The Antisocial Network
Back when we were learning our trade as a reporter, in the late Seventies, conversation would sometimes turn to the concentration of media, and the power resulting from it. In retrospect, the landscape we observed was simple: Three broadcast networks, three national news magazines, one-newspaper cities, multi-city newspaper chains. Not only were their audiences concentrated, reaching those audiences otherwise required an enormous capital investment. Freedom of the press, the joke went, belongs to those to who own one.
The media were the gatekeepers of public information. “News” was what reporters and editors (and owners) decided it was. There were “alternatives” — alternate weeklies, alternative magazines — but their audiences were small, and thus their funding and resources were limited. Advertising, then and now, paid the bills, and the larger your audience, the more attractive you were to advertisers.
The power that arose was the power to control the public conversation, as well as the power to avoid accountability and the power to stifle competition. And despite the revolutionary changes in media and communications over the ensuing forty years, we’re finding ourselves back where we started.
Perhaps even worse.
The revolution is not complete. We still have broadcast networks, and now cable channels. We still have newspapers. But journalism, as known for 150 years, is a dying industry. Audiences are dwindling, advertising is drying up. The “mass” in mass media was an efficiency of scale, and the scale itself was a product of inadequate audience targeting. “We know that half our advertising is effective,” went another famous line. “We just don’t know which half.”
Now they do.
Two businesses reap the bulk of advertising online, by virtue of their enormous audience size, and their ability to pinpoint specific members. An advertiser never buys all of the billions of visitors Google and Facebook enjoy monthly. But because Google and Facebook know far more about us than the NSA (or Equifax), an advertiser can efficiently reach exactly the audience desired. They are the new monopolies, and their power is growing.
Facebook is understandably the focus of attention right now, after finally admitting that a Russian troll farm purchased $100,000 in targeted advertising during the election. That’s a seemingly minuscule amount, especially compared to, say, a Super Bowl ad, but its effectiveness is highly magnified by reaching exactly the people the Russians wanted to reach — and flying under the radar for everyone else.
And this was while Facebook was happily distributing lies produced by other troll farms. Clickbait, briefly the provenance of websites mimicking tabloid newspapers, is now an effective propaganda tool deployed by hostile foreign governments once limited to shortwave radio broadcasts. All that matters to Facebook or Google is “user engagement”, grist for their algorithms that benefit their advertisers. They have industrialized email forwards from elderly relatives.
It took months for one of the two most sophisticated information-processing organizations in human existence to fess up to the Russian advertising, and there’s a reasonable suspicion that there’s much more to be known. But we are at Facebook’s mercy here: There is no obligation for them to divulge anything, no guarantee that what they choose to divulge is comprehensive. Their monopoly power includes the power to ignore claims on their corporate attention.
There is a growing awareness that while the Internet has enabled these new monopolies, there is no legal framework to address them. American antitrust law, itself a century old, was not devised for this circumstance. Facebook and Google are free to use; other social networks and search engines exist; small advertisers benefit as well as large.
And yet their monopoly of attention, and the “hands-off” results they provide, does have practical, serious consequences — enough to help undermine an American election. We don’t have a solution for the problems they pose, but with their great power, they need to start accepting their great responsibility.
That, after all, was one of the things we learned in journalism school: You can’t avoid being a gatekeeper, but at least you can try being honest about it.