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Growing the news industry: my remarks to the Competition Commission

What to do to secure, and expand, the place of news in the digital ecosystem? I argued a case as part of the SA National Editors Forum oral submissions to the country’s Competition Commission’s “Media and Digital Platforms Market Inquiry”.

My intervention highlighted the competitive barriers facing both existing and prospective media, as a result of the current operation of power in three markets:

  • content production (the rise of generative AI),
  • distribution (social media and search)
  • and monetization (ad tech systems).

[Data markets are key to dominance in all these. But for better or worse, news media is barely an observer, let alone a competitor, in this space].

My points in a nutshell:

  1. News media carry extensive liability and quality control costs, while tech platforms have built their dominance with their hands free.
  2. There is structural bias against news on platforms, due to engagement-driving algorithms and the operation of walled-garden environments.
  3. News producers currently subsidize platforms that continue to make money from news presence and discussion on their services, without return any value to help cover the expense of producing this content.
  4. Negative externalities mean that the same online system that works to the disadvantage of news content, works to the benefit of content that diverts from, contradicts and is even hostile to news: i.e. dis- and mis-information, hate speech and misogyny.
  5. There is a growing interpenetration of ownership in generative AI services and in the content distribution services, yet in neither business is there adequate control of quality, a healthy promotion of news, or the remuneration of news producers. 

There are various redress measures, but transparency is a cross-cutting necessity for all.  It’s vital to help level the playing field, to open opportunities for media development and diversity, to ensure tech accountability for commitments, and to enable data sharing in the interests of media viability and informed bargaining over revenue-sharing.

Full document: https://commspolicy.africa/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/Supplementary-oral-remarks-to-Competition-Commission.pdf

How to implement African principles about elections and social media

(launch of the AAEA Guidelines)

Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) are at the centre of the universe when it comes to operationalising the mechanics of elections. But this wider universe keeps changing and challenging their work.

So, what should they do when the workload escalates, while budgets typically remain constant?

The answer is: partnerships.  

EMBs already relate to lots of groups – eg. political parties, voters, observers. Now they need to to examine these – and all other relationships – in a new light. It’s not about EMBs getting into marriages, but about finding smart ways to magnify their role, while safeguarding their exclusive mandate, autonomy and authority to make final decisions.  

Existing relationships with governments and parliaments need to include the issue of new laws or regulations to deal with social media and elections. But in parallel, EMBs need to look into new partnerships, which do not have to wait, indeed can’t wait for, new legal measures to be put in place.

This is a thematic in the new Principles and Guidelines for the Use of Digital and Social Media in Elections in Africa, launched in Johannesburg this week.

This tool comes via the African Association of Electoral Authorities, following consultation with 47 EMBs and 36 formal submissions.  A technical working group, of which I was a member, pulled together the result.

The document encourages EMBs to establish partnerships using frameworks of co-operation, agreed working methods and protocols, and communications channels for urgency.

One example is the case of Real411– an accord between the South Africa’s EMB, some of the tech platforms, and the NGO Media Monitoring Africa. This crowd-sources cases of online disinformation that then get priority attention from the platforms.

Partnerships – or at least engagements – are needed with regard to other groups mentioned in the Principles and Guidelines. These are groups with high stakes in social media and elections – and the document cites: women’s rights groups, disability rights, youth, and traditional leaders.  Then there are academics and voter education NGOs, amongst many others in civil society.

The Principles and Guidelines also mention the need for EMBs to liaise with other regulators: data protection, broadcast licencing authorities, Information Commissioners. Then there are self-regulatory bodies such as advertising standards and media councils who can play a key part in monitoring social media misuse and in promoting public interest and verified information.

The list of all these actors – the range of flickering stars in the universe – can be overwhelming. So how can EMBs prioritise which relationships to invest in?  

A starting point is for EMBs to do a risk assessment about social media role in elections.  An example (link below) is one that South African editors have done – from their point of view.

On the basis of such a risk assessment, EMBS can then draw up a visual map of the surfaces and all those who can act to address the risks.

A primary partnership should of course be with data-driven big tech platforms who disseminate content of concern to elections.

But this relationship also needs corresponding relationships in order to have independent monitoring of what’s happening on social media – like relationships with groups like media, NGOs and universities.  

This monitoring needs to cover:

  • what potential harms are unfolding, which is key for foresight and pre-emptive action before things get too late.
  • whether platforms are doing enough – eg. covering smaller languages, acting on problematic content swiftly. 
  • what they are doing negatively – eg. with their algorithms recommending dangerous content, and what they are doing positively – eg. to remind users of their terms of service, and promoting verified content.

Finally, it remains clear that for each individual EMB to implement the AAEA Principles and Guidelines vis-à-vis the platforms, there is a very evidently also need to work for African Union level backing.  Implementing the AAEA instrument calls for EMBs to build partnerships, and it calls out for the AAEA and the AU to action continental level support.

(Based on remarks to participants at the launch of the Principles and Guidelines for the Use of Digital and Social Media in Elections in Africa, 27 February, 2024).

Links:

The Principles and Guidelines: https://commspolicy.africa/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/AAEA-Guidelines.pdf

Real411 – signed accord between South Africa’s IEC, several tech companies, and the NGO: Media Monitoring Africa. https://commspolicy.africa/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Election-2024-framework-resized.pdf

SA National Editors Forum – risk assessment for the 2024 elections, with mitigations for platforms https://sanef.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/ANNEXURE-B-Access-to-Information-and-Media-Policy-subcommittee-report-election-risks.pdf

Association of African Electoral Authorities: https://aaeagroup.org/

#elections #socialmedia #bigtech #monitoring #civilsociety

Tweedles dee and dum? A dangerous AI duo…

So bedazzled we have been during 2023 about the new generative AI, that we took focus off the existing AI used for curating/sifting/sorting/prioritising in social media feeds in particular. Yet, not only does the “old” and taken-for-granted still have enormous social impact – and will do so especially during the 2024 upcoming elections. Worse: when you put these two AI systems together, the articulation amounts to a pretty sinister combo. That’s because (a) generative AI, as many people are now more and more recognizing, gives huge impetus to the volume of production of hate and lies – AND, (b) curational AI – which operates in distribution – then delivers this poison to people in a tailored and targeted way. What to do? One answer is at least to try and track this – hence a recent blog on Tech Policy Press to which I added my views.

Enjoyed being the keynote speaker at a conference on journalists’ safety in the Western Balkans (some participants above). It was an opportunity to share international lessons that I learnt from my UNESCO work in the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, and associated training of judges, prosecutors and law-enforcement. And a chance to learn a lot about these issues in Bosnia and Herzogovina, Serbia and North Macedonia. Herewith the text of my remarks.

An African response to new online electoral threats

It was a privilege to be part of a technical working group drafting guidelines on social media for African election management bodies during 2023. The final version was adopted by the African Association of Electoral Authorities in early November. It was a complex matter, covering issues of disinformation, media, algorithmic recommender systems, encryption, access to data, and human rights impact assessments. Here’s how I unpacked the process and look ahead.

Tribute to Jeanette Minnie – an online course is updated

I’m pleased to be a co-instructor in a current online programme on Media and Digital Policy in Africa. It’s an update of an earlier version run through the Wits University LINK centre; now it’s via the Journalism Department at Stellenbosch University. The content is inspired by Jeanette – an amazing media activist who helped democratise South African media policy and practice in the transition from apartheid, and who fought for press freedom in southern Africa through her work in Misa in the 1990s. Four hundred people have enrolled, and 40% actively engaged in the first week. Details at the website of the Namibia Media Trust, the lead organisation driving the initiative.

Yes, we can have both privacy and data access

Africa owes a huge amount to a person who is an advocate in all senses of the word. Pansy Tlakula stewarded through African Union processes the 2013 standard-bearer – a Model Law on Access to Information, followed by the 2017 Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa. She’s been a driving force in the African Network of Information Commissions and the Network of African Data Protection Authorities. Her motto seems to be: phantsi (down with) policy and regulatory silos, and reconcile protection of privacy and access to data. Here are her wise words to the African school of Internet governance held in Abuja, September 2023.

One Internet – or many?

Only a few sad folk want a fragmented internet – it’s a contradiction-in-terms and contrary to global public benefit. But in many ways, splintering is what we have. Most obviously with political-legal barriers imposed on content and applications. But less-often focused upon are the consequences of closed platforms and divided data holdings. Here’s my take at the Africa IGF in Abuja on September 19, 2023.

Connect, connect, connect – my message to African Journalism teachers at their second meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, August 2023. The meeting saw them adopt a constitution and elect a leadership – really encouraging development.

There’s lots of flurry about generative AI based on large-language-models (LLMs). To make sense of it all, you could do well to check out the new UNESCO handbook for journalism educators, launched in July. Commissioned under my watch, it also includes a foreword I wrote. While many in media are assessing how AI affects journalistic work, this publication instead tackles how journalists can best report on AI developments for the public. The key takeaways for coverage:

  • Understand the subject, especially to avoid industry hype,
  • Don’t reify AI as if was tech that was separate from the interests of who owns it,
  • Bring in the human angle, including political economy and global inequalities in data/compute/expertise/language,
  • Remember the environmental aspects.

As things are shaping up, we’re seeing the platformization of foundation models by giant players whose interests and boundaries will shape the customised applications built on top of them. This even, and especially, applies to Meta’s open source version. Just as regulatory solutions are urgently needed for social media and other kinds of platforms, this is even more so the case for the AI industry. If it’s up to the challenge, good journalism will raise this issue on policy agendas and canvass the range of options. The handbook is here.

June 2023 saw the launch by UNESCO of the 16-page “Platform Problems and Regulatory Solutions”, which I did for Research ICT Africa. This followed up RIA research that I led for UNESCO’s draft guidelines for platform regulation, with further elaboration on options for hybrid regulation.  In a nutshell:

Factors underpinning content problems on digital platforms:

1.           ‘attention economics’;

2.           automated advertising systems;

3.           external manipulators;

4.           company spending priorities;

5.           stakeholder knowledge deficits; and

6.           flaws in platforms’ policies and in their implementation.

Problems of ‘solo-regulation’ by individual platforms in curation & moderation are paralleled by harms of unilateral state regulation. But hybrid regulatory arrangements can help by elaborating transparency  and mandatory human rights impact assessments

The theme of access to data was the topic of my remarks to the African Network of Information Commissioners in June 2023. I urged them to see beyond their huge workload in implementing access to information, because the world isn’t waiting for Africa when it comes to data sharing. They can play a huge part around the continent in stimulating the supply and demand for data – looking at state, private sectors, academics and civil society actors. We need to give attention to dataf(r)ication! I beat the same drum in a presentation at University of Pretoria’s Future Africa institute in April:

Access to data is also implicated with the transparency of internet platforms. Especially data sharing around two issues: safety of journalists on the one hand, and the viability of media economics on the other.  So, I convened a workshop on behalf of UNESCO during 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, in New York. Here’s a news story on it: Data makes a difference., and pic below.

The year 2023 marks 30 years since the UN General Assembly proclaimed the annual World Press Freedom Day, and we owe this in large part of the efforts of Alain Modoux who worked at UNESCO back in the day. He recounted his story in a book I co-edited titled “50 Years of Journalism: African media since Ghana’s independence”. See pages 171-172 (pic below).  In 2013, this remarkable man received a medal for his role from UNESCO’s director general Irina Bokova – whose delivery remarks he shared with me this year and well sum up the achievement.

May and June 2023 were marked in Lusaka (pic below) at the 2nd African Media Convention, and in Windhoek at the Regional Conference on Information and Communication Rights in Africa.  I was fortunate to attend both, where I spoke about digital platform regulation, and also joined others to recount how Africa gave the world the International Day for Universal Access to Information. We had an interactive discussion about whether the continent faces news deserts / oases / savannas – or fields of weeds… and which actions and allies can advance which scenario.

Personal comments on Version 2 of the UNESCO Guidelines for Regulating Platforms. These argue that:

  • The UNESCO draft underlines the importance of official regulatory bodies being independent. But, taking account of realities, it is very hard to envisage changes here – meaning that this part of the Guidelines will lag, and even undercut the other parts – compromising regulation accordingly.
  • The UNESCO draft should drop the current distinction between content that is illegal and content that is legal but which the companies should assess as harmful. This usurps the rule of law.
  • The Guidelines’ approach says it favours “co-regulation” between state and “self-governing bodies”. This formulation can be misinterpreted, and instead, the draft should motivate for institutionalised multi-stakeholder in rule-making, monitoring, oversight and review.

In February 2023, Research ICT Africa published a 3 part Working Paper I worked on which had been commissioned by UNESCO for the conference titled “Internet for Trust”. In one place, there is a synthesis of a mass of recent research, and unpacking of what it means:

Part 1: Summarises the problems of hate speech and disinformation on platforms, and what underlies them.

Part 2: Provides a detailed assessment of the flaws in platforms’ policies – and in their implementation.

Part 3: Digs into the challenges of regulation to address the problems.

Keynote speech about a “community of practice” in African journalism education in the age of AI – at Maseno University, Kenya, Feb 8, 2023. Key points: 2023 heralds new opportunities for African journalism education, through a partnership of UNESCO & Google News Initiative, and through vibrant networking efforts by j-teachers and j-researchers. The outcome could be creating a “community of practice” in African journalism education involving both teachers and students. Together they can try things out – like testing for gaps, like ChatGPT’s silence on key journalists across African history whose data iare not in the AI learning set.  The challenge is a community that learns to create the content that AI cannot; and can add new contributions to the online stock of recorded data which feeds machine learning

Submission to UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion “Freedom of Opinion and Expression and Sustainable Development – Why Voice Matters” (2023)

Comments on “Guidance for regulating digital platforms: a multistakeholder approach Draft 1.1” – a response to UNESCO call for contributions to their draft Guidance document for debate at their global conference, Paris 21-23 February 2023. (2023)

Overview to Tracing the Footprints of the Windhoek Declaration and Charting the Windhoek +30 Declaration. (2022)

Foreword to book: Disinformation and the Global South (2022)