The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

“For those who see the relationship between platforms and publishers as a zero-sum game, having a platform like Facebook or YouTube stepping away from news might seem like a win.”

I fear 2018 will be the year we will see a major platform decide that news is simply not worth the trouble and move to (1) reduce the role of news and systematically separate it from other content and (2) reduce the number of news organizations allowed to publish to the platform, strictly controlling who has the opportunity.

We can call this the “Snapchat scenario,” as that is basically how news works on Snapchat. Some platforms in mainland China, Japan, and South Korea also control news distribution tightly and are only open to preapproved select partners.

Relatively open platforms like Facebook or YouTube could choose to adopt this model, for any mix of three possible reasons rooted in politics, users, or advertising—

  • News and news-related content is at the heart of much of the political and public scrutiny faced by platform companies in Europe, the U.S., and beyond. Having a lot less of it, more clearly separated from other content, and more strictly controlled, might be seen as a way to reduce that pressure.
  • News and news-related content is clearly a part of the wide variety of things that platforms offer, but it is not clear how important it is to users. Surveys suggest that only 1/3 of YouTube users say they get news on the platform, and while that figure is 2/3 for Facebook users, a majority of those who get news on Facebook say they see news incidentally, while using the platform for other, for them more important, purposes.
  • News and news-related content is a small part of most forms of media use, especially digital media use, and not all forms of news and news-related content are seen as particularly attractive or even brand-safe by advertisers, especially in polarized political environments.

For those who see the relationship between platforms and publishers as a zero-sum game, having a platform like Facebook or YouTube stepping away from news might seem like a win.

It would almost certainly be a win for the “platform darlings” who would be allowed to continue to publish to the platform. (Past experience suggests these select partners would be (a) few, (b) primarily English-language brands with international reach, and (c) mostly but not exclusively up-market.)

But what would it be like for the literally tens of thousands of publishers all over the world who are not “platform darlings” and do not have the scale or exclusivity to be attractive partners? The large drops in referrals to publishers when Facebook experimented with a Snapchat-like separation between private posts from individuals and public posts from pages in a number of countries in the fall of 2017 suggest not.

The reason the Snapchat scenario worries me is that — while it is clear that major platforms like Facebook and YouTube have been misused to spread disinformation, misinformation, and hate speech, both by for-profit actors and political actors, and have to confront serious issues concerning the quality, intelligibility, and algorithmic filtering of content — they also have some very real positive implications that might well be imperiled if news content was much more restricted. They include:

  • The demonstrably positive effects of the largest platforms in terms of exposing people to more sources of news and more diverse sources of news than they would otherwise see (especially for young people and those least interested in news).
  • The demonstrably (if moderate) positive effects that largest platforms have in terms of facilitating some forms of political engagement (especially for young people and those least interested in politics).
  • The way in which they have enabled some political movements — whether progressive or conservative, moderate or radical — to reach millions of people online. In October, Facebook said that more than 45 percent of people in the U.S. are friends with someone who has posted a “me too” status.

It is clear that large platforms like Facebook and YouTube have system-wide implications in terms of their dominant role in drawing attention, collecting data, and attracting advertising, and that, by enabling lots of different actors and activities, they have also become platforms for many troubling things and have sometimes failed to check these.

But these relatively permissive and often rambunctious environments also have demonstrably positive implications for our democracies. It is not inherently wrong that Snapchat and some other platforms take a far more restrictive approach to news. But do we want the biggest platforms to do the same?

Most platforms would want to continue to let their users “organically” share things they are interested in. But the example of Snapchat — and many increasingly popular messaging apps — suggest they can simultaneously decide to design their products in ways that limit both the role of news overall and news organizations’ ability to freely publish to the platform.

This is the Snapchat-scenario future we may face, but in my view not one we should aspire to. A central challenge going forward is how the positive effects outlined can be retained while also confronting some of the very real problems associated with the rise of platforms. How do we, as societies, deal with this? Paraphrasing James Madison’s stance on the rambunctious and often wildly inaccurate and partisan press of the early American republic, we might say that some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything, and in no instance is this more true than in that of open platforms. I hope efforts to combat such abuse won’t involve systematically reducing and restricting the role of news.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

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