I'm an expat American in the UK and watching what's been happening with Facebook and UK Parliament in the last few months has been interesting.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has released its final report into disinformation and fake news this month, after 18 months of work. The report is a damning indictment of “big tech” and highly-critical of Facebook in particular.
“The big tech companies are failing in the duty of care they owe to their users to act against harmful content, and to respect their data privacy rights”, said Damian Collins MP, Chair of the DCMS Committee.
“Companies like Facebook exercise massive market power which enables them to make money by bullying the smaller technology companies and developers who rely on this platform to reach their customers.
“The guiding principle of the ‘move fast and break things’ culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission.
“We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people. The age of inadequate self regulation must come to an end.”
We’re in the age of the ‘data barons’
I should caveat this, before I dig right in, by saying that despite my own misgivings I do still use many of the apps and social networks I’m going to talk about. This is partly out of necessity, for reaching contacts who also use them. But I, like many others, have been making a real effort to cut back. I’m all too aware that these companies view me and my data as their assets.
I think Damian Collins captures a critical issue when he says Facebook exercise massive market power. Alongside Google and Amazon, they have come to dominate the tech landscape, with Technology Insider dubbing them the ‘data barons’.
As Technology Insider points out, the history of technology has seen singularly powerful corporations before—think Microsoft, the undisputed heavyweight of the PC era. What’s different this time is the enormous influence the big firms have over so many parts of daily life.
A couple of small examples: 45% of American adults now get at least some of their news from Facebook; 84% of global spending on digital ads (outside China) goes to Google and Facebook.
This dominance allows them to play a dangerous role in our politics and culture, even undermining the democratic process. Facebook itself now says that between June 2015 and August 2017, as many as 126 million people may have seen content on the network that was created by a Russian troll farm - specifically to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election.
The data is theirs and content publishers have little control
This dominance of the tech giants is particularly telling when it comes to data and control over what users see. Content publishers, whether they’re company content marketers or established publishing giants, have been using social media to attract readers since its early days.
But this means an arbitrary change to, for example, the newsfeed algorithm on Facebook can decimate reader figures overnight. As explained by Stevan Dojcinovic in this opinion piece for The New York Times:
“Facebook had made a small but devastating change. Posts made by “pages” — including those of organizations like mine — had been removed from the regular News Feed, the default screen users see when they log on to the social media site. They were now segregated into a separate section called Explore Feed that users have to select before they can see our stories. (Unsurprisingly, this didn’t apply to paid posts.)”
And there is no recourse. Companies who have invested time and money in building significant communities on these platforms must now pay for the privilege to reach them.
There is a pervasive culture of clickbait and fake news
The tech giants and social media firms haven’t just taken over the data though, they’ve changed the whole way we communicate.
While clickbait and fake news aren’t one and the same, to me they’re part of the same problem. Facebook in particular (alongside Twitter) has created a culture where content that drives clicks, likes, shares and engagement is given preference, no matter the quality (or truth) of it.
And content publishers have become complicit in this. It’s so easy to conform to the ‘post first, ask questions later’ mentality. There are, of course, many brands that have continued producing quality content. But there’s no denying we see a lot more headlines like this: “You won't believe what Trump just said: 6 eye-popping moments”, even from respected sources.
The problem with all this is that to the average consumer there is less and less differentiation on social media between trusted content, poor quality content or even outright lies.
Is it possible to rebuild trust?
Lack of trust and data privacy issues are starting to turn the tide against the tech and social media giants.
GlobalWebIndex’s Consumer Trends for 2019 report stated that 46% of the internet population in the US say they have decreased time spent on social networks, while 41% of people say the same in the UK.
This is opening up new possibilities for ‘owned’ communities that deliver trusted content. Places where expertise, learning from peers and content quality are valued attributes.
I’m not the only one who thinks this. In November, business news publisher Quartz announced a new membership which is built around a mixture of content and community features. This includes weekly, in-depth reports on hot-button business ideas, the ability for members to suggest questions for Q&As, and regular conference calls between members and Quartz journalists.
This kind of model which brings content creators - whether companies or publishers - and their readers closer to one another, without social media as an intermediary, will be mutually beneficial. Creating a trusted space where quality content from experts is a given, ideas can be exchanged and the audience and data are owned by the content creators.
I believe bringing back expertise and connecting consumers directly with trusted brands is the only way to reinstate mutual trust.