It's time to level the playing field

27 Jun 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
It's time to level the playing field

Bosses from the likes of ITV and the New York Times want the big tech firms held accountable for the problems they cause around the world. Governments must listen, writes Raymond Snoddy

It’s been a bad month for the social media - again - with attacks coming from multiple directions, aimed at Facebook in particular.

The most recent onslaught came from Dame Carolyn McCall, chief executive of ITV, at The Times CEO Summit and her chosen battlegrounds were tax and regulation.

ITV was doing fine, she said, and was not adopting the role of victim but she would really rather like to see a more even playing field.

Dame Carolyn is scarcely the first to say it but the American-based tech giants enjoy huge advantages on the low levels of tax they pay perfectly legally.

Despite generating enormous revenues in the UK the amount of tax paid by Facebook was “odd”, in itself a curious euphemism.

The Facebook numbers are rather more than merely “odd.”

In 2016 Facebook paid £5.2 million tax in the UK on revenues of £842 million and profits of £58 million.

Dame Carolyn has an even stronger argument on regulation, or rather the lack of it.

Facebook may have 20,000 moderators but they are “self-moderating” and this is nothing compared to the regulations that ITV and many other publishers face on both their content and advertising.

The ITV chief executive joined the long list of media executives calling for Google and Facebook to be treated as publishers.

“They have to be responsible for content because that is what they make their money out of,” said Dame Carolyn, who seems to err only in adopting far too polite an approach.

Another speaker, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce, also called out Amazon and its warehouses and tax arrangements, arguing that it seemed to be disinterested in engaging in anything other than getting bigger, and was a monopoly that should be broken up.

On a different front, former BBC director-general Mark Thompson, chief executive of the New York Times, has sharpened his attacks on Facebook by accusing the company of being, not only “a threat to democracy", but of also setting itself up as “the digital world’s editor-in-chief.”

Facebook was setting priorities and rejecting content on data-driven assessments of whether it thought an information provider was trustworthy or not.

Thompson has also accused Facebook of unintentionally “supporting the enemies of quality journalism by using algorithms that treat news as partisan political comment.”

Ironically, the new policy was introduced in answer to criticism about how its ad network could be manipulated during elections.

Thompson’s evidence about the fallibility of algorithms, whatever they are trying to achieve, was compelling.

One ad promoting a new article about President Trump’s summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had been judged as “political” even though it had merely been an article about politics.

The other was much more bizarre - a promotion for the NYT’s cooking site with an image of a pistachio rose water cake. Why this was labelled political remains a mystery.

The strange ways of Facebook's systems come on top of anger from publishers that Facebook’s News Feed algorithm has been demoting content from publishers in favour of a user’s friends, which could mean that Facebook may be giving greater priority to rumour or fake news.

Meanwhile, Robert Thomson, chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, has also been demanding more money for high quality content from Google and Facebook which has been hoovering up digital advertising.

On the political news vs. partisan political content argument seven organisations representing more than 20,000 publishers and professionals have called on Facebook to exempt news organisations from the policy.

The Financial Times is among publications threatening to suspend paid promotions on Facebook unless the current policy is changed.

It’s a varied charge sheet mounting up against the social media: undermining the High Street while paying unfair levels of tax and posing a threat to democracy and seeking to be de facto editor-in-chief of the internet while underlining the finances of established media organisations. And that is before psychological impacts, particularly on the young, are taken into account.

But it gets much worse.

The Observer’s John Naughton has highlighted Facebook’s pernicious role as a medium for anti-Muslin hysteria in Myanmar, which was followed by murderous ethnic cleansing.

United Nations experts have found that social media has had a “determining role” in anti-Rohingya Muslim violence in Myanmar - and Facebook is the primary, almost exclusive branch.

The UN’s Myanmar’s investigator Yanghee Lee has called Facebook “a beast, and not what it originally intended.”

Facebook also stands accused of playing a similar role in other developing countries.

According to New York Times reporters the Facebook newsfeed played a central role in the current outbreak of sectarian violence in Sri Lanka - “in nearly every step from rumour to killing.”

As Facebook seeks to expand into the less developed parts of the world, the unfortunate, and often tragic effects of unintended consequences, will multiply. It is also an effect of monopoly. For many around the world Facebook is the Internet.

Naturally Facebook will insist, as it always does, that it moves as quickly as possible to remove inflammatory material.

As for now it seems to be having greater success at downgrading, or mislabelling legitimate political news than coping with the sort of crazy rumours such as the one that Muslim pharmacies in Sri Lanka were stockpiling tablets to sterilise the Sinhalese, one of the sparks for violence.

What is much less clear is what - if anything - can be done about any of this, although it is clear that governments and the European Union will have to be rather more involved than they are now.

You can argue for a piecemeal approach, trying to deal with news algorithms or tackling inadequate tax payments and some progress can be made.

It is becoming clearer, however, that there is a much greater systemic problem, and that, whether it is Amazon, Google or Facebook is the problem of historically unprecedented degrees of monopoly, and only a concerted move by governments on an international basis can do anything about that.


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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 27 Jun 2018
“There's a reasonable case to be made for more regulation of Facebook, and, separately, Google, but I'm not sure you make it very well here.
Facebook as a platform is self-moderating - so one can see why perhaps there needs to be a focus on the framework within which it operates. But you provide no evidence for why Google should be regulated. And anyone from Amazon would be justified in wondering why on earth it has been lumped in with Facebook (some legitimate complaints) and Google (few) in this piece. If we're talking about monopoly, should we not perhaps focus on Murdoch's empire and the influence it has on public opinion? Or perhaps vertically integrated telecoms and content conglomerates from the US?

That aside, the core of the problem is, once again, what counts as creating content, and what to do when people create it. The definition of publisher (which could well be outdated for the modern world) is that an organisation such as the Daily Mail, creates a story and distributes it through its platform. With social media we have a complete disaggregation (currently) of content and platform - FB is the platform, but it is not creating the content.
Unfortunately, the content is created by individuals. For example in Myanmar, Facebook did not create anti-Muslim content - individual users created it and shared it. The only difference from people telling each other in person, or calling each other to share rumours, is that it was online. So legislation to make Facebook legally responsible for this content is troubling, even if it is ultimately what will, or has to, happen.
As for established media's complaints about Facebook, they mainly have themselves to blame. They got into bed with Facebook and now don't like how it's playing. I thought there was an aphorism about "when you dance with the devil [..] the devil pays the piper"; turns out the correct version is even more appropriate: "If you dance with the devil, then you haven’t got a clue, for you think you’ll change the devil, but the devil changes you.””


14 Feb 2019 

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