On November 9, 2016, my 5-year-old daughter asked me what was wrong. “Donald Trump was elected president,” I replied. Cue the wailing and rending of garments. Audrey was upset, too. My wife was much more measured in her response. She asked, “What can we do about it?” So, I ventured online for answers. There, in the tranquil seas of social media networks, I found credible, balanced, rational debate. And, if you believe that, I have a border wall in which you should invest, and I promise Mexico will pay for it later. No. what I found was a feeding frenzy of snark, swimming in an ocean of misinformation. And, I realized that soon, my kids will be learning to swim in these treacherous waters. The influence of fake news the 2016 election, one year later, is now rippling its influence on the future of social media sites. What does this mean for these leviathans of digital commerce? That depends on us.
I found myself just ahead of the curve on this topic, writing a policy memo published in September 2017 in New Leaders Council’s Millennial Compact with America, literally, as the media cascade on fake news came crashing down. I was actually conducting research as discovery occurred in real time on the unimaginable scale of its influence on our democracy. Tens of millions of American Twitter users, nearly 200 million US Facebook users and even the three people on Google+, found themselves potentially exposed to, or targeted by, falsified news stories. I dislike conspiracy theories. I was hesitant to even pursue this angle of research because of its sensationalism. In fact, only after being advised by the former general counsel and director of global security policy for Facebook to follow the fake news problem did I feel justified to dig in. What I discovered was not a planned, coordinated, Ocean’s Eleven-style caper. Instead, I found the familiar story of free market capitalism being both America’s strong arm and our Achilles’ heel. With social media corporations in their wild-west years of profit models, the very structure of their internet connectivity left them vulnerable to corruption by disinformation operating at light speed. Let me share just a few insights:
- Like TV and radio, social networks make money by selling ads. North American Facebook consumers were monetized at $19.28 per person in the 4th quarter of 2016. The rest of the world averaged $1.39 per person.
- Fake news sells ads because it generates clicks. Social media users are not its customers — advertisers are. Instead, social network users become de facto employees by sharing posts to their own networks. If you are unfamiliar with dark-post ads, look them up.
- Clicking on fake news and falling down the rabbit hole of disinformation is a symptom, not the cause. But, like with illness, it is the symptoms that can kill you.
The question now being discussed is whether big social networks, like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube (don’t ask me about Snapchat, I have no idea), have become so embedded, ubiquitous and necessary that they can be considered a category of public utility. The debate over this issue concerning the innovation phenomena of the 21st century now holds the weight of its business model for generating record profits acting as the vehicle for spreading propaganda, undermining truth and robbing people of fact-based debate all the way to the White House. Now we have a president who uses Twitter as a platform for influencing international relations and angrily denying verifiable facts in 140 embarrassingly misplaced characters, as he watches FOX News from his porcelain throne.
We have seen what social media can do to facilitate our lives. We have seen what social media has done to addict our attention. We are aware that outside influences are capable of undermining American democracy by eroding truth and trust via social networks, and are likely to try it again. Now we must ask ourselves if we are willing to hold accountable the institutions that shape our convenience, in order to preserve the institutions that shape our republic. Cue the wailing and rending of garments.