The giants of the internet may be massively profitable, but that doesn't mean they have it easy. With President Trump targeting Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) (NASDAQ:GOOG), Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), and others for what he views as a liberal bias, investors have to consider the possibility that the White House could put a crimp on their bottom lines.
In this segment from the MarketFoolery podcast, host Mac Greer and Bill Mann, The Motley Fool's director of small-cap research, weigh in on these companies' decisions to at least attempt to limit the proliferation of fake news and disinformation. Is there regulatory risk? In Bill's view, the real problems with their efforts to exercise some editorial control and provide greater transparency on where stories are coming from will be a bit different.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Aug. 30, 2018.
Mac Greer: Speaking of politics.
Bill Mann: Oh, OK.
Greer: A beautiful segue.
Mann: Let's be very careful.
Greer: Yes, we're going to be very careful. We are not a political show. But we're going to try to talk about this through the lens of an investor as President Trump is continuing his Twitter attacks on Google. If you're just joining this story, one of the issues here is Trump's claim that Google favors liberal content and did not promote Trump's State of the Union address the same way Google promoted Obama's. Now, Google has responded, saying they haven't historically promoted the first address to Congress by a new president, which is technically not a state of the union.
Mann: Yeah! And I think it is generally called a state of the union address.
Greer: If you want to win a bar bet with a bunch of political nerds, it's not a state of the union. Google also went on to say that they did promote Trump's 2018 State of the Union address. Bill, we're not going to litigate this particular dispute.
Mann: Please, God.
Greer: But what I do want to get your thoughts on is how you think of the regulatory risk. This isn't just a Google story. Trump has really called out social media for being what he claims to be unfair to conservative content --
Mann: Or to Trump, specifically.
Greer: Exactly. So, how do you think of this as an investor? Should investors in Google be worried?
Mann: I think they should be. I think that they should be worried a little. I mean, the good news for Google and the good news for Facebook is that it's probably not going to hurt them in terms of their lead. There's not some conservative Facebook that's coming out that's going to knock Facebook off of its perch; or, take the other side, a progressive Facebook that's going to knock it off its perch. But I think that there's a big question, and a lot of people looking back at the Alex Jones issue earlier this year with Facebook, and how Facebook has said, "We're going to try and limit fake news," things like that, to me, there's an open question about whether they should do that, from the standpoint of being a business. As a business, it is going to cost them millions upon millions of dollars to go through and basically censor the news.
Greer: So, you're saying, exercising editorial control. And basically, at some point, making a decision about what content stays, what content doesn't, how to prioritize content. That's going to have implications.
Mann: Yeah. And I think that ultimately, whether it is real or perceived by one side or the other, it is really, really going to be hard for them to be fair, for them to be even-handed across the issues. Unfortunately, from my standpoint, that ship has sailed. They are now in that business. But I ultimately think that in a couple of years, they're going to look back and see that as being a mistake, as something that will be very, very costly for them, and will be very hard for them to do correctly. As a business, that's not the type of thing you want to take on.
Greer: OK, but taking the other side of this, politics aside. If increasingly, Facebook --
Mann: I thought you were going to say something like, "OK, taking the other side of this -- Trump's right, right?"
Greer: [laughs] No, no, I'm not getting into the overt politics of this. Facebook has a lot to lose if, increasingly, their platform is cluttered up with information.
Greer: I'm not sure where it's coming from. I may be conservative, I may be liberal, I may be anywhere in between. Isn't there something to be said for at least being more transparent? If I'm seeing an ad, I want to know where that ad came from. If I'm seeing a story, I want to know who paid for it and where it came from.
Mann: You're exactly right. I think that there are probably routes that they could have gone that opened up that disclosure, but ultimately, it's going to be really hard for them to do it right.
Greer: And it's going to cost something.
Mann: Yeah. It's going to cost something, and I think that there's something to be said for the good and the bad ideas all being out there in the open and letting them beat each other up. I'd like to think of humankind that eventually, the good ideas will win. But, it's going to be very hard for them to get it right.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Bill Mann has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Mac Greer owns shares of Alphabet (C shares) and Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Facebook, and Twitter. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.