Understanding The Mask Behind Social Media

Whether or not you’re surprised by the recent news that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election via social media, there is one key point to this all: Social isn’t just “social” anymore. Russian purchases of controversial social posts targeted 126 million Facebook users. They also pushed over 131,000 Twitter messages and uploaded more than 1,000 YouTube videos.

Executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter have spelled out their defense via congressional testimony but it’s not clear what, if anything, will change regarding monitoring and protection from foreign interference in any subsequent elections. The fact that social media platforms were a hub for election tampering marks a significant shift into bigger, darker territory of what we once perceived these platforms to be.

So, how did we get here?

Who will pull off the mask?

In all honesty, users of social media aren’t really making the connection between how they use it and how big political organizations use it. For most people, social means sharing cat videos and baby photos. So, if everyday users aren’t able or interested in discerning content, does the platform own that responsibility? Should the government intervene? The dust hasn’t settled on that just yet, but consider the role of platform self-regulation.

Social media companies may have to admit that they just can’t vet every user, let alone every post, tweet and message. Social media titans are being very reactionary — they’re hiring staff to do it and also crowdsourcing feedback since users can flag spam. But there are even barriers to crowdsourcing. Think about how easy it is to “like” something — one click. It’s not so easy to flag spam, which takes several more clicks. And the reporter isn’t always reliable either. It’s a complicated problem to solve.

Marketers’ jobs won’t be getting easier anytime soon.

Social media is a massively deep pool of interactive possibilities with highly targeted capabilities. There is a huge amount of data in one place, coupled with tools to dig into very niche segments. That’s very appealing to anyone looking to influence a population. Costs are relatively low and targets are precise. Perfect, right? Not so fast.

Today, marketers have a lot more clutter to cut through, and it’s harder for them to earn trust because the playing field is far from level. There are different outlets now — social media, news, etc. — and depending on the outlet you’re using, you have to be factual. But sometimes you don’t. And there’s no set mechanism by which people know the difference.

In short, there’s confirmation bias for marketers to work through. So, while at a surface level social media seems like a great place to engage with targeted audiences with timely, relevant messaging, it’s also chaotic in terms of separating fact from fiction. And marketers aren’t in the driver’s seat.

Facebook, however, doesn’t seem to have suffered from the swirl of Russian interference publicity. Ironically, the media attention has showcased Facebook’s targeting capabilities, and marketers have not slowed down their activity on the platform. Third quarter profits were reported at 79% with revenue up almost 50%. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has committed to employing 10,000 additional people to review content on the platform, which is commendable. So much for AI handling the heavy load.

But will that be enough? We’re in a new age. Anyone can be a publisher. And will an army of reviewers really be effective when people still believe what they want to believe when it comes to social content? The mask may or may not come off anytime soon. But until it does, it’s up to us as marketers and individuals to discern and publish responsibly.

Article written by: Michael Caccavale