When “Free” became the pretext for predatory media culture

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

A commentary on the state of social media

The Great Hack

I’ve recently watched The Great Hack, the documentary introducing us to the company presumed to have hacked democracy in UK and US in 2015 and 2016 bringing us the Brexit and Trump eras seen by many liberals as earthquakes to the western world order.

The documentary vilifies the company, Cambridge Analytica and it’s shrewd leadership told by the two whistleblowers, but it also criticizes Facebook in specific and the digital media industry as a whole.

I knew most of the story elements since 2018 and like many watched Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in Congress in 2018. Still watching the documentary tell the story of how this all came to be was nevertheless informationally entertaining.

Carole Cadwalladr, The Guardian investigative journalist who broke the story on March 2018 after a year of investigation, was the hero and the most convincing voice in the documentary. Her TED talk, which was briefly quoted is by itself the loud and alarming message we should all be obsessed about when it comes to our digital data privacy. In her call to tech giants, she says this before the end of her talk:

“And what don’t you seem to understand is that this is bigger than you, and it’s bigger than any of us. And it’s not about left of right or “leave” or “remain” or Trump or not. It’s about whether it is actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again.

Here you go, Silicon Valley’s most dangerous disruption has happened to democracy. Western democracy in specific. But then again, has there ever been really free and fair elections anywhere?

The Digital-ists

All of this makes those of us who make a living doing different “digital” stuff, contemplate, did we all participate in making this happen? The greatest hack, the greatest disruption to organized human societies? Aren’t we all obsessed about “Growth Hacking” our creations? Creating more ways to make people get Hooked on our products?

Software companies that build actual tools -not media per se- have been using a freemium model and a paid subscription fee. Many are successful in making millions -and billions in some cases of yearly revenue from selling to people rather than businesses, companies like Netflix, Spotify, Dropbox, FreshBooks, Mint, WordPress…etc. all offer utility for a price, yet media companies were left with people’s expectation of free usage paid for by ads. On the surface, that is a copy of traditional media business models without the low price tag, so what’s wrong with ads?

Zuckerberg’s Kingdom

While Zuckerberg clearly smirks after telling a senator that its ads that help pay for Facebook when asked how Facebook makes money, he keeps over complicating calls made by many to have users pay for an ad-free version of the service. He promises to enable more controls for users over their data, yet most users in the world still find it too complicated to go through or are not privy to this very privileged personal data conversation.

This ubiquitous ad-based business model is what enabled disrupted traditional media a chance to monetize on the web, though a significant some are opting for paywalls or actively asking readers for donations. Yet with this ad-based model, companies like Facebook can make a lot more money on ads paid for by businesses around the world than from people using the platform, same with Google. This is their not-so-secret-sauce to bring billions of revenue: be everywhere, hook people all over the world then make businesses that serve groups of them pay for targeted ads that aim to modify behavior. Is it the use of behavioral analytics and psychographic profiling to modify behaviors that make it seem so predatory when used to win an election or skew a referendum? Or was the availability of people’s data for Cambridge Analytica data scientists that created the vulnerability?

Should we pay for using social media?

Could we all have been in a better place have we paid $10 to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or WhatsApp per year? Or per month? Or should they had a cap on how much we can post for free at any given point?

If social media hadn’t been free if each post on Facebook had you pay a fraction of a cent, won’t we get rid of all this advertising? Like we do on paid games, productivity tools..etc?

Could we buy back influence on our attention and our data points away from commercial and political influencers?

Could we make businesses, brands, and politicians focus on their product and message? With us intentionally following their social media accounts if we found it resonates with us? What if they were only allowed to advertise after following old and traditional ad rules that force some sort of fact-checking?

From the other side, could we have generated this much data? Could we have thought twice about every post if it was necessary? Or could we have created a more capitalist class system of who has more posts and thus more money to spend? But isn’t class already manifested on all those platforms anyway? people boasting about stuff they buy and places they go to dine at or travel to? Shouldn’t we at least have a choice about whether we can pay or not? And if we still wanted to use the free version be able to avoid targeted advertising?

Shouldn’t we pay to read/view professional media sources? Again in a tiered way, where those media outlets are only allowed a few free posting slots on social media including YouTube, after which they are forced to add a pay-wall? Couldn’t this help decrease the amount of fake news dissemination?

I can already hear protests to what this paid wall will do to free speech and free media and make other parts of the world go back to being regulated by their authoritarian regimes with their censorship practices…etc. I think those fears are of course valid and they haunt me too. Yet, I still believe that we need to find profound ways to limit the fake-ness, too much advertising influence, bullying and all of the negative manifestations from free media we have found ourselves deeply in.

Remember this: when Zuckerberg , Sandberg are asked about the paid version, both voice empathy (whether fake or real) with the man or woman somewhere poor in the world who can’t pay for a paid Facebook. Then last week, Calibra CEO David Marcus, says the same about the unbanked!

The near future outlook

It seems that the whole promise of a solution lies upon no other country than the United States, being the only country who can actually regulate those digital media giants and force a radical shift in their business models to lessen the amount of data they own, to make better systems for us to sign up without data sharing as the default account registration option, or pay instead. A cynic would find that an entertaining proposition.

The next scary thing lurking around the corner is the arrival of AI, another savior looking beast, that promises so much freedom on some future utopian level, yet knowingly feasts on this very data we want to personally control ourselves now. A pessimist would find this validating.

Those of you who are neither cynics nor pessimists might find yourselves -like me- are somewhere on the present vs. absent spectrum.

Razan Khatib

Razan Khatib

Playing at the intersection of culture, technology, and values. Trying to structure my thoughts and share experiences, learnings, and insights. Co-founder of @spring_apps
Amman, Jordan