Complex Made Simple

‘Producing fake news is cheap’. So will it ever cease to exist?

There’s one word that saw a 365 percent increase in usage since 2016 making it Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2017.

That word is ‘fake news.’ Although popularized in 2016 during the US elections – and since then by the US President – fake news is not exclusive to either; it is an all-pervasive epidemic that seems to have hit Facebook the hardest.

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Fake News?

In fact, a 2017 Ipsos survey conducted in the US found that an astounding 75 percent of Americans believe ‘fake news’ headlines.

What’s worse for Facebook is that people who cite the platform as a major source of news are more likely to view fake news headlines as accurate than those who rely less on it for news.

Facebook, for its part, says that it has tied up with external fact-checkers but its stringent control on sharing information with them is leading to their frustration, and eventually, inefficiency.

“Producing fake news is cheap, but producing quality, fact-checked, fair and balanced reporting is costly,” said Faisal J. Abbas, editor-in-chief of Saudi English-language daily Arab News at the International Media Gala on the first day of the Arab Media Forum in Dubai.

He took this opportunity to announce the rebrand of the 43-year-old Saudi newspaper and its ‘Vision 2020’, which includes a focus on digital.

Publishers can’t compete with the rates offered by the likes of Google and Facebook, but they can’t cut down on the quality at the expense of the truth, either, he said.

The big tech giants started by amassing a large user base and then exploiting their data to make money, which is why these walled gardens command anywhere above 70 to 80 percent of digital ad spends in most markets.

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Admittedly both Google and Facebook have gotten into trouble with fines being slapped on both especially in the EU, but the issues of fake news and brand safety persist – the companies need to be accountable.

Speaking to AMEinfo’s sister publication Communicate last year, Andy Powell, sales director, Middle East, Africa & Turkey, InMobi, says, “Google, YouTube and Facebook should take full responsibility for their actions.”

“If they create an ecosystem and people abuse it, then, as the owner of that ecosystem, they need to take responsibility,” adds Alistair Burton, who was then digital media director at Initiative.

Content publishers don’t have the scale and/or the data points of their readers that the likes of Facebook do, which means that the monetization model is completely different.

Combatting fake news, therefore, starts with relooking at the digital monetization model for media, said Abbas, calling for a fairer model for content creators.

“The only way forward is to ensure sufficient monetization of our digital platforms,” he added.

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Real news gets drowned by fake news

Moreover, Facebook’s advertising formats and algorithms decrease the visibility of quality content.

For instance, its in-roll ads run between a video and are not skippable, which leads users to stop watching the video altogether, says Ihab El Yaman, head of mobile and performance director at mobile audience network MEmob.

“Users hate the fact that they are forced to watch ads during a video and they have no option to skip it,” he says. Also, Facebook’s algorithm pushes content that has the potential for virality, which in most cases is “stories of cats falling off the couch,” versus quality content. “Facebook should limit these videos and at least give priority to educational content.

I can’t remember when was the last time I watched an effective educational piece of content on Facebook; it has been ages,” adds Yaman

Despite the concerns around these tech giants, one can’t deny their popularity as distributions channels.

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Many audiences today turn to social media and the Internet for news. And so, it is imperative for news publishers to work with tech companies “for the sake of combating fake news and preserving the editorial integrity,” said Abbas.

“Given the precedent of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the implications of Cambridge Analytica and the inability of the Internet’s dominant players – the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter – to effectively self-regulate on big issues such as data protection, fake news and public rights, it’s likely that we will see more cooperation between policymakers when it comes to drafting and enforcing new legislation,” says Alex Malouf, IABC Chair for Europe, Middle East and North Africa.

In the last two years, we have seen elections being allegedly rigged; hate speech being given a free platform; racial targeting by advertisers; terrorist content being freely uploaded online; and a man walking in armed into a bar to investigate “Pizzagate,” an online fake news scandal.

Monetize, Monetize, Monetize

At the center of it, all are the tech giants and their unregulated, unfair, and unethical, monetization practices.

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And so, as Abbas suggests, “It is time we all stood together and discuss a sustainable future which ensures fairer revenues from digital platforms, a future we can build together to protect us, our children and our children’s children from fake news.”

During Top CEO 2018, a private roundtable was held to discuss the state of the industry and the need for regulation.

Since then, several conversations with senior industry execs and officials have taken place to get the initiative moving.

Julien Hawari, co-CEO of leading publishing and events company Mediaquest, says, “Our region is at an unfair disadvantage due to the lack of regulation of the big tech giants.

It is essential to have this discussion and take actions to preserve the industry.

I need to stress that this initiative is not about restricting access to anyone, but about harmonizing and leveling the playing field to create a fair competition.”

This article first appeared in AMEinfo’s sister publication, Communicate.