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Opinion 11 Oct 2021 - 5 min read

Advertising’s dopamine doomsday: Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce warns Instagram, Facebook ‘your time is over. We are going to do something [before the next Federal election]’

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce told Facebook execs last week: "Your time is over. We are going to do something. How many opportunities do you need? Why are we going through this charade? It’s over." Pic: Alex Ellinghausen, SMH

By May next year, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms could be far more expensive for advertisers and have less user targeting scope than they’ve enjoyed for a decade. The odds for a doomsday social media scenario for advertisers, large and small, just increased dramatically – the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are mad.

 

The upshot for marketers is this: New regulation will likely snuff out dopamine-fuelled content and trolling that keeps users on and coming back to social media platforms for frequent fixes. If the algorithms can’t escalate extreme or divisive content, users could spend less time or visit less frequently.

Paul McIntyre, Executive Editor, Mi3

What you need to know:

  • Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce is furious about what he calls a “devastating lie” flamed by social media over a rumoured affair his daughter was having with NSW National Party leader John Barilaro, while she worked in his office.
  • According to Peter Hartcher’s account in the SMH of the Deputy Prime Minister’s conversation with Facebook execs last week: “He had a phone call from Facebook’s Australian operation about 4pm on Friday, offering to work with the Deputy Prime Minister to help solve the problem. According to Joyce, he told the Facebook executive: ‘Your time is over. We are going to do something. How many opportunities do you need? Why are we going through this charade? It’s over.’ On the contrary, it’s just beginning.”
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison also jumped in, making world headlines last week with this: “Social media has become a coward’s palace where people can just go there, not say who they are, destroy people’s lives and say the most foul and offensive things.”
  • Barnaby Joyce wants protections lifted for social platforms on the content they carry before the next Federal election, due by May 27.
  • In a worst case scenario for brands and advertisers, within the next seven months Instagram and Facebook could become more expensive, have less user detail and targeting scope and both platforms could oversee an exponential rise in marketing-related messages and advertising loads, called clutter in marketing parlance.
  • Irony? If this scenario does transpire for social media, the “transformative” tech-media giants will simply follow the same path as broadcast television – audiences decline but ad prices go up. Digital media was supposed to be different. 
  • The Australian street fight with Facebook comes the same week as another Facebook whistleblower fronted a US Senate hearing after leaking thousands of documents and files. Among them were Facebook’s own research showing teens blamed Instagram for increases in anxiety and depression (32 per cent). Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 per cent of British users linked their tendencies to Instagram. 
  • Per Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen speaking to a US Senate committee: “When we realised the extent of the damage caused by the tobacco industry, the government stepped in. When we realised cars were safer with seat belts, the government stepped in. I implore you to do the same here.” 
  • For all the talk from brands about the social contract they say they have with customers, communities and staff, they’re incredibly quiet on this one. Primarily because it’s going to cost them.
  • The stance brand owners take on social media is increasingly being viewed through the prism of risk and compliance with their corporate Environmental and Social Governance [ESG] policies, which in turn affects investor ratings and the cost of capital.
  • Per the Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman: “The advertising and marketing industries are fully complicit with Facebook. Every bit of squalid work that Facebook does is at the behest of marketers.”

Politicians get personal

If Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his deputy Barnaby Joyce – the latter outraged at a social media-fuelled rumour which took off about his daughter having an affair with NSW Nationals Leader John Barilaro – move on their world-making headlines to lift the protection social platforms have for publishing user content without liability, seismic shifts could well be underway for the advertising business. 

The mid-2022 doomsday roadmap for advertisers could look like this: the unrivalled cheap, privacy-challenged, algorithmically-controlled and dopamine-fuelled audiences advertisers have been tapping cheaply for a decade on Facebook and Instagram could materially unwind – not disappear – by May next year. 

In a worst case scenario for brands and advertisers, within the next seven months Instagram and Facebook could become far more expensive, have less user detail and targeting scope and both platforms could oversee an exponential rise in marketing-related messages and advertising loads, called clutter in marketing parlance.

The doomsday economics here are essentially that social media advertising rates will rocket upward, the time spent by users on them will decline and precision retargeting of a company’s own customers, and prospecting of their “lookalike” customers through Facebook’s vaults of user data, will be more restricted.    

Why? Because the regulation Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce furiously warned last week he wants enacted before the next Federal election – a vote must be held by May 2022 – could materially impact the social media advertising machine. 

There’s circa $2.5bn spent on social media advertising a year in Australia across the major platforms like Twitter, Snap, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.   

There is a bigger doomsday scenario, of course, in that Facebook could pull stumps in Australia if the Feds classify it as a publisher, not a platform, with all the legal liabilities that come with that. Facebook is ranked 26 in the world in country GDP terms, so it could flip the bird to Australia quite easily. It has already threatened to, and has. Right now that is just a too big a scenario to contemplate so let’s stick with the diluted doomsday option.    

A "devastating lie"

What started all this was Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce’s fury about what he calls a “devastating lie” flamed by social media over a rumoured affair his daughter was having with NSW National Party leader John Barilaro, while she worked in his office.   

Joyce is now on a mission to make social platforms liable for the content they carry and Prime Minister Scott Morrison quickly followed suit last week, making world headlines on Friday with this: “Social media has become a coward’s palace where people can just go there, not say who they are, destroy people’s lives and say the most foul and offensive things.”

It all pretty much starts with Section 230 of the US Federal Communications Decency Act, 1996, giving internet platforms legal immunity from any third party content they carry or that their algorithms escalate. US politicians are debating fundamental changes to Section 230 to lift that immunity but Australia looks like it’s trying to jump the gun, again – it’s done it already on the world stage with the ACCC’s five-year Digital Platforms Inquiry and the Media Bargaining Code struck for payments between local news media and Google and Facebook. 

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Political and International Editor Peter Hartcher wrote a must-read on last week’s dramatic political turn for social media. Here’s Hartcher’s account of the Deputy Prime Minister’s conversation with Facebook execs last week: “He had a phone call from Facebook’s Australian operation about 4pm on Friday, offering to work with the Deputy Prime Minister to help solve the problem. According to Joyce, he told the Facebook executive: ‘Your time is over. We are going to do something. How many opportunities do you need? Why are we going through this charade? It’s over.’ On the contrary, it’s just beginning.”

The upshot for marketers is this: New regulation will likely snuff out dopamine-fuelled content and trolling that keeps users on and coming back to social media platforms for frequent fixes. If the algorithms can’t escalate extreme or divisive content, users could spend less time or visit less frequently. That crimps opportunity for advertisers to hunt audiences, customers and prospects on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snap and the rest. Snap is attempting to get ahead of the game, spinning the line it’s in better shape on privacy and content curation than its bigger rivals. Let’s watch.

Ironically, though, if this scenario does transpire for social media, the “transformative” tech-media giants will simply follow the same path as broadcast television – audiences decline but ad prices go up. Digital media was supposed to be different. 

Legislative lashings

The timing of the Federal Government’s warnings for a legislative lashing for social media platforms has the hallmarks of a perfect storm – the unfolding crisis from the latest Facebook whistleblower in the US, Francis Haugen, is far from done. Advertisers will be hoping this Facebook blow-up to blow over like all the rest before it. It may well, but tolerance is stretching. Silence on the subject from brands, so far, may not cut it this time. Maybe. 

In her testimony last week to a senate committee, presenting thousands of internal Facebook documents and files, Haugen has delivered more evidence of negative behaviour and societal impacts that advertisers really don’t want to know. 

Facebook’s own research in the leaked files showed teens blamed Instagram for increases in anxiety and depression. Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 per cent of British users linked their tendencies to Instagram. 

“When we realised the extent of the damage caused by the tobacco industry, the government stepped in,” Haugen told the senate. “When we realised cars were safer with seat belts, the government stepped in. I implore you to do the same here.”

Brands silent

For all the talk from brands about the social contract they say they have with customers, communities and staff, they’re incredibly quiet on this one. Primarily because it’s going to cost them. Principles and positioning sometimes does that to you. 

But as Mi3 covered last week, the stance brand owners take on social media is increasingly being viewed through the prism of risk and compliance with their corporate Environmental and Social Governance [ESG] policies. That’s where it starts to get really tricky.  

Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman has been scathing in the past week on the silence from US marketers and industry bodies over the latest Facebook blow-up. 

Where are all the major brand bullshitters who lecture us about their virtuous commitment to ‘brand purpose’? Hello? Anyone home? Let's be very clear. Facebook is a product of the advertising industry. The advertising and marketing industries are fully complicit with Facebook. Every bit of squalid work that Facebook does is at the behest of marketers.”

They’re fighting words but he’s right. Just ask Barnaby.

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