Facebook needs to 'open up or break up' in 2018 as tech giants face 'existential problems in liberal democracies'

Social media giants risk being told to “open up or break up” in 2018 as fears over fake news approach boiling point, a leading academic has suggested.

“It may well be that this is the beginning of the end for these firms,” said Dr Damian Tambini, director of the London School of Economics’ (LSE) media policy project.

The days of social networks enjoying an ability to shift public opinion, while remaining largely free of the liabilities publishers faced, might be numbered, he told the Press Association.

Last year Press Gazette’s Duopoly campaign highlighted concerns that Facebook and Google threatened the sustainability of digital journalism by hoovering up most of money spent on digital advertising in the UK.

“For these super-giant companies it’s got very serious now. They have to face up to the fact they’re coming up against existential problems in liberal democracies,” Dr Tambini said.

“They should at least clarify the principles behind how their algorithms rank news, because when they tweak it they effectively become something between an editor and a censor, particularly given their monopoly position.

“They have enjoyed this ability to use our data, our content, our innovation, to create huge businesses and we have given them a shield from a lot of the risks.

“So essentially we made them – is this the year that we begin unmaking them?”

Leading social media companies have been criticised recently over their replies to a parliamentary investigation into fake news and allegations of Russian interference in British politics.

Twitter’s response was described as “completely inadequate” by Damian Collins, chairman of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, who also accused Facebook of doing virtually “no work” to help the probe.

Meanwhile, Professor Charlie Beckett, leading LSE’s new Truth, Trust and Technology Commission, compared the fake news phenomenon and proliferation of junk information with air pollution.

“You can either ban all cars because that solves the problem, or you try to make the cars cleaner, regulate traffic etc,” Professor Beckett said.

“It’s a gradual process to solve what is now a serious social health issue.

“The vastness of this over-abundance of information means it’s incredibly difficult to edit or regulate without smashing up its more wonderful aspects.

“The trouble is, they can’t be regulated like a broadcaster because content is not edited pre-publication. They can’t check everything before it goes on their platform.”

Both academics agreed that there was a “crisis in public information” brought about by deep-rooted structural change in media.

Dr Tambini added: “Fundamentally this is a problem not about any one actor … it’s about the shift to social, undermining long-established journalism traditions, and changing business models.

“People are seeking virality rather than using careful verification owing to pressures in the industry.”

Facebook announced recently that it would stop displaying warning icons next to suspected fake news stories, after research suggested that doing so was not correcting misinformation.

The site said it would now use a related articles feature instead to help readers gain a broader range of views on a subject.

Facebook product manager Tessa Lyons said: “False news undermines the unique value that Facebook offers. It’s why we’re investing in better technology and more people to help prevent the spread of misinformation.

“Demoting false news (as identified by fact-checkers) is one of our best weapons because demoted articles typically lose 80% of their traffic.

“This destroys the economic incentives spammers and troll farms have to generate these articles in the first place.”

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