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.

Post-truth politics and facts

With media gatekeeping being the topic of my previous post, this article brought up some points that are worth retreading. In many ways, it is a lament for the death of gatekeeping and a statement against what has been described as “post-truth politics”.

This was the first major vote in the era of post-truth politics: the listless remain campaign attempted to fight fantasy with facts, but quickly found that the currency of fact had been badly debased.

Correctly, the article ties this into the prevailing distrust of experts. It also brings social media into play, and bemoans the fact that,

In the news feed on your phone, all stories look the same – whether they come from a credible source or not. And, increasingly, otherwise-credible sources are also publishing false, misleading, or deliberately outrageous stories. “Clickbait is king, so newsrooms will uncritically print some of the worst stuff out there, which lends legitimacy to bullshit,”

I have sympathy for both these views, but from a campaigning perspective the implications are clear, particularly if you represent a mainstream organisation that would traditionally rely on mainstream media networks and conventional messaging. The two key points are:

  • Facts and experts have their place but the use of these must connect with the audience. They must be presented in a way that is:
    • personally relevant to the audience,
    • connects emotionally,
    • and be sufficiently consequential to their lives to influence their decision.
  • If the media is no longer a reliable (if tacit) partner for campaigns, then the onus is on the campaign to maximise outreach and engagement via its own media platforms. Owned social media becomes the crucial publishing platform in this scenario.

Media disintermediation and priming in politics.

Having posted earlier on the way agenda setting and priming have functioned in the US Presidential Primaries, I thought it useful to take a look at how social media affects this process, focusing on the impact of owned media. My interest in this was also stimulated by listening to a number of podcasts and having read articles that seemed bemused about why the largely negative press coverage of Donald Trump has not affected his success.

By making some issues more salient in people’s mind (agenda setting), mass media can also shape the considerations that people take into account when making judgments about political candidates or issues (priming).

Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models / Dietram A. Scheufele & David Tewksbury

In a traditional model involving agenda setting / priming, the media’s impact extends through the entire lifecycle of the process. Not only does the media’s content set the agenda in the public’s mind, it exerts an ongoing priming influence. This is due to the fact that the “mainstream” media used to be a primary source of content about the issue. As I’ve touched upon previously, the media played an important role in the agenda setting process that made Trump a viable candidate.

 However, the disintermediation effect that social media has had on news means that priming (and possibly agenda setting) now occurs from a wider variety of sources.

In this election cycle, the “traditional entities” – the political parties, the media and the donor class – have been “cut out” as middlemen, said Gibbs. Outsider candidates have been able to “build an audience, deliver a message, and create a platform, all of their own construction.” Candidates can speak directly to voters through social media; Bernie Sanders in particular, despite a lack of media coverage compared to Donald Trump, was able to raise millions, said Gibbs. And although he has made extensive use of media coverage, Trump has circumvented both the Republican Party and the donor class.

– TIME’s Nancy Gibbs: The Disintermediation of Media and Politics

Essentially, this means that the media mix available to campaigns has changed dramatically. Most importantly, they can:

  • Become their own content creators on social media and push this content to the audience.
  • Leverage independent new media entities (especially those that favour the campaign) to push out content.

As a result, the weightage given to the traditional mainstream media is less, while that of the campaign’s owned content has increased. While this process has taken place over a number of years, the gap between the tone of the mainstream media’s campaign of the Trump campaign and the connection that campaign has built with voters is its most dramatic incarnation.

The very simplified diagrams below illustrate the change.

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 8.24.20 AM

Agenda Setting in Trump’s Triumph

A note about one of the many things that struck me while observing the Republican primaries. I thought it an interesting exercise to evaluate this using the agenda setting marketing theory.

Agenda-setting theory describes the “ability [of the news media] to influence the salience of topics on the public agenda.”

Using this, it is apparent that  media’s overwhelming coverage of the Trump campaign acted to prime the electorate to be open to his messaging. This is consistent with the role of the media in an agenda setting context. They did not tell the voters what to think about Trump. Rather, by talking about his attributes, they directed a receptive primary voter audience to Trump and his messaging.

The media’s coverage told voters that:

  • Trump is interesting.
  • Trump is different.
  • Trump is an outsider.

Given the current zeitgeist is anti-establishment, this created a perfect platform for Trump to push his message. With social media providing campaigners their own publishing platforms, the role of media organisations will be increasingly confined to that of agenda setting, while their role as opinion makers will continue to diminish.