The formidable charge sheet against social media
It would be in everyone’s interests if 2017 turns out to be the year when the multi-billion pound social networks genuinely tackle everything from hate news, fake news and dodgy digital advertising, writes Raymond Snoddy
Suddenly it's open season on social media and the apparently all powerful Facebook, Google and Twitter are facing a fight on three fronts - fake news, hate news and opaque advertising deals.
On the commercial side you can also throw into the debate robot viewers, poor accountability on measurement systems and value chains that can make, almost magically, up to 70 per cent of the revenue of a media owners advertising disappear.
The concerns have been there for ages but now for the first time they are starting to come together and in a high profile way.
Paddy Barwise, emeritus professor of management and marketing at the London Business School, caught the mood perfectly at the Shift 2017 conference earlier this month.
Barwise argued that this would be the year that the pushback would really begin against the view that digital was always best on all occasions. More precisely the marketing specialist thought it “outrageous” that Facebook and Google were still able to mark their own homework on advertising performance.
The big public attacks will come over the social media’s role in the distribution of hate news and fake news - issues that go to the very heart of communications in modern democracies.
It must have been a new experience for Google to find itself described at a House of Commons Home Affairs committee as practising a form of commercial prostitution."
Hitler was voted into power without benefit of social media but there just might be some connection - if not a directly causal one - between the growing power and reach of social media and the rise of irrational, populist right-wing movements in the US and across Europe.
At the very least those movements have been adept at using the potential of Facebook, Google and Twitter for their own ends.
As the attacks have mounted on the social media giants, for the first time their representatives appear on the back foot and even sound a tad complacent. They take the matter seriously etc and are doing everything they can...
It must have been a new experience for Google to find itself described at a House of Commons Home Affairs committee as practising a form of commercial prostitution.
The colourful language came from Labour MP David Winnick in a reference to YouTube making money from advertising alongside what he regarded as unacceptable material.
Google, for example, refused to take down an anti-Semitic video from YouTube claiming that Jews perpetuated “white genocide.”
There are obvious problems. Pre-censorship is almost always wrong in principle and undesirable, and would anyway be totally impossible given the scale and speed of travel of digital information. Around 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute and Twitter distributes 500 million tweets a day.
Artificial intelligence and algorithms have a long way to go before they can cope with flows like that in any sophisticated way.
The question then becomes whether the social media groups do enough to take down hate messages after they have been posted?
An answer of sorts came from Yvette Cooper, who chairs the Home Affairs committee, and proved herself rather more pro-active than the social media.
Cooper reported four examples of tweets posted on Monday that threatened public figures including one saying Angela Merkel needed a bullet in the head. As the Committee took evidence 24 hours later they had not been taken down although Twitter said they would probably be taken down by the end of the day. In this case they probably were.
There will always be arguments over freedom of speech and the difference between abuse and hate and between what is acceptable and what is not. There surely can’t be much debate when threats of violence are used and encouraged.
This is the year that social media will have to take greater responsibility for what they distribute and devote larger resources to identifying and taking down the work of the purveyors of hatred and violence.
Above all they must accept they are publishers with responsibilities rather than “neutral” technology companies.
Unless they do they are going to face tougher legislation and penalties. The German Justice minister Heiko Maas, for example, is proposing a new law imposing fines of up to £44 million on social media networks if they fail to remove illegal hate speech.
On the fake news front there was a significant sally from Paul Chichester, a director of the new National Cyber Security Centre which is controlled by GCHQ.
At a cyber conference Chichester appealed to the social network companies to recognise their social responsibility and do more to tackle the growing problem of fake news and deliberate misinformation.
Meanwhile, in its submission to the Government Committee investigating fake news, the News Media Association which represents national, regional and local media organisations, argues fake news causes real social harm by rewarding piracy and facilitating the spread of conspiracy theories.
The NMA also wants both Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority to examine the impact of Facebook, Google and other social media platforms on the media landscape and whether they should, in regulatory terms, still be considered mere intermediaries.
Earlier this year Andrus Ansip, the European Commissioner for digital matters told the Financial Times that although he favoured self-regulation on issues such as fake news “if some kind of clarifications are needed then we will be ready for that.”
On the commercial front some very significant worms are turning at last.
A lot of people paid attention when Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer of Proctor & Gamble, said the company was reviewing all its agency contracts because the digital supply chain was “murky at best and fraudulent at worst”.
Nearer home, as fellow Mediatel columnist Dominic Mills noted this week, the newly appointed ISBA boss Phil Smith is putting the advertiser’s organisation on a more aggressive footing.
And that includes trying to deal with issues such as the loss of trust, financial and trading opacity, and the digital media problems identified by Pritchard.
It all adds up to a formidable charge sheet against the social media networks and the political and business pressure is unlikely to go away.
It would be in everyone’s interests if 2017 does indeed turn out to be the year when the multi-billion pound social networks tackle more vigorously everything from hate news, fake news and dodgy digital advertising and their impact on society.