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    Social media poses ‘existential threat’ to traditional, trustworthy news, says new UNESCO study

    Civil societyFreedom of speech and expressionSocial media poses ‘existential threat’ to traditional, trustworthy news,...
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    Social media poses ‘existential threat’ to traditional, trustworthy news, says new UNESCO study

    Journalists continue to be targeted around the world, the report examining global trends in freedom of expression and media development says. Besides, 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 COVID-19 pandemic.

    A newly released UNESCO report says that the business model of the news media is broken with both, news audiences and advertising revenues migrating in vast numbers to internet platforms. The report, World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, examines global trends in freedom of expression and media development from 2016-2021.

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

    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.

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    “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.

    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.

    Journalists are still under attack

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

    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 10 killings remain unresolved, shining light on a general impunity for these crimes around the world.

    According to the report, 23 journalists were killed in Pakistan between 2016 and 2020. India saw the killings of 22 journalists. 51 journalists were killed in Afghanistan in the same period (which is prior to the Taliban taking over the country in August 2021).

    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.

    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.

    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.

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