“The ever-present function of propaganda in modern life is in large measure attributable to the social disorganization which has been precipitated by the rapid advent of technological changes.”
This is not the latest comment on the perpetual missteps, mishaps and misuse of Facebook, but a quote from Harold D. Lasswell, eminent media scholar and creator of the eponymous and never-aging model and formula to determine media effects: who says what to whom in which channel with what effect?
Who said what to whom, and subsequent effects – that was also the theme of a multi-thousand-word investigative piece on Facebook and its executive team in the New York Times on 15th November.
By now, I’m sure anybody with even the remotest interest in the SmallDataForum canon of themes will be familiar with the story and the fall-out: basically, Facebook got burned by burning all sorts of lobbying, public affairs and communications candles at either end (or rather, by being found out about it). This Recode article provides a good summary and guide through the maze.
All the self-righteous huffing and puffing about concerns that the Facebook ecosystem could have been abused for political propaganda purposes: Mark Zuckerberg himself declared two days after Donald Trump’s election in 2016 that “personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”
Now it turns out that investigations into Russian interference started in early 2016, led by then head of security Alex Stamos (who now holds a professorship at Stanford). And from the peer-reviewed work by communication scholars Shannon McGregor and Daniel Kreiss on the role of social platform ‘embeds’ in Donald Trump’s campaign, we know about the role of Google, Facebook and Twitter in election campaigning. With one and one purpose only: to be paid for the opportunity – on behalf of political advertisers – to exert targeted influence. Sad.
But the comment on lived experience is also funny, given Facebook’s aim to move and keep more and more of users’ experience inside its own ecosystem. More users, more time spent, more interactions, more Facebook owned data to share with advertisers to build better targeting models. Attention and influence to make the corporate entity bigger, more profitable, more valuable.
How would that ever change? Neville, Sam and I largely agree that it won’t, until advertisers break the chain – and, perhaps, these latest revelations might trigger brand reputation fears that trump the big-number argument that has shielded the giant 2.27bn-user social network until now.
Senior figures at GroupM and Publicis have already openly criticised Facebook, and perhaps it’s not long before P&G’s Mark Pritchard and Unilever’s Keith Weed voice their concern.
As for the ‘naïveté defense: Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg were never naïve, certainly not commercially. From its initial public offering in 2012 to its peak mid-2018, Facebook’s share price went from $38 to $207, or 33% of compounded annual growth, by doing ever better what it does best – being attractive to advertisers.
Ok, at the time of writing, the share price is down 36% from its peak, and Sam tells us that his fatherly qualitative research into Gen Z reveals a distinct disinterest when it comes to the wizards of Hacker Way, Menlo Park, CA.
Another SmallDataForum pet topic featured in the discussion about Campaign Magazine’s November issue, which is all about the dangers that (ad) creativity faces from data, algorithms and AI. Chris Wylie, Cambridge Analytica whistle blower, features prominently – upside down head on the front page, strapline “I’ll save creativity”. Oh, alright then.
We discuss the ethics of tech and data use – as Wylie makes the point of tools being morally neutral: a knife might earn a chef a Michelin star, or be used to murder someone.
Ethics is a thorny subject that I’ve tried to make some sense of in the latest issue of Communication Director magazine. I think it’s fair to say it was not uppermost on Facebook’s corporate agenda over the years. Perhaps that will change.
By the way – the Lasswell quote from the beginning is from his 1927 work Propaganda Technique in the World War. A political scientist, equally at home in psychology, communications, economics and pretty much any other human and social science, more than 90 years on, he would find the Facebook mess uncomfortably familiar.
The SmallDataForum will be back with a live recording from its opulent Christmas lunch (Pizza and Montepulciano) in December.
Listen to episode 23: