Social media poses existential threat to traditional, trustworthy news: UNESCO

The dominating presence of social media has led to a decline in demand for traditional print journalism.

The business model of the news media is ‘broken’ and with it, our fundamental right to information is at risk, a new UNESCO report examining global trends in freedom of expression warns.

In the past five years, both news audiences and advertising revenues have moved in huge numbers to internet platforms, with only two companies - Google and Meta (formerly known as Facebook) – soaking up half of all global digital advertising spending.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) analysed media development trends from 2016 to 2021 and found that global newspaper advertising revenue has fallen by half during the five year period.

Social media feast, news famine

The report indicates that news outlets often struggle to get clicks from readers that determine advertising revenue, and many find themselves “squeezed out” by the proliferation of new voices in the online space and algorithms of digital intermediaries.

“The digital ecosystem has unleashed a flood of competing content and turned large internet companies into the new gatekeepers”, the study explains.

Moreover, with social media users nearly doubling from 2.3 billion in 2016, to 4.2 billion in 2021, there has been greater access to more content and more voices - but not necessarily with the distinctive added value of journalistic content, the study says.

Share of global advertising expenditure by medium over time.

Covid-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has only made the trend worse by exacerbating the decline of advertising revenue, job losses and newsroom closures, the report finds.

In a pandemic, journalism is a life-saving frontline service. However, false content related to Covid-19 spread rapidly on social media, while journalistic job cuts created a ‘significant vacuum’ in the information landscape, particularly in low and middle-income countries.

“In September of 2020, over one million posts circulated on Twitter with inaccurate, unreliable, or misleading information related to the pandemic, according to the Covid-19 Infodemics Observatory, an initiative of the Fondazione Bruno Kessler”, UNESCO details.

Meanwhile, a survey among 1,400 journalists found that at least two-thirds of them now feel less secure in their jobs, because of the economic pressures of the pandemic.

Journalists take a rest after a busy day at the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
UN News

Journalists are still under attack

Besides the economic and misinformation/disinformation hurdles journalists face, in the past five years, they have also continued to be targeted around the world.

From 2016 to the end of 2021, UNESCO recorded the killings of 455 journalists, who were either targeted as a result of their work, or while on the job. Almost nine out of ten killings remain unresolved, shining light on a general impunity for these crimes around the world.

According to the report, there have also been increasing threats to the safety of journalists not only from governments and criminal groups but also from private lobbies and from some members of the public who feel increasingly emboldened to launch slurs and attacks online.

In fact, a surge in online violence against journalists is another new and evolving trend, and one which disproportionately affects women journalists all around the world.

A 2021 UNESCO paper found that more than seven out of ten of women journalists surveyed had experienced online violence and a fifth reported being victims of offline violence in connection with online threats.

Journalists covering a terrorist attack in Kenya.

Worrying imprisonments

At the same time, attacks against journalists covering protests, demonstrations and riots are “worryingly common” while imprisonment of journalists has reached record highs.

In many countries, laws do not protect journalists against these threats, and in some, they actually increase the risk of them.

According to the report, since 2016, 44 countries have adopted or amended new laws that contain vague language or threaten disproportionate punishments for actions like spreading so-called fake news, alleged rumours, or “cyber-libel”, leading to self-censorship.

Meanwhile, in 160 countries charges of defamation are still a criminal offence. When defamation law is criminal, rather than civil, it can be used as grounds for arrest or detention, effectively muzzling journalists, UNESCO warns.

The report cites data from the Committee to Protect Journalists showing that 293 journalists were imprisoned in 2021, the highest yearly total in three decades.

News being accessible for free on social media has led to a massive hindrance of newspaper sales.

In light of the worrying trends, UNESCO urged governments to take policy-driven action in three key areas to protect independent media and journalists’ safety.

Supporting the economic viability of independent news media while respecting the professional autonomy of journalists. Governments can, for example, offer tax benefits to independent news outlets in a fair and transparent manner, and without compromising editorial independence.

Developing media and information literacy, to teach all citizens the difference between reliable, verified information and unverified information, and encouraging the public to obtain information from independent media.

Enacting or reforming media law to support freely available and pluralistic news production, in line with international standards on freedom of expression, notably Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.