Social Media: Welcome to the Wild, Wild West

“They rode on and the sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and then a deeper run of color like blood…”

Words from Blood Meridian, the violent novel of the wild west by Cormac McCarthy. And pretty much the feeling a lot of brands must have these days when they venture trepidatiously onto the dangerous terrain of social media. Whether it’s Facebook, with its fake news and Russian troll accounts, Twitter, with its racism and death threats, or You Tube with terrorist recruitment and animal torture videos.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.” That’s what Mark Zuckerberg told investors when the platform filed for its IPO. He also said: “By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.” And we all remember when YouTube owners Google used to say, “Don’t be evil.”

Of course, “evil” is not a term to be used loosely. But consider the case of YouTube “star” Logan Paul. Last month, he was reprimanded by the site for posting a video showing him and his pals acting goofy around the corpse of a suicide victim. I can’t believe I just wrote that. But today comes the news that Paul is in trouble again. This time for posting a video in which he…deep breath…tasers a rat.

“After careful consideration, we have decided to temporarily suspend ads on Logan Paul’s YouTube channels,” said YouTube. Well, I can see why that would need “careful consideration,” balancing the pros and cons. I mean, think of the inconvenience to brands seeking to sell their products and services alongside an animal torture video. But wait: Why does this guy still have a YouTube channel at all? And “temporarily”? 

Do we need to dig any further into the horror show of social media at its worst? If you insist. This week, CNN pulled a particularly ugly (but at least untasered) rabbit out of Twitter’s metaphorical hat, revealing that the platform had failed to pull the plug on hundreds of propaganda videos posted on Vine after it should have known they were posted by Russian government-linked trolls. CNN said: “The accounts and videos were removed only after CNN brought them to Twitter’s attention on Wednesday. Twitter did not comment as to why it removed the accounts or why they had been allowed to remain live for so long.”

Millions of views for those videos, of course, and it’s bound to prompt inquiring minds to wonder how closely Twitter’s namesake platform is being policed.

The question is: How long will brands tolerate this blithe combination of negligence and recklessness on the part of these major publishers? Because that’s what they are, of course. Deny it as they might, Google (and YouTube), Facebook (and Instagram), Twitter (and Vine), are now among the most important publishers in the world. They publish content. What they don’t do — except around the edges, and with every appearance of reluctance — is edit content.

Oh, that’s because they’re protecting free speech: “I’m not going sit here and tell you that we’re going to catch all bad content in our system. We don’t check what people say before they say it, and frankly, I don’t think society should want us to. Freedom means you don’t have to ask for permission first, and by default, you can say what you want.” Thus, Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg may be a superb entrepreneur. He’s an inept philosopher. From John Milton’s Aereopagitica to the first amendment to the Constitution, the principle that government should not gag people has been worth defending. But that’s different from the principle that publishers should not edit. The New York Times does not block freedom of speech when it chooses not to print a false story. The BBC does not block freedom of expression when it chooses not to broadcast gratuitously offensive images.

Brands have been willing to light out for the badlands of social media because they’re promised not only amazing audience reach, but great ability to filter and target an audience. Facebook boasts “powerful audience selection tools.” It’s also one of a number of platforms touting the use of AI to identify relevant audiences with amazing specificity.

All good news for brand marketers, no doubt.  But couldn’t some of this ingenuity be redirected into creating environments where brands and their audience will feel at least moderately comfortable? You can have the most advanced targeting tools in the world, but if the bullets of scandal keep flying, savvy brands are going to start taking cover.

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