Bitter battle between news media and Google steps up

The internet giant, branded ‘the terrorists’ friend’, is being criticised from all quarters

It is high noon in the relationship between Google and the news media. "Google, the Terrorists' Friend", splashed the Daily Mail on Friday, declaring below its masthead that it took "two minutes on web to find a terror manual on how to use a car for mass murder". The accompanying picture was of murdered police constable Keith Palmer on his wedding day.

The loud-and-clear message was that some of the blame for the death of Palmer and three pedestrians on Westminster Bridge lay with Google.

What's more, as well as making it possible for trainee terrorists to access "vile manuals", Google's YouTube platform "was found to be raking in money from conspiracy theories" that the attack in London was a "hoax".

Although internet giants such as Google and Facebook do have a case to answer when it comes to the dissemination of extremist material, this screechy front page reveals more about the Mail than it does about Google. Its headline is not merely the latest technology-induced moral panic either, but a salvo in an intra-industry war.


Hate speech

For perhaps the first time in its history, Google is experiencing a bit of a pile-on. The Mail's headline comes in the midst of a genuine crisis for the company. Advertisers, and the big media agencies that buy advertising on their behalf, have pulled their campaigns from Google and YouTube because of the risk that their ads might be placed alongside hate speech.

It’s something of an understatement to say it is not a good look for household-name brands to end up, through automated systems, in a corner of the internet where they are generating ad income for hate preachers.

While Google has promised better safeguards and enforcement, there are still too many "gaps in the fence", as Justin Cullen, chief digital and data officer at Dublin-based Core Media, said last week. (Core has suspended its clients' campaigns on YouTube and the Google Display Network.)

One issue is that the metadata on extremist content can be altered to deceive the Google algorithm – for example, an audio Ku Klux Klan podcast placed on YouTube may use an image file of some innocuous philosopher, masking the true nature of the content.

Advertising withdrawal

The great advertising withdrawal has now spread across Europe and to the US and Australia, but it started notably in the UK with a string of articles in the British press, including several investigations by the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times newspaper. Both the Daily Mail & General Trust (DMGT) and News Corp – two media groups that are no stranger to advertiser wobbles themselves – can be said to have Google firmly in their sights.

The context is a digital advertising market that is increasingly dominated by Google and Facebook at the expense of content-producing media groups.

Research company eMarketer has forecast that Google will make $72.7 billion (€66.9 billion) in advertising revenue in 2017, meaning it controls a whopping one-third of the digital market. Fast-growing Facebook, meanwhile, will pick up $36.3 billion.

Digital is no mere sideshow to the media either. According to eMarketer’s figures, digital ads in 2017 will account for 38 per cent of worldwide advertising spend and 51 per cent of Irish advertising spend.

This is the story of the big, money-sucking players versus the would-be competitors fighting for crumbs.

Pointing this out is not to diminish the real concerns that advertisers have about extremist content and Google’s systems – quite the opposite.

Rape memes

Four years ago, some advertisers didn’t honestly seem all that bothered when their brands appeared next to domestic violence and rape memes on Facebook. It was almost as if they didn’t see it for the gender-based hate speech that it was. It is refreshing to see both advertisers and politicians wake up to the toxic extremism that festers online. And as the Californian tech giants – media giants in disguise – hold immense power and influence, any news coverage of them is by definition a case of journalists doing their job.

I don’t work for Google – or, at least, no more or less than any other journalist works for Google – but here’s my unsolicited advice on how to shrug off its current difficulty.

First of all, repeat the apologies. Everybody knows a blog post about taking responsibility costs nothing compared to the horror of actual regulation.

Secondly, the Google Digital News Initiative, which has earmarked €150 million to "spark new thinking" among media groups (funding projects at the Irish Times, Independent News & Media, and the Financial Times, among many others) remains a rather cheap way to neutralise the blow to a painfully disrupted news industry.

Finally, as the press reverts to fighting dirty, don’t forget Silicon Valley’s talent for the fluffy and cutesy. Next month will see the first post-Brexit St George’s Day: better make that Google Doodle a good one.