The convergence of innovations in information science, telecommunications and audiovisual techniques has brought global firms onto the scene which have captured the majority of markets and control the information society. For media companies and journalists, this situation is both an opportunity and a limitation. With fact-checking, data journalism, and global editing networks, new ways of working have emerged.

The convergence of innovations in information technology, telecommunications, and audiovisual media has fostered the concentration of previously separate industrial sectors (public utilities, computers, software, telecommunication operators, access suppliers, satellite and cable infrastructures, service platforms, and content producers). This revolutionary change continues today with the development of artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and big data. The initial utopia represented by the internet, and subsequently by the democratic, shared, and decentralized web, has not proved resistant to competition/cooperation between multinational corporations with exceptionally high fundraising powers and dividends, which capture the lion’s share of usage and markets and control the information society.

Web giants’ profits and market capitalization, 2017-2018

Sources: Forbes, The World’s Biggest Public Companies 2017, ; 

Comment: These diagrams show when the major Internet giants entered the market according to the United States economic magazine Forbes (Facebook and the two Chinese companies Tencent and Alibaba being the most recent), together with the spectacular growth of their stock market capitalization, and their very different weights in terms of profits, with Apple alone representing 40% of the total.

The commodification of the internet, begun in the 1990s, rapidly grew and now puts web giants at the top of international rankings. The capitalist logic of this oligopoly has caused rival and incompatible networks and services to be created that destroy the initial purpose of the web. The golden legend of Silicon Valley pioneer start-ups is losing its luster in the face of analyses by internet founders, researchers, experts, civil societies, and NGOs, who condemn the behavior of these companies in fiscal, salary, social, environmental, security, privacy, and copyright matters.

In spring 2018, the scandal caused by the questionable activities of the strategic communications company Cambridge Analytica reinforced anxieties about the way companies handle internet users’ personal data (in this case, the data of 87 million Facebook users served to influence voters’ choices in the United States presidential election and the United Kingdom Brexit vote). The closure of Cambridge Analytica, in May 2018, the plummeting of Facebook shares on the stock market, the creation of parliamentary commissions of enquiry, public excuses by Facebook’s CEO, and the removal of 200 applications have done nothing to ensure noticeable progress in internet governance. Concurrently with all this, however, a general regulation on personal data protection (GDPR) came into force in the European Union. It applies to all companies and has been granted considerable powers of sanction.

Continuous global flow of information as a commodity

Since the 1980s, about ten international 24-hour news channels have come into being. Although they can be distinguished in terms of number of languages and broadcasting zones, market share, and autonomy from states, they all contribute to diversifying the ways people look at the world. During the same period, dematerialization has turned information into a commodity that is independent of its medium. Media products (information in the strict sense, together with publicity), disseminated by the different types of mass media (written press, television, radio and the web), belong to different actors and markets, which maintain highly complex and shifting interdependent relationships.

Since the 2000s, the companies controlling internet traffic and social networks (Google, Facebook, Twitter) represent both an opportunity and a constraint for the media. Although they enable the means of dissemination to be diversified, they also represent a heavy burden because they suck up advertising revenues and impose a ranking on information via their algorithms. The delinearization of radio and television programming, on-line editions of books, and the development of the mobile internet stimulate diffusion but increase dependence. The contributions of internet users, particularly of direct-broadcast videos, produced by new, low-priced smartphone apps and with no mediation, give global visibility to social events of all types, accompanied by the most varied interpretations.

In this vast and sudden movement in which sources have multiplied, and where news agencies and journalists no longer play the same roles, individuals remain very unequal. In contrast to the hitherto unknown enrichment and opening up of the world to a minority of well-informed, critical citizens is the growing vulnerability of those who do not possess the means to sort, decode and verify, and the tension continues to rise between desires for neutrality and openness of information, and the desire to manipulate.

Governance and citizenship

This context has altered the work of journalists, who are faced with multiple constraints. These include financial pressures (from owners, shareholders, advertisers, platforms, etc.), their lack of job security within newspaper companies, and political threats and repression, added to the massive increase in fake news (post-truth), indoctrination, and conspiracy theories. Forced to innovate, they engage in explicating and fact-checking, as well as in data journalism, self-financed collaborative work supported by readers’ contributions (crowdfunding) or the sharing of investigative work within international editorial networks.

Media partners of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), 2018 

Source: International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), 

Comment: The map showing which media belong to the ICIJ reveals the global nature of this network of journalists (more than 220 in 83 countries and territories and over 100 different media), which, by investigating tens of millions of files originating from leaks, then following up and disseminating them, reveals the identity of international financial delinquents and precisely how they work.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has thus revealed the workings and actors behind international financial wrongdoing (Luxembourg Leaks, Swiss Leaks, Panama Papers, Paradise Papers).

Despite these efforts, obstacles to the freedom to inform and be informed, like the obstacles to the protection of information as a global public good, continue to accumulate. States that perform censorship and others that delegate functional sovereignty for processing and controlling information to the employees and robots of internet multinationals are now complemented by abandonment of the principle of neutrality on the internet (2017 in the United States), all of which has political and democratic implications on a global scale.

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