Press campaign on internet platforms echoes concerns about resourcing authoritative news-gathering

12 April 2017

A UK-based campaign has been launched aimed at tackling the dominance of Facebook and Google and assessing their impact on viable news operations, particularly those working in the public interest.

The news trade publication Press Gazette launched the campaign, Duopoly, which seeks to highlight the dramatic and overall negative effect of the social media giants on the industry, provide a forum for debate, and identify the long term challenges they bring to quality journalism.

There is a broad consensus on the side of the news industry of the need for a fairer deal between content creators and platforms. Such a deal should adequately reward content creators, who have borne the cost of investment, so as to ensure that they can continue to finance high-quality, informative journalism.

“Money which had been spent on journalists holding those in power to account, particularly at a local level, has been transferred to two US-owned digital platforms which exist purely to exploit content rather than create it,” says Press Gazette.

Press Gazette argues that Facebook and Google should proceed with reforms themselves as failure to do so will potentially trigger government intervention.

According to a recent study by OC&C Strategy Consultants, Facebook and Google currently account for 53% of the online display advertising market in the UK. The company projects that the company will have increased this to 71% by 2020 to reach a similar percentage to its share of the US market.

Press Gazette says that in ten years the share of advertising earned by UK newspapers and their websites has declined from nearly half to just over 10%. The trade publication argues that resulting revenue losses for newspapers will significantly jeopardise media plurality and the overall functioning of democracy.

Part of the campaign includes an online petition calling on the online platforms to return a fair share of their advertising revenue to the originators of the content, while also urging them to take action on ‘fake news’.

The Press Gazette initiative follows an article written by News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson who has said that Google and Facebook have created a “dysfunctional and socially destructive” ecosystem by profiting from the distribution of fake news and the lack of transparency around digital advertising.

In a piece for the Wall Street Journal this week, Mr Thomson said both companies could have done far more to establish a “hierarchy of content” but instead had chosen to “make copious amounts of money” from both fake and real news.

Mr Thomson wrote: “Google's commodification of content knowingly, wilfully undermined provenance for profit. That was followed by the Facebook stream, with its journalistic jetsam and fake flotsam. Together, the two most powerful news publishers in human history have created an ecosystem that is dysfunctional and socially destructive.

“Both companies could have done far more to highlight that there is a hierarchy of content, but instead they have prospered mightily by peddling a flat-earth philosophy that doesn't distinguish between the fake and the real because they make copious amounts of money from both.

“We all have to work with these companies, and we are hoping, mostly against hope, that they will finally take meaningful action, not only to allow premium content models that fund premium journalism, but also to purge their sites of the rampant piracy that undermines creativity. Your business model can't be simultaneously based on both intimate, granular details about users and no clue whatsoever about rather obvious pirate sites.

“As for news, institutional neglect has left us perched on the edge of the slippery slope of censorship. There is no Silicon Valley tradition, as there is at great newspapers, of each day arguing over rights and wrongs, of fretful, thoughtful agonizing over social responsibility and freedom of speech.

“What we now have is a backlash with which these omnipotent companies are uniquely ill-equipped to cope. Their responses tend to be political and politically correct. Regardless of your own views, you should be concerned that we are entering an era in which these immensely influential publishers will routinely and selectively 'unpublish' certain views and news.

“We stumble into this egregious era at a moment when the political volume in many countries is turned to 10. The echo chamber has never been larger and the reverb room rarely more cacophonous. This is not an entirely new trend, but it has a compounding effect with the combination of ‘holier than thou' and 'louder than thou’.

“Ideas aside, we were supposed to be in a magic age of metrics and data. Yet instead of perfect precision we have the cynical arbitraging of ambiguity -- particularly in the world of audiences. Some advertising agencies are also clearly at fault because they, too, have been arbitraging and prospering from digital ambiguity as money in the ad business has shifted from actually making ads to aggregating digital audiences and ad tech, better known as fad tech.

“And so, as the Times of London has reported, socially aware, image-conscious advertisers find themselves in extremely disreputable places -- hardcore porn sites, neofascist sites, Islamist sites. The embarrassment for these advertisers juxtaposed with jaundice is understandable, but the situation is far more serious than mere loss of face.

“If these sites are getting a cut of the commission, the advertisers are technically funding these nefarious activities. Depending on the type of advertising, it is estimated by the ad industry that a YouTube partner could earn about 55 per cent of the revenue from a video. In recent years, how many millions of dollars have been channelled to organizations or individuals that are an existential threat to our societies?

“Provenance is profound, and in this age of augmented reality and virtual reality, actual reality will surely make a comeback. Authenticated authenticity is an asset of increasing value in an age of the artificial -- understanding the ebb and flow of humanity will not be based on fake news or ersatz empathy, but on real insight.”

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