When I started my communications company, brands were just beginning to come to life on social media. As a marketer with a background in psychology, I was excited about the prospect of using social media and unprecedented access to new audiences to orchestrate data-informed touch points between brand and consumer. We had never had so much access to real-time consumer insights and I’ve always been fascinated and excited by new technologies and how they can shape our world. The possibilities were endless.
And for a while, it was fun watching it all come to life.
The Power of Social Media to Start Conversations
In the early days of social media marketing, before influencer marketing was a recognized industry term, I worked with CBS and Vanity Fair to get their coverage of events like the Academy Awards and the Emmys to trend online. These were some of the first orchestrated trend campaigns, and they were incredibly effective and surprisingly formulaic. Put a few dozen individuals with modest to moderate social media followings in a room, have them produce loads of content and amplify the content of the rest of the group and we’d be trending by 9pm.
We saw firsthand the power of a small number of individuals to drive the cultural narrative at scale. We even remarked on how creepy it was to wield so much power, but working in the entertainment space, the risks seemed minor. What was the harm of generating content that Oscars audiences were likely to find interesting and having that benefit the publishers and sponsors we worked alongside?
Controlling the Narrative with Orchestrated Misinformation
In 2016, we saw the same strategy deployed in tandem with a mass surveillance scheme aimed at impacting the US Presidential election. The orchestrators were Cambridge Analytica. It turns out that this coordinated online behavior could be used very effectively to incite polarization and political unrest in the United States and in other parts of the world, including the Philippines. And when you add misinformation to the mix, the results are detrimental for democracy. The stakes, it turned out, we’re so much higher than we understood.
The Degradation of Traditional Journalism
The ramifications of social media on our media ecosystem have been alarming for more reasons than fake news campaigns. Since publishers, including important journalism outlets, are not paid when users click on content that is distributed on social media platforms, and most consumers get their news from social media, the value of content for the publishers creating it diminished. Moreover, rewarded content was often extreme or polarizing. Unbiased journalism no longer has a market, at least as far as incentives are concerned. The few publishers that still care about journalistic integrity often do so at a loss. In fact, content with urgent geopolitical significance like the Ukraine War, is likely to turn off advertisers who don’t want their brands seen alongside negative sentiment news.
Meanwhile, most of our news writers are no longer journalists. Arianna Huffington introduced a contributor model at The Huffington Post that allowed everyday people to masquerade as journalist pundits. I know because I was one, and am one in many respects. As thought leaders, many business executives, including myself, compete for unpaid publishing opportunities in order to showcase industry expertise, and communications companies like mine help them. (See this article.)
Unpaid, these contributors often monetize their platforms, further muddying the media ecosystem away from relevant journalism. While I don’t monetize my columns, meaning that I’ve never charged subjects for interviews or inclusion in my writing, I do reap the benefits of social capital afforded by covering specific people and topics. Today, many of our business media outlets allow unpaid contributor submissions and it’s an important component of thought leadership for many professionals. Some programs, like the Forbes Councils, even get contributors to pay to write for them. Meanwhile, everyday people can amass followings on Instagram and TikTok and become pundits in their own right. It’s no wonder that we no longer trust our news.
The last few years in business, I’ve been having an existential crisis. I refuse to be complicit in an ecosystem that is contributing to distrust in our media, depression in our youth, and the crumbling of democratic values. In 2021 we redefined our values as a communications firm to be more discerning about the clients and tactics we engage, including employing ethical data practices and focusing on ESG.
The Rise of Generative AI
We are again on the precipice of a technological revolution, and one that’s even more impactful than the emergence of social media. Generative AI like ChatGPT has been deployed overnight and OpenAI has even made the technology open source so developers across the world can imagine its uses across business and culture.
Its impacts on the media ecosystem are already apparent, with many publishers using generative AI to draft news features and create content in line with trending headlines. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Foremost, the language model used by ChatGPT does not discern fact from fiction and has been known to hallucinate responses to queries which may exacerbate the impact of “fake news.” Going deeper, deploying generative AI in search risks making this crucial and transformative technology beholden to advertisers. Finally, as ChatGPT digests and regurgitates content from publishers in its data set, it doesn’t pay the content creators. This further moves incentives away from the journalism crucial to our democracy.
A Call to Action
I’m no longer a young marketer.
Looking back, I wish I had asked better questions about the impacts of social media and ad-supported internet. I hope that I behave more thoughtfully as I introduce generative AI into our practice. I believe in the utility of AI to create unprecedented value for humanity, but there are many questions to ask, and regulation is needed. In his book What We Owe the Future, Will MacAskill argues that encoding values in artificial general intelligence is essential to a thriving human future. These values should be encoded in the form of regulation. The time to discern them was yesterday. But, it’s not too late.