What About Social-Media Neutrality? Facebook’s algorithms have monopoly power,...

What About Social-Media Neutrality?

Facebook’s algorithms have outsize power, both culturally and economically.

By Daniel Gallant Jan. 28, 2018 4:43 p.m. ET

Most arguments about “net neutrality” neglect an important reality: The internet most of us use is already far from neutral, thanks to the profit-focused algorithms and opaque content guidelines by which social-media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram govern their sites.

Through these personalized online portals, we read news stories, share videos, learn about our friends’ lives, and discuss social trends. But these platforms don’t treat all content equally or distribute it fairly. Facebook and Instagram manage content in a decidedly non-neutral manner, using pay-to-play tactics that favor deep-pocketed advertisers and marketers versed in content targeting.

Whereas some paid promotions reach millions of Facebook and Instagram users, these platforms’ policies ensure that most unpaid content reaches few. Many Facebook users have seen the audience response for their non-promoted posts shrink recently. If your holiday posts received half as many likes as in past years, it isn’t necessarily because your content is stale or your friends have lost interest. Instead, the platform you use might have changed its algorithms to compel you—and the entities vying for your attention—to spend more on posts. Even if you’re an amateur photographer or a recreational blogger, and particularly if you’re a sole proprietor or small-business owner, Facebook wants to convert you from an “organic” user to a paying customer who boosts posts and buys ads.

For the past decade, I’ve used social media to market arts programs for the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Arts Japan 2020 and other organizations. Social-media marketing has undoubtedly improved the fortunes of these small businesses and nonprofits, as well as many other institutions. But the platforms we use are fickle. Even experienced online marketers can be stymied when Facebook and Instagram tweak their algorithms to favor one type of content over another, to reduce the impact of posts from certain groups, or to prioritize paid material in a new way.

If you post a Facebook update without “boosting”—paying for it—the post may reach between 1% and 5% of the people who like your page. It probably won’t be seen by anyone who doesn’t already follow you on social media, unless a bunch of your fans or friends repost it. But if you boost that same post for $10, Facebook will show it to hundreds or thousands more customers. Even then, your post could languish in obscurity, if it fails to meet Facebook’s opaque content guidelines, which have been known to filter out innocuous material (Christmas cards, the names of certain cities) while allowing fact-challenged content from extremists to flourish.

The visibility of posts varies tremendously, depending on how desirable the target audience is to various advertisers. Five dollars might allow you to reach 50 big-spending New England Patriots fans or 2,000 unemployed students. The cost to reach a particular audience shifts constantly and is not disclosed until after your ad has run.

Facebook’s non-neutral landscape is inscrutable and forbidding. Trial-and-error experiments help businesses and nonprofits improve their return on social-media investment, but many small entities can’t afford to do market research. Some companies give up on social media advertising entirely if their first campaign fails. It’s frustrating to learn that your value as a customer and your expenses as a marketer fluctuate at an algorithm’s whim.

Facebook claims to have improved transparency and enforcement, especially since the revelations about election-related posts from Russia and elsewhere. Recent tweaks, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, will democratize the vetting of news items and offer Facebook users “more meaningful social interactions.” But we have no way of knowing the extent or soundness of a corporate entity’s policy reforms. We do know that Facebook’s experiments with shifting content guidelines sometimes hurt free speech and small businesses’ finances.

As social-media activity continues to dominate internet use, the survival of small businesses and nonprofits will increasingly depend on their online marketing strategies. And social-media companies offer powerful tools to help organizations compete.

But considering their huge impact on the finances of companies large and small, on the political system, and on every aspect of our interpersonal relationships, social-media platforms shouldn’t be left to corporate self-policing. They should be regulated, ideally by a committee of representatives from the corporate, nonprofit and government sectors.

Regardless of whether net neutrality protections continue, regulation of social-media platforms could help even the online playing field and foster innovation, creativity and free speech while guarding against malicious manipulation of content. Without regulation, the internet’s most sprawling content marketplaces will continue to favor deep pockets and endanger free expression.

Mr. Gallant is executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and a social-media marketing consultant.


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