Direct Media is Dead. Long live Censored, Suppressed, and Curated Media by Vincent Harris
Perhaps we’ve gotten what we deserve. Was it all a trick? Were we too naïve? Thomas Jefferson said, “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” But Thomas Jefferson could never have predicted a world where every citizen had access to social media accounts and could share their thoughts to all who would listen, with just the click of a button! These same citizens believe they are freely sharing and consuming content, but is it all an illusion? By spending all of our waking life feeding every minute detail into our social platforms, we have become complicit in Silicon Valley’s actualization of the Matrix. Maybe our laissez fair attitude was because we felt comfort in them being American companies? This week’s revelation that Facebook has been (maybe) suppressing conservative news from its “Trending Topics” section is just the latest example of a broken system that demands additional transparency and understanding before it can regain our trust.
Social media has undoubtedly benefitted society. While there is an ongoing academic debate about its democratization benefits, even a layman’s understanding would give credit to social platforms as arbiters of opinion sharing across nations, economic classes, and political parties. Some optimistic pundits have preferred to use the term “direct” media as synonymous with social media. They do so because of the platforms’ ability to deliver news and information, without a filter, directly to content consumers. It is this concept of direct communication that has always excited conservatives across the West. Conservatives distrust the traditional mainstream media. We saw social media as our way to circumvent the Today Shows of the world. Online content sharing was to be the apex of free speech. Online would be where our long-held, silent majority opinions would finally have an outlet! …or, so we thought.
In his book The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov speaks of a world in which the Internet is used not to advance freedom and liberty by liberal Democracies, but instead used as a coercive tool by authoritarian regimes as they seek to tighten their grip on their polities. Morozov writes, “The idea that the Internet favors the oppressed rather than the oppressor is marred by what I call cyber-utopianism: a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside.”
2011 was championed by the media as the year social media brought down decades old regimes across the Middle East. It was the “Twitter” revolution! I spent two months in Egypt around their revolution, as a guest of the International Republican Institute. While in country I performed digital trainings with activists, such as the April 6th Movement pre-revolution, and with newly formed political parties post-revolution. My experience there was unforgettable, with activists across the country sharing how they used social media to post information in contrast to the Mubarak government’s propaganda. Facebook was used as a tool for organizing and sharing alternative news. One man told me that information he gained from Twitter saved his life. If the Egyptian Revolution were held this year, I wonder if any of the content posted by grassroots activists would ever make it into users newsfeeds. Would alternative news agencies or blogs be “allowed” in Trending Topics? Would Twitter’s new, Facebook-esque, highlighting of specific stories take the place of activist’s tweets? Would the April 6th Movement, key to the success of the Tahrir Square gatherings, be able to get their message out without paying for promoted posts? Would SnapChat run a story to the youth about the revolution, or opt-instead for one about the latest Egyptian fashion trend? It’s all in doubt.
How have we gotten here? Facebook says algorithm changes are to “deliver the right content to the right people at the right time.” Very descriptive. Yes, we can glean that the more a user interacts with content, or the more content is interacted with by a users friends, the higher the likelihood that the content will be seen in newsfeed. BUT with so little space in newsfeed, it’s becoming harder for this to actually occur. With every friend request I accept, I realize that I must be somehow limiting my ability to see content from another friend.
As a businessman, I understand the corporate greed aspect of it all. Social media companies need to please share holders by generating advertising dollars. They are, after all, companies that employ thousands of Americans. We’ve championed Silicon Valley for helping to “disrupt” our nation’s existing media infrastructure. But now as these same companies seek to become the “new” mainstream media, they have to make difficult choices that news editors at The New York Times have been making for over 150 years.
It’s important to bifurcate the Facebook issues of newsfeed content suppression and the recent “Trending Topics” controversy. Newsfeed suppression is about making money. Trending Topic suppression (if true) is about pushing an agenda. While algorithms and computer models run Facebook’s content delivery, there is still a human component manipulating the algorithms. Someone tells the model what types of content to deliver into Trending Topics and Newsfeed. Encouraging one type of content or news agency will naturally come at the detriment of others. If conservatives are receiving the short end of the stick, we should speak with our time and money. But, I doubt we will. Why would we risk missing out on pictures of our friend’s new kitten?
As digital media companies have grown, they have needed to hire content editors and curators whose jobs are to choose what information is highlighted. While a seemingly easy job on its face, these curators hold a lot of power over what stories we read, see, and watch. In the traditional media, these “curators” might have been called “editors”, but the world of digital media focuses puts emphasis on rapid content dissemination instead of traditional journalistic ethics of fairness.
The effects of social media news curation are ripe for academic study. Today’s teens are growing up consuming news in the form of curated snap-stories on Snapchat. Parents should be concerned. Televisions have V-Chips to block content found unsavory to parents, but equatable media applications like Snapchat currently have no way to restrict content. Just last weekend Snapchat ran a story to their users (of which some stimates are a majority of users are younger than 18) about RuPaul’s drag show, apparently called “DragCon.” Most of SnapChat’s content is entertainment, celebrity, and pop-culture based. This is a far cry from showing our youth Veggie Tales, Dora the Explorer, or even Barney (is he still around?) We’re feeding today’s teenagers with images of Kardashian sex changes, drug-using rappers, and cross-dressing. While Snapchat is not limiting content, the types of content they choose to promote showcase their values, nature, and beliefs. Matthew 6:22 talks about the eyes as the gateway to our soul. If we watch entertainment snaps all day, what are bound to get?
Whether the latest Facebook controversy is true or not, we should all, regardless of party, remember that Facebook is not the equivalent of the First Amendment. Neither is Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, or any other platform we have grown to trust and pour our lives into. A recent study claimed the social media giant was censoring anti-Palestinian posts while allowing anti-Israeli ones. Facebook does censor content and their “community standards” leaves readers with only a vague understanding of how.
As a capitalist, I understand profit motives. I understand that it costs money for the Internet platforms we use to exist and grow. I know social giants compete with each other for our eyeballs and share of voice. In turn, they sell audience growth numbers to advertisers. This is the cycle.
But let’s be honest with ourselves. Social media platforms have never been about democratization or free speech. Direct media is dead and has been replaced by a censored, suppressed, and curated media. Now….it’s time to post this article on Facebook….and then pay to promote it.
Vincent Harris is CEO of Harris Media. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas and has been guest faculty at Baylor University. Previously he ran digital operations for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Galatians 1:10.