Islamabad, Pakistan — Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) hosted an interactive virtual session, ‘Big Tech vs Newsrooms: When Social Media Threatens Journalism in South Asia’, at RightsCon 2023 on June 6, 2023. The session examined the threats and challenges to emerging digital newsrooms in Pakistan and broke down Big Tech’s role in impeding their growth by taking up a large chunk of digital ad revenue generated through news content produced by news outlets.
The discussion, led by MMfD’s Senior Program Manager Yasal Munim, featured prominent journalists and tech accountability experts. The panelists included Haroon Rashid, editor at Independent Urdu; Gibran Ashraf, former editor at SAMAA Digital; Mehr Husain, news editor at Naya Daur and The Friday Times (TFT); and Sadaf Khan, co-founder and director programmes at MMfD.
‘Big Tech vs Newsrooms’ primarily focused on questionable business practices of leading tech corporations like Meta and Google, which exert a significant influence on digital newsrooms through their evolving policies, largely based on algorithmic changes. The discussion pointed out Big Tech’s concerning dominance over Pakistan’s digital space and how it demonstrates constant shifts across the news media landscape, dictating rules that newsrooms must follow to stay afloat economically. It also highlighted Big Tech’s promotion and monetisation of potentially harmful content, primarily hate speech, enabling malicious actors and sensational outlets — operating under the garb of news channels — to actively rake in both numbers and profits.
Rashid highlighted one-sided policy changes, which are often implemented without consultation or communication, by Big Tech platforms as one of the primary challenges being faced by digital newsrooms. He stressed the need for effective two-way communication channels as news outlets are ‘reprimanded’ for violating community guidelines that lack clarity. Agreeing with Rashid, Ashraf, who has been affiliated with such publications as The Express Tribune and The News International, remarked that the lack of a direct line of communication with Big Tech regarding their changing policies creates significant challenges for newsrooms, which struggle to understand their own audiences owing to the consequential communication void.
Husain, on the other hand, offered a slightly contrasting viewpoint. She said newsrooms in Pakistan need to understand that if they have to ensure stability with regards to their preferred type of journalistic content, they need to work with technology rather than trying to work out how to make it work for them. She remarked Big Tech platforms are not designed to protect or help us, but to ensure that we keep up with it; news outlets should prioritise the type of content they aim to produce rather than focusing on holding Big Tech accountable. Khan pointed out that the concern is not just about newsrooms’ dependence on Big Tech or holding them accountable, but about the power social media platforms have come to exert in terms of shaping an individual’s consumption of content, especially in a market like Pakistan struggling with digital literacy. Citing the example of The Facebook Papers revelations, Khan elucidated how Big Tech platforms profit off hateful content through their flawed technical infrastructure.
The session also highlighted the Pakistan Digital Editors Alliance (PDEA), a recently launched initiative aimed at making newsrooms more economically sound and sustainable. Rashid, who is a member of the Alliance, shed light on its primary objectives and explained how the initiative can address the pressing issues facing Pakistani newsrooms discussed in the session.