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Industry Contributor 2 Dec 2020 - 5 min read

Journalism will never have a “Social Dilemma”

By Adam Singolda, CEO - Taboola

Netflix's documentary The Social Dilemma has served to highlight the stark differences between consuming information on social media sites and on trusted news sites. If left unchecked, we may be on the path to depression – and at worst civil war – unless quality, balanced journalism remains and flourishes.

Key points:

  • Facebook claims it is about ‘value’ but many believe it relies instead on nefarious algorithms, addictive designs, and sophisticated FOMO tactics to drive addiction
  • All news sites are competing for time and attention - but, unless you log-in, none can see your personal identifiable information. Content is created and curated by humans, not optimisation algorithms that feed off the need for social approval
  • It’s not easy to choose broccoli over white sugar, but we know what’s good for us when we see it
  • Journalism will never have a social dilemma.

The crux of Netflix’s recent documentary, The Social Dilemma, rests on one foundational message: the over-collection of personally identifiable information has provided social platforms with the power to manipulate our personalities, our highs and lows, and our core values, while making themselves as addictive as nicotine.

Pop open the hood, and you’ll find this foundational message rests on what the documentary claims is the main goal of social platforms: for us to spend more and more time on their apps. They achieve this goal through nefarious algorithms, addictive designs, and sophisticated fear of missing out (FOMO) tactics.

It’s worth noting that Facebook publicly contested these claims, stating that its strategy is about value, not addiction, that the sources in the documentary hadn’t worked for a social media platform for years, and that they couldn't have a true picture of today’s landscape.

When you look outside of social platforms, on the open web and news websites where people engage with journalism, you could argue that every site out there is also fighting social networks for the same precious time and attention.

The difference is that journalism, in my opinion, is never going to have a “social dilemma.”

Nobody is mining and manipulating information about you on the open web

When you visit The Independent or CNBC, nobody knows your identity. News sites can’t see any personally identifiable information about you. They don’t know your name, age, gender, friends, or hobbies, which means there is no identity to manipulate.

Consciousness and democracy powered by editorial teams (versus social media)

Whether or not we like the viewpoints suggested for us on sites by editorial teams on the open web, they’re created and curated by humans, free of government control, and free of machine control. This is in direct contrast with social media platforms, where the feed is powered by machines with the goal of optimising for us – people - to addict us and capture more of our attention, and ultimately, our consciousness.

An editorial team’s job is not only to create and suggest content free of machine control, but also to filter out the noise - they’re qualified to make decisions about what information should “make it to the top,” and what information matters regarding the country's economic situation, sports, entertainment, trade, commerce and more.

Editorial teams are the connection between information and the people, and democracy is a system based on the principle of rule, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Exposing people to a range of opinions and educating people on those opinions is key to our future. That’s why the open web matters - it supports our basic right to be educated, keep our consciousness safe, and to not be manipulated.

Empty calories are bad for you

Journalism by definition has serendipity rooted inside it through editorial voice. You’ll stumble upon new ideas and different points of view on news sites, unlike a social media feed which is essentially an AI-fuelled machine designed to be your own echo chamber.

Every news organisation in the world would love to get another minute of attention from users who visited to read more, view more, interact, or sign up for a newsletter. When you give more of your attention to them - if you do spend more time on the NY Times website or on CNBC - it’ll end up being a meaningful time. You’ll probably learn something you didn’t know, or hear a new opinion about something you care about. Social media platforms feed off the need for social approval and interaction to influence your actions. This doesn’t really exist on news sites.

Consuming content on social media sites is like consuming “empty calories,” whereas time spent consuming content founded in the ethics of journalism is like a well-balanced meal. It’s not easy to choose broccoli over white sugar, but we know what’s good for us when we see it. Go broccoli.

There is no dilemma

We need to admit that we’ve lost control. Fittingly, the hit “Dilemma” by rapper Nelly is pretty much on the money: “No matter what I do, all I think about is you”.

We’re hooked, and we can’t stop thinking about social networks.

While the world is battling a global pandemic, one upside is that we’re forced to re-think whether or not we’re doing everything we can to do better, and to ask ourselves if there’s anything we can do differently.

Left unchecked, the path we're on – sowing doubt and division, spreading misinformation, fostering hate –leads to depressed communities at best, and civil war at worst.

Journalism and the open web are critical to democracy, our education, and peace. We need local news, national news, vertical sites, and the open web to stay strong. I’m optimistic that it will thrive because - because it has to. 

This is also a good time to think about our time, meaning how we spend it, and the importance of the open web, ruled by people, not machines.

I have no dilemma, I vote for the open web and journalism. 

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Adam Singolda, CEO


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