How social media became toxic

Do you remember the advent of social media when they were praised for being disruptive, positive innovations? The talk was of long tails, wisdom of crowds, the end of old-fashioned business models (dead tree press is dead) or statements like the new world is bottom up – or flat – rather than top down. Now they are being discussed by the same enthusiasts as if they were managed by oligarchical villains selling addictive, toxic products and lifestyles to an inert public that is blind to reason. But the commentators’ new-found pessimism is as misguided as their abandoned optimism.

In 2009, I debated Neville Hobson, who describes himself as a blogger, podcaster, communication leader, social media strategist, digital change agent and public speaker. In a post titled There’s no social media revolution I questioned his claim that social media were responsible for a revolutionary shift that was changing the rules of business.

In support of his argument, Hobson cited Erik Qualman’s claim that word of mouth was, effectively, the new black. Supposedly, user-generated content was supplanting advertising. Whereas 75% of consumers trusted peer recommendations, only 14% trusted advertising. Hence, successful companies in social media would need to act more like party planners, aggregators, and content providers than traditional advertisers. In this brave new world, dynamic companies were going to have to behave more like Dale Carnegie than David Ogilvy.

Qualman, Hobson and others maintained that old-fashioned command and control management and traditional marketing techniques were about to be overturned by new decentralised, more democratic social networks. Yet fast forward to 2018 and we now find Neville HobsonThomas Stoeckle and Sam Knowles, and many others, poking fun at out of touch US politicians who don’t understand Facebook’s simplistic centralised business model:

Since we [Hobson, Stoeckle and Knowles] last podded, Zuckerberg has appeared before Congress and the Senate and explained – as patiently as he could to Congressmen and Senators often more than twice his age – how the publisher-platform makes its money; “Senator, we sell ads!” [Small Data Forum Podcast 18: Inertia, ethics, and breaches of trust; notes written by Sam Knowles]

Politicians now get that Facebook’s supposedly revolutionary business model is exactly the same as traditional media’s. That is a model, I note, that has survived unchanged, despite welcome technological progress, since mass media first appeared on the scene in the 18th century, with the launch of newspapers. So Facebook’s business model is actually no different to that of TV or radio companies or magazines or newspapers. They all earn their keep by selling advertising that reaches an audience that consumes appealing content or makes use of compelling services. Moreover, Hobson, Stoeckle and Knowles observe, correctly in my view, that:

…despite perhaps the worst run of bad news in recent corporate history, ad revenue and profitability at Facebook continue to grow. Big brands aren’t weaning themselves off their Facebook addiction, whatever big beasts including P&G’s Marc Pritchard and Unilever’s Keith Weed might say.

They concur with professor Mark Ritson, who, writing for Marketing Week, held that Chief Marketing Officers remained silent during the Cambridge Analytica scandal because “the psychographic targeting and use of 1st, 2nd, but particularly 3rd-party data has been the stock-in-trade of their digital advertising for years”. This, they say, provides “more evidence of inertia from business to shift out of their shiny new ways of reaching consumers”.

This welcome reality check should not blind us to how their once wild pessimism has turned into its opposite. Of course, it is good news that they no longer talk about how social media empowers positive revolutionary changes that bring about fundamental shifts in behaviours, which realign the balance of power between governments, major corporations, consumers and the general public. But I nevertheless wish to once again suggest that they are headed in the wrong direction.

In what can only be described as a remarkable U-Turn, they now view big business, consumers and the voting public as being victims, addicted to social media and immune to reason. So rather than speaking up the so-called empowering digital revolution as they once did, today they do something far worse. They pathologise the modern technological world:

Perhaps we’re living in the digital equivalent of when Sir Richard Doll first established a conclusive link between smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s, but smoking rates stayed stubbornly high. Indeed, the impact of likes and favourites, retweets and shares is mediated through the very same reward circuitry in the brain as each puff of a cigarette, so perhaps this inertia to shake our digital addiction isn’t surprising.

In their view, social media and the few big companies that own and fund it are spreading a disease. The rest of us are victims of its toxicity, about which we are in denial because both big business (those not part of the digital oligarchy led by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos) and the public are composed of inert fools resistant to change. In their words:

Some have tightened security settings – and many have denied Facebook the opportunity to apply facial recognition algorithms to recognise them where they’re untagged as part of a pre-GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] update. But the threat of losing the chance of being poked by your first love is proving too much of an anchor to users. Inertia rules, despite the very clear appeals to reason.

So the once change-making social media revolution has supposedly become a force that facilitates social conservatism. In their view, which resembles that of the wider commentariat and Twitterati, the increasing hegemony of the FAANGs (Facebook Apple Amazon Netflix and Google) merely benefits these behemoths. Rather than reengaging citizens, the web has created passive consumers who swallow corporate advertising as well as propaganda and fake news pumped out by Putin’s Kremlin and Trump’s White House through the FAANGs. In their words:

Perhaps, just perhaps, things can feel desperate because – for the first time – many more people (and potentially everyone) has a clear line of sight into what is actually happening. It’s confused, it’s nested and vested, it’s murky and dirty, and ordinary individual citizens don’t seem to have any heft or influence over the corporate-military-industrial complex.

This is a very one-sided viewpoint that feeds paranoia and public cynicism. It is the outlook of supposedly superior people who belittle ordinary people. It assumes, for instance, that they voted for Trump and Brexit because they were duped by social media posts planted by conspirators. It suggests that the public possesses no moral agency of its own. That fear was at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal; the idea that it mined our data to control our minds in order to produce otherwise inexplicable outcomes.

And where the commentariat still sees optimism and future progress, they muddle things still further. For example, they seem to think that the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will help save the day by turning negatives into positives. They seem not to get that GDPR is a shoddy form of protectionism, which acts as a regulatory shield designed to protect European interests from mainly US competition.

In Europe today, there’s no sign of any significant state-led investment in R&D and new solutions, the likes of which kick-started and sustained Silicon Valley. Instead the European Union has launched a trade war that is every bit as destructive as the one proposed by Donald Trump to counter China’s economic strengths. [See: With GDPR in the Background, Digital Protectionism Is on the Rise]

Over the next few weeks I shall defend consumers, voters and big business by putting a more positive case for social media and all things digital than that being mounted today by the likes of Hobson, Stoeckle, Knowles and other commentators.

Keep reading this blog…. more soon.

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