The power of platforms

Rasmus Nielsen and Sarah Anne Ganter explore the impact of big technology companies on journalism in this extract of their new book
A supporter lights a torch light from her phone outside the headquarters of the Apple Daily newspaper, and its publisher Next Digital, after the announcement that the newspaper is folding its operations earlier, in Hong Kong, China June 23, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

A supporter lights a torch light from her phone outside the headquarters of the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Adapted from 'The Power of Platforms: Shaping Media and Society' by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Sarah Anne Ganter, 2022, reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.

Large technology companies such as Facebook and Google – in competition with a few others including Amazon, Apple, Microsoft , and a handful of other companies elsewhere – increasingly define the way the internet works and thereby influence the structure of the entire digital media environment.

But how do they exercise this power, how have news organisations responded, and what does this development mean for the production and circulation of news? These are the questions we focus on in our new book.

The Power of Platforms


Our primary objective is to understand the relationship between publishers and platforms, how these relationships have evolved over time, how they play out between different publishers and different platforms, how they differ across countries, and what this wider development – where news organisations become simultaneously empowered by and more dependent on technology companies – mean for news specifically and our societies more broadly.

The analysis is based on interviews with more than fifty people working across a range of publishers and platforms in the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom as well as background conversations and observations at scores of industry events and private meetings. We trace the development of the relationship between publishers and platforms over the last decade and focus in particular on the rapid changes from 2015 onwards as several platforms back then announced major new news-related initiatives, even as publishers continued to struggle with the transition to a more digital and mobile media environment.

We argue that many of these developments point toward the rise of what we call “platformed publishing,” a situation where some news organisations have almost no control over the distribution of their journalism because they publish primarily to platforms defined by coding technologies, business models, and cultural conventions over which they have little influence.

We also show that most publishers, while seeking to make the most of the opportunities for incremental reach that platforms afford, also work hard to avoid becoming too reliant on them. They do this because they are keenly aware that the interests of publishers and platforms are at best partially aligned, and that they are often in direct competition or conflict. Except for a few digital-born news media that have deliberately bet on off-site reach, most of the publishers we analyse here remain far from fully platformed, and continuously and consciously work to use platforms for their own purposes while hedging against the associated risks.

But none avoid the direct and indirect impact of the rise of platforms and the way in which people have embraced them. Publishers still control the production of news content, but platforms increasingly control the channels through which people access it.

This means that previously powerful and relatively independent institutions like the news media are increasingly in a position not unlike that of ordinary users— they are becoming increasingly empowered by and dependent on a small number of centrally placed and powerful platforms largely beyond their control that they may be afraid of and are frustrated by, but whom they continue to actively work with nonetheless.

Hard power, soft power, and platform power

Platform companies are powerful in three different ways, one of which sets them apart from publishers and many other powerful institutions.

First, platforms have hard economic and political power that they can use to influence or prevent decisions. Large technology companies have enormous amounts of money available and spend heavily on both lobbying and public relations. They are also big advertisers: “Suddenly, you learn that they are spending millions with you on buying ads,” says the CEO of a major US newspaper. Tech companies are deeply involved in the political process and can engage directly with others including commercial competitors, civil society, etc. In this they are akin to other large organisations, including some publishers, who also have traditionally had hard economic and political power. Technology companies are also positioned to take advantage of their market power, and while it seems this has rarely been used to raise prices for end users, dominant platforms sometimes use it to decrease quality (for example by increasing the ad load or expanding data collection) for end users or to squeeze third party complementers (upstream suppliers and other organisations who add value to the platform through their activities).

Second, platforms exercise soft forms of cultural power that work through attraction and co-opting more than economic or political force. Large technology companies may attract political actors and other partners because of their prestige and status, and the “benevolent aura” that initially came with being seen as representing technological progress, the future rather than the past. This aura has been greatly diminished by increasing controversy over disinformation, invasive data collection, anti-competitive behaviour and other problems.

Even after years of mounting criticism, Google still had a net positive favourability rating in the US (unlike for example news media or Congress). And for years, clear majorities of Americans have said in surveys that major technology companies’ products and services have been more good than bad for them personally and for society as a whole. While public opinion seems to be changing, especially among political partisans – and in particular with Facebook, which has been at the center of much controversy and several scandals – many platform companies are still valued by much of the public. Again, while the most important platforms may exercise more soft power than many other large organisations, they are not alone in exercising cultural forms of power. Publishers, too, have prestige and status with political actors and others, even though they may increasingly be seen as representing the past rather than the future.

Third, large technology companies also exercise specific forms of platform power that publishers and other large organisations do not, and that we examine throughout our book. This is something tech companies alone exercise at scale. No publisher, no matter how rich, prestigious, or politically connected, exercises platform power the way tech companies do. These are profoundly enabling, transformative, and productive forms of power – but forms of power nonetheless, tied to the institutional and strategic interests of the platform companies themselves, and often exercised in highly asymmetric ways. The five most important aspects of platform power are:

  • The power to set standards that others in turn have to abide by if they want to be part of the social and technical networks - and markets - platforms enable.
  •  The power to make and break connections within these networks by changing social rules (“community standards”) or technical protocols (search and social ranking algorithms).
  • The power of automated action at scale as their technologies enable and shape billions of transactions and interactions every day.
  • The power of information asymmetry relative to users, competitors, regulators, and other outside actors, as they operate as opaque black boxes where outsiders can only see input and output on the basis of limited and biased data and the platforms alone are privy to how the processes work and have access to much more detailed data.
  • The power to operate across domains, where the data collected through a photo-sharing app can be used to target advertising on a social network, and the ecosystem created through a mobile operating system can help sell hardware.

It is important to underline that these forms of platform power are deeply relational, do not necessarily mean that platforms can always achieve what they want, and that they are not resources that platforms control unilaterally or use with impunity. (If a preponderance of power guaranteed the ability to achieve specific outcomes, a succession of imperial wars in Afghanistan would have gone differently.)

Specifically, platforms succeed commercially and come to exercise power through association, by enabling interactions. They control inclusive means of connection, not exclusive means of production, and they benefit from increased connectivity and a growing number of users and partners. Each of us as users, and every publisher and other third party complementer, help make platforms powerful because they in turn empower us when we use their products and services, for example with interactions (liking, sharing, searching) that we have grown accustomed to using online.

This is key to the relation between platforms and publishers. To understand their evolving role in our media environment, we therefore need to pay attention both to how platforms use publishers and how publishers use platforms.

This relational nature does not make platform power any less powerful, or platforms any less self-interested. But it does mean that their ability to exercise this power is contingent on their ability to maintain relations and sustain them over time.

These relations can be broken, the associations can fall apart, as illustrated by the decline and fall of once dominant platforms like AOL, MySpace, and Yahoo, as well as the failure of ambitions such as Google+. These relations also generate internal tension and come with conflicting priorities as friction builds between different users, between users and complementers, and between different complementers.

Finally, platform power is exercised in the shadow of the state. Both national and international political intervention and regulation can clearly affect how platforms operate. Government officials and politicians alike may sometimes feel that platforms move quickly, and politics slowly, and scholars point out that much media policy consists of deliberate non-intervention. But discussions around competition, copyright, data protection, hate speech, privacy, and individuals’ “Right to be Forgotten”– as well as censorship and other forms of intervention in authoritarian societies – clearly show that platforms do not operate beyond regulatory reach.

The implications of platform power

We live in a world with unprecedented competition for attention. Digital technologies have enabled everyone to publish and express themselves, resulting in an abundance of content and communications on the supply side, without a parallel growth on the demand side. In this world, the most important resource that platforms influence on a day-to-day basis is attention, and they do it by exercising platform power.

Publishers contend with that fact every day, and are in the process of adapting to this. But the consequences go beyond publishing. As the PR cliché that “Every organisation is a media organisation” increasingly becomes reality, elected officials, government agencies, countless private companies, interest groups, political parties, social movements and every other type of actor seeking to capture people’s attention and communicate with them have to contend with the increasingly important role platform companies play, the products and services these companies operate, and the products and services that billions of people rely on.

Ultimately, the evolving relationships between platforms and publishers speak to a fundamental feature of the contemporary world – a world that provides many of us with more opportunities than ever before, but often under conditions we do not understand or feel we control. The platform-publisher relationship underlines how not only we as individual citizens, but also social and political institutions including the news media, are becoming empowered by and dependent on systems developed by a few private, for-profit companies, most of them based in the US, and who increasingly have to think through what responsibilities come with the power they exercise over the news, free expression and public life overall.

You can order 'The Power of Platforms: Shaping Media and Society' by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Sarah Anne Ganter in this link.