Is this the opening salvo in the war against social media?

By Richard Eichen

Which country purchased a copy of the ‘Social Network’ DVD? To paraphrase the best line in the movie, “You’re not an asshole social media, you’re just trying so hard to be.”

Silicon Valley companies are extensions of their founder’s personalities. Oracle is sharp-elbowed; Salesforce is innovative and fast-paced, Uber… enough said. Social media’s current problems are not about the founders’ personalities; it is about the effects of their platforms on a larger stage than harvesting user data.  They have created a data equivalent of a nuclear reactor, minus the core damage frequency KPI dial.

Their recent bunch of lawyers, well coached by the crisis PR firms, testifying before Congress on the retooling of their platforms into a propaganda and psych warfare weapon shows how essential they are as a source of news, ‘fake’ or ‘real.’  The word ‘source’ is intentionally used as they are more than just a pair of telephone wires, not responsible for whatever goes on them.

Pew Research Center has explored the reach of these platforms for presenting news, with not completely surprising results (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/10/04/key-trends-in-social-and-digital-news-media/).  Their October 4th research findings show only a 7 point gap between the number of people who get their news from television (where there is hopefully some fact checking and editorial overview) and online, via a mix of news websites/apps and social media platforms (50% vs. 43%).  This is the tip of the reader/viewer iceberg as 67% of Americans get at least some of their news via social media. To further complicate this pool, 64% of adult Americans see fabricated news stories as sowing confusion about the most basic facts of current issues which assumes the same users can differentiate between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ facts when presented professionally by propaganda professionals.  If this is the result of psych ops, well, job well done.

Besides the national security and threat to democracy this poses, it may also affect the core valuation of these firms.  Those same Pew researchers found only 5% of web-using U.S. adults place much trust in the information they get from these platforms. Since the premise of most platforms is to bind you to their site for hours per day, low trust in what users see, except for those wickedly cute cat videos, can result in fewer ads and sales and less time on the platform itself. Less revenue will lead to lower valuations.

The underlying issue is with governance and internal standards, however the knee-jerk answer is to ask the social media firms to adult-up with a call for ‘transparency’ and systems to solve the underlying issue of exploitation by some smart, sophisticated and very bad people.   For example at an average employee age of 28, Facebook’s management does not have the historical or perhaps educational background to understand how their platform is manipulated  (many developers could care less about politics and more about their options and toys).  Most likely, neither does FB’s Board of Directors. Except perhaps for Donald Graham and Erskine Bowles, all other members all from the hi-tech echo-chamber or FB itself.

The solution is two-fold. First, add Board members with strong credentials in journalism and international affairs. Form a Committee for Journalistic integrity and oversight.

Secondly, the Government should create a variant of the systemically important financial institution (SIFI) enacted after the recent financial collapse to ensure ‘too big to fail’ banks’ don’t.  Declare the social media platforms a new form of ‘Systemically Important’ with sufficient safeguards and controls surrounding news content.

By the way, once again, Prof Scott Galloway of NYU nails it: https://www.l2inc.com/daily-insights/winners-and-losers/prof-galloway-grills-big-tech?utm_source=email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=winners-losers&utm_campaign=email