Journalism competition bill would benefit the radical right
Imagine opening up Google News and one of the first results is QAnon conspiracy content from a far-right outlet or opening Facebook and transphobia from Breitbart is front and center. Now imagine that not only are Google and Meta legally obligated to show you these links, but they have to pay the news outlets producing this content, as well.
If the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) is passed, this could become a reality.
Originally introduced with the intent of helping small newspapers, the JCPA has transformed into legislation that would force big tech platforms to carry and pay for harmful content on their sites. The latest version of the bill allows nearly all U.S. media outlets — both on and offline — to form a cartel that can negotiate payments for content posted to online platforms. The bill’s so-called “must carry” clause prohibits tech platforms from discriminating against any media outlet because of “views expressed by the eligible digital journalism provider’s content.”
That means sites like InfoWars, NewsMax, Breitbart, and One American News Network — all near the bottom of the AdFontes media bias chart — could demand their links show up on social media feeds, Google searches, and on other tech platforms. While the bill is supposed to benefit small media outlets, even Fox News would be allowed to negotiate with social media platforms under the JCPA because of an exemption in the bill for broadcast media.
To make matters worse, online trends suggest that rightwing news wouldn’t just be one of the beneficiaries of the JCPA but would be its biggest beneficiary.
Recent studies show that far-right conservative commentators like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino get the most reach and engagement on social media. These aren’t your everyday news anchors, but public figures with a long history of incendiary commentary. Should the JCPA translate social media reach into cash, these far-right “news” outlets stand to make a killing.
At a recent hearing on the JCPA, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) raised the alarm, noting that the bill would “be used and abused by bad actors to disincentivize platform efforts to moderate harmful content such as hate speech, misinformation, and disinformation.” While Sen. Padilla planned to bring an amendment addressing the content moderation problems created by the JCPA, the hearing was ultimately broken off — temporarily stalling efforts to pass the bill — when Republicans hijacked the markup with an amendment of their own.
Sen. Padilla hasn’t been the only one to speak up about the bill’s problems. Earlier this month, a wide-ranging coalition of public interest organizations, tech groups, and civil rights groups sent a letter to the Senate making the case that the JCPA would “compound some of the biggest issues in our information landscape.”
But despite outstanding problems with the bill and setbacks at its first markup, sponsors of the JCPA haven’t been deterred and are actively pushing to pass the legislation on the full Senate floor. In order to get Republicans onboard with the JCPA, it seems possible that bill sponsors will prevent Democrats from fixing the legislation’s problematic content moderation provisions.
While the goal of helping small newspapers in a challenging media environment is a noble one, it’s time for bill sponsors to recognize that the JCPA’s unintended consequences are simply too harmful.
Following the insurrection on Jan. 6 and at a time when climate denial and COVID misinformation spread like wildfire, adding fuel to the fire of extremist rightwing commentators could have long-term consequences not just for social media, but for our whole democracy.
Congress can and should support small news outlets, but ultimately the JCPA will fund the same conservative zealots who helped to bisect our news environment in the first place.
Adam Kovacevich is the founder of Chamber of Progress, a center-left tech industry policy coalition promoting technology’s progressive future; corporate partners for Chamber of Progress include Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook. Kovacevich has worked at the intersection of tech and politics for 20 years, leading public policy at Google and Lime and serving as a Democratic Hill aide.
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