March 9, 2017 Last Updated 1:18 pm

Technology sites begin paying attention to role being play by Google and Facebook in ‘fake news’ controversy

These sites may be more interested in the story from the tech angle, but they also see themselves as part of the mainstream media, in competition for advertising with fringe websites delivering content of questionable accuracy

It is the not the habit of this site to rewrite a story that appears on a major tech site, or any other for that matter, unless I have something to add to the conversation – or if I feel the story hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. But when a story about the media appears on a tech site – say Engadget or Mashable – you can be pretty sure it will reach a large audience. Certainly a larger audience than TNM would provide the story.

So, when Nick Summers, the associate editor at Engadget UK, wrote about the call by the News Media Association for an inquiry into the role Google and Facebook are playing in the dissemination of so-called fake news, there seemed no reason to do more than to take the URL of the story are tweet it. So I did.

It’s an important story for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the same organization has called for greater transparency in digital advertising – another major problem facing the media today as they lose ad dollars to websites that may not be delivering what advertisers are being told is being delivered.

“We believe that quality of media is simply the quality of the pipe, and whether it accurately reaches someone we’ve predicted might be interested in us, rather than the whole context around the message and the brand,” Saatchi & Saatchi chairman and chief strategy officer Richard Huntington is quoted in a post appearing on the association’s website.

But back to the issue of fake news.

Engadget sees itself as part of the mainstream media — as well it should. So it should come as no surprise that it might see the issue of fake news, and the involvement of Google and Facebook in its distribution, as a big problem.

The NMA’s position is pretty clear: fake news is threatening the viability of real news, and whether or not it’s their attention, Facebook and Google are tied to its growing popularity. The UK’s newspaper industry wants the pair investigated, not necessarily to penalize them, but to figure out how the phenomenon can be curtailed. “Instead of weakening the press, government and regulators should concentrate on combating fake news with a renewed emphasis on the importance of genuine news media to democracy. The best defense against fake news is for genuine news publishers to continue their important work of investigative journalism.”

We all know how the popular tech sites all mimic each other – write a story about an Apple iPhone rumor and you can bet it will be repeated dozens of times until the same site that started the chain will write a second story about how the rumor must be true because other websites are writing about it.

So, no surprise, Mashable soon picked up the same story about the NMA, Google and Facebook.

Here is where I have something to say about all this: telling Google and Facebook to stop spreading fake news is easy, but will accomplish nothing. All you have to do is look at the small number of comments appearing on the Engadget story, they are not at all sympathetic.

The fact is that media consumption is fragmenting based on politics, and while journalists can’t believe that there are those that prefer to read Breitbart to The New York Times the simply fact is that they do.

The solution is not likely to come from the editorial side of this argument, but from the ad side – which is why both the “fake news” and “digital advertising” stories are important and compliment each other.

Advertisers need to demand better accountability — not only for traffic numbers, but where their ads are appearing and what editorial environment. Google and Facebook are currently to blame not for delivering fake news, but for delivering bad content, bad metrics, and bad results.

Google, as example, has no problem accusing this website of presenting their ads in a pornographic environment every time a cover of a men’s magazine is used to accompany a story of a men’s magazine (duh). There is no nudity, ever, yet Google complains.

Yet what about a Google delivered ad delivered next to a story accusing Hillary Clinton of being on death’s doorstep, or a story about how liberals are advocating “white genocide” whenever they push for respect for minorities?

Change won’t happen until the money is taken out of creating fake news. As long as advertising is not about the quality of the news environment but about the number of eyes delivered (period, as Stephen Miller would say), then one cannot blame Google or Facebook for simply delivering more traffic.

But let’s not leave it at “quality” versus “quantity” — that won’t work either. In the heyday of newspapers, every newspaper publisher out there knew that the reason readers were loyal to their products was not simply the great stories being generated by their newsrooms. It was more complicated than that. Newspaper readers bought the paper for lots of reasons — for instance, classified advertising, events calendars, the coupons and inserts, etc.

What they also knew was that the one thing that could hurt them was if they began to be seen as delivering an unwanted product. So, adult film ads were often not allowed in. Or gun ads (depending on the community).

It was the overall news environment that mattered, and that included the content that was not news.

If advertisers were more concerned about how the websites where their ads appear reflected on their brands, and demanded better accountability, we might well see the fake news problem solve itself.

“If Google stops engaging with Breitbart that would be a really big step as a lot of advertising wouldn’t appear on the site,” Emma Pullman, lead campaign strategist at SumOfUs, told The Independent last month as part of a story that said Breitbart could be losing a large number of advertisers because of activists efforts.

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