The Changing Global-Social Paradigm

Of the many disasters the digital media industrial complex has weathered in recent months, the most damaging may be that serious journalists are now scrutinizing it. Many of the revelations around Facebook’s complicity in Cambridge Analytica’s data scraping of the site, with the Russian-financed Internet Research Group (IRG), and in violence-inciting hate speech were the products of old-fashioned investigative journalism. How ironic that legacy media, with deep traditional journalism chops, exposed social channels that generally have been commoditizing news.

Beyond the irony, however, the larger point of this serious, critical scrutiny by the mainstream press indicates just how much Google, Facebook, and others have become part of the fabric of our culture and society. Serious researchers with questions are now on their tail. The days of Mark, Sergei, Larry, and Jeff being treated like immature boy geniuses are over.

For those of us who have been covering the digital ad world, there is nothing surprising about the recent mainstream reporting on the duopoly of Facebook and Google, their voracious data appetite, sloppy stewardship of media, and market dominance that has heretofore made them untouchable. Media buyers have been complaining about ad fraud and content quality for years. And it is precisely the frightening breadth and depth of behavioral detail these companies track that makes them such powerful allies.

But recent reporting has surfaced some implications of the duopoly that have been less fully appreciated. While most digital users understood they were being digitally tracked in many ways, the Cambridge Analytica and IRG incidents demonstrated how that data could be weaponized by targeting our weaknesses. Even if you don’t buy into Cambridge Analytica’s hype about diagnosing and targeting users’ psychological vulnerabilities—or even that these companies try to make us addicted to our social feeds—it is demonstrable that the algorithms are designed to harden rather than inform attitudes. As tech scholar and The New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufekci found, watching any one video with a partisan political bent on YouTube prompts the algorithm to feed you increasingly extreme content along the same lines. “It seems as if you are never ‘hardcore’ enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm,” she writes. YouTube automation effectively tries to radicalize the viewer.

In the absence of other media sources, this ignorance of the algorithms can be truly dangerous. A survey from The New York Times about hate crimes in emerging markets showed how Facebook, in particular, is used by hate groups to incite and inflame prejudice and to organize violence against people and groups. In the absence of any countervailing local media sources, let alone monitoring by Facebook, the social network becomes an engine of violence.

This brings us to the other problem the current reporting has surfaced: Robots are not enough. Many of these problems are coming from Facebook and Google’s heavy reliance on automation and algorithms to replace the work of quality control for both content and advertising, once done by sentient humans. A year after being assured that YouTube was on the case of brand safety, reporters found hundreds of name-brand ads showing up adjacent to dubious and hateful content.

It is not just ironic that traditional media companies are uncovering the bugs in the digital media industrial complex. It is also an object lesson in the false economy of content that digital behemoths have built. Google and Facebook operate at such margins precisely because their content and ad inputs are designed to be self-serving.

What we are finding is that robots can’t run media businesses. Advertisers are taking notice. After a year boycotting YouTube, P&G returned in April, but only with videos it has reviewed. The ad agency UM has appointed its first brand safety officer, and he was blunt in advising clients that the cheap inventory they covet and brand safety are mutually exclusive.   

The jig is up. Humans produce deep, reliable, and impactful content and safe media contexts at an appreciable cost. For 2 decades, publishers complained that consumers unfairly expected a “free ride” from online content. Perhaps it is time we turned our attention to advertisers who need to acknowledge that the cheap ride may be over. 

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