Digital technology has revolutionized the modern world but as tech becomes more intelligent, its dangers on society become more transparent. From Trump’s tweet depicting himself wrestling ‘CNN’ to the ground to the detailed Facebook targeting used to win the Brexit vote, social media is proving to have a profound effect on humanity—and let’s not fool ourselves, this is dangerous.
Global leaders are taking advantage of social platforms to bypass the media and speak directly to the people, and walled gardens like Facebook are not only proponents of this behavior but are also directly contributing to keeping our population in divided silos. Truth be told, the reality of social tech’s impact is beginning to feel a lot like an episode of “Black Mirror.”
Journalists are still trying to report the facts but publishers are feeling the heat. Just this week, over 2,000 publishers from around the world including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, and The Washington Post, joined forces by asking Congress to work collectively against Facebook and Google in negotiations about news distribution, data, advertising, and revenue.
A distorted reality
Russia aside, most experts agree that Facebook had a definitive impact on the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Ninety million dollars were pumped into Facebook digital advertising campaigns to generate $250 million in online fundraising for Trump and secure votes for the red ticket. Facebook’s detailed targeting capabilities allowed the Trump campaign to serve ad variants that spoke to specific audiences, and some people argue that the distribution (and sharing) of fake news helped spread a plethora of misinformation.
Since Facebook users choose which friends and Pages to follow and can adjust Newsfeed preferences as they wish, users are essentially kept in social bubbles, or predetermined filters that affect everything from what news you see to which ads you are served. Facebook has always deemed personalization as a “positive” for its users and in the age of big data, the company continually touts its data mining capabilities as a huge asset to brands. But these digital echo chambers actually give Facebook (and global leaders like Trump) massive influence over a wide audience, distorting our perceptions of the world.
Half of America was surprised to learn that Trump won the election in part because they never saw the right-wing chatter on Facebook. If liberal users did, they most likely chose to block it, and vice versa.
During Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign in 2015, many of the country’s voters (myself included) were shocked to learn that some of their closest friends supported him because audiences were deliberately siloed by Facebook. Even best friends and couples were prevented from seeing each other’s posts if they referenced a differing political preference.
Like Trump, Netanyahu continues to leverage Facebook today to circumvent the media and speak directly to Israel’s 8 million citizens. With over 2 million Facebook fans, the technology- platform-turned-media-company gives Netanyahu and other global leaders a megaphone to reach the masses with whatever message they wish to amplify.
Journalism is endangered
With Facebook having so much control over the distribution of news, traditional media companies and publishers are increasingly losing the ability to reach the public with legitimate news. Could this be an unintentional, ‘silent but deadly’ war on the media by Facebook? Maybe. After all, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits any infringement on the freedom of speech or freedom of the press, both of which Facebook is clearly hindering.
After receiving backlash following the election, Facebook announced its “Facebook Journalism Project,” an initiative focused on building stronger ties with the news industry. The project includes a promise to work on new storytelling formats and partnering with local news outlets.
The current way most users consume news, however, remains a direct threat to publishers. Most of us find content that appeals to us within our Facebook feed. We click to read the article on a publisher’s site, only to click out a few seconds later to discuss the content back on Facebook. That simple click out translates into hundreds of dollars of lost revenue for publishers because monetization is inherently impossible without an audience. ‘Escape traffic’ is not only a monetary loss but also a sign of audience retention at risk.
The more people that get into the habit of consuming content on Facebook, the less likely users will return to the publisher’s site, if at all. Assuming that this trend continues, publishers (and journalists) should be very scared.
Publishers hold the key
The truth is that publishers have been ignoring missed opportunities to challenge Facebook for far too long and therein lies a legitimate solution. If media companies begin to adjust how they think about Facebook and let go of their dependence on the social giant, the ecosystem will organically change. If audiences perceived websites as digital destinations for both content and conversation, Facebook’s control over content distribution and its silo effect would render meaningless.
Today’s world leaders can—and will—continue to take advantage of Facebook’s influence and command over the public’s access to news and perceptions of the world unless publishers take action sooner rather than later.
By shifting the focus to their own websites and leveraging technology to drive conversation and engagement there, publishers will be able to keep users on-site instead of escaping to Facebook.
Communities on websites across the web will be born and publishers will save the day, protecting both journalism and democracy as we know it.
Nadav Shoval is co-founder and CEO of Spot.IM, a technology startup that builds global communities around the web. Prior to Spot.IM, Nadav founded 4 other technology companies. A resident of New York City, Nadav is a technology erudite and a sports addict. Follow him on Twitter @nadavshoval.