Congress and Social Media: The implications could be big

by John Durante, on Oct 2, 2018

Congress, smartphones and social media. Prominent social media corporate executives recently appeared before Congress to once again answer questions about their platforms’ content and editorial oversight. Congressional inquiries typically are as much about political theater as they are about true public discourse, yet the motivation for these hearings is righteous and revolves around a growing danger.

This ongoing probe goes to the heart of serious questions about the reach, influence and even potential regulation of “new” media and its rapidly growing influence of how we perceive and engage the world in which we live. On the heels of Russian government intrusion that placed content and propaganda across various social media platforms during the 2016 Presidential election, U.S. leaders have had to move quickly to understand the scope of what happened and assess how it can be prevented in the future.

The growing list of questions posed to these social media corporate executives goes to the heart of what their companies aimed to be in the first place. Upon their inception, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. sought to provide information portals that digitally linked us to share virtually any form of human communication. 

From day one, they were decidedly free-form and constructed without any regard for the type, style, accuracy, benefit or consequences of the content shared on the platforms. This raised a number of questions about editorial standards, content suitability and liability, which culminated in the Russia disaster.

At the same time, we in the world of public relations and strategic communications consulting immediately dove headlong into dissecting and understanding these channels and how we may leverage them for professional and client benefit as soon as they were created.

The platforms soon made the same calculations for themselves by offering a wide range of data and content services that rapidly monetized their operations and led users to greatly compromise how much privacy protection they relinquished as a social media user.

Until now our industry has remained focused on the benefits offered by these platforms and have seldom questioned some of the bigger issues drawing public and political attention. For our industry’s benefit this might need to end – and soon.

Politics or not, the questions posed by Congress are legitimate and reflective of real public concern. The answers are critical with potentially long-range consequences. Imagine what might be if the gloss of social media starts to dim in the wake of concerns about privacy, fictitious content or other issues? Will users continue to engage one another on such platforms? Will their credibility plummet as we collectively decide much of social media is just a digitized National Enquirer or endless TMZ? To what degree will companies and clients – especially in the B2B space – want to distribute their messages on discredited platforms? And what as an industry will we do if the unparalleled audience micro-targeting of shrewd social media management can’t be used any more in the wake of all these concerns? To where will we turn to find alternative solutions to get the job done in the way our customers demand and the markets dictate?

The way our industry first embraced and then evolved with social media was until now a sea of endless new discovery. Solutions to old problems were abundant as we rushed to learn, leverage and profit from this windfall. It’s no wonder that each day we might have thought that as practitioners our growing mastery of social media was like a daily gift of a dozen roses. But those roses also have thorns and they have grown to the point where ignoring them is no longer possible.

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John Durante

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