After the tidal wave of criticism Facebook faced for allowing Russian troll armies to buy ads in an attempt to influence the 2016 US election, both it and Google appear to be doing their best to avoid a similar controversy in Ireland, where the country is about to vote on whether to repeal an amendment that effectively makes abortion illegal. But like many of the measures Facebook in particular has taken at curbing that kind of meddling, the solution only scratches the surface.
Facebook said Wednesday it will block any advertising that is focused on the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment unless it comes from an entity based in Ireland, while Google has gone one step further and said that it will not be carrying any advertising related to the referendum at all until it is held on May 25th. In a blog post announcing the move, Facebook said:
Concerns have been raised about organisations and individuals based outside of Ireland trying to influence the outcome of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland by buying ads on Facebook. As part of our efforts to help protect the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence, we will begin rejecting ads related to the referendum if they are being run by advertisers based outside of Ireland.
As beneficial as this might be, the issue with Facebook’s solution is the same as it was in the case of Russian interference—namely, that actual advertising purchased by trolls or bad actors is only a tiny fraction of the problem when it comes to misinformation. On a social network like Facebook, content posted on regular pages or as status updates is as good as or better than advertising, especially if it gets liked and shared and commented on (and thus gets promoted by Facebook’s News Feed algorithm). The new rules won’t stop any of that.
On a more positive note, while there are plenty of candidates for the worst investment of all time by a media company (Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of MySpace for $580 million being at or near the top of the list), but there are somewhat fewer for the best media investment of all time. One of the candidates has to be the money that South Africa’s Naspers put into Flipkart, the e-commerce company. That investment was just sold for a profit of $1.6 billion, a return that makes it even more lucrative than the stake that Britain’s Scott Trust (owner of Guardian Media Group) sold in the Auto Trader Group, which brought in about $800 million.
But even those pale in comparison to what is likely the best deal of all time: Namely, Naspers’ investment in TenCent, a company that was just a puny startup when the company invested but has since become an online titan rivalling even Amazon, with a market value of about $500 billion. Based on its recent sale of a tiny portion of its stake, the remaining stake is likely worth about $150 billion. That far outpaces Naspers’ entire market value of $108 billion, which suggests that investors see its media business as being worth less than nothing. Good thing someone bet on that tiny e-commerce startup with the weird name.