Nothing fake about Facebook's political influence

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

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 and The Guardian, 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.

Gideon Spanier is the head of media at Campaign.

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