In a recent Financial Times article, various business executives expressed deep regret for their “Faustian bargain” with US President Donald Trump.
They should go ahead and express even deeper regret for their contribution to the serious undermining of democracy — not just in the US, but everywhere else.
Businesses are complicit to the incredibly powerful attack on the fourth pillar of democracy, the media. This attack started a long time ago and has been focused on the media’s weak point: its business model.
Newspapers, magazines, TV and radio survive if enough people pay to read/watch/listen, either by taking out subscription, buying copies or enduring advertising breaks.
Advertising is the main source of revenue for the media, and this is where the problem lies. With the rise of online publishing, seduced by the power of numbers, advertisers allocated budgets on quantity – number of page views, or “clicks”, and user numbers – rather than on quality, both of public and of content.
This sparked a race to the bottom, with media outlets publishing more and more sensationalist materials in order attract bring those “clicks” and get a bigger share of the advertising pie.
Some of this content was relatively harmless, such as a cat rescued from a tree turning into a “viral” story.
But there was also content that incited to racial hatred, or which amplified existing prejudice against various minorities, which flourished as it brought in the “clicks” and therefore the revenue.
The fact that the internet became king, with advertisers worshipping the wrong kind of “measurability” — that of “page views” and “unique users” above quality of content — was the first major blow for traditional media.
The second was dealt by the rise of social media, and of Facebook in particular. Users of Facebook post content there as if it were private, but it is in fact very much public. Facebook only recently started to at least try to fact-check some of this content and issue warnings, but it is way too little, too late.
In an article more than four years ago, I warned about the danger that Facebook and Google represented for democracy, but too little has changed in the meanwhile.
On the contrary, the situation has deteriorated to the point where Facebook, Instagram and Twitter had to suspend Donald Trump’s accounts.
It took shocking images of his supporters violently storming the building of the US parliament to persuade these companies that the avalanche of hate this man had been pouring through their channels for years is harmful.
They allowed him to continue for so long because his comments, no matter how unhinged and racist, brought in the “clicks” – and with them, the revenue from advertising.
Not just social media companies, but also regulators and advertisers should take a long, hard look in the mirror and think of their responsibility for why things have got to the point where Trump could use these platforms to essentially undermine democracy in his own country.
Social media platforms should be regulated as if they were publishers of content, with all the responsibility to the truth that this entails, rather than simply platforms for users to communicate with each other.
Advertisers on Facebook, Google, Instagram etc. should scrutinise very closely what happens with their ads, where they appear, against what content, and demand accountability from these digital giants.
Finally, the business model for both traditional media and social media should be changed to rely on subscriptions and quality parameters when placing ads, and completely ignore user numbers or page views.
This may involve users being asked to pay a small subscription fee and to provide identity verification before being allowed to open an account, which is something the digital giants will fight forcefully.
But it is high time for consumers and businesses alike to open their eyes to the true cost of that free Facebook account. Unless they do that, and soon, democracy will continue to be in serious danger.