President Donald Trump has used Twitter and Facebook to their fullest extent during the presidential campaign, with great success. The networks have benefitted through the many followers this has generated. This success is double-edged, as the occupier of the White House has become a problematic guest, so much so that social network business models are being questioned.
Unilever, who is reported to have invested $42.4 million in Facebook advertising in 2019, has just announced that it will stop advertising on Facebook, as well as on other social media, at least until the end of the year. Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Adidas, Reebok, and several others have followed suit. The reason for this is the hate-filled atmosphere following the murder of George Floyd. But advertisers withdrawing from social media is about more than a simple deduction. It is poisonous to their economic model.
Let us cast our minds back to 2016, when Trump invaded Twitter. Thanks to the platform, he gained twice the amount of media coverage as “lying” Hillary, his opponent at the time. He set up camp on social media as a fierce critic of the accredited press, accusing them of being hypocrites, sell-outs and liars. His outbursts were reported by the entire media who benefited from it and sold advertising. As Christopher Wylie brilliantly shows in “Mindf*ck,” the marriage of Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica added fuel to the fire, whipping up the networks’ most virulent groups by putting conflict front and center. The more people attacked each other, the more people weighed in, the more profiles were created and the more were sold … making it easier for Trump to target them.
The result is that with 11,000 tweets in three years and 82 million followers, Trump has shaped the landscape of Twitter and pandered to the network’s incitement of destructive behavior. He has set the tone, establishing himself as the de facto editor, something that none of the platforms — “social media oblige” — were willing to take on. As a result, the sacrosanct status of the hosting provider, born of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which, in order to promote the internet, exempts platforms from editorial responsibility. In the United States, as elsewhere, with the exception of China, which blithely censors its networks, this promotes the growth of this outrageous model.
A Conflict Model
Today, however, there is no political or commercial brand that is capable of ousting Trump, whose star is nonetheless waning more and more each day. To make matters worse, the more his brand declines, the more aggressive he becomes. The first to be targeted, Twitter reacted by refusing to publish political advertising. It then began censoring Trump (the boss!) He immediately tweeted that he would revoke its hosting provider status. The other social media platforms kept a low profile, the most unremarkable being Facebook, also very dependent on its hosting provider status. Nevertheless, between Twitter, the pandemic, conspiracy theories and the social tensions they engender, the divisions and violence that Trump has instigated create a dismal landscape. In other words, the “Mindf*ck” effect is in the process of polluting advertisers. And the networks stink.
Why Facebook Is Right Not To Censor Trump
Advertisers are admittedly being cautious. They have announced a temporary withdrawal, with the implication that the situation is going to spontaneously calm down. A public relations stunt? Don’t be so sure. The networks’ host provider status encourages a conflict-laden model. There are some trying to take back control of their environment by censoring Trump — Twitch and Reddit have just done this. The problem is the environment belongs to the publisher. Some, such as Condé Nast, have already broadcast the fact that their intention was to satisfy the desire for equality in today’s world. To protect their status, the platforms will have to limit human intervention through algorithms which flush out anything politically incorrect. They have done this for pornography. They are struggling to do it with copyrighted content. Is it realistic to also do this with ideas? Will that be enough to restore trust? And if, in the eyes of advertisers, the value of the online environment becomes greater than the value of targeting customers, would it not be in their best interests to make themselves the editors?
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