Fair Deal From Platforms Key To Fighting Fake News, Say UK Media Organisations

Media organisations including newspaper publishers, broadcasters, trade bodies and academics have warned MPs that online platforms are fuelling the rise of fake news while real news is being starved of revenues.

In their responses to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s inquiry into fake news, media organisations including the Guardian, ITN, ITV, the News Media Alliance, and the Society of Editors agree that the growing prominence online of hoax news sites and bogus conspiracy theories is a threat to public trust in all news and even to the ability of democratic societies to make informed decisions.

The concerns they register echo those expressed by the NMA in its submission to the inquiry, which warned that the digital news environment rewards fake news at the expense of real news. The NMA urged politicians and regulators to examine the impact of the Google-Facebook duopoly on the sustainability of news publishing and called for greater transparency around the digital advertising supply chain.  

Media organisations responding to the inquiry highlight the way in which fake news reports have proliferated on digital platforms, Google and Facebook in particular. In its submission, ITN writes: “There is no doubt that fake news (or propaganda as it might be termed in the past) has always existed but online platforms have created a means of disseminating that information at a speed that we have never seen before.”

ITV in its response says that part of the reason why fake news stories can gain traction on line is that they “can be presented in proximity to solidly sourced news and distributed widely through the internet with few signals to the consumer of the original source of the material, or any indication of that source’s reputation or track record in reporting.”

ITN echoes this point, saying that the digital news environment has “led to a situation where credible impartial news sources are placed on a par with hoax websites and hyperpartisan websites claiming opinion as fact.”

According to the Guardian News and Media submission, this situation arises because prominence online is largely to be a matter of clicks: “[The digital economy] rewards clicks by volume, which means that the more sensational a piece of content is, the more likely that a user will click on that piece of content in order to read it.”

ITN and the Guardian say that this click-driven, source-blind dynamic is compounded by the rise of programmatic advertising. ITN explains: “The algorithm that places programmatic advertising online (across sites such as Facebook and YouTube) does not appear to differentiate between the type of content that it places ads beside – meaning that false stories that get lots of clicks or shares will attract more ads and greater revenue. This in turn encourages fake news sites as a viable business online.”

ITN says this system works very well for fake news operators because “fake news requires none of the journalistic and legal investment and overheads that legitimate journalism does and can be generated at the fraction of the cost of a news story from a credible organisation – yet it can potentially generate more revenue on social media from advertising by acting as clickbait for audiences.”

In addition to fake news operators, the other major beneficiaries from this system are platforms.

In his evidence, Professor Leighton Andrews of Cardiff University explains that: “More likes, more shares, and more clicks lead to more money for advertisers and platforms.” Citing research from LSE, he said that Google and Facebook are “dependent on consumers spending more time with sticky content, and also arguably benefit from the current power shift away from traditional news publishers. Ad agencies, ad networks, and the networks and service providers that provide net access to consumers all benefit.”

In contrast, the returns to real news organisations are seen as meagre. The Guardian’s submission states that as “a general rule, this model of monetisation does not favour the production of slow, sober journalism focusing on the day’s news.  It favours attention grabbing headlines and opinion pieces that encourages readers to click through.” The submission also cites research showing that since 2012 “news organisations have lost £31 in print advertising, in return for a gain of the equivalent of just £1 in digital advertising.”  

ITV notes that: “There is no doubt that news generates very significant traffic (and therefore revenue) for global digital online platforms. The same is true of TV content offered up on social media and UGC [user generation content] sites more generally. However, the economic reward at present is mostly flowing to the platform and not to the investor in news and other content.”

ITN reflects that “Facebook has benefited from the popularity of our content and it is our belief that currently the relationship is not one of equals – where Facebook is receiving vastly disproportionate revenue which should be returned to the original news supplier.”

Professor Andrews concludes that it is time for Ofcom and other regulators to engage with these issues. He writes: “Regulators themselves should be challenged as to whether they believe a regulatory regime put in place before Facebook was founded, and before the smartphone existed, is still relevant in every aspect to the challenges society now faces.”

He says that: “Facebook and Google’s position in online advertising is dominant and it is growing. Cracking the problem of fake news will mean addressing issues of platform dominance.”

The Guardian asks “in relation to Ofcom’s role in assessing media plurality, does the regulator have appropriate powers to request the data it requires from large digital platforms, to fully understand the impact of digital products and services on how citizens are informed about the world around them?”

The Society of Editors also calls for social media companies such as Facebook to “do more to promote transparency and accountability on their platforms.” The Society adds that “advertising networks should not enable the sharing of fake news to be a lucrative business nor should advertising revenue be the means by which a site that is primarily tasked with distributing fake news be allowed to flourish.”

ITN suggests that the commercial relationship between publishers and platforms needed to be readdressed to reflect the fact that it is publishers, not platforms, who invest in content and who bear all the legal risk associated with it. It says: “If Facebook will not accept the responsibilities that come with publisher status then it seems reasonable to say that revenues from this content should be redirected back to the organisation that has invested the time and resources to create the journalism.”

ITN adds “we would also call for transparency around the amount that Facebook is investing in combatting fake news through initiatives such as fact checking and also a declaration of how much revenue Facebook currently receives from fake news sites that it hosts.”

ITV also says it is time to consider whether “content from responsible, professional, news organisations (for instance those who sign up to effective self-regulatory schemes or which are regulated by Ofcom) should be given some form of significant algorithmic preference online.”

“This will be hugely important for helping the public to find legitimate news sources,” it says.

The Committee’s inquiry is interrupted by the dissolution of Parliament and the general election, however it is seen as likely that it will resume following in either July or September this year, once normal parliamentary business resumes.