UK publishers urge inquiry into social media giants' role in fake news

24 April 2017

The News Media Association (NMA) of UK publishers has called for an urgent investigation into the impact of Google, Facebook, and the digital advertising supply chain to combat fake news in its submission to the UK Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into fake news.

It warned that while a free and fearless press is society’s single best defence against fake news, significant action is needed to ensure the public perception of news media sector’s quality and agenda-setting journalism can survive and thrive in the digital environment.

“News media publishers are by far the biggest investors in original news content, accounting for 58 per cent of the total UK investment,” said NMA chairman Ashley Highfield. “But the digital supply chain rewards the distributors of content, not the originators. Government and regulators cannot ignore forever the impact of the Google-Facebook duopoly on our media landscape.”

“Fake news sites are not staffed by journalists but by individuals who see a commercial, political or other opportunity in gaming the algorithms Facebook, Google and other networks and platforms use to connect their users with news stories. ”

Fake news companies find it easier to thrive online than real news companies because they do not have the overheads that professional news-gathering entails. These overheads are very difficult to cover in a digital news environment which rewards the distribution of content by internet platforms far more generously than it does those who create it.

Mr Highfield said: “The system works very well for fake news operators – and very badly for real news publishers. The fake news operators are not journalists in any meaningful sense; they act without regard for accuracy or defamation to invent content sensational enough to harness the full potential of the Facebook or Google algorithms.”

The NMA submission goes onto describe the further danger for the phenomenon, stating: "The term ‘fake news’ is easily abused by those who want to clamp down on press freedom, which could be a disaster since a free and independent press offers the best defence against fake news."

“The Committee’s inquiry is a timely opportunity to concentrate minds on the immense value to society and democracy of genuine news,” Mr Highfield said. “But it is also necessary to ensure the very people the press holds to account - those in authority - don't cry 'fake news' when they simply disagree with a story or don't like a headline.”

The NMA called on the CMS Committee to take action to ensure that Google, Facebook and other platforms live up to their responsibilities, including a regulatory review of whether the platforms should continue to be considered mere intermediaries. Nevertheless, they stressed opposition to the introduction of any new laws which would impact free speech or create wider liabilities or new restrictions for traditional media.

“Instead of weakening the press, government and regulators should concentrate on combating fake news with a renewed emphasis on the critical importance of genuine news media to democracy,” Mr Highfield said. “The only effective way to tackle fake news is for genuine news publishers to continue their important work of investigative journalism, reporting and fact-checking.”

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