Opinion

‘Social is the next tobacco’ is an extreme line, but a fitting one

From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to Twitter's bot-related fibs, Blonde3's Nic Hodges believes social media could be headed towards the advertising no-go zone currently occupied by tobacco.

An interesting few weeks in the world of social-not-media platforms. I’ve done a few talks recently where I touch on the idea of social being “the next tobacco”. This idea seems to get a lot of traction, so I thought it worth expanding on.

But first, a recap…

The UN reported on Facebook’s role in allowing groups and content that incited violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar. One of the authors reporting that “I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast”

Then, Facebook was reported to (and then revealed) that Cambridge Analytica and its partners were allowed to misuse the platform to access personal information (under the guise of “research”) of ~50M users. This data was then used in political advertising, giving one side an unfair advantage.

On the above, Facebook have known about this breach for two years, and tried to sue to stop this becoming public. They also suspended the account of the source that revealed the breach, Christopher Wylie.

Ongoing government enquiries in to how social platforms have been used for political advertising are now generating such insane responses that it seems the media has stopped even trying to report them all. This from a UK MP is just amazing. (Here’s the full story given that Tweet lacks context).

Add to this the security researcher who spent some spare time hunting down Twitter bots. He found a huge network, easily identifiable as bots, with a few scripts and a couple hours work. He even published the list of bots. Meanwhile, social platforms with huge resources (and huge advertising revenues) claim that finding bots is very very hard, and will take a long long time.

Then there’s YouTube, who just cannot clean up its platform. YouTube Kids (a “world of learning and fun”) is recommending conspiracy videos – from flat-earthers to faked moon landings to lizard people. (You might think this is old news – it’s not! This has only been revealed today!)

Facebook’s auto-complete search algorithm was suggesting child-porn videos if you started a search for “video of”.

The line that these platforms are bad for individuals has been well worn over the past few years. It’s a luddite’s game, and the reasonable response has always been that it’s the individual’s choice.

What is now happening is that the missteps, overreaches, and systemic failure by these platforms have very clear and very real externalities.

It wasn’t the harm to the individual that caused a shift in attitudes to tobacco. It was when the externalities became clear – second-hand smoke and public health costs – that attitudes and regulation changed.

“Social is the next tobacco” is an extreme line. But it’s also one that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube appear to be approaching at high speed. If there’s not a shift in attitude and action, they may become no-go zones for brands. Marketers may soon need to ask themselves if they would advertise on a pack of cigarettes.

Nic Hodges is the founder of digital strategy consultancy Blonde3. You can read the original version of this article on the Blonde3 blog.

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