Okay, so there’s a downside.
As it becomes easier for everyone to self-publish without censorship, we also see the rise of anonymous hate, fraudulent behaviour, rampant populism, and propaganda. And then there’s the techlash. Oh, and haven’t you heard? Social media is killing journalism and culture, too.
If the internet is mightier than the sword, can the general public really be trusted to wield such powers?
I’m sarcastic, of course. As the recent debate on how social media is responsible for spreading fake news stirs up emotions, many are raising their voices for stricter regulation and increased control. We mustn’t socialise ourselves to death, it seems.
Dividing the Intellectuals
Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974) was an American writer, political commentator, and columnist. His legacy still lingers, as he coined concepts as “the Cold War” and words like “stereotype.” His most notable publication, Public Opinion (1922), is still a valuable read for public relations professionals.
Lippmann, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, engaged in heated public debates1 with John Dewey (1859 – 1952), an American philosopher and psychologist of specific interest to public relations; his perspective of human interaction gave rise to the idea of segmenting people in publics (the “p” in public relations).
Dewey critiqued Lippmann’s “elitist views”, while Lippmann emphasised the importance of journalism; the public cannot make sense of the world without objective reporting and expert insights.
The father of public relations, Edward Bernays (1891 – 1995) argued that mass media was a propaganda tool for the elites. But another influential PR practitioner, Ivy Lee (1877 – 1934), who amongst other accomplishments created the first press release and influenced the field of crisis communications, seemed to have much more faith in humanity’s capacity for understanding the world.
On Lippmann’s side of things, we see critical minds like Noam Chomsky discussing the manufacturing of consent, and on Dewey’s side, we find minds like Clay Shirky discussing here comes everybody. While Chomsky would argue that our media is primarily a tool for the elite to shape our minds, Shirky would likely argue that we as individuals have the final power (“there’s no information overload, only filter failure”).
Today, those who believe in the power of social media will argue that everyone’s a publisher with a significant voice and that the social graphs are redefining how we relate to each other. They are optimistic/idealistic about how the media landscape is changing. Those who are pessimists/conservative will argue that social media is a breeding ground for fake news, populism, and the death of one of the most important pillars of democracy — journalism.
Optimists vs. Pessimists
“The wisdom of crowds” is a beautiful concept. Wikipedia is a remarkable achievement in itself, and it couldn’t exist without its community of volunteers. WordPress powers 26% of the web, and it runs on open-source contributions from programmers all over the world.
Social media optimists argue that if there’s a problem with how humans behave, we should embrace the fact that technology are bringing these types of behaviours out in the open. Because only then can we learn, as a society, how to deal with the such serious issues.
Journalists and traditional mass media publishers, the former champions of free speech and freedom from censorship, are increasingly turning to social media pessimism. They blame social media for being in trouble — and they aren’t completely wrong.
In the wake of the recent US election, where President-elect Donald Trump won the populistic vote, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has been heavily criticised for aiding and abetting the dissemination of peak populism and the creation of filter bubbles where like-minded people strengthen their beliefs by way of social reinforcement — instead of listening to well-educated expertise on relevant subject matters. Now, should Zuckerberg use Facebook’s technological advantage to interfere through censorship at a historically unprecedented scale? Or should Zuckerberg take a more humanistic approach and allow people to find out for themselves what information to trust?
The “Bait-and-Switch” Strategy
To some extent, traditional news media publishers are reacting based on the way they’ve been treated by social media. To understand this, we must differentiate between the concept that is social media (two-way communication) and the companies that run social media. The latter have been leveraging a “bait-and-switch” strategy aimed at traditional media for many years now:
The Bait: First, social media companies offer organic reach “for free” attracting both individuals and brands alike.
The Switch: Then, as quality content producers become dependent on social media traffic, they slowly remove the organic reach.
Remember how organic Facebook Page reach quickly became useless and how it was replaced with Facebook’s many advanced ad features?
Also, if you’re a regular Facebook2 user sharing non-editorial content, your best bet for getting your update seen by friends is to have a birthday, have a baby, win an award, or get married.
See also Facebook Zero — The first fix was free.
The New Media Logic
Q: Should Facebook take action against fake news and hate?
We should be careful what we wish for: Facebook could put together a large team looking at viral information. If they find updates that violating a pre-determined set of guidelines, the team could demote this content manually, thus preventing it from being seen on anyone’s timeline. Or more likely, Facebook could just devise an AI to demote false information automatically.
Both scenarios will grant social media companies an unprecedented political power over our world views in general. As of today, social media companies are shying away from political and moral interventions, but they are increasingly forced to assume such powers by governments supported by traditional media outlets. It’s one of the greatest (and most dangerous) ironies of our time.
Q: Is social media becoming less ‘social’?
Undoubtedly, yes. Social media companies are using horizontal two-way communication to reinforce certain behaviours within their increasingly proprietary ecosystems, only to “bait-and-switch” and revert back to more traditional one-way information frameworks. This is also a great irony.
Social media companies are using the power of social graphs to grow quickly only to slowly morph into a top-down and ads-driven editorial space and replacing traditional media in the process. As communication professionals, it’s imperative that we understand all of these complex power dynamics at play. Social media companies are evolving this way simply because ordinary social media users aren’t very good at producing the type of quality needed to stand out in today’s competitive media landscape.
In short: The hippie web is dead and all brands must either embrace the professionalisation of social media or get left behind in a filter bubble deprived of oxygen.
Q: Are we in the midst of shifting to whatever comes next?
The advancements in communication technology are developing rapidly. The emerging money web is moving fast. And we’ve been living with social media for more than a decade now. From a historical perspective, we should be expecting the next shift sooner rather later. At the very least, we shouldn’t be surprised.
Still, our social media usage is deeply ingrained in our communicative behaviour. Companies like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (FAANG) are already influencing our media consumption at an impressive level.
In the long-term, blockchain technology might prove to be such a disruptive force3. Altruistic open-source solutions would outperform private social networks and resist the gliding concentration of centralised power. Blockchain technology might be what will reshape our lives after social media.
Q: How is this affecting our social media strategy as a brand?
I would recommend an approach of social optimism. You shouldn’t shy away from leveraging the power of social media in marketing and public relations; the printing press had its negative side effects too, but we had been fools to abandon its uses.
However, brands shouldn’t trust social media companies to serve as “middlemen” between your brand and your audience. Your true asset is your real-life community; if you build and maintain relationships with your community on one single platform exclusively, you risk losing that community overnight.
Yes. Social networks will make mistakes and act as commercial companies — for better or worse.
Yes. In any population big enough, some people will behave badly and be unable to cope with the responsibility of free speech.
No. Technology won’t slow down and allow for the late majority to catch up.
So, don’t just do “social media”. Focus instead 100% on building the perfect brand community using all platforms at your disposal.
- The Lippmann-Dewey debate (Wikipedia).
- All social media companies are going down the same route as Facebook. Recently, Swedish vlogger sensation Felix “pewdiepie” Kjellberg recently threatened to close down his Youtube account at a whopping 50M subscriber count in a protest against Google for interfering with the relationship between creators and their audiences.
- A blockchain is a software program that runs on thousands of computers in a network all at once. By creating portals and payment solutions that cannot be shut down or tampered with. If there were a “blockchain-Spotify,” all proceedings would go directly to the artists, and there would be no way for middle-men to squeeze themselves in.