Social Media’s monopoly on public life

Written by Charles Kriel, Director of Digital Creativity, Corsham Institute

From its chatroom roots as a quaint virtual hangout, social media now dominates public life having morphed into a news-distributing, opinion-shaping, life-altering beast used by 37% of the world’s population. Now the go-to platform for essential government communications, emergency information, marketing and persuasion content, social also hosts a dark side of propaganda, fake news, and untraceable ad buys designed to manipulate public opinion. For large organisations, school fundraising lemonade stands, and Islamic State alike, the primary platform for audience access is social.

 ‘Social media now has a monopoly on public life.’ – Dr Charles Kriel

Corsham Institute joined Digital Leaders Week to showcase, share and inspire the best in digital transformation, gathering three digital leaders — the Digital Director of Tate, a podcast startup founder, and Ci’s Director of Digital Creativity — at UKIE to discuss the current landscape, showcase their work in the field, and point the way toward the future. The event was chaired by Rachel Neaman, Ci’s CEO and member of the Digital Leaders Advisory Board.

Tate Digital Director Ros Lawler runs an ambitious programme stretching from social campaigns to experiments with 360° video, publicity management, and online art and activism workshops. Lawler framed her talk around the need for meaningful measurement and a desire to deliver the Tate platform to its audience.

‘4 million people on Twitter? What does that mean?’ Lawler asked. ‘I’ve liked 10 things already this morning. Probably can’t tell you what they were. What does that “like” mean?’

‘If somebody watches two seconds of one of our videos, is it meaningful? I think the word meaningful is really important here.’

Lawler also spoke about Tate’s 360° video campaign for the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition, garnering more views than Top Gear, and went on to hint at Tate’s digital future in China.

Matt Hall is founder of podcast startup Anmama after a career that included roles as Executive Producer at Guardian News and Media, and Head of BBC Radio Production for Somethin’ Else. Hall addressed the strengths and pitfalls of using social to reach new audiences.

‘Multimedia is great — it makes your audience really engaged. The problem is that it’s not searchable,’ Hall said. ‘If your podcast is thirty minutes that’s around 5,500 words. If that was an article that Google could look at, it would contain an awful lot of information. You put your podcast up and, “Bye! See ya! It’s gone.” Social media is a good way to tell your audience what’s in your multimedia.’

Matt went on to speak about the power of trusted advisors, mailing lists, and the thrill of finding his podcast Remainiacs sat between Ru Paul and Desert Island Discs in the charts.

As Ci’s Director of Digital Creativity, I spoke about the darker side of social, from hidden ad buys to the manipulation of elections, joking ‘My colleagues brought the love, so I’m here to bring the hate.’

‘Social media now owns a monopoly on public life,’ I said. ‘And 75% of it is dominated by bots.’

I explained how Facebook ‘works’ in the context of behavioural economics, articulating how addictive mechanics shape the news users consume via Facebook and Twitter, quoting Marshall Macluan‘s dictum that ‘the medium is the message’. I also pointed out how these compulsion mechanics shape the message of online news, impacting public life and the way communities conduct conversations.

I proposed that sensationalist news is more shareable than ‘real’ news, discussed fake news and computational propaganda, and explained Cambridge Analytica’s work on the US presidential election.

From charity campaigns through the Arab Spring to social’s role in the US presidential elections, this decade will be remembered as the period when social media began to dominate the delivery of news and information, and became the conduit through which communities conducted public life. In this new social media reality of contemporary culture, it’s all the more important for news and civil society organisations like Tate, Anmama and Ci to pioneer new practices and critical approaches to navigate the ever-shifting social sands.

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