It starts quietly. All seismic changes do.
TikTok posts are taken down with little explanation. Gamers are banned from “Hearthstone” for violating online speech rules. An American comedian is censored in Saudi Arabia. European courts tell American firms to censor parts of the internet.
At first glance, these events may seem mostly unrelated and perhaps even innocuous. Upon closer examination, however, they can be read as symptoms of the potential collapse of American media as we know it.
The development of modern media is intertwined with the history of the United States. From George Eastman’s innovations in photography and Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph in the 1800s to the Golden Age of Radio and the Hollywood studio system in the early 20thcentury, the United States gave birth not just to the technologies of the mass media era, but the legal and industrial norms in which privately produced content flourished. Government regulations in most other Western countries at the time positioned media as a public good, leading to significant centralization and, often, censorship. American media producers, by contrast, were largely untethered from substantial government control. U.S. liberal economic and speech norms gave American media a competitive edge. By the middle of the 20thcentury, American popular media dominated much of the world.
From the invention of ENIAC (Electronic numerical Integrator and Computer, the first modern digital computer), and e-mail to the development of Facebook and Twitter, the United States looked to continue its authoritative position as the world transitioned from the mass media of the 20thcentury to the digital media of today. However, the dominant U.S. role in global media is not as secure as one may think. It is increasingly buckling under the combined weight of four deeply intertwined trends: 1) a growing dependency on global audiences; 2) demands from newly emboldened foreign governments; 3) challenges from deep-pocketed and popular global media competitors; and 4) a crushing crisis of faith at home.
Some may see this as a good thing. America’s outsized cultural influence is connected to global homogenization. U.S. media giants, following a neoliberal “grow or die” ethos, relentlessly pursue vertical and horizontal integration and related corporate consolidation practices. This aggressive practice kills smaller media companies, contributing to the silencing of thousands of global voices. Indeed, many media scholars have called for an end to America’s global media “empire” for decades. In the 1970s, UNESCO even considered implementing a program, the New World Information and Communication Order, to slow America’s “imperialistic” media practices and “rebalance” global media inequalities.
But, that is only part of the story. American values also informed the construction of the United Nations, which adopted and continues to advocate for First Amendment-style press and speech freedoms. This can also be seen in the rise of rock ’n roll, Hollywood and Silicon Valley as de facto engines of global popular culture. In short, America’s media leadership has always been as much about proselytizing essential U.S. freedoms and values as it has been about technological and cultural innovation. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama have repeatedly asked us to consider John Winthrop’s famous invocation of the “city on a hill,” from the Sermon on the Mount, to describe America’s potential and, more importantly, its responsibility to the world. I suggest that our media and the freedoms they represent emanate from countless glowing television screens, computer monitors and iPhones and that this collective light truly makes America, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, a “shining city.”
While this may read as overly romantic, corny, and perhaps even a bit jingoistic, I write this as an immigrant who fell in love with American media and the values I learned while doing so. The American media products and free-market landscape that I admired from abroad brought me to this country because I could not stand the alternative: to be forced into silent lockstep with the messaging of my government in Canada, even if it was supposedly for the greater good. Even Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, equivalent to the U.S. Bill of Rights, includes a “notwithstanding clause” which allows Canadian federal and provincial governments to circumvent fundamental rights, including the freedom of expression, for periods of up to five years without having to defend their decisions in the Canadian Courts. While the clause has only been used a few times, it is a potent reminder to Canadians that their essential rights are ephemeral and can be terminated by elected officials, without the possibility of judicial recourse. As a firm believer in the necessity of free speech and a free press, America’s First Amendment acted like a magnet, pulling me here.
To be sure, American media is imperfect. It is loud, crude, often insensitive and sometimes silly. But it is also creative, brave and insightful. American media typically privileges individual voices, regardless of whether they are in line with the values and interests of presidents, religious groups or businesses. Again, this can be fragile: Recent moves against net neutrality, perverse “fake news” claims by President Donald Trump and the chilling effects of shaming and cancel culture in social media are frightening developments. But, the overarching ethos of individualism, combined with the ever-aspirational push toward a “more perfect union” have customarily infused the history of America’s media even at the worst of times.
For the most part, the technological, speech and cultural innovations that defined the American media experiment of the 20thand early 21stcentury occurred in a bubble. U.S. media may have had a profound impact on the rest of the world, but the average citizen was neither aware of nor responsible to media developments beyond their own borders. Artists could create without worrying much about outside censorship. Innovators could experiment without really considering the restrictive laws of foreign governments. And, to a greater extent than today, media companies could take economic risk without being held accountable to overseas shareholders. In short, our shining city’s messy, yet beautiful mediascape was mostly the result of extraordinary privilege. Today, that privilege is vanishing.
While American media industries and creatives will certainly remain crucial components of the emerging multipolar and interdependent global media environment, we have yet to seriously consider how domestic media actors and audiences are responding to the new roles and responsibilities that are being foisted upon them by those developments. Will American media actors stand up for indispensable American speech and media rights? Or, will such values slowly erode in the interest of what might be termed “good global citizenship?” How will we measure the values of free speech and unfettered artistic expression against calls to be globally “woke” and culturally sensitive? Will we stand up for American reporters, even if that hurts our global trade negotiations with more powerful economic actors? Will our search engines and social media companies respect the legal decisions of foreign courts, even if it means censoring information from Americans?
The evidence so far is discouraging. Seismic shifts in the global mediasphere are pushing America toward a decentered future. By this, I mean a time when American media actors, having abdicated their position as global leaders, instead occupy a less central and dominant place in the production and protection of media. If you look closely, you can see how many of the most significant early fissures appear to run directly through our most profound media and speech commitments.
The rapid internationalization of audiences is a crucial element of the identity crisis of U.S. media. Before Covid-19 led the Chinese government to shut down movie theaters, China was on pace to become the largest box-office market in the world. Streaming is also radically transforming media consumption habits. The 2020 annual report of the Motion Picture Association estimated 48 percent of the global market has moved to digital. In January 2020, Netflix reported that two-thirds of its subscribers are now from outside the United States.
In some respects, this is wonderful news. Rapid development in Asia and other parts of the world has given millions access to news and entertainment. In many developing countries, cellular phones have become needed gateways to information and the arts. But I suggest American media actors must be far more mindful of the great responsibility that comes with stewarding the digital technology that allows them such a powerful new reach: Access to a global audience brings American content producers face-to-face with information controls of other states.
In February 2020, for example, Netflix for the first time published a list of nine instances where they complied with foreign government take-down requests. The most controversial decision remains Netflix’s 2019 decision to agree with a request from Saudi Arabia to remove an episode of “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” because Minhaj claimed Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, was responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (a view supported by numerous intelligence services). Netflix defended itself by stating that the episode remained available outside Saudi Arabia. In choosing to keep damaging information about the Crown Prince from the Saudi people, could it not be argued that Netflix committed another act of violence against Khashoggi and all those who fight for Western-based media freedoms?
The economics are clear. American media companies, increasingly dependent on the wallets and eyeballs of global audiences, will likely be caught more frequently between domestic expectations and the demands of foreign governments. If U.S. companies defy foreign governments, they run the risk of being barred, thus losing a revenue stream. This became starkly apparent in the autumn of 2019, when the NBA tried to distance itself from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey because he’d tweeted support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. China is estimated to represent at least 10 percent of the NBA’s revenue and is on track to account for 20 percent by the end of the decade. Within days of Morey’s tweet — which couldn’t even be seen in China where Twitter has long been banned — all of the NBA’s Chinese partners suspended their ties with the league. CCTV 5 and Tencent stopped airing Rockets games in China, cutting access to more than a half-billion viewers. Understandably shaken, the NBA apologized and even expelled fans in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., who voiced support for Hong Kong protestors. Not surprisingly, the free speech backlash was similarly intense, with the NBA finding itself caught between two very different media paradigms.
Similarly, Blizzard Entertainment found itself in a difficult position when e-sports champion Ng Wai Chung expressed support for Hong Kong protesters during an October 2019 livestream event. Fearful of a Chinese backlash, Blizzard initially banned him for a year and revoked a $10,000 championship prize. (The punishment was eventually reduced.)
China and Saudi Arabia are not outliers. A 2019 Freedom House report found that internet freedom is declining globally at a staggering rate, with only 20 percent of the global internet population enjoying strong internet freedoms. Digital authoritarianism isn’t the only issue, however. The decentering of American media may also be emboldening less repressive nation-states and regimes to assert their own values and legal requirements over those of the U.S. While these developments may sometimes appear to be less threatening to American speech norms and are often advanced by progressive and friendly governments, they tend to privilege social cohesion and communitarian principles over individualistic values in American culture.
Consider the Court of Justice of the European Union, which recently ruled that Facebook can be compelled to take down content globally if a court in a European member state finds the content defamatory or illegal. Europe has a long history of data and media legislation, including “Right to Be Forgotten” rules that give individuals the right to request that organizations remove their personal data stored online, that would not meet American First Amendment standards. The October 2019 Court of Justice ruling was particularly important, however, because it told American companies in no uncertain terms that they must abide by European laws not just in European media spaces, but everywhere. The ramifications are extraordinarily unsettling not just because they force outside and more extreme censorship regulations on American citizens, even when they are on American soil, but because with this ruling Europe has taken hold of the reins when it comes to defining global media norms. If this ruling is enforced in the long-term, America’s First Amendment values may, in some circumstances, only prevail at the pleasure of European courts.
As the U.S. media industry becomes more dependent on foreign audiences and more subject to foreign economic and legislative control, American media consumers are also becoming more dependent on foreign-owned media. American youth, for example, are obsessed with TikTok, the $78 billion Chinese social media app that boasts more than 1.5 billion downloads worldwide as well as a questionable pro-China censorship record.
Here again, the early evidence is not encouraging. During the 2019 Hong Kong protests, TikTok censored content related to the demonstrations. A subsequent investigation by The Guardian found TikTok has extensive guidelines that ban content the Chinese government finds problematic. These guidelines apply to all TikTok users regardless of local laws and speech norms.
In October 2019, following outcry from politicians, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the U.S. government began a national security investigation into TikTok on this and related security and personal data-retention issue.More recently, President Trump threatened to ban the app in the United States unless it is bought by a U.S. company by September 2020. While Trump’s decision may appear to be a clear-cut defense of U.S. values, the White House’s position on TikTok attempts to connect TikTok and Covid-19 in order to stoke fear, confusion and hate, an essential part of Trump’s presidential re-election campaign.
Even if Trump’s threats have teeth (they often don’t), they could accelerate the decreasing pre-eminence of American media. TikTok is but one example of how Chinese firms are contributing to a larger seismic shift away from American-led media and values. From the dominance of Chinese telcoms in the global 5G upgrade race to the rise of Alibaba and Tencent, the foundations of the world’s communication and media infrastructure can increasingly be found outside the United States.
These developments raise a thorny set of questions that we must consider carefully. Unfortunately, I fear that American citizens may not have the appetite for this important exercise. If more conservative Americans believe Trump’s simplistic fix will address the issue, they won’t see a need to pursue the question of freedom of expression and other values more deeply. More liberal Americans, on the other hand, may find themselves afraid to finesse a more refined solution to those questions if they fear that doing so associates them with the president’s nationalist and racist logics.
Networks are never neutral. We have an obligation to consider how we want to position them and how much we allow them to position us. As distasteful as it may sound to fans of internationalization such as myself, we have to ask whether global governments and media actors, often with radically different paradigms than ours, will value norms that we have considered fundamental to our notions of human freedom.
We are not born with our media norms already baked in. First Amendment rights and the U.S. media culture that developed around them afforded Americans an unprecedented level not just of protection, but of affirmation. But, the liberties imbued by a free media can also be easily lost. The crucial place of the fourth estate is undermined almost daily by profit-hungry hedge fund managers and a power-hungry president. And, artists, intellectuals and everyday citizens are routinely punished for their art, their ideas, their very voices by increasingly restrictive and illiberal public shaming practices that appear to privilege unthinking conformity over individual autonomy, speech rights, and our collective commitment to listening to diverse perspectives. American media and the progressive values embedded within it can only be sustained by our collective belief that individual voices matter, that each time we use media tools to speak and to listen — whether internally in U.S. political and policy debates or internationally in a globalized media environment — we strengthen our commitment to values and norms that have been foundational to America’s development. American media may soon be decentered; our city on a hill need not be.”
Christopher J. Finlay is associate professor of communication studies in the LMU College of Communications and Fine Art. An expert in global communications and new media, he has written multiple articles in scholarly journals and book chapters, as well as online opinions at HuffPost. Follow him @therealCJFinlay.