The influential British press industry publication Press Gazette has launched a campaign to save old media from what they, and others in the journalism industry including NewsCorp and The Guardian, believe to be the existential threat of Google and Facebook.
The campaign, entitled “duopoly,” takes aim at the two web giants for monopolizing ad revenue, claiming that the “dwindling” amount of revenues going to news companies themselves is “destroying” the U.K. journalism industry.
The Press Gazette argues that Google and Facebook, expected to control 71 percent of all digital advertising revenue in the U.K. by 2020, constitute a duopoly.
The publication quotes similar concerns from Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, Robert Thomson, Chief Executive of NewsCorp, and Ben De Pear, editor of Channel 4 News.
According to The Gazette, Facebook and Google ought to be doing more to save what they consider to be a noble profession, far nobler than what they cast as the “fake news”-infested web giants.
Journalism, which is broadly a social good, is being replaced by entities which have little responsibility and are complicit in creating a good deal of harm by distributing misleading and extremist content.
The Gazette also wants social networks to do more to fight “fake news.”
Google and Facebook need to work harder to clearly identify and promote accurate professionally-produced journalism – clearly distinguishing it from fictional content masquerading as news.
Presumably, this won’t include the stream of lies, misinformation, and exaggeration regularly peddled by mainstream outlets. That, in The Gazette’s view, counts as “accurate professionally-produced journalism.”
Well, it’s certainly professionally-produced.
Legacy journalism’s war on Google and Facebook has been a long time coming. In fact, the fight kicked off in earnest at least a month before The Gazette announced their campaign. As is increasingly common, public declarations of war now seem to come after the initial shots have been fired, if they come at all.
Consider the following sequence of events:
In January, The Sun, a NewsCorp publication published a story about Felix Kjellberg, better known as “PewDiePie,” an internet comedian and the most successful YouTuber in history, due to an allegedly offensive joke the comedian had made and later apologized for.
Just as the initial controversy appeared to be settling down, The Wall Street Journal, another NewsCorp publication, released the results of an investigation carried out by no fewer than three of its highly-paid journalists into Kjellberg’s history. The reporters combed through hundreds of videos, cherry-picking the most offensive jokes they could find, and sending them to Kjellberg’s commercial partners, eventually causing Disney to sever ties with the YouTuber.
The incident stunned other YouTube creators, many of whom published sympathetic videos backing Kjellberg and slamming the press.
One of the most mysterious elements of the controversy was the motivations of the Sun and Wall Street Journal. Kjellberg was not political. His content consists almost entirely of comedy and video game-related content. He had never attacked the mainstream media in any serious way. Yet two NewsCorp publications seemed determined to destroy him.
While Kjellberg isn’t political, however, he is the most successful YouTuber in history, with more wealth and influence than most cable TV hosts. More than anyone else, Kjellberg represented the ascendancy of the YouTube commentator over the TV pundit. And, as would soon become apparent, old media had YouTube in its sights.
In February, The Times of London (yet another NewsCorp publication) released an article by Alex Mostrous, its head of investigations, entitled “The Click Trick: How Advertisers End Up On Extremist Websites.”
An investigation by The Times, one of the oldest and most respected names in journalism, is a big deal. The story was followed up with another investigation, published in March, drawing attention to the adverts of major brands appearing next to “extremist” content on YouTube. The Wall Street Journal (NewsCorp again) conducted a similar investigation.
Other publications quickly jumped on board, including The Guardian, which published a report claiming that extremists made £250,000 (approximately $312,620) from adverts on YouTube.
The backlash from multinational companies was swift and merciless. Over 250 brands, including household names like PepsiCo and McDonald’s, pulled their adverts from YouTube, costing the company an eye-watering $750,000,000, according to analysts.
Creators on YouTube, heavily reliant on adverts for their income, saw revenues on their videos plummet from hundreds of dollars to a few cents. Google, the parent company of YouTube, scrambled to reassure advertisers that it can protect their brands and is currently overhauling its systems. If the YouTube ad controversy was round one in the fight between Old Media vs New Media, Old Media came out on top.
YouTuber’s revenue before and after the ad boycott (via RoamingMillennial)
Last week, The Times of London (NewsCorp…) published a piece about Facebook, claiming that the social network allows the publication of jihadist content and “paedophilic cartoons,” putting it at risk of criminal prosecution. In a comment to The Times, Facebook apologized for failing to remove the content and pledged to take action.
In the same week, the Press Gazette launched its campaign against Facebook and Google. In their piece, they directly cited The Times’ investigation into YouTube as a failure of the latter company, using it as an excuse to urge advertisers to return to traditional media:
It seems clear that The Times and other publications currently attacking Facebook and Google are not motivated simply by a desire to expose “extremism” and other unsavory content. If they were, they would have taken action far sooner, or paid more attention to Breitbart Tech’s extensive reporting on the subject.
It is also telling that none of these publications seem to be interested in Twitter, which is also home to extremist content. Perhaps it’s because Twitter, far smaller than Google or Facebook, is little more than an afterthought for advertisers. With minimal engagement on Twitter ads, companies are fleeing the platform.
As to why the efforts of the old media against the new are being spearheaded by NewsCorp publication: that remains a mystery. The company has long had a pessimistic view of the ability of ad revenue to fund journalism and many of its top publications (including The Times and Wall Street Journal are paywalled). Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but given the amount of resources that are being deployed by both The Times and WSJ against Google and Facebook, it seems unlikely.
So far, new media has done virtually nothing to fight back against the onslaught. There is, in fact, little they can do. The issues raised by old media, so far, have been valid, regardless of their motivation. Facebook and Google have no option but to clean house.
Facebook’s one attempt to fight back was a woeful PR blunder: when the BBC flagged images of child abuse with Facebook during an investigation into pedophiles using the platform, the social media company reported them to the police for distributing child pornography. Facebook was roundly ridiculed across the mainstream media.
The other danger, of course, is that these platforms will over-correct, implementing such heavy-hanged censorship that ordinary creators find themselves stifled. There is some evidence that this is already happening, with YouTube creators finding themselves stripped of ad revenue when they discuss even mildly controversial topics. If social media stars are incentivized to become ad-friendly but uninteresting, it will be the kiss of death for their platforms.
It is difficult to see how social media companies can fight back. However, that may not be the case for the people who use their platforms. There is a new class of social media superstars, particularly on YouTube, who rely on ad revenue for their livelihoods and are greatly threatened by the sudden onslaught of old media. These are millennial mega-celebrities like PewDiePie, with tens of millions of subscribers, whose endorsement (or denouncement) can make or break a brand.
In the wake of attacks from the mainstream media, some of these YouTubers have begun to fight back. Popular comedy channel h3h3 Productions recently trashed Pepsi (one of the brands that pulled its ads from YouTube) in a video that has so far been watched 2 million times. PewDiePie, meanwhile, released multiple videos attacking the Wall Street Journal, with tens of millions of views.
Given that the audience of these channels skews young, these numbers should be deeply worrying for the brands coming under attack. They are potentially alienating an entire generation of YouTube viewers, who now view them as uncool. Brands will do almost anything to avoid the “uncool” image, something that restricts their audience to the elderly and the aging.
It’s important to note that both of these YouTubers are comedians, not political activists. But the advertiser boycott has hit every YouTuber, political and non-political alike. The global brands boycotting YouTube, and the mainstream media outlets that pressured them to do so, are making enemies across the entire range of the political spectrum on the largest video-hosting platform on the web.
This could be a battle for the ages. While older generations may not care about YouTube, it is arguably the cable news of the future. Young people don’t turn on Bill O’Reilly when they want an opinion they can trust — they tune in to a video from PewDiePie, h3h3 Productions, or the myriad other independent YouTube commentators.
It’s no wonder that the old guard of the mainstream media have been so relentless in their attacks on YouTube. The platform is perhaps their single greatest threat. This is a communication channel that has seen remarkable growth and a high level of interactivity between audience members and content creators due to a distinct lack of barriers to entry.
During the 2016 campaign, the conservative viewpoint may have been all but silent on television (some would argue including NewsCorp-owned FOX news), but YouTube and social media were hopping with discussion, commentary, and funny remixes of political speeches within minutes of them happening. It’s a platform with fewer hierarchies, and fewer filters, whose creators able to react far faster, and with far bolder commentary than their mainstream rivals.
While they have yet to properly organize, their growing influence rightly terrifies old media. While the YouTube ad boycott and the grovelling apologies of Google and Facebook may indicate the old guard are winning, don’t be fooled. Their backlash against social media is nothing more than a panicked, desperate reaction to their looming extinction. If the social media platforms let their creators create, and keep censorship to a minimum (and that’s admittedly a big “if”), the future belongs to them.