Without giving it enough attention, both publishers and marketers have become too dependent on traffic from Facebook. Not that Facebook is going away any time soon, but an entire industry has given up control to a single platform. Single sources of supply are always dangerous, and Facebook has become very nearly a single source of audience supply.
At a recent conference at Harvard Business School on the future of advertising and publishing, the very first panel (Social Distribution, Advertising and the Free Press) questioned whether this industry, long part of democracy, can continue to exist since we have come to know about fake news. In fact, the opening comment from Emily Bell of the Tow Center for Journalism at Columbia was a question about whether we even knew what an ad was anymore. Everything is an “ad” in an era where content distributed to targeted groups of people can change minds and even influence elections.
We are in danger of having legitimate advertising conflated with political propaganda. And our industry groups are not focused on this at all, they’re busy trying to lambaste Apple and Google for taking away cookies. Cookies are the least of online advertising’s problems.
What we in the industry know as ads are unimportant, given the use by Russia in the last election of actual content in Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds. It’s the audience that’s important, and the use of artificial intelligence to target that audience in a more and more accurate way with content that is not recognized as advertising.
These targeted ads on Facebook became problematic in the 2016 election: With such small and specific audiences, Carroll said, it was impossible for citizens and reporters outside the targeted population to even see what information or disinformation was being promoted during the election, and who was seeing it. This led to the feeling of a fragmented society that many experienced when they saw friends and family sharing falsehoods on social media that seemed to come out of nowhere. As Carroll put it in his opening presentation, Facebook had “put military grade PSYOP [psychological operations] weapons in the hands of anyone.”
Facebook has already begun to respond by instituting more transparency for not only political ads, but for all ads.
Even more important, it has begun a test to segregate posts from publishers into a separate feed, the “Explore Feed” and make them pay.
In six markets, Facebook has removed posts from Pages in the original News Feed and relegated them to another feed, Filip Struhárik, editor and social media manager at , wrote. That means Facebook’s main feed is no longer a free playing field for publishers. Instead, it’s a battlefield of “pay to play,” where publishers have to pony up the dough to get back into the News Feed.
Publishers in markets where this is being tested have already begun to see changes in their traffic, and it is being decried as a hindrance to the distribution of news.
Moreover, Facebook is going to Washington, DC to testify about what it knew about Russian ad buyers attempting to use “dark posts” to influence the American election.
With Facebook grabbing 77% of all growth the advertising spend from marketers, brands are getting themselves into potential hot water. Congress will probably do something to regulate all five big tech companies, and that could well produce chaos.
Publishers and advertisers should plan for big changes to come, and not be so dependent on Facebook either for advertising or for distribution. We did just fine without it in the past, and we can lower our dependence on it for the future.