Facebook, and social media in general, may look back on 2017 as the year when everything changed. Before 2016, Facebook’s platform was a Wild West of self-managed algorithms, content, and advertisements, without anybody in the regulatory sphere paying much attention to how they made their money or from whom. Late in 2016, Facebook came under fire from right-wing political forces in the US for allowing humans to moderate their news feeds. These critics used the predictable allegation of a “liberal bias.” Facebook responded by automating news feed moderation, which allowed bots and trolls to utilize Facebook’s advertising engine and sharing technologies in largely unmanaged ways, all during a historic Presidential election.
So, it wasn’t exactly a surprise when Facebook announced that Russian entities had purchased $100,000 worth of ads, and likely much more, on the social media platform during the 2016 election. As Zeynep Tufekci recently wrote in the New York Times:
In a largely automated platform like Facebook, what matters most is not the political beliefs of the employees but the structures, algorithms and incentives they set up, as well as what oversight, if any, they employ to guard against deception, misinformation, and illegitimate meddling. And the unfortunate truth is that by design, business model, and algorithm, Facebook has made it easy for it to be weaponized to spread misinformation and fraudulent content. Sadly, this business model is also lucrative, especially during elections. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, called the 2016 election “a big deal in terms of ad spend” for the company, and it was. No wonder there has been increasing scrutiny of the platform.
Facebook has been scrambling ever since. Many people are no longer buying the company’s claims of being an innocent platform. Their responses to requests for greater insights into how they manage their platform and regulate intrusions and misinformation have been directionally correct, if functionally or politically inadequate. Facebook is now full of Snopes.com links and heading toward transparency on who is paying for advertisements, especially political advertisements. Based on interviews with Facebook’s CEO, they may yet be dragged kicking and screaming into full transparency.
Facebook’s political advertising loophole Russian and other sneaky political advertisers exploited — no requirement to disclose who paid for political advertising — was right in front of regulators all the time. For some reason — unwillingness to treat all advertising equally, or a lack of awareness of how pervasive social media advertisement had become, or a little of both — regulators completely overlooked the advertising on Facebook. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) may soon close this loophole.
This is not a great story for any brand. Imagine if the New York Times had been found to have allowed Russian agents to buy ads in editions being sent to ZIP codes known to be ripe for political destabilization? Imagine if their best defense was, We didn’t know what was going on?
While it’s difficult to predict what’s will happen in a political sphere where ineptitude is hard to distinguish from corruption, the laissez-faire attitude of regulators toward social media is likely to end soon, if not this year. It’s reminiscent of Amazon’s taxation story — for a while, Amazon was small potatoes, so state and local tax authorities overlooked taxation of what Amazon shipped into their tax districts. Once Amazon accounted for enough commerce, the regulators swept in, and Amazon started paying taxes. Then, with this infrastructure in place, Amazon could quickly move into other retail zones to further leverage the investment.
For social media, regulation may have a different set of effects. It may mean the end to massive profits and boundless growth. Regulations are complicated to deal with, and expensive to comply with. Already this year, Facebook has been forced to hire thousands of new employees to monitor social media video postings.
Regulations are complicated to deal with, and expensive to comply with. But the dime has dropped on Facebook as a media company, and it’s about time.
The same shifts may also affect Twitter, which lives in a slightly different sphere when it comes to regulation. While found to also have been utilized by Russian agents, Twitter is the current medium in which our President fingerpaints. Regulation of Twitter, therefore, is arriving from slightly different angles. Are Presidential tweets part of the national record? Can the President and other public servants block Twitter users, or is that illegal?
Regulators and lawyers smell blood. The political calculus has shifted.
Users may find that more regulated social media sites lack some of the fun they once boasted — the zany misinformation, the edgy speculation about health or nutrition, and other wacky but enjoyable elements. Social media may become boring. There may be no more miracle diets without a Snopes.com link telling you it’s a myth. There may be no more content advertising or custom publishing without a tag telling you that exactly who you’d think would pay for such a thing did in fact pay for it. And once the trolls and touts and charlatans learn that they’ll be exposed on social media, the ads may vanish, and we’ll be left with vacation photos, videos of goats in pajamas, and advertising from mainstream organizations. The thrill, in other words, may be gone. (Except for the goats in pajamas, of course.)
The issue for scholarly publishers is that once Facebook and other massive media entities have nowhere to turn for growth but trusted business models and trusted outlets, they may turn their attention to recurring-revenue businesses that can generate cash on a reliable basis and grow. This is not without precedent, as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post, viewed initially as an act of philanthropy, is looking more and more like another savvy business move.
There are indications we’re already in view, with major investments from Silicon Valley coming to ResearchGate, Meta, and other entities, who may get even more cash to burn from these players when they realize that they can leverage solid science, bolstered with scholarly brands, into this new, regulated space, all with good success and fewer headaches.
Facebook’s founder placed two major toe-holds in scholarly publishing this year, with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative acquiring Meta and more recently funding and supporting bioRxiv.
Facebook is not alone in establishing a beachhead in scholarly publishing. Google has two entry points, as well — with Google Scholar and, more recently, with its CASA initiative, partnering with HighWire Press. While the former is a natural elaboration of Google’s search indexing activities, CASA has the potential to put Google in the business of user authentication for researchers and scholars, extending from a stub “Subscriptions” function Scholar introduced along the way. In combination, the two could be potent levers in the future, delivering tons of user information to Google. On top of this is another approach Google has taken, which is less obvious — its work creating and supporting Creative Commons. Free information is to Google what cheap gas was to automakers, so the continued expansion of CC licenses in scholarly publishing fits with a larger strategy from Google we’d be foolish to ignore — the easy appropriation of scholarly content by a large data company.
While such investments are generally viewed as benign and even helpful, part of our perception of them may be due to the overarching image of Silicon Valley, captured nicely in an interview on Recode Decode with Scott Galloway, an NYU professor, this past summer:
These companies all wrap themselves, smartly, in a progressive pink or rainbow blanket because progressives are seen as nice but weak, and conservatives are seen as smart but mean. If a smart but mean person was running one of these companies, regulators would step in. It’s the reason that regulators stepped into Microsoft. Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer are infinitely less likable than Sergey or Larry or Mark or Sheryl. . . . Being likable is hugely important for a company. Hugely important, because people aren’t threatened by them. Apple has this incredibly likable CEO. I think that guy is impossible not to like. . . . As a result, I think we’re less inclined to break them up, or to move in, or to boycott them.
It’s interesting to note that Elsevier, with its handful of billions in revenues, is routinely decried as a heartless Goliath in scholarly publishing while Google, Facebook, and even Microsoft have been welcomed with open arms (or at least indifference), despite being far larger and arguably more reckless in their growth strategies. Perhaps the progressive halo Galloway mentions works, while the relatively conservative Dutch pay a price for appearing business-like.
More appealing to the titans of Silicon Valley may be the idea, already articulated in descriptions of why Meta and ResearchGate have received funding, that scientific information can be plumbed to cure diseases, extend lifespans, and promote human well-being. While it would be nice if it were true, the key belief is that it might be true, and that’s enough to drive investment within a culture obsessed with staying young, living forever, and changing the world.
Given the potential for diminished prospects in advertising and fettered growth that may come with increased regulation, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more major investments in scholarly and scientific publishing from large media companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Investments from these companies could do more to change scholarly publishing — make it more public-facing, increase its granularity, push digitization, and displace vendor supply chains — than anything we’ve seen since the site license.
Watch this space.