Social Media Top Stories

How social media platforms discriminate against small publishers

Back in 2012, I was working as an editor at a major national magazine, and running the publication’s social media accounts fell under my purview. One day I received an email from a Google employee. She worked as a media liaison for Google Plus, a platform that, at this point in time, Google was still hoping would grow to become a viable Facebook competitor.

This Google employee had a proposition for me: spend more time posting content to the magazine’s Google Plus page, and she could ensure that we got more followers on the platform  by placing us in its recommendation engine. This request was easy enough to fulfill on my end — all I had to do was just cross-post everything I was already posting to the magazine’s Facebook page. So I started publishing to Google Plus, and sure enough, our follower account began to spike.

I maintained a spreadsheet of all our social media analytics, and from that point forward we experienced hockey stick growth. Around the time she approached me, we had about 300 followers on Google Plus. By the time I left the magazine a few months later, we had over 300,000.

We hadn’t done anything particularly special to earn that growth. We didn’t put more effort into our page than the millions of other users who were posting every day to the platform. But by virtue of our status as a well-known media brand, we were awarded massive distribution. For free.

Flash forward to today and tech platforms face daily conspiracy theories accusing them of bias against conservatives. Most can be traced back to a 2016 Gizmodo article claiming that conservative news was being suppressed on Facebook’s trending news section. Nevermind that the alleged bias was only occurring on a sidebar widget; within days, conservatives who either hadn’t read the article or were willfully misrepresenting what it reported were claiming that conservative voices were being suppressed in the Newsfeed.

The conspiracies only metastasized from there. Recently, Congress has begun hauling tech executives in front of committees to answer for this bias. At one point, the aide of a Republican Congressman held up a cardboard photo of conservative Facebook pundits Diamond and Silk while the Congressman grilled Mark Zuckerberg. Donald Trump even got in on the action, claiming in a tweet that Google search was rigged to show only negative news about him.

I’ve already documented why these claims are false. In June, I rounded up data showing that conservative Facebook pages aren’t seeing a decline in engagement compared to their liberal counterparts. And I later interviewed the head of a European analytics company who found the same trend for European publishers.

But that’s not to say that these tech platforms aren’t biased toward certain types of content. While we go back and forth over whether political content is getting buried in the feed, there’s little discussion of the actual benefactors of tech platform bias: major media companies.

In the early days of platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, these companies had a mostly hands-off approach when it came to content creation. Content, after all, isn’t very scalable, and tech companies thought that simply letting the users generate the content with little interference was an ideal situation for everyone involved. In fact, Twitter’s debut of a recommended user list — handpicked influencers who were endorsed during the user signup process — was considered a minor scandal at the time, with Twitter facing accusations that it was trying to bribe journalists with free followers in exchange for favorable coverage.

But this mindset of content agnosticism eventually changed. While user generated content was all well and good, it was the premium offerings of professional publishing outlets that attracted interest from major brands and advertisers. The platforms started to form relationships with publishers; at first, these relationships were informal, with tech companies hiring media liaisons who were charged with communicating best practices to media companies.

These unofficial collaborations, however, eventually morphed into official partnerships that involved actual money exchanging hands. These days, not a week goes by without another major announcement that a platform has inked a content deal with a major media provider. Facebook has devoted over a billion dollars to Facebook Watch thus far. Twitter has launched live programming shows with outlets ranging from BuzzFeed to Bloomberg. And YouTube is busy writing checks to creators in an attempt to grow its YouTube Premium subscription service.

But these platforms aren’t just doling out money to their media partners; they’re also providing a firehose of traffic by giving media partners prime real estate within the social media feeds.

Take Snapchat as an example: its Discover tab launched with a limited number of media partners, and they reported massive viewership as a result of their prominent placement within the app.

This kind of placement doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Every time a platform elevates an article or video, it’s doing it at the expense of someone else’s content. I experienced this directly when, in 2016, Medium started forming partnerships with several media outlets. I had been an early adopter of the platform and had seen a fair amount of success driving traffic to my articles.

That situation changed virtually overnight once these media partnerships were formed. My traffic dropped precipitously, and it wasn’t difficult to see why. When you fired up the Medium homepage or app, it was dominated by content from these media partners, even in cases where you weren’t subscribed to a publication. My content was getting buried to make way for the articles that Medium executives had deemed more important to their bottom line.

Think about what this means: if you’re a small publisher or independent creator, you’re already at a disadvantage when it comes to competing with the substantial resources of a larger media company. But now you also need to work twice as hard to receive the same amount of distribution on the same platform. Tech companies that used to espouse ideals about how they’re democratizing the web are favoring the same entrenched incumbents that ruled the media landscape pre-internet.

So while we bicker over whether Facebook is biased against liberals or conservatives, we’re ignoring the real bias, the bias that’s actually quite easy to prove. It’s a common refrain that the internet did away with the media gatekeepers, allowing once-marginalized voices to gain a platform.

But is that really the case? The heads of media conglomerates and venture-backed news orgs often complain that the tech platforms have eroded away their business models, and while this may be true to some extent, it’s the little guys who are truly feeling the squeeze.

Key takeaways for publishers:

  • When weighing the value of a partnership with a tech platform, don’t just consider the direct monetary benefits. Also consider how it’ll improve your distribution.
  • If you haven’t already, you should track down the contact details for the media liaisons at all the major tech platforms and open a direct line of communication.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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