Britain’s newspaper industry has called on the government to take far-reaching action against Google and Facebook, citing concerns about the spread of fake news online.
Analysis by BuzzFeed News has shown that fake news hasn’t been as prevalent in Britain as it has in the US, seemingly because established newspapers here already publish vast amounts of highly partisan articles.
In the US and other countries, totally bogus articles posing as legitimate news reports have spread widely on social media. Websites have been deliberately churning out false reports, playing on readers’ partisan political loyalties, to generate advertising income from the traffic the articles generate.
But the News Media Association, which represents the UK newspaper industry, has nevertheless seized upon the growing concern about the phenomenon to lobby MPs and regulators to restrain Google and Facebook here in Britain.
“Funding fake news causes real social harm by rewarding piracy and facilitating the spread of conspiracy theories,” the NMA said in a submission to the Commons culture, media, and sport committee, which is investigating the impact of fake news.
As yet, there's little evidence the phenomenon has taken hold in Britain to the same extent as in other countries, but “the conditions that enable a fake news industry to thrive could be gaining ground here,” the NMA’s submission warned.
The publishers urged the government to take measures to clean up the digital landscape, force Google and Facebook to be more “responsible”, and support established news organisations.
The UK's press, it argues, “offers the best defence against fake news.”
Britain’s newspapers can be partisan, the submission admitted, and “they certainly make their journalism as accessible and appealing to as many people as possible.” But they are the antidote to populist sites that disseminate false, divisive articles, it argued, because they do not fabricate events, and because they employ professional journalists and editors, employ teams of in-house lawyers, and adhere to an industry editorial code.
The lobbyists urged the government to instruct Ofcom, the communications watchdog, and the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate the impact that Google and Facebook are having on the media, given that many consumers now access news on mobile devices and social networks.
The competition authority should examine the internet giants’ stranglehold over the digital advertising market, the paper added. According to analysts, Google and Facebook between them control half of the UK’s £4 billion digital display advertising market in the UK, and their share is growing rapidly. That is squeezing publishers who were hoping online advertising would make up for the losses in their declining print businesses.
MPs and regulators “cannot ignore forever the impact on our media landscape of the Google-Facebook duopoly”, the NMA said.
It also called on the Information Commissioner to conduct an investigation into Google and Facebook’s handling of the vast amounts of personal data it collects about users. And it hinted that publishers might push for a licensing system whereby internet platforms would pay newspapers when their articles are circulated by their users.
The document reflects the growing anxiety among newspaper executives about the huge power Google and Facebook have amassed over the news media in the last few years. Fundamental structural changes in the media caused by technology have meant that algorithms, rather than editors, now determine which articles many people see, with Google and Facebook by far the most important gatekeepers.
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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