Monopolies, Uber and Information

The dominance of Facebook and Google as information gatekeepers strips us of power and leaves us helpless. This is what they, and those that aspire to join them, are designed to do.

In the crucial early hours after the Las Vegas mass shooting, it happened again: Hoaxes, completely unverified rumors, failed witch hunts, and blatant falsehoods spread across the internet.

But they did not do so by themselves: They used the infrastructure that Google and Facebook and YouTube have built to achieve wide distribution. These companies are the most powerful information gatekeepers that the world has ever known, and yet they refuse to take responsibility for their active role in damaging the quality of information reaching the public

There were parallels for me when reading about the misidentification of the Las Vegas shooter (and the role big tech had in this) with this article about Uber. Specifically:

This is the way these companies are supposed to work – they run at a loss until they become a virtual monopoly, and hopefully by the time they dominate the market entirely they will have found a way to repay their investors. It’s what Facebook and Amazon did. And Uber has a plan too, a particularly unpleasant one. It was never meant to be a taxi firm; this is only its chrysalis.

Uber isn’t just a company; it’s a fully-fleshed model for the economic structures emerging throughout the developed world. It breaks the laws of old-fashioned national and local governments with impunity (just watch; London will roll over eventually). Just about every new tech firm has to announce itself in relation to Uber: an Uber for dogs, an Uber for education, an Uber for sadness. It’s a machine for processing human relations. We wander blind in the darkness, until an algorithm puts one person in another’s car.

The connection here is the effect of these increasingly monopolistic companies on us:

From then on, all our relations are transactional, and all of them are processed – from tipping to conversation – through Uber’s platforms. It’s not just a piece of computer technology; it’s a social technology, designed to individuate us, to turn us into consumers and entrepreneurs and nothing more, to leave us utterly alone and utterly powerless.

This is why steps to improve the quality of content (for example, human moderators) do not address the real reason we should be concerned— the by-design monopolistic nature of a handful of companies that dominate our digital lives.

Media gatekeeping & campaigning

Having made frequent references to media disintermediation, I thought it would be instructive  to take a look at media gatekeeping. Particularly in light of the previous post on Brexit and the idea that electorates were “tired of experts”.

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Media gatekeeping in a traditional context meant that the flow of information and opinion went through a filter consisting of the traditional mainstream media (MSM). This meant that relatively conventional opinions (either side of the prevalent political spectrum) were what the audience was presented with and told they had to chose from.

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However, digital media now means that the role of MSM as gatekeepers is greatly diminished. A new visualisation of this process would now look something like this:

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In this model, if the news information (N1,N3) from alternative sources and the campaign is discarded by the traditional gatekeepers, they can bypass the latter and reach their audience.

Not only are the options available to organisations to bypass the gatekeepers and communicate directly with the audience far more powerful, there is also a proliferation of information sources. These can be new media such as digital only news providers, powerful individual influencers or the audience members own social networks (e.g. friends and family). It should be noted that the relative weightage given to each news source does have demographic differentiations.

However, for a broad based campaign, the implications of this change in gatekeeping is that not only the content presented have to change but  as I’ve written previously, the media mix that a campaign has to deploy is more diverse and complex.