It is time to impose tighter regulation on technology platforms that carry news and current affairs. When democracy and the rule of law are at risk, then the argument in favour of independent, regulatory oversight is compelling.
Politicians, regulators and even advertisers, who do so much to fund online content, are stepping up the pressure on both sides of the Atlantic in a so-called techlash.
Facebook, which suffered a 20% plunge in value in July after reporting slowing growth and a fall in user numbers in Europe in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, is the biggest target.
That is why Facebook has been running a big ad campaign, insisting “fake news is not our friend” and using trusted, established media outlets such as newspapers and posters to get out its message.
All the tech companies are vulnerable because they are finding it increasingly difficult to abdicate responsibility for the content they allow on their platforms.
Apple pulled five InfoWars podcasts, hosted by Right-wing US conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, from iTunes last week because of concerns about “hate speech”, a move that prompted Facebook, YouTube and Spotify (but not Twitter) to take similar action.
The social media companies, in particular, are on the back foot as they face a double whammy of political pressure and investor concern. Shares in Twitter and Snap as well as Facebook have fallen in recent weeks because of slowing user growth.
The Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee’s report into “fake news” and disinformation, published in July, laid down an important marker about the need for greater online regulation in the UK.
Damian Collins, the committee chair, was withering about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to testify about Cambridge Analytica’s shocking misuse of data that could have undermined the integrity of the US Presidential election and the Brexit referendum.
Collins demanded that tech companies “take greater responsibility for misleading and harmful content on their sites” and provide “greater transparency for users on the origin of content that has been presented to them”. Importantly, that content could include misleading or harmful ads, especially political messaging. The committee also raised the possibility of an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority into fake accounts.
It would be easy to dismiss the MPs’ report as well-meaning rhetoric but regulatory intervention is possible.
Sharon White, the chief executive of Ofcom, said last month that the tech companies need to be “more accountable” and “the argument for independent regulatory oversight has never been stronger”.
White suggested that social media companies must make greater efforts to protect consumers from “harmful content” and a regulator should have powers to “enforce standards” and to “act if these are not met”.
Advertisers have an important role to play because tech companies get most of their revenues from digital advertising, which is worth upwards of £10 billion a year in the UK.
There is still limited evidence of a swingback towards trusted, premium content but, following last year’s YouTube brand safety scandal, marketers have recognised that it is a mistake to depend on algorithms to buy online audience reach, without caring about the context of where an ad appears.
Advertisers also don’t like the fact that Facebook, Google and others “mark their own homework” when it comes to setting standards for viewability — how long an ad is viewed — and sharing audience data.
“I’m fed up with it, it’s not right and we need to change it,” WPP’s Robin O’Neill, arguably the most influential buyer of online advertising in London, told a recent conference, hosted by Newsworks, the trade body for the newspaper industry.
O’Neill, who is UK managing director of digital trading for WPP’s media-buying arm, Group M, warned the status quo “suits tech platforms and discriminates against premium environments where users have a greater engagement with content”.
Advertisers’ anger combined with consumers’ distrust may be having some effect.
Investment bank Liberum Capital says it has heard from a leading, unnamed media agency that Facebook’s UK ad revenues fell in June, which would be a big deal after years of uninterrupted, double-digit growth.
If there’s one thing that the tech giants fear more than the threat of regulation, it’s the prospect of making less money.