This essay examines media that was produced to report or comment on the FCC’s vote to officially propose a change in rules governing internet service and mobile broadband providers, which took place on May 18th, 2017.
In my survey of media relating to this story, I looked at:
- News/periodical/website articles
- Late night news/talk shows
- YouTube videos
- Official FCC statements and press releases
- Cable and local TV news segments
- Blog posts
I analyzed these media within the guiding framework of the Center for Media Literacy’s Five Key Concepts & Questions.
Net neutrality is quite complex. The May 17th FCC vote was just the most recent event in a story that has been developing for years and was passed into official regulatory policy in 2015 with broad public support. Existing regulations are widely expected to be reversed by the current FCC, whose chairman was appointed by President Trump.
Net neutrality in the Media
While net neutrality is widely considered to be an important story, it does not get as much attention as one might expect in the mainstream news. Net neutrality is often perceived as a complicated, boring, or “nerdy” topic that requires substantial technical and policy knowledge to understand. Further, much media time and attention is devoted to the unprecedented behavior of the Trump administration at the expense of other issues, including net neutrality. That said, considering the frequency of Google searches for the term “net neutrality” there is evidence that public interest in the issue spikes when attention is drawn to it by commentators or upon the reporting of events such as the FCC vote to approve a proposal of rule changes.
Figure 1 – Google Searches for Net Neutrality
Moreover, there is vigorous debate at the fringes of mainstream attention from the communications, technology, and media industries, and from participants in “internet culture.” Deep disagreement about the benefits and costs of net neutrality policy exists along political or ideological lines.
Pro Net Neutrality Sources
On one side is an alliance of pro-net neutrality sources, activists, and commentators. Net neutrality backers include large tech, e-commerce, entertainment media, and social media firms who rely on information networks to connect to their customers, media sources, websites, and blogs that cover the technology industry, anti-trust/pro-consumer corporate watchdogs, left-leaning academics and politicians, and centrist/left-leaning media outlets.
There are fewer sources opposing net neutrality, but they are backed by powerful institutions. Opposing net neutrality are internet service providers (ISPs), right-leaning and Libertarian media and academics, and the FCC itself, whose current chairman, Ajit Pai, cultivates a carefully constructed public persona using various forms of media.
Mainstream reporting on net neutrality is designed for a wide audience, and often includes basic primer information explaining the concept of net neutrality. Specialty technology or political sites speak to their audiences with more specificity and frame the issue in relevant terms for that audience, for example, as an issue of fairness and equity, of excessive government regulation, or of corporate malfeasance.
The FCC is legally required to solicit public comment on proposed changes, and will likely also be challenged to provide legal rationale in court. For this reason, opponents of the bill are very active in attempting to marshal public opposition to the FCC’s actions. Most notably, the comedian & political commentator John Oliver ran a lengthy pro-net neutrality segment on his HBO program, Last Week Tonight, and set up a website to make it easier for citizens to submit comments on the FCC’s proposed changes. Many media sources represent Oliver as the face of the pro-net neutrality position.
At the same time, Ajit Pai has made numerous appearances on cable news, given press conferences, and produced videos for social media platforms blasting current policy and advocating change, and ISP industry organizations have run advertisements and produced media with an anti-regulation agenda. This seems to be aimed at influencing public opinion and starting to build the legal case justifying the FCC’s rule changes.
Linguistics and Imagery
Different sources frame the concept of net neutrality very differently. A variety of styles, words, and imagery are used to communicate media messages about net neutrality and the FCC’s vote, adding subtexts to media messages.
Pro-Net Neutrality, Anti-FCC Headlines
From the perspective of tech writers, the FCC’s formal vote took on an apocalyptic quality: “Net neutrality rules all but doomed after FCC starts teardown” reads a headline from consumer technology site CNet. This language gives the impression that the vote will cause violence and destruction. Tech site Ars Technica goes further, using evocative words to conjure up imagery of pain and suffering: “Net neutrality going down in flames as FCC votes to kill Title II rules.” (Emphasis added)
Similar sentiments are widely seen on YouTube and Twitter; social media is a hotbed of passionate net neutrality sentiment. Tweets from thought-leaders, politicians, technology companies, media companies, political advocacy groups, and more implore users to “save the internet” and oppose the FCC action. Twitter itself created a unique graphic that automatically accompanies each Tweet with the #netneutrality tag – a buffering symbol that is sure to resonate with any internet user who has ever been frustrated with slow loading times. The platform itself has pro-net neutrality messages embedded within it, such that a source critical of net neutrality may be discouraged from using the relevant hashtag.
Mainstream news coverage took a measured tone. The FCC vote represents net neutrality being “rolled back” according to the Washington Post and NPR News, a term that evokes the back-and-forth of laws and policies being written only to be undone as the political headwinds shift. For a reader of these headlines, net neutrality may be lost in the shuffle of “politics as usual,” with little emphasis on relevance to the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. The NPR piece includes a straightforward account of the vote and a fairly neutral explanation of the issues at stake, including strongly worded quotes from both Ajit Pai and dissenting Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. Some media pieces delved deeper; a video segment on CBS Money explored the topic and the key players in some detail. CBS correspondent Errol Barnett discussed his interview with Ajit Pai and concluded that “when this issue is spelled out for people, it really does scare them,” while noting that changes in net neutrality policy are de-emphasized “while the nation’s attention is fixated on the what’s happening with the President.”
Meanwhile, ISPs, both directly and through industry consortiums and lobbying groups, are putting out advertisements, Tweets, and videos that offer reassuring, friendly messages that paint telecommunications companies as good corporate citizens. These messages affirm ISPs’ commitment to a general ideal such as the “Open Internet” or “Internet Freedom” – implying that they should be trusted to follow the fairness principles that net neutrality laws legislate voluntarily, while they simultaneously oppose said laws and pour money into anti-regulation lobbying efforts. Needless to say, the pro-net neutrality internet is suspect of these messages.
Anti-Net Neutrality/Regulation, Pro-FCC Headlines
Fox Business uses the term “repeal” to describe the FCC’s intentions. Interestingly, controversial alt-right site Breitbart, in their article covering the FCC’s vote also uses the term “repeal.” Though the word repeal is innocuous, a reader of these sources may associate net neutrality with the unrelated but highly politicized Affordable Care Act, which is the subject of a “Repeal and Replace” effort by President Trump and Congress. The Breitbart article goes on to celebrate the FCC vote with unconcealed glee, calling it a “return to freedom” for the internet.
Conservative and Libertarian sources were active on social media, defending the FCC’s vote and focusing primarily on ideas about regulation and free markets. Conservative writer Ben Shapiro, responding to a Tweet from Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, posted a jab at net neutrality’s sometimes anti-corporate bent, pointing out that behemoths like Facebook and Google are staunch supporters.
The FCC itself uses language designed to present its own actions in a positive light. It has titled its Initiative “Restoring Internet Freedom,” a name that pro-net neutrality sources have dubbed “Orwellian.” In any case, the FCC certainly seems to be co-opting the language of net neutrality.
Some headlines act to grab attention, while not necessarily framing the issue in a strong negative or positive light. A CBS Money headline offers to explain “Why net neutrality could go the way of the floppy disk,” using humor to draw the viewer in. The text article and video segment linked to from the headline are measured and informative pieces that explore differing perspectives and don’t shy away from dealing with pertinent issues.
Other outlets used eye-catching headlines that are less humorous, and ultimately less informative. “The FCC did NOT vote to roll back net neutrality” reads a headline from the Libertarian news and culture site The Daily Caller. The article points out that the FCC vote does not in fact legally change policy, but rather marks the formal beginning of the FCC’s ostensibly exploratory “Notice of Proposed Rule Change” process in which public comment will be sought, and claims that competing sources are misreporting the facts. While it’s technically true that the FCC vote is the beginning of a lengthy process, Ajit Pai and the FCC have made their intentions to press for the elimination of net neutrality rules abundantly clear. One must ask if this headline is in the service of accuracy and fair-mindedness, or if it may, deliberately or not, obfuscate the FCC’s intentions, discredit legitimate assertions, and confuse the issue.
By far the worst, most shameful headline found in this survey was from an editorial published in Forbes: “The Shocking Thing About Net Neutrality That Few Are Reporting.” The title of this article is clickbait designed to sensationalize the issues in a potential reader’s mind. The main thrust of the article makes a dubious and logically unsound comparison between net neutrality rules and the Fairness Doctrine, an FCC rule related to broadcast news that was rolled back during the Reagan administration. All told, this author found no new information that wasn’t reported elsewhere, and certainly no shocking revelations.
The imagery used by news sources in articles also tells us something about their worldview and how they expect the reader to emotionally and cognitively approach the issue of net neutrality. I noticed three main motifs in the imagery accompanying these articles: images of pro-net neutrality protests, images of the façade of the FCC building (neutral), and images of Ajit Pai (both positive and negative).
Images of protest are used to associate net neutrality with political struggle and civic action. The shot below appears in several pieces, including one from Ars Technica.
Pai himself has emerged as the face of the debate, and he is presented in positive or negative lights by different sources. Looking at two photographs of Mr. Pai below, one would get two very different impressions of his demeanor and personality, and perhaps experience different initial emotional reactions to the news pieces. Is Pai a nefarious schemer in the pocket of big businesses like Verizon and Comcast? Or a smiling champion of freedom and sound economic principles? The two photos below tell different stories.
Pai plays an active role in cultivating an image in his public appearances. He is often seen drinking coffee out of a large, novelty-sized coffee cup in interviews and Tweeting references to the film Big Lebowski, disingenuously portraying himself as a “fun, down to earth nerd,” according to Jon Oliver. On the day of the FCC vote, Pai appeared in a YouTube video released by the Independent Journal Review, a conservative outlet that consciously attempts to produce viral content. In the video, Pai reads and responds to “mean Tweets” in the fashion of a series of short clips popularized by Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Informing the public or preaching to the choir?
Based on analysis of various articles and posts on social media, it’s clear that the issue of net neutrality is understood differently by individuals with differing ideologies and backgrounds. Mainstream sources often begin from the premise that net neutrality is ill-understood by the public at large and seek to educate the reader or viewer and to explore the issues surrounding net neutrality and related legislation. These stories are framed in simple terms, and metaphors (such as highways with fast lanes, slow lanes, and toll booths) are often used to illustrate the situation. One video produced by King 5 News in Seattle featured a reporter talking to citizens and asking the viewer to consider possible impacts of undoing net neutrality on ordinary people. Rather than highlighting concerns about the stifling of innovation from small companies or the growing consolidation of power in the hands of ISPs, the video segment’s focus is on the possible slowing down of Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix streams.
Current polling shows that net Neutrality in principle has high levels of public support, according to the non-profit Knight Foundation’s report on the Net Neutrality debate. With that in mind, most industry specific or politically-minded sources seem to be writing, Tweeting, or speaking to their audiences as if they already have an understood position on net neutrality. Indeed, rather than seeking to change the reader’s mind, the pieces often seem designed to spur the reader into an action or to equip the reader with rhetorical arguments that can be used on one side of the debate or the other.
For liberal and technology focused sites, this call to action tends to take the form of attempts to mobilize the audience, to spur pro-net neutrality activism on social media, and to flood the FCC’s website with comments supporting net neutrality. John Oliver has been effective as a modern entertainer/newsman/organizer, garnering so many online comments that the FCC website crashed intermittently after his net neutrality segment was broadcast.
Conservative and Libertarian sources, who are most likely aware that net neutrality is broadly popular, do not present issues of equity and fairness through the same lens. Libertarian sources with a younger, center-right demographic tend to focus on the government’s role in regulating markets as harmful. It is presented as an economic issue. Fox News, with viewers averaging over 70 years old, obfuscated the issue by focusing on what was portrayed as hysterical or abusive pro-net neutrality voices and protests. Pai appeared on Fox Business’s Making Money With Charlie Payne to be interviewed about his “viral” video and was invited to “share again with us…the hypocrisy and the vitriolic anger aimed at you at such a personal level.” Rather than engaging with different ideological sides of the issue, viewers of this program were prompted to disdain people on the other side of the debate and presented with the notion that pro-net neutrality voices are unhinged, violent, or racist.
Both sides of the debate claim to seek measures that would result in positive impacts for the underdog or underserved populations — either by requiring ISPs to treat the internet as a public good with ensured equal access for all or by eliminating regulations that discourage investment in rural broadband infrastructure and innovative consumer products. That said, the voices in the conversation seem to be predominantly urban, male, and of a high socio-economic status.
Because net neutrality is often presented as a technology story and as a partisan political story, large swathes of the public who may be affected are not necessarily engaged with the relevant issues beyond how it may affect their Netflix fix.
The companies that own mainstream media outlets have good reason to worry about the creeping power of ISPs in an unregulated network marketplace, as companies like Verizon are acquiring media production capacity in deals for content companies AOL and Yahoo — owning both the content product and the content delivery system. At the same point, powerful technology companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google are changing the economic landscape. These companies have their own anti-trust issues and regularly oppose any regulations that might keep them from maximizing profits, just as the telecoms do. For them, net neutrality is good business. It minimizes a potential cost — a toll — on their side of the content delivery system they use to deliver content and reap ad revenue.
The Libertarian or conservative viewpoint, held by the current FCC chairman, and presented by outlets like the Daily Caller, is that relaxing regulation will result in fairness, and that the free market is best equipped to create and distribute wealth from a commodity such as internet access.
Missing from the debate is the perspective that basic internet access can or should become a true public good. ISPs have a long history of lobbying to restrict towns and municipalities from providing public internet access that would compete with their own offerings. No source that I looked at mentioned this history or suggested publicly funded internet access as an alternative.
Net neutrality is an important issue, but not always an easy one to explain or to understand. Regardless of the source, every media message about net neutrality is presented from a perspective; messages privilege some information and leave other facts out. Our perceptions are colored by word choices, the characteristics of images, and the context quotes are presented. I’ll end this piece with words from Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman:
“We have to be responsible. We really have to get at the truth. That takes investigation. It takes serious consideration of what you’re reading.”
— AJ+ (@ajplus) May 22, 2017
Note: In lieu of citations for the essay, I invite you to review my Net Neutrality Outliner on Diigo, which contains links to all of the media referenced in this piece, and more.