Owen is a CIGI senior fellow and director of the Centre for
Media, Technology and Democracy in the Max Bell School of Public
Policy at McGill University.Ben Scott is executive director
at Reset, an initiative focussed on tackling digital threats
One of the most
acute and pernicious problems the COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced
is the danger of undermining the reliability of information
in our democracies.
The search for
trusted information in a crisis exposes the architecture of
power at the intersection of media, society and government.
It isn’t what it used to be. Newspapers and broadcasters
dedicated to public service journalism remain central to our
media landscape. But they are no longer the gatekeepers of
information in our society. For better and (mostly) worse,
that role is now played by digital media platforms like Google
are not designed to give us quality information; they are
calibrated to maximize attention capture and corporate profit.
The editorial role is now played by complex algorithms devoid
of local context, culture and histories. The result is that
conspiracy theories about the pandemic are flooding Facebook,
YouTube and Twitter. It turns out replacing newsroom editors
with advertising technology is terrible for democracy and
This means that
misinformation, disinformation, online hate, state propaganda
and partisan news are not simply unfortunate byproducts of
an open internet. They are structural flaws in our information
— to their credit — have made some efforts to
push back against the public-health-harming noise cascading
over their systems. But these efforts aren’t nearly
The ad tech keeps
pushing forward harmful content. False accusations about migrants
carrying COVID-19, fake remedies and cures, attacks on adversaries
to blame them for the pandemic, and good old-fashioned conspiracies
As we reimagine
the world post-COVID, we believe that we will see a wholesale
rethinking of our information ecosystem.
commercial incentives of Big Tech with the values of democracy
and social welfare does not mean a government-imposed standard
for truth or draconian limits on free speech.
The starting point
for restoring a healthy relationship between media and democracy
will be rules governing data and algorithms. This is the heart
of the matter. The sins of digital media monopolies start
in the massive dragnet of data collection they perform every
day that in turn informs audience profiling and content targeting.
And this data feeds an automated system of information curation
(what we used to call the work of the newsrooms) that is programmed
to service the advertiser, not the public. With modernized
rules that limit data collection and restrict how it can be
used, we can weaken the machine of disinformation.
major industry that has a deep impact on social welfare, like
financial services or pharmaceuticals, is overseen by public
institutions. Global companies that control information markets
should be no different. We will see global governance overseeing
the flows and storage of data, co-ordinating content moderation
policies, and forcing norms of transparency on the financial
and algorithmic models that drive the attention economy. We
will also see countries, finally, begin to co-ordinate their
digital polices in order to create sufficient market pressure
to change the behaviours of these global companies. Major
interventions in competition policy to restrain the power
of monopolies, reshape markets and open opportunities for
new entrants will be critical.
Third, we will
also begin to see a new wave of investment in public media
and digital literacy. The crisis of public health information
ushered in by this pandemic will be our wake-up call.
our post-pandemic world, we will know with clear-eyed certainty
that leaving the reliability of information in our societies
to the incentives of the attention economy has tragic consequences.
Citizens will demand a better world, and democratic governments
will finally rise to challenge of governing our digital public