Since halfway through this decade—and more pointedly, since November 2016—the narrative around the internet has been changing.
Seemingly overnight, Usenet and web communities like Angelfire gave way to massive behemoths like Facebook and Google. The tools that became the best at providing the exact information consumers sought were viewed in a new light. After elections and political movements around the world created controversy and a visible divisiveness, people had a new feeling about the tools we use every day to access the internet. The opinion that Facebook and Google just might be prioritizing our news and information gained new scrutiny.
However, the media has been prioritizing the information we receive since before there was media. In its most noble form, editors chose the story to make most important and cut the story they felt was less important.
The other side of this argument is dark and gaining traction. Unlike minutes in a television broadcast, links are infinite. By choosing to display a given story 20 times, Facebook is, in a sense, censoring another story. For every child exploitation video on YouTube or Pizzagate story shown on Facebook, the algorithm pushes another local news story down in the feed.
The feeling coming away from these moments is that we—particularly Americans—wouldn’t allow the world to look like this. If presented with all of the information equally, if provided with the true power of the internet, then good would prevail. Never mind that we don’t agree on what “good” looks like. We would make it right. Facebook, Google and Amazon are in the beginning stage of being cast as villains (well, maybe Facebook is about two years into this role).
There have never been companies this size with more market power. Tiny changes to their rules make and break other companies’ quarters. According to eMarketer, Facebook and Google account for about 60% of all digital ad spending, including their owned properties like Instagram and YouTube. Amazon accounts for another roughly 7%. The juxtaposition is that these groups have the digital advertising market cornered but are also on top in criticism and growing distrust.
For advertisers, the tremendous promise of the internet was met by an equally large challenge. In an infinite environment, where do you reach your customers? If people can be anywhere, where will you find the people you want to reach? Brands loved Google and then Facebook because they consolidated users and provided dependable advertising formats. So how are brands supposed to respond when mass media and journalists begin pulling at the threads of what made them functional advertising vehicles?
Companies aren’t exactly coming forward with vocal support of Facebook and Google. P&G, through CMO Marc Pritchard has been alerting marketers about rampant fraud and lack of transparency in results from digital ad sales companies. The media has been burned by Facebook and Google’s policies and policy changes. As a result, consumers are bombarded with negative stories with few bright spots. If people are distrustful of these platforms, wouldn’t that mean they would lose trust in brands that associate with them?
Even as we try to blame YouTube, we create a paradox. We hear how the algorithm recommends videos to users that are associated with present bad or inappropriate stories, radicalizing them. But in our own viewing, we are mostly only exposed to videos that we agree with as a function of that same algorithm. We get into a feed of 20 straight videos of violent hockey brawls but surely that’s not the same as flat-earth conspiracies. Individuals have a hard time encountering the experience on their own because we misunderstand the problem.
Users each find the stories they wish to find. We each believe the problem is being presented with stories we don’t want to see. The algorithm is so sharp, and the problem never shows up in our feed. It is always happening to someone else, so we are at best uninterested, and at worst, resistant to ideas around regulation of these tools we have come to rely on.
We assume these problems are happening to other people. I see this shampoo ad on a site after a video under a story that I agree with. I rarely happen upon content I loathe, so I find a brand near something negative equally rarely. Or if I do, I can explain it away. “Wow, that was unlucky for that shaving cream ad to show up in that story about the knife attack.”
These sites are not utilities; their value is more than pragmatic. Our emotional responses to what we see and hear on Facebook and YouTube are what keep us coming back. Brands can’t just walk away, which creates a vicious cycle. YouTube and Facebook are free of cost for consumers. They earn their massive revenues by selling your attention to brands. They achieve this by showing us all exactly what we want to see. The bulk of what you watch is posted for free. The people who are watching are being paid in entertainment.
Brands, the companies they stand for and the people inside them will have to decide what that attention is worth, what the potential business result is worth and ultimately whether the potential damage to the viewers subjected to the algorithmic programming, as it stands today, is worth hitting the numbers.