By Dennis Culloton, CEO and president
The investigation into alleged collusion by President Trump’s campaign with the Russians –and his protests of “fake news”–has overshadowed what may be the longer lasting impact of Russian meddling in U.S. elections– the real news that the biggest media companies in the world were grilled on Capitol Hill.
Social media giants Facebook and Twitter and the search engine behemoth Google testified over two days on Capitol Hill for their roles in allowing Russia to spread disinformation on their platforms in 2016.
Facebook’s lawyer testified that the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign reached 146 million Americans during the 2016 campaign.
The President’s favorite social media platform, Twitter, also was assailed by Congressional critics. It wasn’t hard for Russia to use the platform. According to a Buzzfeed investigation, Twitter actually pursued the Russians. An email was released showing Twitter offering Russian news outlet RT a 15% share of voice of their overall US election advertising for $3 million. Twitter refused to comment on the exchange and did not question the validity of the email itself.
It appears consumers are ready to hold the media companies accountable.
In a Survey Monkey poll for political news site Axios, the social media brands are losing credibility with the American people with 51 percent of people surveyed saying social media like Twitter and Facebook does more to hurt democracy and free speech. Axios also reports the tech giants have upped their campaign contributions to members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees while Recode reports the major tech companies and social media giants spent a record $10 million on lobbyists in the second quarter alone.
Still amid the scrutiny, Facebook reported record profits in the third quarter, more than $10 billion from advertising revenue. Google reported a 24 percent boost in revenue to $27.7 billion and Twitter’s stock has soared in recent days.
Fending off a major brand crisis in credibility. A profit-first mentality. Plying Washington D.C. with campaign dollars and flooding the district with lobbyists. Welcome to the big time Facebook, Twitter, Google and friends. You’re all grown up and acting like the Big Tobacco companies of old.
As Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus noted social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook were created to help people stay connected with family and high school friends. In 2012, Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg said his mission was to bring people closer together.
Since their creation, Facebook and Twitter have completely changed the way that we interact with others, the way businesses market themselves and their products, how we receive our news, and most recently, how we interact with our government and political leaders. As Facebook and Google’s profits soar, legacy news media companies have hemorrhaged readers, revenues and viewers. There is an irony to Facebook promising Congress they would hire thousands of people to review content on their networks. Those people used to be called editors and they worked at newspapers which Facebook is crushing.
Twitter seems to be taking steps in the right direction as they have removed 2,752 accounts linked to the Russian-linked Internet Research Agency and announced last week that it was banning all ads on the platform from Russian news agencies RT and Sputnik.
The company has promised to donate $1.9 million (the projected earnings from RT global advertising since joining the platform) towards research into the use of Twitter in politics and elections. Facebook promised to hire the aforementioned 10,000 content reviewers.
While raking in the profits do these media monsters have to worry about reputation management and a crisis in confidence? History would show that while they’ve disrupted traditional media, the crisis communications laws will still apply. If for no other reason than to avoid Congressional mandates that regulate traditional media.