Social Media: News - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:50 pm on 11th January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Black of Brentwood Lord Black of Brentwood Conservative 3:50 pm, 11th January 2018

My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness for securing this very important and timely debate. As it impacts on the media, I declare my interest as executive director of the Telegraph Media Group.

The digital revolution has been the most extraordinary transformation in the way that knowledge and news are transmitted since the arrival of the printing press in the 15th century, when information housed for centuries in manuscripts in monasteries first became publicly available. The result was an eruption in learning from past texts, theological ideas and astronomical theories that changed the world. Now we have a second shift in knowledge, which is just as powerful as that, with an explosion both in the production of content and in global access to that content, which has changed out of all recognition the way we communicate, do business, assimilate news, and indeed think and act. The next revolution, in artificial intelligence, will mark a further fundamental shift in the use of that information. The consequences of that are impossible to predict.

I welcome all that because anything which spreads knowledge across the globe is a good thing, but we have to be clear at the same time about the consequences for our society and our democracy. The giants that have powered this—Google and Facebook—are barely two decades old. They started off, as the noble Baroness said, as tech companies and, quite rightly in my view, were able to undertake the early exploration of the potential of the internet and the digital world largely free of regulation or legal restraint. But the world has changed fundamentally in those 20 years and these companies have in effect become public utilities. As we heard just now, Facebook’s active users now number over a quarter of the world’s population. For the commercial media, and the existence of an independent press, that has profound consequences because of the migration in advertising spend. As the noble Baroness also pointed to earlier, ad revenues have shifted dramatically online. It is estimated that, by 2020, more than 70% of all advertising spend will be with just Google and Facebook, with programmatic advertising fuelling fake news sites and other harmful content.

Ironically, the best antidote to the problems we have encountered with fake news is a free and independent media, which must remain the custodian of democratic debate and scrutiny. News media publishers therefore have a vital role to play in online content creation—indeed they are already the biggest investors in it. Nearly 60% of investment in UK original news content comes from newsbrands, and publishers now invest at least £100 million in digital services. But the companies benefiting from that investment are of course the global tech giants which rely on content from newsbrands to power their services. Content from UK news brands drives around a billion social media interactions a year, and eight of the top 10 most shared UK websites on social media were UK news media sites. As the New Statesman succinctly put it recently,

“most media organisations are now tenant farmers on Facebook’s estate”.

So we have the irony that the advertising revenues that fund the trusted news that people want are diminishing rapidly and its providers are heavily regulated, while the platforms and the social media that feed on them are almost wholly unregulated and growing exponentially. That disparity will be made much worse as a result of the amendments to the Data Protection Bill that the House passed last night—I had to say that just for the sake of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Not least as a result of that, the stage is set for the growth of fake news here, fuelled by advertising supply chains described recently by Marc Pritchard of Proctor & Gamble as “murky at best”.

In conclusion, technology has changed the face of the world and, in spreading knowledge and information, has been a source of great good, but with power comes responsibility, and it is surely the responsibility of all those involved in regulation and lawmaking both to ensure the financial sustainability and independence of free media producing real news in this country and to tackle the issues of liability for illegal content, enforcing copyright and defamation and ensuring the fitness and transparency of the advertising supply chain that will ensure that real, verified news continues to thrive as part of a diverse and vigorous digital environment.