Social media shape shifters

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There are two things we know without doubt about social media platforms: they are big and their main purpose in life is to be engines of profit. Long gone is any naive belief in their patronising mission statements reminiscent of 1970s cola adverts. Just like big food, big oil, big pharma or big anything else, it is profit and not platitudes that are their foundation.

While, after various recent scandals, consumers are no longer in the dark about social media’s motives, there is still some confusion about how their business model can be all that malignant, given their services are still apparently free. But users are steadily wising up to the ‘surveillance economy’ and the fact that they themselves are the commodity in which platforms trade.

Of course, trading your attention for a freebie  is nothing new – it’s what the booming freesheet business and commercial radio and TV were built on. And even the idea your own personal data being commoditised – so long as it is aggregated and ammonised – doesn’t seem too sinister, after all what have you got to lose?

The answer is, increasingly, a lot. All advertising is designed to manipulate you, normally specifically to buy something – often things that are not all that good for you. And it has always been targeted, though historically so badly the mantra was ‘We know half our ads work, we just don’t know which half’. Now messages can be targeted on a granular level and dynamically – it can be profoundly effective in planting a theme or turning a theme into a trend or a trend into a tidal wave. And the erosion between editorial and advertising and the unaccountability of eithers’ veracity adds a large measure of toxicity.

Social media by its nature is a global business, its nature is to ignore borders that don’t suit it, as its algorithms send paid messages down the most effective pathways while simultaneously posting user content with as little oversight as they can get away with.

Being platforms and not publishers is central to their business model – it would be much more expensive to take responsibility for what they ‘bring to market’. It also makes it much easier to avoid national and international regulation that a definition as publishers would subject them to, and there is no doubt that being classified as publishers would impact their ability to provide some of the services they do, even some of the benefits they have brought to our connected world.

However, their claims that it would be technically and structurally too difficult and would have too high a price in free speech, ring a little hollow. If they have the technology and resource to recognise what kind of content and messaging would most motivate you do something at any given time, they can also – with the right effort level – recognise and remove malign messaging and content. As for restrictions on freedom, they don’t seem to have had a problem accepting restrictions when it gains them access to massive markets like China.

Currently there seems to be a Mexican stand-off between social media giants and national governments. The governments still seem to think self-regulation under the threat of actual regulation is a plausible route. Now that’s naive.


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