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SXSW Interactive Festival, 2011 Core Discussion. Trust in Social Media: Is Censorship Succeeding?

Posted in Bill James, facebook, social media, sxsw, Trust, we engage with tags , , , , , , , on March 6, 2011 by monozygote43

What is Trust in Social Media?

Why is trust in social media important?

If we accept the importance which Brian Solis, Chris Brogan and others attach to social media as an agent of profound change in human relations, it seems that leaving the custodianship of it to Mark Zuckerberg would be akin to leaving the drafting of the United States constitution to Richie Rich. 

It seems almost intuitive that users of social media would want to trust the content of the posts, tweets and blogs of their peers and friends more than those of brands and people outside of their personal network.  If not wholly intuitive, it’s been confirmed by a million surveys over recent years.

Indeed, the difference between social media and traditional media is our new ability to link up horizontally to the networks of our peers and monitor their comments and content…and to circumvent traditional networks where we probably knew no one personally who was responsible for creating and publishing content.

Most of us used to be passive consumers of traditional media content.  Now all of us have the opportunity to both create content and publish it independently of traditional networks.

As Marshall McLuhan said in 1964, the medium is the message.

The message of this medium, or social media, is that everyone is now a potential broadcaster, publisher and creator of content…or is it?

With so many now empowered to speak, the pressing question has become who will listen?

In November 2009, prominent author and social media evangelist Brian Solis had said “Access to free and expansive media platforms and distribution channels has democratized influence and shifted the power of authority from those who previously controlled the media to those who disseminate it.”

Brian Solis was not saying this would happen.  He was saying it had happened.

In December 2009, he continued “This is our industrial revolution and its reward for participation is relevance. The socialization of online societies democratized the publishing industry and equalized influence.”  Again, he cites these changes as historical facts.

He concluded “those who can participate or permeate these trust communities must first earn the prominence of what Chris Brogan and Julien Smith call ‘Trust Agents’…those individuals who are deserving of your time and attention as demonstrated through their actions and words.”

Solis continued “It is these concentrated communities that ultimately form the premise for a much larger and more meaningful human network…a collection of trust networks that represent the market and exchanges for your focus, investment, participation and ultimately your actions.”

So according to Solis, Brogan and Smith, trust is the currency which enables an exchange of value in social media.  Conversely, a lack of trust precludes an exchange of value between people and networks.

Trust is the key that opens the door to influence.  Without trust, nobody will listen.

This Core Discussion at SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin Texas in 2011 asks whether censorship has succeeded in enhancing and sustaining a culture of trust in social media. It also asks whether expectations of a new “trust economy” in social media are naive in the context of the socio-economic framework of the United States.  It raises different perspectives on censorship and proposes ideas about how we may enhance and sustain trust in social media.

The Naivety of Social Media Romanticism

When Solis said “The socialization of online communities democratized the publishing industry and equalized influence”, I wondered briefly if I had missed a pivotal reshaping of the political economy of the United States. Equal influence by virtue of access alone?  Where’s mine?  Theoretically, I can buy prime time advertisements during Super Bowl.  I’ve got access. What’s stopping me?

Sure, many more individuals may now publish in a very limited scope using social media.  There are legions of voices and points of view, each one like a bee trapped in a tiny glass jar.  Who can hear the buzzing?  Anyone can make and post a video or photograph.  Anyone can publish a blog or opinion. There are a handful of great success stories where companies or individuals have shot to prominence and popularity by viral ascendency to the realm of the digital self made man.  But equal influence?

Beyond those brands and personalities which have come to new prominence because they are part of the social media industry itself (the social media applications and their supply chains), the same brands and personalities which dominated their markets before the social media revolution continue to dominate those markets in 2011.

It appears accumulated capital has the same power to acquire pervasive influence in this medium as it has in preceding communication media. Money buys audience, influence, repetition and sophisticated content.  Additionally, it is clear that the private companies which literally hold social media life on their servers are in the process of being bought. Goldman Sachs funding of Facebook for $450M lays the framework for the absorption of this new media into ownership by all the same entities owning traditional media.  LinkedIn will go to its IPO in 2011, and there are strong rumors that Twitter will be acquired by Facebook in 2011.

So, does talk of unique social media where trust is the currency of relevance amount to pious hope? .  Are the proponents of this hope themselves hopeless romantics?  Perhaps the mantra of trust and authenticity is a money spinner in its own right?

One thing is for certain.  If social media is on some path to a cultural equalization with its predecessors, that can mean only one direction for the fortunes of trust and authenticity.  Down , down, deeper and down.

Is this social media Woodstock over? Do we now take the path of the baby boomers after the dizzy intellectual masturbation of their decade of hope, the decade of television, the 1960’s, and climb on the gravy train to build our own stash?  What lasting cultural advantage can we salvage from this latest media revolution?

More or Less Trust in Social Media in 2011?

I’m calling it.  I’m calling bullshit.  If there ever was a social media revolution,  if social media ever was the new communication channel where trust and relevance were the currency of engagement and democratized influence was the outcome, I’m pronouncing it dead… or on life support and in critical condition.

Some users do thirst for trust and authenticity in social media but if they get it, it will be in spite of the current owners of social media and only with considerable future intrusion from government regulation, oversight and court rulings. The owners of social media networks simply aren’t getting the job done.

Everything appears to be up for sale in social media.  Rankings in the search engines, tweets, posts, blogs, opinions and recommendations.

I don’t believe any of the major social media applications are really focused on maintaining a culture of trust or authenticity in the long term. They may wish to maintain order in their digital digs so as to ensure businesses run uninterrupted and raise no red flags to groups like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  As for sustaining an attempt to improve human relations or promote trust and authenticity among users, the major applications seem terminally distracted by their search for the business model that will drive revenues, profits, IPOs, mergers and acquisitions.

While I share the desire of Solis, Brogan and Smith regarding the creation of a “trust economy” and the potential of social media to lead to a profound change in human relations, I believe it’s farcical to expect that “democratized influence” in social media should or could ever exist solely within the confines of a few private companies and their web sites.

If we accept the importance which Solis and others attach to social media as an agent of profound change in human relations and influence, it seems that leaving the custodianship of it to Mark Zuckerberg would be akin to leaving the drafting of the United States constitution to Richie Rich.  Zuckerberg is a hugely successful businessman.  That doesn’t necessarily equip him to defend or sustain ‘democratized influence’ in social media.

The revolution in social media now seems largely a headlong rush by a new generation of private media network owners and their financiers to fill a partial vacuum of power, influence and profitability created by the rise of new interactive media (and the contraction of traditional media).  Now that a new crop of consumers have been lured in to the digital landscape with the promise of a new, open and trusting community and economy, the scene is set for commerce interests and amorality to roll right in…and maybe that’s just the way things are in America.

The social media revolution is looking a little like the revolution in Libya from Moammar Gadhafi to the interim government of his Justice Minister, Mustafa Abdul Jalil.  If it happens, it’s likely to have very little to do with installing democratic principles and much more to do with sponsoring a new river of money and influence to a new cadre of worthy beneficiaries.  It has to look different, doesn’t it?  Every revolution needs to wrap itself in a justifying rallying song or catch cry.  Long live democratized influence!  Hail the trust agents and protectors of authenticity!

The gulf between rhetoric and resource expended to sustain trust and authenticity is looking a lot like the gulf between the Federal government’s pledges to secure the border with Mexico (and end illegal immigration) and its real investment of resource and capital for that purpose (putting aside your position on the issue of immigration itself).  Tell it to the US border guards getting their backsides shot off.

Anecdotally, and as measured by instruments like the Edelman Trust Barometer 2011, trust is declining with both our peers and in the media.  Especially in the United States.  That’s in line with my personal experience in LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere generally.  However, ask yourself about human relations in the application you use.  More or less spam?  More or less trolls?  More or less salesmen and sales pitches?  More or less scams, phishing, privacy intrusion and advertising?  More or less undisclosed payment for opinion and comment?  More or less frustration when seeking help and consultation with the owners of the applications and brands you use regarding the functionality you require?

If you answer “more”, how can the owners of social media applications not be culpable?

The authenticity mantra and its principal mandarins have served well to populate the digital landscape with new ‘consumers’.  Now they provide the veil behind which the new social media barons can focus on building accommodation for digital commerce.  As long at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) doesn’t come knocking and the users don’t revolt, who really cares if the happenings in the application engender trust and authenticity?  Let the users sort out the definition of ‘netiquette’, truth and authenticity!

It struck me as being a fateful moment when Facebook recently rolled out their new pages functionality, allowing pages their own news feed and the ability to shape shift and shed skins with the click of a “switch”.  There was a time when the personal profile was the center of the Facebook universe.  That shoe has since moved to the other foot.  Now it seems that your personal profile is a staging point for the various business pages you administer.  It’s not difficult to see in which direction the gaze of Facebook is riveted.

Nobody can see the future with absolute clarity, but I would not be surprised to hear that Facebook finds itself in the courts in future defending against demands that it be broken up subject to anti-trust laws.  Perhaps those calls will go out if Facebook attempts to acquire Twitter in 2011…then again, probably not.

We have had anti-trust laws for the banking industry since early last century.  Look where that got us.  The Federal Reserve System and the privately owned regional Federal Reserve Banks, derivative financial products and unregulated speculation, the merger of monetary and fiscal policy, the miracle of elastic currency and the Great Recession.  On that point, let me just say…end the Fed.

What is Censorship?

Censorship is more than one entity deleting or editing content published by another entity.  Censorship extends to decisions an entity makes to self censor… and the reasons for those decisions.  That raises factors like law and regulation together with court rulings and self interest.  Censorship can also extend to simply denying an entity access to a communication channel.  That raises factors like control over social media and the cost of access together with the cost of manufacturing content.  Censorship is also often applied subject to mob rule by users in micro communities.  The source and means of censorship is by no means obvious.

We seem to fixate on the classic censorship events and conspiracy theories that usually involve government intrusion into social media.  It makes for sensational reading and involves larger than life characters.  It usually also tends to sit in the province of political conspiracy theory, which is always tantalizing.

There have been plenty of celebrated examples in the last few years, ending most recently in 2011 with alleged attempts by the national governments of Egypt and Libya to pull the plug on Twitter and Facebook, just as the downtrodden Arabic masses look like they want to embrace democracy (so we are told).

When WikiLeaks allegedly leaked thousands of documents in November 2010, repeatedly embarrassing the US government, elements of the government allegedly responded with cyber attacks on the WikiLeaks web site and global extra judicial intimidation of WikiLeaks Director Julian Assange.

Then there was the alleged flotilla hash-tag controversy in May 2010 in Twitter where the US government was supposed to have leaned on Twitter to mess with trending issues relating to the #flotilla.  It trended popular after several boats were sunk off the coast of Gaza by Israeli forces killing many innocents.

Other examples include Wikipedia owner ‘Jimbo’ Wales allegedly purging his site of graphic sex images after complaints by co founder Larry Sanger and interest from Fox News which led to unrest among Wikipedia contributors.  There was also of course YouTube (then recently acquired by Google) being attacked for censorship of 9/11 truth sites, allegedly under political pressure from Senator Lieberman. It was also applying veiled algorithms which searched for and led to the deletion of allegedly copyrighted material.

Sure, these are important events and questions, but how have they impacted trust in social media any more than other media?  Is government always the boogeyman in matters of censorship?  What about the censorship right in front of our faces?  What about failure to censor?  Is it possible that we need more censorship rather than less?  We know that the Government has the power to censor here in the US and elsewhere.  There’s more to the world of social media than government.

Self Censorship?

Has regulation and resulting self censorship acted to sustain and improve trust and authenticity?

Many social media evangelists and influencers became persons of interest to companies who wished to purchase influence and raise their brands to viral prominence in the new social media marketing channel.  This raised the old specter of a financial conflict of interest where, without full and frank disclosure, trusting consumers could be easily confused and misled in a new communication medium.

Up until October 2010, social media was literally a free-for-all marketing channel where purchased opinion was right there alongside obvious marketing content.  Any influencer with a large following could offer opinion, publish content and make recommendations while being paid to do so on behalf of a particular brand.  There was no clear legal requirement to disclose.

Enter the Federal Trade Commission in early 2009 and its recommendations to update existing Guides concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising and public relations.  Suddenly, all about us we heard social media evangelists and influencers engaged in a prayer like incantation or mantra of “disclosure”.  Was this a forced addendum to the evangelical vision of authenticity, or was there another reason for the change in behavior?  What had changed?  Clearly, the threat of penalties and prosecution had appeared, and this immediately had an effect on what people thought they could and should say.  We were seeing self censorship driven by Federal regulation…in the interest of consumers!  Good or bad?

The guidelines had not been updated since 1980, which was well before the advent of social media (aka ‘web 2.0’).  The connection between guidelines and the practice of blogging in social media were made explicit in the revision in October 2010.

The revised Guides also added new examples to illustrate a long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers, connections that consumers would not expect, must be disclosed. These examples addressed what constituted an endorsement when the message was conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specified that while decisions would be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who received cash or in-kind payment to review a product was considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who made an endorsement must disclose the material connections they shared with the seller of the product or service.  

Enter also the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency charged with safeguarding employees’ rights and holding employers accountable for their labor practices.  It ruled in 2010 that an employees’ use of Facebook is legally protected by free speech under many circumstances, even when it expresses negative sentiment about their employers.

The ruling came in response to the case of a medical technician named Dawn Marie Souza, who was unhappy that her supervisor would not let her get assistance from a union representative in responding to a customer’s complaint. Ms. Souza reportedly “using several vulgarities” to mock her supervisor on Facebook and compared him to a psychiatric patient; her co-workers chimed in, leading to “further negative comments about the supervisor.” While Souza did all this on her own time and on her own computer, her employer ultimately fired her over these Facebook posts.  According to the NLRB ruling, this action was illegal.

The board compared protected speech on Facebook to water-cooler discussion around the office.

Did this ruling have an effect on self censorship?  Would any ordinary employee who harbored ill feeling toward an employer now take comfort from the outcome and post on Facebook accordingly?

Censorship by Social Media Applications

Have the social media applications themselves actually made a concerted and serious attempt to defend trust and authenticity?

Facebook itself censors or at least proposes rules for engagement and acceptable content within its application terms and conditions.  This, however, leaves enforcement and compliance unresolved.  Like texting while driving, it’s one thing to have a law banning or requiring a behavior and entirely another to enforce the law and obtain compliance.

Facebook is undoubtedly in a race to remain the largest single force in online advertising and the hub for interactive digital communication.  It has recently taken funding from Goldman Sachs for $450M subject to a valuation of $50B for Facebook’s business.  Even a blind man can see the public listing of the company looming (get in line behind the bankers’ cartel).

Is Facebook really interested in preserving the ‘trust economy’ of Brian Solis, or is it instead focused on the growth of its own business revenues?  Does it want to upset its commercial constituents?

Facebook have clear terms and conditions prohibiting the use of personal profiles for commercial benefit.  Yet, an examination of personal profiles in Facebook would reveal tens of thousands of personal profiles being used to represent businesses and their users to be in breach of Facebook terms and conditions.

Facebook has long been accused of censoring mentions of Twitter and inconsistently censoring the prodigious numbers of “Fuck Islam”, “Fuck Christianity” and “Fuck Judaism” groups, legions of which continue to stain the site today.  Facebook allowed the creation of groups who included the word “fuck” in their name and who existed to propel religious or racial intolerance.  Paradoxically, users were likely to be censored if their Facebook status updates included the word “fuck”.

It seems censorship is not only rife but apparently arbitrary due to a simple lack of policy and management focus.  Is Facebook simply distracted by the growth of its own business?  Is the effective governance of human relations in Facebook the furthest thing from its mind?  Does this explain the inconsistency in the administration of censorship?  If trust is a casualty in Facebook, is it a case of too much censorship or not enough?

Facebook revenues were estimated at $2B in 2010, and many believe 2011 may see the acquisition of Twitter by Facebook.  It’s easy to see how Facebook could be distracted from its social governance responsibilities.

Other applications like LinkedIn and Wikipedia are also under the influence of commercial considerations…the strain of trying either to cover costs or rise out of a sea of red ink.

LinkedIn, sporting net revenues of only $10M, is coming to market to raise $175M from an IPO in 2011 after losses in 2009, marginal profitability in 2010 and forecasted losses in 2011.  Wikipedia’s money troubles continue, and in 2011 it has returned to its tin-cup approach to funding.  Wikimedia (the non-profit which owns the site) remains a conspicuous holdout against adding advertizing to its site, reputedly the 5th most popular site in the world with over 400M users.

Both LinkedIn and Wikipedia threw the nasty and expensive task of censoring content and moderating behavior to their users.  Wikipedia Sysops (system operators) and the LinkedIn Lynch Mob certainly censored content, but censorship in those applications is largely subject to the control of anointed users like the Sysops  or the first three LinkedIn users who choose to flag a question or answer causing it to be deleted in LinkedIn Q & A forums.  The approach by the owners of these applications seemed to be to avoid the expense and pain of enforcing anything by simply empowering users to decide when censorship should be practiced…and, more importantly, why it should be practiced. Visions of a digital Pontius Pilate washing his hands in a virtual bowl of water ensue.

As a long time user of LinkedIn, it always felt to me like users were kept in a prison complex where the jailer would only intervene if the brawl unexpectedly turned deadly.  LinkedIn seemed to simply allow the prevailing balance of power in its forums and the owners of groups to dispense arbitrary justice.  All the same, it was dispensed.  Consequently, the forums frequently erupted in internecine warfare.  Users were left to vent their frustration against the censorship of other users.  The most interesting Q & A forums in LinkedIn were those dedicated to asking why other users had flagged and deleted questions and comments.  Users debating the censorship of other users.  Groups were simply placed under the authoritarian stewardship of their ‘owners’.  If you didn’t like the form of censorship practiced in a group, you were simply out of luck.  There was no appeal from Caesar to Caesar and Caesar may not have been interested in trust and authenticity.

Twitter, which lost money in 2010 on a reported $45M revenue, is perpetually struggling to find an effective business model,  In Twitter, the Trust and Safety team are paid employees attempting to stamp out spammers, phishing scams and users gaming the application to assemble ever increasing numbers of ‘followers’.  I don’t see any evidence of their final success.  None at all.  Is the Trust and Safety Team a genuine attempt to preserve Trust, or is it paying lip service to the authenticity mantra in deference to the deluded romantics in its fold?

For many marketers, Twitter has become a cost effective alternative to indirect marketing through mail and email. The micro blog darling of social media was fighting a revolution from within….fighting for ownership of its own soul.

The Twitter brand seems publicly pointed at maintaining a platform for authentic and private interaction between people who need not invest significantly in order to become engaged in social media.  After all, that was its genesis and that’s the whole point of only needing 140 characters in order to participate.

But all the while, it has found itself ranged against users that wanted to use the application as a one way broadcasting platform to mount digital indirect marketing campaigns to millions of consumers.  Authentic and social interaction seemed the furthest thing from the minds of these users.  Enter the spam bots, the automated follow and un-follow applications and the buying and selling of followers.  Will the real Twitter please stand up?

Censorship had been applied to solve problems and maintain trust among users and in the media generally, but it could be argued that trust and authenticity were casualties of applying censorship, or applying it without effect.  It could also be argued that trust was becoming a convenient fiction behind which to extract profit in a new and lawless digital frontier.

Is the Twitter Trust and Safety Team an act of lip service toward netiquette correctness?  Do they represent a credible attempt to stop spam and sustain trust and authenticity?

If there’s a Problem, What’s the Fix?

This time around I think government oversight on the important issues like privacy, ownership of content, fraud and conflict of interest are front and center and need to be accelerated.  Bodies like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have begun to move into the space with Guides and statements concerning both privacy and trust, like disclosure in sponsorship, advertizing online and freedom of speech.  However, they are slow to have impact, and I would urge individual Congressmen and Senators who have an active interest in social media to support and guide these bodies with appropriate legislation.  The answers will not come from profit focused private companies, and bodies like these can only really react to situations.

After having grown up in a closed environment with a handful of large media networks dominating culture and communication in Australia, I believe publicly funded organizations like the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) are essential.  The ABC doesn’t advertise.  It runs under an independent board and so much valuable content that would never have found access to a widespread audience in Australia if money was the price of access, owes its success to government funding through the ABC.

The big fix in my mind would be a government funded social media network option where we aren’t waiting on the pleasure of a profit focused private company and its executives to do something about the shortcomings of user functionality, privacy, trust and the enforcement of terms and conditions.  Maybe something like a government funded Diaspora where information lives on the user’s server and development of functionality is in the hands of the user through an open sourcing.

I know I’m going to be attacked for saying this when the GOP are banging the pot in the US trying to starve out government funded broadcasting by cutting funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).  However, in my opinion, supporters of government funded broadcasting should be pushing back hard to increase funding to CPB and establish an online interactive division under its management.  Rather than cutting funding to groups like the National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in television, funding should be increased to support publicly funded broadcasting and to embrace a public option in interactive media.

Ultimately, it’s in all of our hands, and it’s just absurd to argue that trust in social media should be left in the hands of a few private companies, individuals and their financiers.