The recent American presidential elections reminded us strongly how powerful is nowadays the influence of media, printed and electronic – including the impact of online social networks. The recent American presidential elections reminded us strongly how powerful is nowadays the influence of media, printed and electronic – including the impact of online social networks, especially powerful private companies Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Their decision to suspend and ban the official account of the US President Donald Trump is more than concerning, not only for American citizens but for the whole world. How can we be sure they will not do the same thing one day with President Joseph Biden? What happened to the rights of the 74 million people who voted for President Trump? Do they have the right to hear a different side of the story? Obviously not. What happened with freedom of speech? Can governments allow the influence of the owners of the mentioned technology companies to be stronger than the American government itself, to have global media that promote only one side of the story? These are pertinent questions for all of us.

Undoubtedly, the tough confrontation between President Donald Trump and the victorious rival Josef Biden – with a powerful role of the media – are a case in point, and worth a closer examination.

What is often not so obvious, and actually less known, is the ownership structure of the biggest media corporations, of course not only in the US. The media have become so influential that the strongest corporate empires simply cannot afford not to take an ownership stake big enough to enable them to decisively influence the “fourth pillar of power”. In this role they can effectively lobby to protect their business interests, and also make sure that their media houses influence public opinion accordingly, and in election times support “their” candidates, who will at least not hurt their strategic interests – and possibly even promote them.

Likewise, the politicians cannot afford not to use any opportunity to interact with the media. This has recently expanded also to tweets – via which they are free to disseminate to a quickly growing readership the messages they believe will strengthen their position: vis-a-vis their electorate and the broader public, as well as vis-a-vis their powerful corporate sponsors (not to say their “masters”).

The electoral lobbying is happening in our digital age in various contexts and makes the media extremely influential – but at the same time allows the economic elite to push the electorate into their choices through lobbying which is hard to be categorized as ethical and legitimate. Namely, often the persuasion includes elements of manipulation, of which a large part of the public remains unaware.

How free are the privately-owned media?

By asking this question, nobody suggests that publicly owned and controlled media are always enjoying the necessary freedom – especially in countries with limited democracy. But in democratic societies, public media normally enjoy sufficient freedom to be able to protect the public interest and resist efforts of particular interests to manipulate the public through “fake news”.

The media are omnipresent in almost all spheres of modern society. On one hand, we cannot imagine our life without being instantly informed about anything relevant, as well as about much less relevant news. Actually, access to information has become a major citizens' right, but there are many (from governments, political parties, corporations, to civil society organizations) who are tempted to use this situation for their own purposes. And often the citizens find it difficult to establish what is genuine, true, or false (often driving a particular agenda – usually not in line with the public interest).

Under such conditions, and in very competitive market conditions, privately-owned media operate under constant pressure to create sufficient revenues to stay profitable. That makes them vulnerable when facing the dilemma between providing public service (which may not be sufficiently appreciated by the market), and operating with profit (quite often at the cost of public interest). Some countries are trying to make lobbying as legitimate as possible through legislation.

Lobbying and the media in USA

In 2020 the US ranked 45th in terms of media freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders, three places better than in 2019. The organization states that the freedom of the press in the US continued to suffer pressure during President Trump due to various events (arrests, physical attacks, public defamation and harassment of journalists), although the number of attacked and arrested journalists was less than earlier. It also estimates that during his term, the White House strategically replaced traditional forms of access to the press with those that limit the ability of journalists to ask questions.

Interestingly enough there are only a few organizations doing research on the ownership structure of influential media in America, connections with lobbying organizations, big capital owners, billionaires who have shares in media such as CNN, Facebook, Twitter, The Washington Post, The New York Times, FOX TV, and others.

Ownership structure of the big three (CNN, Facebook, Twitter)

CNN is a global, most developed TV network in the world, which broadcasts its news program on 24-hour basis. The project was created by Ted Turner as part of his "Turner Broadcasting System". After four years of development, CNN began broadcasting on June 1, 1980 (Erickson, 2020).

CNN started working with the intention of becoming the main source of television news for the whole world, which was delivered by satellite to cable systems around the planet. CNN was the only television news service to broadcast live the explosion of the space shuttle "Challenger" in January 1986, and events during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. CNN has become a day and night war channel that has included political leaders involved in conflicts among its global audience. During the 1980s, CNN became a recognized leader in breaking news reporting, and it also ushered in the era of 24-hour news, followed by TV channels like MSNBC, CNBC, and the Fox News Channel, which changed not only the way television was reported on the news, but also on the way the news itself came about (Erickson, 2020).

Therefore, CNN was the global leader in viewership in 2016, with a total share of 36%, followed by the BBC with 27%, Sky news with 24%, while the lowest percentage went to the Finacial Times with 9%. Since June 2020, FOX News, an American television station owned by Rupert Murdoch, has been the most-watched network in the US and continues to do well in terms of its main audience with about 3.97 million viewers. The news consumption was high among American audiences, as viewers turned to their favorite networks to update on the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd. A great performance during the middle evening term on cable television is the goal of every network that takes its ratings seriously. News networks FOX, CNN, and MSNBC participate in a monthly battle to come in first place in prime time and attract the most viewers during those precious evening hours (Watson, 2020).

In previous years, it was inconceivable that any other American television other than CNN had the highest ratings. The drop in CNN's rating was also due to numerous accusations by US President Trump of publishing false news. The accusations of the President to publish "fake news" were also addressed to the journalists of the Washington Post, which is owned by the richest man on the planet, Jeff Bezos (Moreno, 2020). CNN Business also published the news that leading American business groups are communicating and planning how to respond if Trump continues to question the election results. CNN reported that representatives of the most influential lobbying organizations Roundtable, the American Chamber of Commerce and the National Manufacturers Association, had meetings through conference calls in the weeks before the election. CNN also claims that these business leaders are aware that they can influence the peaceful transition of power, but that they are focused on choosing the right time for engagement, and that they came to these findings through their source who wished to remain anonymous (Alesci, 2020).

If we consider everything that happened before and during the US presidential election, we can say that CNN played the most important media role in the global promotion of Joseph Biden as the winner of the presidential election, but also in preparing the ground for it to happen. Although there were claims on irregularities during the voting, which CNN almost did not report on. It also ignored the peaceful protests in Washington, where, according to estimates, thousands of Americans gathered to support Donald Trump and express disagreement regarding the election irregularities during the voting. Since CNN, a television whose program is based on extraordinary news, it was unbelievable that there was no word about such massive and peaceful protests in their news, let alone that the event was not reported in the form of Breaking news. No matter how indecently the President behaved at press conferences, no media has the right to hide or distort and falsify information of public importance. Throughout the campaign, CNN appeared to be a center for the promotion of only one presidential candidate, while the other was constantly talked about in a negative context. The way in which journalists reported, commented on President Trump's statements, was very unprofessional in the mildest sense, because such a hard, one-sided, and biased attitude in a negative context has never been seen before in relation to any other presidential candidate. The case of CNN and its motive for such action lies in the fact that large corporations are in the focus of their target group and that Biden's victory obviously means a lot to them.

The Facebook Inc.

To clarify the potential impact of the media, technology companies, and digital platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook on public opinion, during the 2020 presidential campaign, the ownership structure of the world's largest and most influential social platforms has to be presented.

According to Investopedia, Facebook Inc. is the largest social networking site with 2.5 billion active users per month at the end of 2019. Facebook also owns and manages the popular Instagram Photo Sharing Application, as well as the Messenger and WhatsApp messaging applications. Facebook was founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and three classmates from Harvard University. Facebook went public in 2012 and became one of the world’s largest companies with a market capitalization of $ 507.92 billion as of April 14th. Facebook generated net revenue of $ 70.7 billion in fiscal 2019. What is interesting is that the ownership of Facebook belongs not only to Mark Zuckerberg, who is the co-founder and CEO but also to other shareholders. Among the first five, four are investment management companies: Mark Zuckerberg, Vanguard Group Inc., BlackRock Inc., FMR LLC, T.Rowe Price Associates Inc. (Matthew Johnston, 2020).

Of the four technology companies, Google, Apple, and Amazon, Facebook increased their annual lobbying spending in Washington by the highest percentage of all companies in 2019, while Google reduced it by almost half in 2019. CNBC reported that in 2019, Facebook generally took a more engaged approach to lobbying, compared to previous years, stating that CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited MPs at private meetings on technology regulations and an open hearing on the company's plans for cryptocurrencies. In the fourth quarter, he lobbied the government on issues involving encryption, election integrity, and content policy (CNBC, 2020).

Congressman David Sisline, who is leading an antitrust investigation of large technology companies in the House of Representatives, told Washington Post that technology companies like Facebook have enormous economic and political power, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to try to protect their status quo interests.

For example, Facebook spent nearly $ 81 million in the city of Washington between 2010 and 2019, according to new lobbying records (introduced by President Obama's decree), as well as data collected by the Center for Responsible Policy. In 2019 alone, Facebook spent nearly $ 17 million on lobbying, the highest amount ever, as it tried to soften federal regulators who, according to The Washington Post, were furious over what they saw as a failure of Facebook in protecting their data user and combating dangerous content and stopping the spread of viral misinformation before the 2020 presidential election. It is also interesting that Facebook refused to comment on that report (The Washington Post, 2020).

The New York Times also wrote that the four largest technology giants, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, are facing an increasing possibility of antitrust actions and laws that will curb their power. As the paper wrote on June 5, 2019, companies are accumulating an army of lobbyists as they prepare for something that could be an epic fight over their future. "Initially slowly developing a presence in Washington, the four technology giants quickly became part of some of the biggest players in the industry of influence and access as they face threats from the Trump administration and both parties at the Capitol," New York Times reported. The companies spent $ 55 million on lobbying in 2018 alone, the paper cites sources published by the Center for Reactive Policy, which monitors lobbying and political contributions, which ranks them among long-established lobbying powers such as defense, automotive and banking. industry. The technology giants' action came after reports of growing public and political dissatisfaction with their size, power, user data handling and election role, prompting four companies to step up efforts to lure lobbyists with strong ties to the White House, regulatory agencies and Republicans and Democrats in Congress (New York Times, 2019).

The Twitter Inc.

Twitter Inc. (TVTR) manages the popular global messaging platform was founded in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Biz Stone and Noah Glass. Since then, Twitter has grown into one of the world’s leading news and social media companies, with its tweets posted on the Internet and all forms of media. Twitter’s messaging platform has about 152 million average daily active users. The company generated $ 1.3 billion in net revenue of $ 3.5 billion turnovers in the last 12-month period to June 1, 2020 (Nathan Reiff, 2020).

In addition to a large stake in Facebook, Vanguard Group Inc., an investment management company, also holds Twitter shares, the largest stake. As one of the largest investment managers globally, Vanguard offers a range of hundreds of mutual funds, ETFs and pension products. The company has held about $ 6.2 trillion in global assets under management since January 31, 2020 (Nathan Reiff, 2020). These are some of Twitter's key shareholders:

  • BlackRock Inc., Twitter’s second-largest shareholder is global investment manager BlackRock Inc. (BLK). BlackRock has been managing $ 6.8 trillion of customer assets (AUM) as of June 30, 2019. The company currently owns 37.2 million shares of Twitter - approximately 4.7% of all shares issued (Nathan Reiff, 2020).
  • Morgan Stanley, multinational financial services and investment company Morgan Stanley (MS) holds the third-largest stake in Twitter. Morgan Stanley acts as a wealth management company for approximately $ 2 trillion in customer assets (Nathan Reiff, 2020).
  • State Street Corp (STT), offers a wide range of investment management services for individual and institutional clients and owns $ 3.1 trillion AUM as of December 31, 2019. It owns about 35.7 million shares of Twitter, worth about $ 876 million (Nathan Reiff, 2020).
  • ClearBridge Investments LLC, focuses on long-term investment strategies, managing about $ 121 billion as of March 31, 2020. This company completes the list of the five largest shareholders of Twitter. ClearBridge owns approximately 25.5 million shares of the messaging platform, valued at $ 626.1 million (Nathan Reiff, 2020).

Twitting and lobbying

Following former President Trump's call this year to reform the way content is moderated on social networks, the US National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), part of the Ministry of Trade, has taken the first steps to achieve that.

NTIA has filed an official petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), asking it to enact rules on when internet platforms are responsible for user content posted on their websites. The move stems from an executive order signed by Trump in May, after which Twitter warned users to check the facts in his statements, in which he claimed possible mass fraud when voting by mail. Former President Trump demanded to edit Section 230 of the Law on Decency of Communications (Pegoraro, 2020).

In September 2020, Twitter introduced its electoral center on the platform itself, introducing a set of tools to help Americans prepare, as it was written at the time, for the most uncertain elections in modern US history. Twitter also unveiled a series of announcements regarding the organization of a so-called public voter education service on critical election-related topics. The service has a role to play in informing voters about voter registration, instructions for obtaining a ballot and suggestions for safe voting by mail while, as they say, the pandemic is still raging across the United States.

Twitter on its official website under the subtitle "Electoral Integrity" states that the global platform is focused on the public communication service, that Twitter will continue to fight manipulation attempts, including malicious, automated accounts and spam, as well as other activities and types of violence in accordance with the terms and service of Twitter. They further state that public conversation on Twitter has never been more important than during elections, as the foundation of democracy around the world. “Our service shows the world what is happening, democratizes access to information and - at best - provides people with insight into different perspectives on critical issues, all in real-time” (Twitter, 2020).

Both Twitter Public Policy Director Bridget Coyne and senior product manager Sam Toiser said Twitter wanted to empower anyone eligible to vote in the 2020 US election and was focused on helping people register, better understand the voting process during Covid-19, including early voting options. They also stated that it is important for everyone to feel informed about the elections in their voting (Hatmaker, 2020).

Impact of lobbying and the media in US elections 2020

Based on the presentation of the ownership structure of the three most influential global media, the question arises whether the media can be free and objective with such an ownership structure. Hardly possible – one should say. The text below presents a list of certain media events that influenced the course of the presidential campaign of two candidates. We also refer to facts about the ban on the announcements of former President Trump by Facebook and Twitter, which were presented in Forbes by the American journalist Reich Sandler (Sandler, 2020).

  • As of Tuesday, November 3, 2020, Facebook and Twitter marked half of the posts of US President Donald Trump as inappropriate, because, according to their claims, he repeatedly and falsely declared victory and cast doubt on allegedly legal votes counted after election day (Sandler, 2020).
  • Of Trump's 22 posts on Facebook and Twitter, not including the president's retweets or videos, social media giants marked 11 as irrelevant because the posts included, what they say, false claims about his victory and false claims that the election was rigged. (Sandler, 2020).
  • Twitter has hidden posts from the public, restricted the possibility of likes or retweets, and warned that some or all of the content shared in such tweets by President Trump is controversial and could be misleading about elections or other civil processes (Sandler, 2020).
  • Facebook, as a global social platform, has given itself the right to comment on President Trump's statements and warned users below Trump's posts with the following messages:

    1.“Final votes may differ from the initial vote count."
    2.“Election officials follow strict rules when it comes to counting ballots, handling them and reporting” (Sandler, 2020).

  • Twitter also labeled tweets from Trump associates, but also from Democratic Party operatives, who declared victory in the states too early, i.e. before official confirmation.

  • But Republicans have sharply criticized media platforms ’efforts to suppress disinformation as censorship against conservatives, citing Section 230, a legal provision that ensures that technology companies cannot be held accountable for posts on their platforms (Sandler, 2020).

  • Although Facebook and Twitter marked Trump's posts as inappropriate, and finally closed his account, that did not stop the alleged misinformation from other sources. Eric Trump posted a video on Twitter, claiming that ballots supporting the president are being burned - while officials claimed they were sample ballots, not official votes. And the announcement went viral on Twitter, where Eric Trump claimed that 40,000 ballots in DeCalb County, Georgia, should have been "fixed" by voters before they were counted.

  • Twitter also warned users of a potentially deceptive tweet by Donald Trump in which the former president accused Democrats of trying to steal the presidential election.

  • Two Democratic MPs, MP David Cicilline and MP Gary Connolly, went so far as to call on Twitter to suspend the order of the President of the United States.

  • It is also interesting that Facebook closed the group of supporters of President Trump's "Stop the Steal", which reached 350,000 members. They called for an end to the vote count and prevent Democrats from stealing the election. A Facebook spokesman said that given the emergency measures taken during the period of tension, they removed the group that organized real-world events, adding that the group was formed around the delegitimization of the election process and that they saw worrying calls for violence by some members. (Sputnik, 2020).

  • The event that seems to have been synchronized is the move of three major American TV stations - ABC, MSNBC and CBS, which interrupted President Donald Trump's address from the White House as soon as he mentioned that he was the winner of the election. That actually happened in the tenth second of his address. MSNBC television host Brian Williams even commented: "We are in an unusual situation again. Not only do we have to interrupt the president of the United States, but we have to correct him." It seems that something like this has not happened in the history of American television (N1TV, 2020).

The question arises as to why Facebook responsibly claims that what President Trump, the Republican candidate, is saying, is not true. With what right does Twitter censor Trump's posts, independently deciding which tweet is adequate, and which is not. Does any media have the right to correct or censor public statements, especially those coming from the President of the United States? Facebook, however, is responsible for the authenticity of the information it transmits - including what the US president or anyone else is saying.

Closing thoughts

In conclusion, we want to emphasize that in our digital, information society, there are important issues to be addressed in creating the conditions enabling and encouraging private media to provide the public service in an honest, professional way. Obviously, it will be a challenge to create regulatory conditions to achieve this, and only if all efforts fail, the question of adequate public control would have to be opened. Undoubtedly these issues will be dealt with in accordance with the local political culture and democratic experience of a country – but there is no denying that media freedom and professional responsibility respected by them are crucial for the progress of any society.

Electoral lobbying is classified as a particular type of lobbying, and when looking at the role of the media in the electoral process, one is referring to several domains where it takes place. Basically, we look at two-way lobbying between corporate executives acting on behalf of their share-holders to influence, persuade and instruct politicians about election issues and policy priorities. We also look at the role of the media being lobbied by their major shareholders in how to act in the electoral process – with the intention to support the public image of “their favorite candidates”.

It seems pretty reliable to conclude that in the 2020 US presidential elections the three media giants, CNN, Facebook and Twitter had influenced the American electorate so strongly that this could have been the decisive factor in producing the defeat of former President Trump, and the victory of President Josef Biden. It will be interesting to observe how the new president will deal with issues of media freedom, professionalism, and transparency. Hopefully, he will not feel obliged to remember their electoral support and making concessions under the expected pressure from the listed giants on important changes to be introduced in order to make the media generally more responsible!

It would be highly simplistic to conclude that former President Trump's attitude towards the media and reporters had decidedly influenced the electorate. When talking of this relationship, one should not ignore that many Americans feel that the media are often behaving irresponsibly, not always in a fully professional way – therefore they are not trusting them completely, though still largely relying on information received. More often than not, one has the impression that modern media are enjoying a very powerful position in society, but do not always justify it with a proper level of responsibility. Honest reporting implies offering verified facts and making clear when the reporter is offering his/her interpretation of an event, a problem, or an electoral candidate.

(Article by Sladjana Adamović Ilić and KEN Secretariat Boris Cizelj)


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