Tech Company Algorithms Changing Serbia’s Media for Worse, BIRN Report Finds

Posted on

Visibility is replacing public interest as editors’ priority, while the media landscape is becoming ever more fragmented due to media drives to accommodate tech-companies’ algorithms, BIRN Serbia report finds.

The production and distribution of news and other media content in Serbia is changing in order to adapt to the platform environment of social networks and algorithms managed by large global tech companies such as Google and Meta – which also affect the economic viability of the media in the country – a new BIRN Serbia report, Algorithms, Networks and Media Sustainability: a Game of Big Numbers, finds.

The digital environment managed by a small number of global tech companies is the source of various negative phenomena in the media; the media are expected to produce large amounts of content that adapts to the logic of algorithms, and not always and necessarily to the public interest in information, according to the report. .

Journalistic practice is changing in the direction of producing as much content as possible, with little information value, and headlines are designed to cause psychological reactions in the audience and increase the number of “clicks“ and views.

This type of journalism turns out to be most profitable for generating money from digital advertising. Only a small number of media can follow the trends of the “big numbers” and make money from digital advertising, while the rest of the media still rely on government and other forms of donations, the report says.

Some of the key findings of the report are:

  • Platformization of journalism, which implies complete dependence of the media on the infrastructure of global social network platforms, as well as the mirroring of economic relations in the media sector.
  • Favouring the production of a large number of texts, of low-quality and “clickable“ content, which “feeds“ the algorithms with quick changes and contributes to greater virality and visibility. This content is of low quality, does not contribute to public information, and at the same time normalizes “clickbait” journalism as a legitimate product of an algorithmic environment.
  • Creating a gap between a small number of large media companies that can withstand the race for “big numbers” and the rest of the media that do not have the capacity or resources to adapt to this environment. There is also the creation of a concentration of a small number of publishers who can ensure sustainability from digital advertising, while other media continue to rely on government and other donations.
  • Media surrender their editorial role, relying on metrics and statistics in the selection of topics, while the public interest remains in the background.
  • In strategic and other relevant documents, the idea of “techno-solutionism” (the use of technology for economic progress) prevails, without critical reflection on its negative consequences, while the development of alternative models of sustainability that will not threaten the public interest in information is absent.

The report primarily deals with the media system of Serbia and its capacity to adapt to the digital and platform environment. It was created on the basis of in-depth interviews with digital platform experts and representatives of the media and advertisers.

“These findings, as well as the entire report, should be read through the prism of the situation in the media information system in Serbia, which has been burdened with a lack of media freedom for decades, captured by political structures and under constant economic pressure,” said Tanja Maksić, co-author of this report.

“Adapting to the conditions dictated by a small number of powerful tech companies, the media took over the design and logic of the platforms and subordinated the distribution of media content to platforms and search engines, and thus consequently also their economic viability, which increasingly depends on the policies and decisions of the tech companies,” she added.

The legislative framework in Serbia only somewhat regulates the position of online media and digital advertising, usually taking over the regulatory mechanisms of traditional media.

Current Law on Public Information and Media recognizes online media as one of the forms of public information and reflects almost all the rights and obligations of traditional media to those in the digital sphere.

The same happens with the Law on Advertising, which treats digital advertising equally to all other forms of advertising, making no distinction between an advertising message in traditional or online media.

The media strategy devotes an entire chapter to the development of the media in the digital environment. The proposed measures are primarily concerned with raising the digital competencies of journalists. Without an adequate response, however, issues such as content distribution, billability and removal of content from platforms remain.

This as well as previous similar reports BIRN Serbia makes available to the media, experts and decision-makers, in order to advance the debate on media policies and on the quality of information and the change in professional standards in the digital environment.