Ed Fraser, Managing Director of the tree, discusses the role of agencies in social media reform.
The campaign for social media reform launched by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle might not herald the end of platforms like Facebook and Instagram. But it does demonstrate that Zuck’s all-conquering Facebook has plenty to do to convince the world—not to mention the advertisers who made it $40 billion in 2017—that it isn’t a place for hate and misinformation.
High demand for info meets low-level data
As a social network alone, Facebook serves 2.27 billion people—over a quarter of the world’s population. Rightly or wrongly, a large number of these users see Facebook and other kinds of social media as both search engine and personal newspaper—only without the fact-checking and regulation that stops non-credible sources from finding an audience.
At a time like this, in the midst of a global pandemic, when the need for credible information meets unqualified data, the result can be the worst imaginable.
Meanwhile, the attention economy continues to reward “grandstanding”, where users compete for their share of voice by speaking louder, faster, and often more radically to be heard. This creates a race to the extremes and an abandonment of the search for common ground. But common ground could be the solution for a more acceptable social media.
Can social media regulate itself?
It is difficult to have the moral character to elevate yourself above harmful narratives. And even those who do have the intellectual independence to challenge others will struggle to police the mushrooming number of causes and concerns on social media.
This is proving to be a big ask of the platforms, too. Attempts to self-regulate have not had the desired effect. In the infancy of social media—in the infancy of the internet—no one knows what comes next and what its side effects will be. The people, policy makers, and platform owners are all struggling to keep pace.
What we do know is that equitable structures are a possible solution for more balanced product.
Purely algorithmic, shareholder-driven platforms lean into our strengths and weaknesses to generate profit. They narrow our perspective and consolidate our prejudices; Facebook had to set up new teams in July to look into the possibility that there was racial bias in its algorithms. Equitably structured businesses, however, aim to create value and wealth for their people, and both YouTube and TikTok have launched creator funds. These incentivise proper use and credible content creation through users.
For the billions who have invested their time and attention to help grow these social media businesses, it is up to them whether they sit back or demand more from the owners. Ultimately, it is the users who dictate success. It is still possible to turn off and demand more.
The role of agencies
Here, social media agencies find themselves in an unusual position. They have the technical and behavioural knowledge to understand not just how a social media platform works, but how people use it, and what impact that use has.
If social media can’t self-regulate, then an enormous responsibility falls to these agencies because they sit in the squishy middle, between the user and the platform. If there is a common ground to be found, they have the ability to define it, and they have to do it in tandem with other agencies, as one industry, by acting individually as filters for policy, standards, and what we mean by the word “acceptable”.
Adding to the noise won’t do any good. Content has to be common ground in itself: considerate of the mental well-being of users, factual, and meaningful. And if it isn’t considerate of different people, it may have a negative impact. So quality really matters here, too.
This is no small undertaking. Agencies have to create a space for responsible, thoughtful, evidence-based discussion. They have to create a space to collaborate on what’s right.
Time will tell if this is possible. In the meantime, it’s up to everyone who sees the value in social but also its flaws to be the kind of change they want to see, and work together to establish and nurture a healthy common ground where evidence, reason, and compassion predominate.