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Is social media the future of communication — or is it a breeding ground for hate groups, fake news, and click-baits?

by Jerry Silfwer // Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn
Spin Doctor & Copywriter // Spin Factory

So, there’s a downside.

As it becomes easier for everyone to self-publish without censorship, we see the rise of anonymous hate, fraudulent behavior, rampant populism, and propaganda.

Oh, and have you heard? Social media is killing journalism, too.

Now, if the keyboard is mightier than the sword, can we trust Average Joe and Jane to wield such powers? As the recent debate on how social media is responsible for spreading fake news stirs up emotions, many are raising their voices for stricter regulation and increased control. Otherwise, we might just socialize ourselves to death.

Social media is, after all, more than just cute lolcats, silly emojis, and clever memes.

What would it take to rid social media of hatred and disinformation? And what would it cost us?

The Great Media Debate: A Divide Between Intellectuals

Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974) was an American writer, political commentator, and columnist. His legacy still lingers, as he coined concepts as “the Cold War” and words like “stereotype.” His most notable publication, Public Opinion (1922), is still a valuable read for public relations professionals.

Lippmann, who won two Pulitzer prizes, engaged in heated public debates1 with John Dewey (1859 – 1952), an American philosopher and psychologist of specific interest to public relations; his perspective of human interaction gave rise to the idea of segmenting people in publics (the “p” in public relations) based on how people communicate in specific situations instead of the traditional way of grouping people demographically (target groups).

Dewey critiqued Lippmann’s elitist views, while Lippmann emphasized the importance of journalism; the public cannot make sense of the world without objective reporting and expert insights. Historically, this debate can be seen as the first intellectual debate between journalism (informed one-way information dissemination) and public relations (collective two-way communication).

From a public relations perspective, the divide between pessimism and optimism isn’t a clear cut one. The father of public relations, Edward Bernays (1891 – 1995) argued that mass media was a propaganda tool for the elites. But another influential PR practitioner, Ivy Lee (1877 – 1934), who amongst other accomplishments created the first press release and influenced the field of crisis communications, seemed to have much more faith in humanity’s capacity for understanding the world.

And it seems the debate is far from over:

On Lippmann’s side of things, we see critical minds like Noam Chomsky discussing the manufacturing of consent, and on Dewey’s side, we find minds like Clay Shirky discussing here comes everybody. While Chomsky would argue that our media is primarily a tool for the elite to shape our minds, Shirky would likely argue that we as individuals have the final power (“there’s no information overload, only filter failure”).

Which side to choose?

Neil Postman (1931 – 2003) warned us about amusing ourselves to death, while Marchall McLuhan (1911 – 1980) demoted the importance of specific content by stating that the medium is the message.

Today, those who believe in the power of social media will argue that everyone’s a publisher with a significant voice and that the interconnectivity (social graphs) are redefining how we relate to each other. At the core of the matter, they are optimistic about how the media landscape is changing. Those who are skeptics, on the other hand, they will argue that social media is a breeding ground for fake news, populism, and the death of one of the most important pillars of democracy — journalism.

Winners and Losers in the Battle for Our Minds

“The wisdom of crowds” is truly a beautiful idea. Wikipedia is a remarkable achievement in itself, and it couldn’t exist without its community of volunteers. WordPress powers 26% of the web, and it runs on open-source contributions from programmers all over the world. Still, history tells us that large groups of people are sometimes not very bright — especially if the circumstances are right.

In the wake of the recent US election, where President-elect Donald Trump won the populistic vote, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has been heavily criticized for aiding and abetting the dissemination of false propaganda and the creation of “filter bubbles” where like-minded people strengthen their beliefs by way of social reinforcement — instead of listening to well-educated expertise on relevant subject matters.

Should Zuckerberg use Facebook’s technological advantage to interfere through censorship at a historically unprecedented scale? Or should Zuckerberg take a more humanistic approach and allow people to find out for themselves what information to trust?

Right or wrong, the ‘Lippmann side’ is slowly winning the battle of our minds.

Regarding power, governments have more to gain from leveraging data mining and online surveillance rather than fighting for net neutrality. Politicians will legislate for increased state control, literally to “save people from themselves,” much rather than protecting fundamental liberties. By blaming terrorists, racists, and pedophiles, the argument for more regulation is the easy route to take.

Journalists and traditional mass media publishers, the former champions of free speech and freedom from censorship, are finding themselves in dire economic circumstances. They could blame social media for being in this situation — and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

Now, it’s perfectly understandable why particular self-interests acts in their best interest. But why aren’t companies putting up more of a fight?

The Social Network “Bait-and-Switch” Strategy

Zuckerberg could state that if there’s a problem with how humans behave, we should embrace the fact that technology can make this human behavior visible. Because only then can we learn, as a society, how to deal with the real issues — instead of blaming technology. But instead of promoting peer-to-peer communication, Zuckerberg will likely take action towards allowing Facebook to control our information consumption even more.

To understand this, we must differentiate between the concept that is social media and the companies that run social media. The power of social media as a concept is its capacity for social interaction (horizontal two-way communication) as a contrast to mass media (top-down, one-way information). However, the companies who run social media are still operating in the same economic ideology as the traditional mass media.

Most of these social media companies have been leveraging a “bait-and-switch” strategy for many years now:

The Bait: By leveraging the power of social, they allow for people and brands to connect and make their unique voices heard. They provide the distribution system free of charge, giving individuals and brands tools to earn other people’s trust and attention.

The Switch: And then, slowly, they remove more and more of the horizontal interaction, “the chatter,” while replacing it with qualitative top-down information.

Remember how organic Facebook Page reach quickly became useless and how it was replaced with an advanced ad distribution feature?

And if you want to do well on Facebook mobile, you should format your best content with Instant Articles, which makes it easier for Facebook to insert their ad network into your content.

Then, if you’re a regular Facebook user sharing your voice at a “non-editorial” level, your best bet for getting your update seen by friends is to have a birthday, have a baby, win an award, get married — or engage in some other type of major life event.

All other successful social media companies are going down the same route as Facebook. Recently, Swedish vlogger sensation Felix “pewdiepie” Kjellberg recently threatened to close down his Youtube account at a whopping 50M subscriber count in a protest against Google for interfering with the relationship between creators and their audiences.

How to Aviod Socializing Ourselves to Death

Should we demand that Facebook takes action against fake news?

We should be careful what we wish for and here’s why:

Facebook could put together a large team looking at viral information. If they find updates that violating a pre-determined set of guidelines, the team could demote this content manually, thus preventing it from being seen on anyone’s timeline. Here we have issues with how to stipulate such guidelines, human errors, and the challenge of moderating such vast volumes of data.

Or, Facebook could devise an AI to demote false information automatically. This software would need clear and concise parameters to function properly, though. If the AI eradicates claims that are unsubstantiated by evidence, how will it distinguish between religious beliefs and superstitious propaganda? To a machine, they’ll both look the same.

There’s also the philosophical question on whether or not anything can be completely verified or falsified. And from a libertarian perspective — hasn’t everyone the right to say things that are wrong?

We should also appreciate the complexity of the situation. If Zuckerberg would decide to make a stand for neutrality and collective humanism, he’ll open the door for politicians to take legislative action against us all. He’s facing a poor choice; assume the censorship role, or sit tight and allow for politicians to force your hand.

Is social media becoming less ‘social’?

Undoubtedly, yes. Social media companies are using horizontal two-way communication to reinforce certain behaviors within their increasingly proprietary ecosystems, only to “bait-and-switch” to more vertical one-way information framework.

Maybe ‘social’ is a form of online communism — beautiful and humanistic in theory, but devastating for democracy in practice. Or, perhaps we’ll figure it out? The printing press enabled the distribution of ideas and content and this technology hasn’t been used solely for “good.” Even terrorists, racists, and populists are allowed to write books, but this doesn’t mean that we’re eager to outlaw and burn them.

As public relations professionals, it’s imperative that we understand all of these complex power dynamics at play. We must appreciate the complexity instead of seeing the media landscape in either black or white. We should leverage the power of the true social movement, but also be cautious and not “put all of our eggs in one basket.”

Are we in the midst of shifting to whatever comes next after social media?

The advancements in communication technology are developing faster and faster. And we’ve been living with social media for more than a decade now. From a historical perspective, we should be expecting the next shift sooner rather later. At the very least, we shouldn’t be surprised.

Still, our social media usage is deeply ingrained in our communicative behavior. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple are already influencing our media consumption at an impressive level. Can whatever comes next really impact these giants — or must the next phase come from them?

In the long-term, blockchain technology might prove to be such a disruptive force. A blockchain is a software program that runs on thousands of computers in a network all at once. By creating portals and payment solutions that cannot be shut down or tampered with. If there were a “blockchain-Spotify,” all proceedings would go directly to the artists, and there would be no way for middle-men to squeeze themselves in. Altruistic open-source solutions would outperform private social networks and resist the gliding concentration of centralized power.

Blockchain AI technology might be the ultimate pipe-dream of “online communism” — or something that will change not just how we communicate but reshape our global financial system, too.

How is this affecting our social media strategy as a brand?

First, you shouldn’t shy away from leveraging the power of social media in marketing and public relations. The printing press too had its limitations, but we had been fools not use it.

However, brands shouldn’t trust social media companies to serve as “middlemen” between your brand and its audience. Your true asset is your real-life community; if you build and maintain relationships with your community on one single platform exclusively, you risk losing that community overnight. Exposing your brand to such risks would be highly irresponsible.

Yes, you should use Facebook and other social networks to connect with your community. You should utilize new features and functions to amplify your messages and deepen your relationships. But when building online communities for your brand, you should always make sure that you can still connect with them directly if you suddenly were unable to reach them via third-party platforms.

Article notes:

  1. The Lippmann-Dewey debate (Wikipedia).

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Jerry Silfwer is the author of Doctor Spin, a PR blog that’s been around for 15+ years. Via his agency Spin Factory, Jerry is advising brands on how to adapt to a ‘digital first’ world. In 2016, Cision Scandinavia named him “PR Influencer of the Year”. Jerry lives in Stockholm, Sweden with his wife Lisah, news anchor and television host, and their three-year-old son, Jack.

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