When we first sign up on Facebook or Twitter, the primal motivation is the urge to connect and share. But what we do not forsee at that time is how these harmless-looking networking sites would one day become news disseminators and make us their involuntary consumers.
We are all so busy uploading cat pictures and guessing the colour of the dress, that we never quite realise how we are crossing over from a consumer and becoming a product, which are eventually sold to advertisers for revenue.
This bitter truth has come in the spotlight again after the US government launched an inquiry into the role of Russia-backed ads during the 2016 elections.
Remember Season 4 of House of Cards when a fictitious website called ‘Pollyhop’ was targeting key sections of population and influencing them for candidate B, and not our hero Frank Underwood? In a similar way, many are blaming the ‘fake news’ on social media networks of influencing the American election and for Donald Trump winning the presidency.
So much so that Republican John McCain is now proposing an ‘Honest Ads Act’ to regulate political advertising. Under this, Facebook, Google, digital media firms would be required to keep copies of political ads and make them publicly available. Also, the companies would be required to provide details about who the messages were targeted to and how much they cost.
This developement comes just days within Twitter banning two Russian media companies from advertising for interfering with the Donald Trump election. They have also announced this week how they would label political ads with a purple tag and disclose their purchaser and “demographics” and label issue-based ads separately.
Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has announced that political advertisers must reveal their identity so that users can see every ad run by a political page even if it didn’t target them. In a similar development, watchdog Advertising Standards Authority pulled up Snapchat influencer Marnie Simpson for failing to clearly indicate her endorsements as sponsored.
With so many crackdown on social media giants, one must also ask if this model is sustainable for growing online businesses? Some are already struggling with finding advertisers just like tech giant Twitter announced early this year its first decline in ad revenue since becoming public in 2013.
While I laud the spirit of the proposed Bill, I also wonder if it infringes upon First Amendment free speech rights of the citizens. However, these recent changes in policy and online advertising have opened the debate on ‘misinformation’ and the use of social media in forming public opinion. Understanding all of which is key for any democracy to operate and thrive.