Remember when you first found out about Facebook? I remember being so excited about the concept that I did not stop to think about how it was being funded or how it would eventually make money.
Little by little, social media networks morph from being a great way to catch up with your friends and know what’s going on, into a hotch-potch of advertising, political debate and a small number of power users that continue to tell everyone they know everything they do.
Despite the diminishing returns we all experience from social media networks, visiting them has become a daily (and for some an hourly) ritual – too difficult to give up.
Social media versus politics
Perhaps this mild addiction is something we should be more concerned about. Outside of the argument that developed between Australia and Facebook last week (which you can read more about from my colleague Alice Alexander here), there have been signs for more than five years of the growing political influence of social media platforms. To give just a couple of examples:
- Twitter: in the last three months Twitter has been accused of selectively removing followers from accounts because of the content they have posted. It also blocked accounts linked to a farmers’ protest against the Government of India before u-turning the decision. It also banned President Trump’s Twitter account permanently, accusing two posts of being read by Trump’s supporters as potentially inciting violence. Personally, I am delighted to see Trump out of the White House, but it is hard not to see that action as a political act.
- WhatsApp: the company has recently been accused of running roughshod over user’s privacy and has moved back a change in settings that many users believe would expose them to more contextual advertising in the future. Previously the company had moved to end-to-end encryption of messages in 2016, much to the annoyance of many security services.
In addition to these individual examples, social media advertising is probably now the most powerful tool globally in communications with voters during elections around the world.
A hybrid of business and politics
Despite what they might say, every big tech company is focussed on one thing: making money. It’s become an accepted practice in investment circles to back social media platforms until they reach a critical mass of users before looking at how to monetise these users – typically though advertising. As consumers, we buy into these great new free services, telling them everything we do, not really thinking about how they will evolve over time to use this information to sell us stuff.
And it’s clear that big tech businesses will do whatever is required to defend their business model, be it making donations to politicians to spending money on lobbying. There’s nothing illegal about that and it is a practice open to every company, but no other companies have such a huge capability to influence public opinion and such deep pockets as social media platforms.
It’s inevitable these platforms will eventually be far more effectively legislated than they are today, but it will be a brave politician that is first in the queue to instigate this.