Democratic Party emails and to seed pro-Trump messages that were seen by 126 million Americans.
There was the Cambridge Analytica scandal — they acquiring and misusing the data of 87 million Facebook users, including 620,000 Canadians.
In October last year, the data of 30 million Facebook users was breached, to scoop up phone numbers, emails, and details of the users’ computing devices.
There have been several other data breaches.
Next, consider this paradox. While the Internet infinitesimally broadened the Public Square, it has divided the world into ever-smaller silos.
Social media are anti-social.
Increasingly, people talk only to those who share their views on the social network of their choice. The more they retreat into their own cocoons, the more tribalized they become.
The more you reinforce existing beliefs and prejudices, the more you become resistant to facts and other points of view — and the less likely to reach out to others to find the compromises needed for the common good that’s the essence of functioning democracies.
I’ve seen this sea change first hand. Reader responses to my columns started becoming more and more abusive. I have a stack of about 40,000 reader emails, of which quite a few thousand are toxic. It used to be that people would disagree with you but would be polite. But no longer. You no longer have adversaries, only enemies.
(We’ve seen shades of that in this election as well).
Angry tribes have created a market for Angry Radio, Angry TV — shouting, arguing, screaming, insulting, demonizing. FOX-News is a business model. Peddling Islamophobia is a media business model. Blaming blacks or immigrants is a business model. Ranting and raving against feminism is a business model.
For several media, there’s not even the pretense of neutrality. If Trump calls New York Times fake news, FOX-News becomes part of the Trump show and the Trump team.
Social media have empowered authoritarian regimes as well as deranged individuals.
China and other regimes use social media for old-style state surveillance of citizens, harassing opponents, and suppressing dissidents. This has happened from Brazil to Turkey to Saudi Arabia to the Philippines to Cambodia and other places.
Facebook, YouTube, Reddit and others also allowed their platforms to be hijacked by the likes of ISIS/Daesh to show gruesome videos of beheadings and to recruit people, including young people from the West, some of whom are now caught in the crossfire between Turkish forces and the Kurdish militia in Syria.
In Myanmar, the military as well as militant Buddhist monks used Facebook to foment genocide against the Muslim Rohingya.
In India, WhatsApp has been the instrument of choice by fundamentalist Hindu zealots to spread false stories of child abductions to incite mobs to lynch innocent people.
Individuals have been radicalized and unhinged by social media.
In Quebec City, the anti-Muslim Andre Bissonette;
In Toronto, the man who rammed a van to kill 10 people on Yonge St. in Toronto, a product of “incel rebellion” of men who can’t get women to have sex with them;
In Pittsburg, the anti-Semite who gunned down 11 Jewish Americans.
In Charleston, S.C., the man who shot nine African-American parishioners.
In Norway, Anders Breivik.
In Christchurch, the Aussie who murdered 51 people in two mosques livestreamed his murder spree on Facebook.
Chamat PalihaPitiya was ex-Vice President of Facebook who drove its growth. He now says that he “feels tremendous guilt” for having “developed tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
How have the hi-tech behemoths responded?
For the longest time, Facebook and others maintained that they are only content providers, not content producers.
More disingeneously, they cited free speech as a defence: ‘We are not in the censorship business.’ But they have long been in the censorship business, quietly cooperating with security agencies as well as non-democratic governments to censor and axe content in return for access to those markets.
Their real reason for not wanting to take responsibility for content was that they did not want to commit the resources to check facts, ensure fairness and balance, avoid libel and hate. Algorithms cannot be editors.
Facebook did eventually hire a few thousand moderators and subcontractors across the globe to filter the content of billions of users in 100 languages, using Google Translate and 200-page guidelines full of gobbledegook. But you cannot get editorial judgment by ticking off numbers in a manual thousands of miles away.
Facebook either down-played or denied it altogether.
Two days after the American election, Mark Zuckerberg said this: “The idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way, is a pretty crazy idea.”
On Cambridge Analytica, Facebook not only tried to minimize the extent of the damage but also launched a nasty campaign against critics, including George Soros.
Invasion of privacy.
Zuckerberg once said that society would have to get over its hang-up about privacy, because privacy is no longer a societal norm.
The slow death of our newspapers and the squeezing of our broadcast industry.
Technology has been wiping out jobs in many sectors. Media are no different. But they are different, if there’s merit to the argument that fair and balanced journalism matters to democracy.
The Internet broke the media business model. It freed people from the burden of having to buy expensive ads in newspapers and other mass media outlets, to trade goods and services. Real Estate ads, gone. Auto ads, gone. Classified ads, gone. Whole categories of ads disappeared.
That’s across Europe and North America. The only major exceptions in democracies have been India and Turkey. Their economies have been growing and literacy is rising, creating a big enough non-English market in distinct cultures, that haven’t been swept up by the homogenizing American media. In the list of Top 10 newspapers in India, there’s only one English paper. Rest are in the so-called vernacular languages – Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali, etc.
But even in India and Turkey, the growth is beginning to level off. It may be a matter of time for them as well.
But here in North America and Europe, the story is all bad. Not only have newspapers lost revenue but also losing eyeballs to social media. Their raison d’être has also changed – by the time the newspaper lands at your door, you probably have already read or heard or seen the news. So, we give you analysis, commentaries, exclusives, investigative journalism, etc. But in most cases, that’s not been enough to stop the slide.
The U.S. has lost more newspaper jobs than coal mining. Down from 412,000 in 2001 to 174,000 in 2016. More than 1,800 American newspapers have been closed or folded into another.
In Canada, in the past 10 years, newspaper revenues tumbled from $5 billion to about $2.5 billion a year. (For daily newspapers, revenues have tumbled from $2.8 billion to $1.4 billion, and for community newspapers, from $1.3 billion to about $750 million).
Newspapers tried various things to stay afloat. To give just one example, even top-ranked newspapers went into glossy fashion spreads, to attract that high-end market. When the New York Times did that, its then editor, Bill Keller, famously said: “If luxury porn is what saves the Baghdad bureau, so be it.”
The Toronto Star tried an iPad edition, called Star Touch, copying La Presse Plus. But whereas La Presse was relatively successful because it has a captive French market, The Star didn’t. It lost $40 million and closed it.
Torstar has been selling old family silverware – sold off Harlequin Publishing, sold off 1 Yonge St. and leased it back, sold off the mega printing press in Vaughan and also the land it sat on. Star shares that were worth $115 million 10 years ago are worth less than $10 million.
Other papers have tried mergers and acquisitions, to extract savings from combining newsrooms, pooling resources, laying off people, selling real estate. That led to an unprecedented level of concentration of newspapers across Canada. Post Media Network swallowing up the Old Southam chain and also the Sun chain. The only broadsheet dailies in urban centres belong to the same chain – Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Regina Leader-Post, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Vancouver Sun/The Province, imposing one point of view across much of Canada. In some cities, the chain owns both the broadsheet and the tabloid.
Yet all that concentration did not fix the financial problem.
Along the way, the Post group of newspapers became mostly American-owned. Its biggest shareholder is an American hedge fund, a transaction approved during the Stephen Harper years.
That’s only half the story.
The other is that the American hi-tech companies are further bleeding mainstream media by scooping up newspaper content and using it to enrich and monetize their own products. Those making the big bucks are stealing content from those who are going broke producing it.
For example, Google was estimated to have made $4.7 billion last year (2018) from publishers through its search engine.
In Canada, the hi-tech companies are vacuuming up 75 per cent of all new digital advertising revenues, mostly Facebook and Google.
More than 250 Canadian newsrooms have been closed or merged or shrunk since 2008, creating what’s called News Deserts in 181 communities.
The papers that remain are a shadow of their former selves. The Star had a newsroom of 400, now it has less than 200. With such a skeleton staff, you cannot cover the news the way you used to. From five international bureaus, The Star now have just one.
It’s the same story for other papers. Press galleries on Parliament Hill and across provincial assemblies are near-empty. The range and depth of editorial and commentary has shrunk. Obituaries have just about disappeared from the news pages. In Canadians newspapers, Canadians don’t die. It’s mostly Americans and other world figures whose obituaries we read, because those have been supplied by the wire services. Our papers don’t have the writers to write about dear departed Canadians.
When credible news coverage withers, or disappears altogether, two things happen: Some local groups band together and cobble hyper-local news communities, but without much resources. More often, the news void is filled by unsubstantiated, unchecked content, which is mostly celebrity news, or sponsored content, or disinformation, or fake news, or conspiracy theories.
Much of it tends to be American. Therefore, the Kardashians and their bellybuttons.
The trend is so pervasive that even the CBC is hooked on it. Take CBC Radio’s Q, for example. What’s a Canadian taxpayer-supported program doing peddling American culture, day in and day out, interviewing one B-grade Hollywood celebrity after another?
We are familiar with the adage that, in America no one goes bankrupt underestimating the intelligence of the masses. But why is the CBC using our tax dollars to inflict American trash on Canadians?
The only exceptions to what I have just described have been the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist and the Guardian. The Times and the Post have been successful by being the antidote to Donald Trump. Wall Street Journal and the Economist have mostly business clients who’re not price sensitive. The Guardian has succeeded by providing great analysis and podcasts – and putting out the begging bowl for donations from readers. It has just turned the corner, but I don’t know how much of their 222 million pounds revenues is from reader contributions.
The Toronto Star is not asking for donations, yet, but it’s trying something similar to the Guardian by combining Star’s resources with those of its Metro dailies to offer a national digital footprint as a left-of-centre progressive Canadian alternative. We shall see.
The federal government has not only not helped but made matters worse.
For years, newspapers were loath to ask for government help. Being indebted to government was antithetical to their editorial and financial independence. Circumstances, however, forced their hand. Once too rich and proud to seek assistance, they became too desperate not to.
Newspapers asked Ottawa for copyright protection and subsidies for newsrooms. A House of Commons committee made similar suggestions. So had Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa think tank that looked into newspaper woes in the new digital landscape. It was the first major study of the news media in Canada since the reports by Senator Keith Davey in the 1970s and Tom Kent in the 1980s.
But the government rejected the proposals outright. “Our approach will not be to bail out industry models that are no longer viable,” said then Culture Minister Mélanie Joly.
Good principle — in the abstract. How about the billions spent to bail out Bombardier? Or the auto sector, whose American head offices then proceed to close factories in Canada.
Criticized for its stance, the Trudeau government last fall offered $595 million over five years for newspapers; plus, a refundable tax credit for labor costs for producing original content; and a 15 per cent tax credit to Canadians for online subscriptions to media outlets.
A panel is looking into how the monies would be divided. It would be up to individual newspapers to decide whether to tap into the fund, because some may feel that taking tax dollars would compromise their editorial independence.
Meanwhile, newspaper owners are giving up.
Last year, Power Corp., owned by the Desmarais family, let go of La Presse, long the leading voice of federalism in Quebec. The paper was turned into a non-profit organization to qualify for tax-deductible donations and government subsidies.
The Thomson family of Toronto, the other billionaires in the newspaper business, have kept the Globe and Mail afloat against high odds. It remains to be seen for how long.
Along the way, the tech-giants have been pretending to come to the rescue of Canadian media. Apple’s free news mobile app was said to increase traffic to the websites of newspapers but didn’t, really.
In March, Apple announced Apple News + to give a share of revenues that it’d make by tapping into the content of 300 newspapers and magazines across the world, including the Toronto Star, Le Presse and Le Devoir. We shall see.
Facebook, Google and others have also been making token donations to universities and NGOs to promote media literacy, and to advance local news. But these are public relations gestures, and I find it shameful that our institutions are lending their name and credibility to rapacious American corporations that’re doing massive damage to Canada.
Ottawa’s failure to try and tame the Wild West
Around the world, there are about 100 enquiries or court cases against the big four digital platforms, Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. But Ottawa has been engaged only on the fringes.
Privacy law. The European Union passed General Data Protection Regulation, giving users greater control, including the right to be asked for permission regarding the use of their data and also the right to access their profile created from their data. The law prescribes penalties as high as 4 per cent of a company’s annual revenues.
All 28 member-states are updating their own rules and regulations.
France fined Google €50 million for not fully disclosing how it collected data across its services to determine how to deliver individualized advertising.
In August, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion for misleading users about their data.
Monopolistic practices. Several jurisdictions are looking to curb the power of hi-tech duopolies and monopolies.
In 2017, the European Union laid several charges against Google and fined it $2.7 billion for abusing its market dominance and manipulating its search engine in favour of its own businesses over those of competition.
In Australia, the Competition and Consumer Commission has recommended a watchdog to keep an eye on tech companies.
Germany has already made it difficult for tech giants to gobble up potential competitors.
In the U.S., Elizabeth Warren is running her presidential campaign on a detailed proposal to break up Facebook. She’d have its Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp operate as independent companies.
Curbing hate. On making digital platforms take responsibility for their content, Germany has already passed a law under which Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies could face fines of up to € 50 million for failing to remove hate speech and incitements to violence.
Amid all this flurry of initiatives, Canada has been missing in action.
The government ignored two reports by Parliamentary Committees, calling on the government to regulate the Internet giants; to limit their surveillance on citizens; and stem the flow of fake news and foreign influence.
The government’s response was typical. It said it was talking to Google and others. In other words, it was consulting the culprits.
. Ottawa lets American media giants get away with paying little or no tax, whereas Canadian media must pay corporate taxes.
. Ottawa continues to allow Facebook, Google and others to offer products and services free of HST, giving them an unfair advantage over Canadian ones. Canadians must pay the sales tax when placing an ad, say, in the Globe and Mail, but not on American digital giants.
. Ottawa allows tax deductions to anyone placing an ad on Facebook, Google, Netflix and other foreign digital sites. Such deductions were meant only for ads placed in Canadian newspapers, magazines, radio and television – not on foreign-owned media.
. Ottawa allows Netflix to operate outside the framework of the CRTC, meaning Netflix does not have to spend 30 per cent of revenues in Canada on Canadian programming. Netflix generates revenues of $775 million a year in Canada from its 5 million subscribers.
In Sept. 2017, Minister Jolie settled for a promise of $100 million a year for five years for Canadian content. It turned out that Netflix was already spending more than $100 million a year in Canada shooting American films here, not producing Canadian content.
Now Netflix is being joined by Amazon Prime, Disney, AT&T Time Warner. The picture will only get worse, from a Canadian point of view.
Richard Stursberg, president of PEN Canada, author of The Tangled Garden, a Canadian Cultural Manifesto for the Digital Age, says the TV and news industry are “in a giant crisis. And the crisis is in large measure because the government has allowed foreigners to come into the country and enjoy advantages that no Canadian company has in our own market.”
. Ottawa has not lifted a finger to curb on-line hate.
It said it would not follow Germany in controlling hate on the Net. Minister Gold said that such curbs wouldn’t be acceptable to Canadians.
Hers was American free speech absolutism. Canada has had a different tradition. The Supreme Court has ruled, thrice, that curbs on free speech are valid to stop the spreading of hate.
This year an Ontario Court Judge found the publisher and editor of Your Ward News guilty of peddling hate against women and Jewish Canadians.
Two other cases also showed the way. Ontario Superior Court Justice Shan Nakatsuru ruled against Ron Bannerjee for having defamed Mississauga businessman Mohammed Fakih of Paramount Foods. Bannerjee submitted an object video apology.
Then Justice Jane Ferguson ruled against Kevin Johnson, saying he should pay $2.5 million in defamation to Fakih.
We can already see the effects of those decisions – these two gentlemen and others have become more careful, knowing they cannot get away with whatever they felt like saying.
Such decisions draw a Canadian red line.
Granted, most jurisdictions are struggling to make the transition from tax regimes based on goods and services to an increasingly digital economy. But at least they are trying.
The European Commission has suggested that hi-tech firms pay a 3 per cent tax on turnover for online services – about € 5 billion a year. France firmed up that proposal last August. The U.S. objected but in August agreed to find a solution.
But Ottawa has been missing in exploring such ideas.
Canadian regulators also have been missing in action. Both the Privacy Commissioner and the Competition Bureau have done little or nothing, though Carolyn Wilkins, deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, publicly expressed concerns about the Google-Facebook duopoly.
During the recent federal election campaign, the Liberals have proposed a 3 per cent tax on digital companies with global revenues of $1 billion and revenues of $40 million in Canada. They also proposed bolstering the mandate of the CBC to make its platforms available to journalism start-ups and community newspapers providing local news. The Conservatives also talked about imposing a tax that would raise $2.5 billion. The NDP proposed that Netflix, Facebook, Google and other digital media companies play by the same rules as Canadian companies.
What should the next government do?
Stop the scandal of American tech companies reaping billions in Canada, while paying little or no federal or provincial taxes, collecting no sales tax, creating little or no infrastructure, employing few Canadians beyond a sales force and rolling over Canadian companies, including our newspapers.
. Protect our privacy. Give individuals sovereignty over their data. Give them the right to what information is collected on them and how it is used.
. Find ways to compensate them for their data and also for what they upload.
. Toughen copyright rules to force tech-giants to share revenues with content creators – newspapers, authors, journalists, performers, musicians, as EU is proposing.
Perhaps the dying newspaper model cannot be reversed. Fine. But at least, level the playing field.
. Explore the viability of a print version of the CBC. My own profession would probably oppose it. They’re already complaining about having to compete against the CBC website. But a print version of the CBC is not as radical an idea as it is made out to be. From the 1936 Canadian Broadcasting Act through the CBC, the National Film Board and Canada Council, we’ve nurtured Canadian culture. The time has come to help keep telling Canadian stories in print as well.
. Have a debate on restoring the anti-hate Section 13 of the federal Human Rights Code, axed by the Harper government, mostly in deference to right-wing voices, who demanded the freedom to malign whoever they wanted, in their cases, mostly Muslims.
Or, alternatively, Ottawa should explore ways for the federal government to end the web of confusing provincial human rights codes and find practical ways to curb hate directed at groups, especially vulnerable minorities.
. Given Canada’s traditional support of multilateralism, Ottawa should help people like Jim Balsillie, one of the pioneers of BlackBerry, who says that the digital economy needs its own Bretton Wood moment. Ottawa should also help Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who has called for the creation of a Magna Carta for the web, rules and regulations by governments, business, and citizens.
As Balsillie says, Unless Ottawa stands up for Canadians, for Canadian companies and for Canadian sovereignty, “Canada risks becoming not just a cheap branch plant economy for engineers and computer scientists but also a client state of American data and platform companies.”
Canada is not the United States. Canada does not want to be the United States. This is not a negative assertion but rather a positive affirmation of Canadian values, Canada and Canadians.