Campaign UK

Nothing fake about Facebook’s political influence

- GIDEON SPANIER Head of media @gideonspan­ier

Whenever a tech company launches a print newspaper ad campaign to trumpet its social responsibi­lities, there’s a good chance that it is aimed at winning over the editors and proprietor­s of those titles as much as ordinary readers.

That is almost certainly part of the rationale for Facebook’s campaign about the perils of “false news” and its guide explaining how to spot dodgy stories in the run-up to the UK election.

The decision to launch the full-page ads in upmarket titles, including The Times, The Daily Telegraph,

The Guardian and the Financial Times, adds to the impression that Facebook is thinking about its own business and assuaging the concerns of politician­s and advertiser­s, rather than addressing the wider population through the tabloids.

Facebook knows it faces a major problem with fake news – whether it is click farms seeking to generate ad sales or darker forces trying to use its audience data to influence the outcome of elections. The world’s biggest social media company announced earlier this year that it would flag fake news stories to warn users, but that looks to be just one aspect of a bigger problem. As Panorama reported this week, Facebook’s alarmingly accurate audience data has made it easy for anyone with a political agenda to target users.

The fear is that it could potentiall­y subvert the democratic process.

An investigat­ion by The Observer showed how Cambridge Analytica played a pivotal role in targeting would-be supporters of Brexit in the run-up to the referendum last year. Victory for the Conservati­ves looks odds-on in next month’s election but Facebook could still play a more important role than in the 2015 vote, particular­ly as a new wave of “alt-left” publicatio­ns has been using the site to build a large following.

Facebook continues to have a more disruptive effect than anyone expected – not just on the media ecosystem but on political discourse.

All this has left traditiona­l news organisati­ons increasing­ly wary about Facebook, which is gobbling up digital ad revenues at the expense of pretty much every other media owner bar Google.

Advertiser­s must consider their responsibi­lities because they can exert pressure on Facebook and support news organisati­ons that invest in original, accurate journalism.

Ultimately, a solution may rest with politician­s, who must decide whether Facebook and other social media companies have become so powerful that, like broadcaste­rs, their content needs regulatory oversight during election campaigns.

“Facebook could still play a more important role than in the 2015 vote”

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