We Are the Product

Follow the Money

As social media companies continue to grow, they are having a huge impact on the rest of the media industry. How does their growth negatively impact the mental health of their own employees as well as those working in other industries? And what does it mean when a tech company’s value is measured in users?

“This was not an information revolution, this was a communications revolution - this was people talking to one another. We were the content of this thing, not information.” 1

This is what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff said in 2004 at the Disinfo.con – a countercultural event in New York organized by the Disinformation Company. Back then, in the wake of the dot.bomb economic crash, few people were thinking about it. Myspace hadn’t yet been launched, let alone Facebook or Twitter. Amazon was still a pioneering online bookseller. Most people were still logging on using dial-up and AOL was still part of Time Warner, one of the biggest traditional media companies in the world.

Two groups of people were thinking about it. The first group was worried about what Rushkoff and others like him were saying. The other group was responsible for the rebirth of the online economy, the people who saw opportunity.

What they built was what we now call social media, Myspace, then Facebook, then Twitter, then Instagram; sites based on user-generated content where users collect friends, followers and fans. They figured out how to monetize it.

At the same time, media companies who had pioneered the use of the web as a medium for news and information saw their profits disappear as social media sites gobbled up their advertising income, something that has increased during the Coronavirus pandemic 2. Many media outlets have turned to harvesting user-generated content as an alternative to expensive journalism 3.

In an attempt to maximize a shrinking pot of advertising spend, many traditional media outlets have started chasing clicks. For them too, success is increasingly measured in the number of users who click on a story, because popular stories are more attractive to advertisers. The combination of click targets and shrinking resources has led to a decline in what was previously regarded as hard news 4. Shrinking resources have also led to cuts and staff redundancies, exacerbated by the pandemic 5, increasing the stress on remaining staff already demotivated by click targets taking their focus away from informing the public 6. Those made redundant face an uncertain situation where, if they want to stay in the industry, good jobs are scarce and freelance budgets have been cut to the bone. The mental health impacts of this situation have been stark 7.

Cheap viral content, clickbait (fluffy stories with hyperbolic headlines) and listicles (articles made up of lists) became common forms of online ‘journalism’. A few years ago, Buzzfeed was hailed as an example of a site that specialized in viral content and then introduced news, including investigative journalism, to its established audience 8. Sadly, the project appears to have been gradually abandoned, as redundancies and closures of news sites have marked the last few years 9 10 11. In February 2021, Buzzfeed finalized the purchase of HuffPost (formerly The Huffington Post), which has also built a dedicated news team in recent years, and almost immediately announced redundancies and the closure of the Canadian site 12.

In the absence of real news, fake news rushed in to fill the gap – often with political objectives. The idea of audience segmentation and targeting one political group with dubious content is not a new thing, the term ‘yellow journalism’ dates back to the 1890s 13. Newspapers in the UK have always been politically partial and Fox News and talk radio figures like Rush Limbaugh have been creating divisive content for the political right for decades.

The open access to the internet, however, gave a platform to new outlets like Infowars, and, more importantly, the ability to share this kind of content globally using social media. Russian groups have been caught creating fake news to influence politics in other countries 14.

Social media moderation has continually struggled to keep up with the fake news and other negative content on their platforms. Moderation by humans has been fraught with problems. The work is very stressful and requires the moderators to look at some horrible material, including depictions of violence. Many have complained of a lack of training and clear direction from their employers as well as the impact on their mental health 15. In February, moderators in Dublin who had complained about their working conditions reported that they were warned by Facebook against breaking the Non-Disclosure Agreement they had signed by talking to the Irish Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) 16. Internal dissatisfaction with Facebook’s moderation policies over President Trump’s posts led to a staff walkout in June last year 17.

Social media sites are increasingly using computers to moderate. And it’s not working very well. So-called AI moderators lack the ability to examine context and intent. People posting mainstream newspaper articles on Facebook about slavery in Australia 18 or Shamima Begum 19 faced posting bans. At the same time, hate-filled disinformation about Jews, Black people, women and trans people continues to flow freely and, in my own experience, even when it is reported, much of it is left in place by the computer moderators. The problem is that the focus of social media sites is collecting users, not publishing correct information. Censoring harmful content is not their priority.

Right now, there are reports that Microsoft is considering a USD 10 billion+ bid for Discord, the social media platform popular with gamers 20. Where is that valuation coming from? Discord is free, it doesn’t have any income and no ads. It does, however, have over 100 million active users 21. Users are not just the audience or the customer, they are also the product. Whether it’s a potential community to be organized by a brand or potential customers for targeted advertising based on information users give when they sign up to or use the social network, it is us – the users – who are the value in a network.

Nick Pickles, Twitter’s Senior Director of Policy and Development, made an important point on the BBC on 26 March. He was explaining Twitter’s policy of tagging rather than removing disinformation. He gave the example of 5G conspiracies 22 and bemoaned the lack of authoritative information about the health implications of the technology. He said this means they have nothing to link from their tag to debunk false statements about risks from 5G. ‘We need more persuasion and more education much faster, but content moderation is not going to solve this problem alone,’ said Pickles 23.

This is the job professional journalism is supposed to do, but years of decline in the industry due to shrinking advertising income have undermined the ability of journalists to provide authoritative factual content to debunk fake news.

Redressing the balance will require determined action to rebuild journalism. In April 2020, the International Federation of Journalists launched a Global Platform for Quality Journalism ‘to prepare for the future, a future of quality, ethical and solidarity-based journalism that respects labor rights and fundamental freedoms’ 24. The first issue on their agenda is a call on ‘all governments to immediately open negotiations with … Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft – to collect a tax on revenues generated within their national territory.’ They estimate that ‘taxing these revenues at 6% could inject USD 54 billion into journalism.’

Quality journalism, fact-checked with multiple sources, can start to drive out fake news. We have already seen the rise of fact-checking websites and services, many of them providing work to unemployed and freelance journalists. A study by María Luengo and David García-Marín of the Department of Communication, Carlos III University, found that: ‘In a context of polarizing distrust, independent fact checkers not only slow down viral rumors, conspiracies, trolls, or hoaxes, but their evaluations make it possible to balance public narratives with “empiricism”’ 25.

If the balance is not redressed, we face a future where we, the public, cease to be informed citizens, but are products for huge corporations to package and sell at will.

Picture of Donnacha DeLong

Donnacha DeLong

Donnacha DeLong is an online communications consultant who works on website build projects. He was one of Ireland's first online journalists in 1998 when he started working for RTÉ, Ireland's national broadcaster, on their news website. From 2004 to 2010, he was an editor on Amnesty International's global websites.

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