Digital Irish, led by Rachel Quigley, recently hosted a fireside chat with Irish journalist and entrepreneur Mark Little. In an intriguing discussion, Mark spoke at length about his diverse career, weaving a path that has brought him around the world with RTE, building Storyful and leading Twitter in Ireland. His latest venture NevaLabs, which he co-founded with Aine Kerr, is setting out to change how we, as readers, consume and interact with news. This start-up comes off the back of modern technology giants such as Facebook and Twitter transforming modern news consumption. NevaLabs is arguing this system is broken and that something needs to change.
Increasingly, they are in good company. As the dust settled on the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, fingers were pointed at social networks for the spread of inaccurate news stories on their platforms. Most recently, Facebook has come under enormous pressure following revelations that the data company Cambridge Analytica (funded by some high profile supporters of President Donald Trump) harvested the data of 50 million Facebook users in the United States. Trust and favorability in Facebook continues to drop at an alarming pace. The larger looming question is what does the future of social media look like? Will Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat continue to dominate, or will there be new players introduced and/or new consumer habits formed, possibly at the expense of the incumbents?
It is a welcome development to see start-ups (especially Irish ones) challenging the current status quo in this area and introducing fresh ideas. Facebook has had a monopoly-like grasp on digital news consumption in recent years, a platform that was never created to do so. It has been an incredible story of growth from a college dorm room to its modern form, but it has not come without its flaws. Questions remain over whether big companies like Facebook can fix these problems or whether the future landscape will belong to start-ups with some different ideas on how social media can work. Beyond the current topical controversies around these platforms, there are some deeply embedded issues which are sowing seeds of discontent with users.
The Spread of Fake News
The 2016 election demonstrated that Facebook’s unchallenged positive attitude to their platform left them blindsided to rogue forces. The structure of social media news feeds has presented advantages to smaller publishers. This became a big problem when it caused factually incorrect news stories to flood onto the platform. Facebook built a product that they believed “democratized information”. Nicholas Thompson, writing for Wired, analyzed how Facebook built their news feed with every piece of content presented in roughly the same way, so all news stories from Washington Post articles to a fabricated news story written by a teenager in Macedonia looked the same. As Thompson put it, this decision “may be one of the biggest ever made”.
This is a huge competitive advantage for smaller publishers over the news giants that dominated the media landscape. Sponsored posts and provocative headlines allow tiny players with no media budget to get their content viewed by huge audiences. While it can be argued this system indeed democratizes information, Facebook and Twitter did not police their platforms and prevent the spread of certain deliberately misleading stories. With all content appearing equal, provocative, partisan stories containing false information and unverified sources allowed opportunists to spread a narrative with devastating effects. It was clearly possible to hack the Facebook algorithm which was tied to viral effects, where provocative content trumped all.
It is essential that this issue is addressed immediately. Buzzfeed and the New York Times both produced pieces recently on how fake news is here to stay and will only become more sophisticated and convincing. Misinformation infecting platforms like Facebook are a huge threat to democracy and need to be purged before they spread.
Information Lives in Silos
Social media sites allow you to build a news feed around the type of content you want to see, based on who you are friends with and what you “like”. Given the modern reliance of social media feeds to provide many consumers with their news content, this is becoming a big problem. It leads to the concern that good journalism is only circulating around homogeneous circles of people who share all the same viewpoints, and therefore does not reach a diverse audience. Social media makes it very easy to shield yourself from different opinions you don’t wish to hear and leave yourself in an echo chamber. The fear being that when you rely on Facebook and Twitter for your news, you could be getting an unrepresentative and unchallenged side of the discussion.
The 2016 election taught us that great journalism is only as good as its distribution system. The real task at hand is to shepherd fact based content from all political viewpoints to all four corners of the web that educates the audience and allows us to have informed debates. Facebook and Twitter have a role to play in this; opening up people to new and interesting viewpoints that they wouldn’t get in the standard newsfeed would make the platforms stronger. Perhaps there should be options to read articles of opposing viewpoints when you finish reading an article arguing one side of a debate. Facebook can categorize its users on political leanings for the purpose of more effective advertising. It could be a good idea if platforms openly shared with its users how liberally/conservatively skewed their news feed is based off this information. It would certainly give it’s users some perspective on what they consume. Of course, individual users can also play a part by following reputable publications across the political spectrum and having open discussions and debates. When viewpoints are solidified and go unchallenged, the opposing side becomes the enemy.
Twitter in particular often demonstrates the worst of this when people clash, ranging from trolling to abusive language and behavior. People will always disagree in open discussion, but the level of venom sometimes seen on social media can be horrendous. Platforms designed to connect the world can sometimes shift to the lowest common denominator. It is leading many people to opt out, users including celebrities have decided to quit platforms like Twitter, citing the online abuse as too much to take. People will argue over what a standard level of decorum is, but it is clear that if people aren’t happy to engage, network effects can work in negative ways as well as positive. It would make you question whether future social media will involve public comments and discussion. It is fair to assume that many will retreat to group chats on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (which are both owned by Facebook) that are invite only, unwilling to engage with strangers for fear of unwanted consequences. Jessica Livingston, the Y Combinator co-founder wrote this interesting blog post on how it is often not worth it for reputable people to share their opinions on the internet. In social media’s current state, it’s increasingly possible that the best ideas won’t be spread or discussed.
Social networks deliver a poor return on attention:
The secret sauce of Twitter and Facebook is their addictive nature and the social gratification they provide. With social media apps installed on mobile phones, we are spending more and more time on the platforms. Yet for all the time we spend on social media, we are not getting enough value out of them. Facebook has become flooded with content from brands and publishers rather than friends and people we care about. With everything at the whim of the Facebook algorithm, what you see on your news feed is what Facebook wants you to see rather than representing your best interests. There is growing discontent and concern about the hours we spend online. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, has emerged as a prominent critic of the tricks social media companies use to keep us scrolling through their platforms. Academic and author Cal Newport, among others, has expressed concern about modern social media habits. In response, start-ups such as NevaLabs are challenging the social media giants in this space. They are setting out to build a tool that focuses on bringing its users high quality, trustworthy news content; optimizing for a high return on attention, a welcome change. Building tools that put the interests of users first will enable us to instantly access the relevant news we need to read in a time efficient manner. In addition, more journalists stepping into this new media world can help to solve fake news and information silos.
The Facebook and Twitter identity crisis:
Many of the problems of social media can be traced back to Silicon Valley’s dogma that they are operating benign platforms. Facebook in particular has been incredibly coy on how it defines itself: seeing itself as a platform rather than a publisher. It seems this definition is more tactical to avoid some essential responsibilities rather than a purely ideological one. Given the mass audiences and control over the news feed algorithm, they certainly bear the responsibilities of a publisher. No reputable trustworthy publisher that cares about its readers would allow false and misleading information spread around their pages, and the social networks should be no different. Facebook and Twitter are slowly moving towards recognizing themselves as quasi-publishers, a welcome move that should reframe how they operate their platforms. The enormous pressure currently on Facebook would lead you to believe (hope) social networks will tackle the fake news crisis and privacy concerns. These tech giants have a large role to play given their scale and power. It is encouraging to finally see both Facebook and Twitter accept that mistakes were made and change is needed. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg has announced his 2018 goal is to “Fix Facebook” and made some welcome changes such as boosting trustworthy, informative and local content and cracking down on publishers it finds posting fake news stories. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey announced earlier this month that Twitter was committed “to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress”.
Outside of the fake news problems, skepticism remains over whether Facebook and Twitter will take the bold and necessary measures if they are at odds with profitability and user metrics. It seems unlikely they would have any interest in taking action that reduces the time people spend on their respective platforms. Therefore, it is exciting to see start-ups like NevaLabs pushing to solve problems in this area. Many of us are dissatisfied with our current social media habits and are looking for real tangible change rather than the unrealistic default option of deleting our social media accounts. It is extremely unlikely to foresee a future where social media doesn’t play a part in our lives. Therefore, let’s make sure it plays a positive part.