Addiction: the thread that links Big Tobacco and Big Social

15 Jan 2018  |  Dominic Mills 
Addiction: the thread that links Big Tobacco and Big Social

Philip Morris's New Year Resolution ad

The idea of deliberately creating addiction in social media platforms could - just like it did for the tobacco industry - spell serious trouble. By Dominic Mills.

Like many, I suspect, I was stunned to see tobacco giant Philip Morris’s (PMI) New Year Resolution ads committing it to a smoke-free future. Talk about a New Year shock.

For the dogged campaigners who have pursued Big Tobacco for more than five decades, it represents an extraordinary triumph.

Those who have followed the saga will know there was a pivotal moment that, ultimately, proved to be Big Tobacco’s undoing, opening the door first to class-action law suits in the US, ever-tighter restrictions on the sale of tobacco - including the loss of the right to advertise - right up to this month’s announcement by PMI.

That pivotal moment: when in 2006 tobacco executives were forced to confess all along that they knew tobacco was addictive - with accusations that they manipulated the nicotine content to keep smokers hooked - and had buried the medical research proving this. Here’s a good summary of the history.

So how, you will ask, does this relate to Big Social Media? The answer is that it may have had its pivotal moment in December, when former early-stage Facebook investor Sean Parker admitted that it was designed with addiction in mind, including seeing the like button as equivalent to a dopamine hit.

It certainly works, as research into British children’s use of social media earlier this month confirmed.

The count against Big Social is stacking up. Tax, fake news, the promotion of hate speech, funding terrorism via ads, market dominance, anti-trust behaviour and so on are bad enough - but the idea of deliberately creating addiction, including that which targets children, puts their actions on to another plane altogether.

This is the level at which point US legislators - who will be resisted and harried along the way by powerful lobbying interests, exactly as Big Tobacco did - may no longer find excuses not to take action.

For all the dysfunctionality exhibited by the US political system, it has a long and honourable record of intervening to regulate excessive bad behaviour by corporates or the over-weening abuse of power and market dominance. Go back to 1911 and see how Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was broken up into 34 smaller entities. Or Bell telephone system in 1982 into its constituent parts.

If not the US, then who? The EU obviously, which could deal a body blow to Big Social Media and has the advantage of being big enough to resist any nationalist card a Trump administration might play. Even Brexiteers might cheer the EU for that.

Other than assuming any action of that magnitude will take years to progress whether in the US or the EU, it is impossible to make any other predictions. But certainly the climate for Big Social Media has changed - irreversibly, I think - in the last 12 months. Then, I saw no appetite on the part of any political body to take them on.

But now, if it’s not tax, the clamour for some kind of regulation of the platforms is making itself heard, with countries like Germany out in front on threatening fines for the promotion of hate speech. In the UK, there is a mounting sense that treating platforms with the equivalence of other media - the primary point of which is to make them responsible for the content they publish - is both fair and just.

As Facebook’s part in Russian interference in the election of Trump gradually reveals itself, so the scrutiny on Big Social Media is intensifying.

Something will give. We just don’t know what...or when.

Facebook...a cunning move to pre-empt regulation

One way Big Social can help itself is by taking action that heads off any possible threats from regulators. That is certainly one way of seeing Facebook’s move last week to tweak the news feed in such a way as to de-prioritise brand and publisher content.

This, obviously, is positioned as a move that benefits users and hits Facebook in the pocket. So selfless. Yeah right.

Under the headline ‘Zuckerberg aims to save Facebook from itself’, the FT noted that this is more like a move to pre-empt the regulators. “If Mr Zuckerberg is worried,” it said, “it is for good reason: if Facebook does not change, it is coming soon.”

Most commentators, Digiday apart, have accepted the line that Facebook revenues will be hit by this move. I don’t see it that way. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. If you cut or ration the supply of Facebook inventory, while demand remains the same, the price will rise. Will demand fade? Of course not. Make something scarce, and demand rises.

And if anyone is wondering how Facebook decides which advertisers get to feature in the cleaned-up feed, here’s your answer: price.

I can’t believe it: I have a twinge of sympathy for Google

Here are words I never thought I’d write: I felt sorry for Google. Ok, it was only a passing moment, but real enough.

There is much to admire in News UK’s efforts to hold Google/YouTube to account. Its relentless pursuit of Google - you’d almost think it has hired a journalist with the job title ‘Head of Google Shit’ - is doing a valuable public service in surfacing issues and actions we are better off knowing about.

But sometimes, like the boy who cried wolf once too often, it over-eggs the pudding and risks its credibility.

Take the splash on January 7: “Google makes millions from plight of addicts”. As headlines go, it’s an enticing mix...Google, millions, addiction, suffering. What’s not to catch the eye?

But all was not quite what it seemed in a story about how online or telephone advice helplines make money by commission from rehab centres to which they refer addicts. It’s a competitive ‘market’ in which a key driver is the use of search by the helplines.

But Google is an innocent facilitator here. It’s like blaming BMW if it were the choice of get-away drivers or Samsung that of phone fraudsters. (Lawyers: these are hypotheticals).

But an activity that deserves to be exposed - so-called helplines not giving impartial advice - was overshadowed by News UK’s desire to skewer Google.

But as I say, it was only a brief flash of sympathy.

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DebbieBremner, CBP, Nielsen on 15 Jan 2018
“I'm 16 months Facebook 'clean' - do I miss it? A big fat NO! If I want to find out something I go research it. If I want to know what friends are doing I phone. I'm no longer a slave to other people's fear of living an uncool life!”