In recent years, social media has both instigated and bore witness to new divisions in our society. Even though octogenarians manage to use it, social media is a complicated digital tool, involving precise and hidden mechanisms that interact behind our telephone’s touchscreens. The occasionally arcane nature of social media platforms and the business models in which they operate leads to political polarization, divisions, and controversies around the world, with some of the most contentious debates occurring in the United States.
The business model
All social media websites and applications, like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, and even LinkedIn, use similar strategies to make a profit. Because social media is free to use, the simple saying “the user is the product” is frequently invoked, albeit with the wrong understanding. More accurately, these platforms sell our attention to their real clients: the advertisers. The more time users spend on the app, the more ads they will see, allowing advertisers to generate revenue, thereby increasing the platform’s profits.
This strategy works. In the fourth quarter of 2019, Facebook generated $21.08 billion in total revenue, most of which came from advertising. This trend is not slowing down either — social ad spending is actually predicted to increase by 20 per cent in 2020. While this business model is not a new development, dating back to the television era, social media provides a much more personalized tool to target users more efficiently. As we interact with Facebook, Instagram, or Youtube, behind-the-screen algorithms gather information on our tastes and preferences to suggest posts or videos that best fit our interests. The personalized nature of social media feeds a large part of why the average person spends up to three hours a day on social media.
Even though 44 per cent of Americans use Facebook as their primary news source, social media companies regularly reject the title and responsibilities of “media companies,” sidestepping their legal obligations to moderate posted content. Consequently, users who typically engage with conspiracy theories are more likely to come across conspiratorial news in their social media feeds. In the case of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, Facebook’s recommendation engine presented conspiracy-minded users with suggestions to join Pizzagate groups, further spreading the rumour that Bill and Hillary Clinton were running a pedophile ring from the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C. The conspiracy theory attracted so much attention online that one man ultimately decided to enter the restaurant with a gun and fire at one of the restaurant’s employees.
As events like Pizzagate demonstrate, platforms will show users what they want, no matter the validity of the content. This function is more or less harmless when talking about food or video games, but it becomes much more problematic with topics pertaining to ideological beliefs and politics.
Social media creates what is known as echo chambers. Echo chambers are settings where interactions between like-minded individuals result in the amplification of their mutually held beliefs and preferences. On social media, the users confirm their pre-existing political beliefs by communicating with other users who share their political views. Arguments from the other side of the political spectrum do not appear on the user’s feed, insulating individuals in a personal ideological bubble.
Echo chambers and political polarization also lead to increased political partisanship. With exterior opinions consistently confirming individual beliefs, voters are more prone to vote for a party than an individual while holding “very unfavourable views” of the opposing party. These partisan feelings are especially visible during election years and political debates. For example, in 2016, 92 per cent of Hillary Clinton’s voters believed she had won the second debate, while 61 per cent of Donald Trump’s supporters said the same about their preferred candidate. Both Trump and Clinton supporters rated their candidates more positively, illustrating strong partisan inclinations in both parties.
Today, ideological surveys show that political polarization is at a twenty-year high, with Democrats and Republicans more divided than in the past. This cleavage not only signals increasing partisanship but also rising antipathy and hostility towards the opposing party. Anger is now motivating people to vote, reinforcing the phenomenon of “negative partisanship.” This sentiment was especially strong in 2016, wherein most voters held unfavourable views of the opposing party’s candidate, whether it was Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
By perpetuating political polarization, negative partisanship is now widely understood and used during elections, entrenching the demonization of political actors with opposing views. Donald Trump is a prime example of this trend, evidence by his abundant use of social media platforms, namely Twitter, to vilify his enemies. Much like political polarization, Trump’s tweets promote and bolster close-mindedness, antipathy, and hatred.
It is not a coincidence people who are on social media are called “users.” Much like drugs, many are addicted to their feeds, likes, and posts. While the consequences are not direct illness or death, social media divides and separates society by spreading conspiracy and contributing to political polarization. If left unchecked, social media users may soon find themselves in rehab.
Edited by Luca Brown
Social Media Buzz: Zappos' Tony Hsieh Dies, Hulu, McKinsey – BNN
(Bloomberg) — What’s buzzing on social media this morning:
Tony Hsieh, the retired CEO of online shoe retailer Zappos.com, has died at age 46. His lawyer said he was injured in a house fire while visiting Connecticut. Twitter users paid tribute to the Harvard graduate, who spent years working to revitalize Las Vegas’ downtown area.
Zappos was sold to Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009.
Stay-at-home shoppers drove U.S. Black Friday online sales to a record high. The most mentioned products on social media include Hulu’s subscription offer, the Apple iPhone 12, and Sony’s PlayStation 5.
“Shop Small Saturday” is also trending. Smaller retailers saw early success with sales 545% higher on Black Friday, compared to an average day last month, according to Adobe.
A New York Times investigation found that McKinsey advised Purdue Pharma to pay distributors a rebate for every OxyContin overdose, in an effort to shore up sales.
A spokesperson for McKinsey told the newspaper that the firm had been “cooperating fully with the opioid-related investigations” and had announced in 2019 it would not advise any clients on opioid-specific business.
Protesters in major cities across France hit the street to rally against a new security law that would ban the publication of images of police officers with intent to cause them harm.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
News Media Lobby Group Asks MPs for Rules to Get Compensation from Google, Facebook – ChrisD.ca
By The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — A lobby group for Canada’s newspapers and magazines is asking MPs to enact new rules to help its members negotiate compensation from social-media giants that post content the traditional media produce.
News Media Canada wants the government to let the industry negotiate collectively with the likes of Google and Facebook.
There are similar rules in other countries, such as Australia and France, where Google announced last week it had signed compensation agreements with several daily newspapers and magazines, including Le Monde.
News Media Canada’s CEO, John Hinds, said Canadian rules similar to those would negate the need for any new taxes or spending programs.
“It allows the industry and the digital monopolies to negotiate fair terms for compensation,” Hinds told MPs on the House of Commons heritage committee Friday.
“It doesn’t raise taxes, it doesn’t deal with government sort of intervening in the marketplace, but it allows a fair market interaction between the platforms and newspapers.”
The committee is studying the challenges the pandemic has created for media and culture groups.
Several members of the committee lamented the reduction in local news coverage as their newspapers cut back on coverage and editions to keep the lights on.
Hinds said some smaller newspapers closed permanently due to the pandemic, while larger publications saw newsroom layoffs.
The federal wage subsidy, he said, has been helpful in avoiding worse.
Advertising revenue plunged by 75 per cent at the start of the pandemic in many markets, he said, and the industry is still struggling with advertising declines in the range of 30 per cent.
The federal government announced a $30-million communications budget at the start of the pandemic, but Hinds said there was limited placement of the resulting ads in Canadian news media.
“The government can deliver on its mandate to communicate with Canadians by implementing a strategy of placing ads where Canadians are looking for trusted content and advertising,” he said.
Without federal help, he added, the future is grim for many of his member organizations.
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