Regulation of Cyberspace

Social media, and by that I mostly mean Facebook, is a mess. We all know that it wastes too much of our time, makes us more agitated and irritable than we should be, and collects information about us and uses that intel to manipulate us. We’ve known most of that for some time now. But seeing the undercover Channel 4 video of the Cambridge Analytica executives has shaken people who had been fully in the techno-utopian camp when it came to the internet and Web 2.0 services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Suddenly the brave new world of the internet doesn’t look so bright and shiny.

In preparation for teaching a unit on new media and regulation I was reviewing my notes about the history of regulation of the internet…which is pretty short. Not that there haven’t been attempts to regulate “cyberspace”…but as early observers already noted, the internet does not take kindly to outsiders telling it how to go about its business. The early credo, “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” is testimony to the structural logic of the internet and explains the technical challenge of controlling something that was built to withstand external attacks.

Much of the early rhetoric was hyperbolic and now seems a bit silly. As the luster and new-car-smell has faded, we look back on those early utopian ideals as innocent and naive. Here’s an example from 1996. The speaker/author of A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace is John Perry Barlow; a cattle rancher, techno-philosopher, and lyricist for The Grateful Dead.

While many of the early attempts to regulate were focused on the content of the internet, e.g. the Communications Decency Act, other legislation focused on intellectual property and piracy, e.g. SOPA and PIPA.

The most recent piece of legislation, H.R. 1865 aka FOSTA-SESTA, if signed by President Trump, will modify the 1996 Communications Decency Act Section 230 which has provided cover for internet companies and shielded them from legal repercussions related to the actions of users on their sites.

So, what does Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have to do with any of this? Simply that users are starting to question whether big internet companies can be trusted to do the right thing without oversight. (Others aren’t so sure).

But if it is time for regulators to tell Craigslist, Reddit, and Backpage (among others) to clean up their Personal/Massage/Dating ads in the interest of combating sex trafficking, perhaps it’s also time for regulators to tell Facebook when it is and isn’t okay to harvest and sell our data to political operatives.

No one naively believes that this will end the sex trafficking problem…just as no one believes that Zuckerberg’s promise to do a better job handling the personal data of 1.5 billion users will end the kinds of abuse exposed by last week’s investigative journalism. But it may be a start.

Update (April 9, 2018): Since this was initially posted, Craigslist has eliminated its Personals section as a response to FOSTA-SESTA. Also, the FBI shut down Backpage and charged its founder Michael Lacey. Backpage has seen strong growth after Craigslist closed its Erotic Services section if 2010.

Democracy, Data, and Dirty Tricks

It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it’s all about emotion.

This is just one quote from an investigative report conducted by Channel 4 News in the UK. The person quoted above is an employee of Cambridge Analytica. You may have heard of the big data marketing company when their use of data harvested from 50 million Facebook users was revealed this week. The use of big data in political campaigns is not new, but it is being pushed to new heights by companies who appear to be unconstrained by established ethical norms. Here’s the entire Channel 4 video…

While opposition research is not new, there appear to be new efforts to push the limits of op research to include entrapment, bribery, and investigative reporting motivated by a political agenda. This is not just muck raking, but rather “muck making.”

Just to be clear, the use of Facebook’s data is not a data breach or hack. This is how big data works and everything you do online is being scooped up by someone who wants to use that information to advance their agenda. It might be selling you something like a new pair of socks, or maybe a health insurance policy, or maybe…a president.

Want to make sure that your data on Facebook won’t end up compromised? Electronic Frontier Foundation has you covered with this explainer on how to change your Facebook API settings.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from the video above…just to make it clear that the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“… we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again… like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘that’s propaganda’, because the moment you think ‘that’s propaganda’, the next question is, ‘who’s put that out?’.”

More at Nieman Labs.

Paying for Media

Paying for media is both unavoidable and, at the same time, pretty unusual. All media content is paid for by someone, but for the end user that “cost” is not always visible. It used to be very obvious every time you bought a book or a movie ticket or a CD (remember those?). But most folks don’t buy books, movie tickets or CDs anymore. And a lot of our media content appears to be free. It’s not, but the cost is hidden from view and only apparent in the form of annoyingly-hard-to-avoid advertising.

According to an article in Politico, some of this is changing. Partly because of the gradual acceptance of online services that have a small monthly fee (e.g. Netflix and ad-free streaming music services) Millennials are starting to consider paying for other forms of media.

The other contributing factor that the article identifies is the election of President Trump. It appears that online journalism is getting a boost from those opposed to Trump, and that has been good news for online news providers…especially those that have taken an aggressive stance  to the current administration. The ideological factor is substantial according the following excerpt from the article.

Newman said that 29 percent of Americans responded to the survey that their reason for paying for news was, “wanting to help support or fund journalism,” which was twice the average for all countries included in the study. Americans on the political left were four times more likely than those on the right to cite supporting journalism as their reason for paying, Newman said.

But there are still concerns. Again, according to Politico…

For all the good news, the truth remains that those willing to pay for journalism still represent a relatively small group—according to the Reuters Institute study, 84 percent of Americans do not pay for online news. Subscriptions are not cheap, and Newman pointed out that there is danger in quality journalism becoming an increasingly elite product. “The danger is that you get a two-tiered system,” he said.

This notion of two classes–information “haves” and information “have nots”–is disconcerting for those who see income inequality as a barrier to political engagement.

Still, for an industry that has been pummeled for more than a decade by terrible financial news and, for the last 10 months, by the President of the United States, the growing willingness of millennials to open their wallets is welcome news.

 

Celebrity Endorsements

HuffPo recently published data reported by HopperHQ about rates charged by celebrities for social media endorsements. Here’s a list of some of the top dealmakers.

  1. Selena Gomez – 122 million followers – $550,000 per post
  2. Kim Kardashian – 100 million followers – $500,000 per post
  3. Cristiano Ronaldo – 104 million followers – $400,000 per post
  4. Kylie Jenner – 95 million followers – $400,000 per post
  5. Kendall Jenner – 81.7 million followers – $370,000 per post
  6. Khloe Kardashian – 68 million followers – $250,000 per post
  7. Kourtney Kardashian – 57.8 million followers – $250,000 per post
  8. Cara Delevingne – 40.4 million followers – $150,000 per post
  9. Gigi Hadid 34.7 million followers – $120,000 per post
  10. Lebron James – 30.7 million followers – $120,000 per post

As you can see it is largely a numbers game with a couple of notable exceptions, e.g. Kim Kardashian punches above her weight with a cool $500K per post to reach her 100M followers.

Just in case you, or anyone you know, have a plan to become one of these influence marketers, just remember that there are a few million folks in line ahead of you. You should probably have a plan B just in case.

Influencer Marketing: It’s Not Just for Celebrities Anymore

It used to be that you had to be a bonafide celebrity to land a celebrity endorsement deal. Win a gold medal, release a gold album, or star in a blockbuster movie and advertisers would line up asking you to pitch their products. The association principle of advertising works by associating a brand, product, or service with an intangible, but desirable, positive attribute. And celebrity status is a particularly attractive association that many brands crave.

Things have changed. Celebrity endorsements have given way to influence marketing. If you have influence, no matter how you’ve earned it, you can cash that in for…well, cash. You’ve got thousands reading your [insert hobby here] blog on a daily or weekly basis? …great, how about mentioning our brand and we’ll send you some free product.  One hundred thousand subscribers to your beauty secrets YouTube channel? Fantastic…how’d you like to represent our product line for a nice monthly salary? A million or so followers on Twitter? We need to talk!

The reason why this is such a thing is because of the power and reach of social media. At the same time, traditional advertising has been suffering from shrinking audiences and diminishing credibility. We’re more likely to believe a friend’s recommendation than an advertising pitch-man’s exaggerated promises. Word of mouth (or online word of “mouse”) is where it’s at. This graphic is from an informative post by Aaron Orendorff on the Mashable website.

 

The title of this blog suggests that this new form of marketing is not just for celebrities anymore. Maybe the point is that the barrier to becoming a celebrity is much lower in this digital, social-mediated landscape. However, if you want to play, you need to know the rules. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently published guidelines governing endorsement deals and has been cracking down on influencers engaging in unethical behavior.

Supersize That!

wingsSuper Bowl LI is this afternoon and the hype is living up to expectations. I read earlier today that “experts” are predicting that Americans will eat 1.3 BILLION chicken wings today. (In case you were wondering, “1.3 billion chicken wings is enough for every man, woman and child in the United States to have four wings each”). It just so happens that the “experts” quoted are the National Chicken Council. Here’s their press release…the one that generated the news stories. As you can probably tell, this is all about promoting chicken wings. It’s not news, it’s advertising. And journalists and news outlets that carry the story are part of the problem facing real journalism.

And speaking of journalists, there will be approximately 5,000 of them covering the big game. Is that really necessary? I know what you’re thinking…I’m just jealous and wish my organization (fat chance) had sent me to Houston to report on the game and the many associated parties.

Of course I’ll be watching the advertisements. Every year there are a few good ads…ones that might even be worth the $$$ that keeps increasing every year. This year a 30-second spot will set the advertiser back a cool $5.5 million. Over the past half-century, total ad spending in the big game is approaching $5 billion. And while I don’t have hard data to support my claim, I think it’s fair to say that not all of those dollars were well spent. But there have been some great ads that have been worth every penny. Coke “Mean Joe Green”, Apple “1984” and Budweiser “Frogs” come to mind. (See them here.)

Okay, enough ranting. But before I close, I thought I’d revisit that whole chicken wing thing. PETA has, characteristically, found a way to make you feel guilty for indulging. Don’t click this link if you plan to enjoy some hot wings at your party…I warned you!

 

I Hope I’m Not Being Too Pushy

attentionNew Years is a time of reflection and looking forward. It is a time to take stock of what is working and what is not…making plans to maximize the good and minimize the bad. I just finished an interesting book…The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu, and, if I may be so bold, I would like to make a suggestion that I think will improve your focus and productivity in 2017. And that suggestion is…..(drum roll)…..change the way you currently give your attention to media.

Media companies want your attention. No great revelation there. Your attention is valuable, and the more of it that they can collect and sell, the more money they make. So they work really hard at finding new ways to collect your attention. Sometimes in tiny fragments (e.g., preroll ads and billboards), and sometimes for long periods at a time (e.g., binge viewing).

Media companies know that you’re busy, and that they can’t always count on you to volunteer your attention. They can’t count on you to remember to go to their website or click on their app. So they devise ways to bring the content to you. This strategy has been around for quite a while and it is known as “pushing” content to the consumer. Rather than counting on the consumer to “pull” in the content that they want, media companies “push” it out to those who have opted in. You have probably opted in to all kinds of push notifications…typically when you initially sign up for some neat bit of content that you want to receive. From that point on, they have permission to push new content to you…to notify you that there’s something new to see, hear, read, etc.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that our attention is not infinite. If we’re going to focus on anything worthwhile, we need uninterrupted attention. We need to be free of the distractions that push media provide. Social media may be the most obvious and blatant example of constant clamoring for your attention, but it’s not the only form of media that is working overtime to suck you in.

You might think that you can handle it…that you can manage several streams of incoming data at the same time. But you would be wrong. All of the research indicates that multi-tasking is a myth. What your brain is doing is switching quickly from one stream to the other, not doing anything particularly well.

There are several ways to reduce this threat and I’ll let you figure out which one works best for you. But I can assure you that taking control of who’s in control of your attention will make you a more focused and productive student (friend/employee/etc.) in 2017.

Not Safe for Advertising?

We’ve all seen the acronym NSF, which stands for Not Safe for Work. YouTube has generally been pretty careful to ensure that content on its site is devoid of overtly offensive material. But now they’ve gone a step further to protect advertisers who may be squeamish about appearing alongside content that pushes the boundaries. A new policy announced by YouTube allows them to remove certain videos from their monetization program if the contents of the videos is potentially offensive to advertisers.

YouTube producers are pushing back claiming the new policies are too strict and have a chilling effect on their creative output. According to AdAge, “On Wednesday, YouTube video creator Philip DeFranco, with 4.5 million subscribers, said he was put on the no-ad list after he mocked ‘political correctness.'”

According to Google’s guidelines, videos with the intent to “inform or entertain” and more likely to get a pass than those intended to “offend or shock.”

This is nothing new for websites and apps that rely on user-generated content. Again, according to AdAge,

The video site is just the latest to find itself embroiled in a social media battle with voices that oppose “political correctness” or claim free-speech violations over any pushback to their activities on a given platform. Last month, right-wing advocate Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for allegedly leading a bullying blitz against “SNL” and “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones.

Here’s a link to a somewhat lengthy video (the first 4 min is about this issue, but the rest is pretty informative on related topics) from DeFranco that explains his position. (warning: graphic language)

 

The End of Tolerance

The current political race for President has stirred up a lot of emotion and, let’s face it, anger. Bernie and his supporters are angry about economic inequality; The Donald and his supporters are angry about immigration, the uneven economic recovery and a bunch of other things; Hillary and her supporters are angry about racism and sexism; and Ted and his supporters are angry about a variety of social conservative issues. This is a very simplified depiction of what the various candidates and their supporters stand for, but it begins to explains why this particular contest is so hotly contested.

The brawl at the cancel Chicago rally for Donald Trump yesterday has folks on both sides pointing fingers, claiming intolerance and declaring their First Amendment right to speak and be heard.

Saturday Night Live, like Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert, has a track record of making fun of politicians and political issues to make a point. And last week’s fake ad for Trump speaks directly to this matter of racism.

Whether you agree or not with Trump or his detractors, the arguments on both sides have been enflamed with passion. When I watched the SNL video today I took a quick look at the comments (almost NEVER a good idea) and found this.

YouTubeCommentTrumpSNL

Apparently [heat-mon] selected quotes from responses to Dianne Bishop, (by people opposed to her support for Trump), and posted them to make the case that intolerance of intolerance also has an ugly side.

And older folks wonder why young people don’t show more interest in politics.

$167,000 per second

No, that’s not the growth rate of the national debt. It is the price for a TV spot. A 30-second ad will cost advertisers $5 million this coming Sunday. Super Bowl 50 (let’s just forget about that “L” thing for a moment) will likely have an audience of 115-120 million viewers, and this is a chance to pitch all 120 million of them with your brand or product. It is the only remaining mass media event that can pull a live audience of this size…and because of that it can command outrageous sums of money from brands that want/need that kind of exposure.

Here’s a video from last year that helps to explain…

When you’re spending this kind of money you want to maximize the effect and, if possible, increase exposure. One way is to release your ad on YouTube prior to the big day, and hope that you can build buzz online with social media. One Super Bowl ad that was very effective with this approach was VW’s The Force spot. This year Budweiser is trying it with a don’t-drink-and-drive spot featuring Helen Mirren. You can see it here…