Time for Twitter, Facebook, and Google to show real responsibility

Whether they accept they are media companies or not, the social media behemoths have to pay more attention to security and be subject to the same rules and regulations that mainstream media players abide by.

President Trump's Twitter account temporarily disappeared on Thursday.
President Trump's Twitter account temporarily disappeared on Thursday.

A busy week for Twitter ended with a disgruntled rogue employee on their last day in the job deleting President Trump’s account as a parting gesture.

It didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the social network’s security measures and put a damper on optimism created by Twitter’s Q3 financials, which led the stock to increase more than 18% on Thursday in anticipation of its first profitable quarter.

And, let’s face it, love him or hate him Trump’s Twitter activity has probably been the biggest promo for the reach and effectiveness of the social networking service in its history.

The social media giant was also in the spotlight in DC this week, along with its colleagues at Facebook and Google, facing a grilling from Congress’ House Intelligence Committee over advertising transparency.

The three tech behemoths refused to rubber stamp a bipartisan bill aimed at bringing them into line with TV and radio broadcasters and print media in terms of disclosing who pays for political ads on their platforms, in light of Russian manipulation of the U.S. election last year.

The platforms are also being encouraged to do more to combat the rise of fake news and hate speech and to beef up monitoring of organic content on their sites that seeks to influence elections and mislead users.

This came further into the spotlight following Tuesday’s terrorist attack in New York City, in which an Uzbekistani immigrant mowed down pedestrians and cyclists on the West Side Highway of Manhattan having been radicalized on social media sites.

The likes of Google and Facebook have long tried to claim they are not media outlets, rather they are utilities, in an attempt to abdicate responsibility for the content on their platforms. But this argument no longer washes, as WPP CEO Martin Sorrell has pointed out before several times, not least in terms of measurability and false claims about audience reach.

There is a certain amount of irony in this, as both have shown they can act fast enough when their commercial interests, and the commercial interests of their key stakeholders, are threatened.

I noticed this last year when I took the 22 Pushup Challenge to raise awareness of the number of veterans who commit suicide each day. I would post the videos of me struggling through the pushups on Facebook, often accompanied by music tracks in the background.

A few weeks after I completed the challenge I tried to post something else with a musical background and found that Facebook was blocking the upload due to performance royalty issues.

Fair enough, I thought, I’m all for performers getting their fair dues, though I hardly felt my playing a record I owned and putting it as the background to a Facebook post was the most egregious abuse of this law.

But the real reason I point this out is that it proves the likes of Facebook have the facility to sort out complex technological issues when it comes to identifying and barring content that is not in line with their rules and regulations.

If they can do it in this case, then why is it so difficult to identify and root out other content, such as fake news, hate speech, extremist content, and Russian propaganda? The answer is that it is not – as my old mom used to say: "It’s all in the wanting."

It’s not as if Facebook and Google are lacking in funds to implement proper checks and balances on their platforms. Google’s parent company Alphabet exceeded expectations in its Q3 earnings released last week, with mobile search and YouTube in particular boosting revenue to $27.7 billion, up 24% from the 12 months prior.

Facebook did even better, posting Q3 profit of $4.7 billion this week on $10.3 billion in revenue – up 79% year over year - and achieving a record share price, despite all its woes over the Russia issue. Its revenue was up 43%.

Mainstream media owners on the consumer and b-to-b sides can only look on and marvel at figures like this. (Full disclosure: I work for a mainstream media company that, like every other one, has seen its advertising revenues decimated by Google and Facebook over the past 15 years. That’s not why I’m writing this piece!)

Addressing the responsibility issue on an earnings call, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: "But none of that matters if our services are used in ways that don’t bring people closer together. We’re serious about preventing abuse on our platforms. We’re investing so much in security that it will impact our profitability. Protecting our community is more important than maximizing our profits."

All well and good, noble sentiments, and so on. But it’s way overdue. And Facebook, Google, and Twitter’s feet need firmly holding to the fire now to ensure they are acting as responsible media owners, like the rest of the sector has to do.

The ease with which the most powerful person in the world’s Twitter feed was hacked into does not inspire confidence in brands that they are going to be safe operating in these environments, whether that brand is the president of the United States, a soap powder, a pop star, or a large financial institution.

If they are to retain the trust of brands, marketers, and communicators, they can no longer ride roughshod over the media landscape and act as if they have special dispensation to behave differently to everybody else.

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