Last week Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, appeared before US Congress to answer questions surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Russian interference in Western democracy. The result was a clash of cultures not seen before on such a stage, and highlighted the need for greater
technological awareness throughout individual governments that are now operating within a global community.
“Senator, we run ads” has already become a t-shirt slogan. Mark Zuckerberg’s response to US Senator Orrin Hatch’s question, as to how Facebook is able to sustain a business model without charging its users, provides the most memorable soundbite from the CEO’s visit to Washington. Of course the real meaning behind this exchange is more nuanced. Yes, Facebook does serve ads, but we are no longer dealing with static advertisements on the printed page and in an age of advanced digital targeting, audiences themselves are undoubtedly subsidising ad-dollars with user data.
However, none of that matters to the internet-at-large, which in 2018 will memefy complex concepts down to the simplest of formats. The Daily Mash ran an article headlined, ‘Senate asks Zuckerberg, ‘While you’re here, can you set up our printer?’ and the stage was set for for a young tech entrepreneur a million miles removed from the out of touch political house around him.
Whether or not the US government is better versed in technological change than it appears to be is on one level irrelevant. This perceived lack of understanding about modern media and technology platforms, and an inability to communicate their own messaging through them, damages the power base and influence of traditional governing establishments.
We see this trend playing out all over the world. In the UK, the populist movement Momentum has helped shift an entire party to the extreme left of the political spectrum, and has done so largely on the strength of appealing to younger voters through social media. Even the 71yr old Donald Trump has done enough to convince the US electorate that he is far more in-touch with ‘the people’ than his career-politician counterparts, again to a large extent by demonstrating a more recognisable human face through his tweets.
Perhaps more worrying than perception, is the real damage that a lack of understanding about emerging media and technology platforms appears to be doing to global democracies. In February, Robert Mueller’s office charged 13 Russians with interference in the 2016 US election along with three Russian companies and this was before the Cambridge Analytica scandal had even fully come to light. With a growing concern about the spread of bots, fake news, and alternative facts on Twitter too, it is very easy to see how the once science-fiction dismissed threat of cyber-warfare is beginning to become a reality. And all of this is before we get into the more familiar territory of hacking and cyber-attacks.
Government institutions and the individuals within them need to become better versed in media-tech on 3 levels, all of which concern the way they leverage technology to communicate with the world around them. Firstly, fake news stories and democratic disruptors are winning the battle for social influence and reputation. Institutions must carefully study the human interactions that are taking place within the digital realm and adapt their own communications to join, and subsequently influence, real conversations.
Secondly, there needs to be much greater understanding of how the technological side of these platforms works, and a focussed effort to communicate truth and discredit fake news. The traditional media is itself beginning to gain-back ground against false outlets in this area and can provide a template for how the political and business worlds can evolve too.
Finally, a joined-up strategic approach needs to be taken to communications on all levels, from communicating policy and regime change, right down to educating workers on digital rights, online safety, and the more general merging of digital technologies and human communications that we find taking place all around us. By tackling these three areas of reputation, media transparency, and online security in tandem, government institutions can better equip themselves for communications is the modern world.
The Facebook story will likely run for some time yet, as will the macro socio-political trends it relates to. The traditional political establishment and to a lesser extent more traditional corporate sectors have some distance to go if they hope to catch up with, and once again begin to influence, these conversations.