Jeremy Shtern: ‘Better than Random: The chance for democratic governance of the advertising supported internet’

Yesterday at the DMRC, we hosted Jeremy Shtern, directory of the Global Communication Governance Lab.

Shtern argues that advertising supported social media business models drive the evolution of internet architecture, but that we have not sufficiently thought about advertising in the context of infrastructure and governance debates.

Advertising strategies are shifting away from paid advertising. Shtern argues that we are seeing the rise of ‘converged media’, that appears to be ‘earned’ or organic, but in reality is heavily influenced by brands. As part of this shift, social media platforms are designed to be environments where people can talk about brands and brands can influence consumers through semi-authentic sponsorships with high profile users. This works so well because users don’t see commercial speech that is spread by their friends as advertising. So the forces for evolution are much less focused on surveillance for highly targeted advertising, and more on ‘affective targeted advertising’. The ability for platforms to target ads has much less to do with segmenting to target ads, and more to do with getting people to engage with commercial speech and content in ways that increase brand value.

Shtern’s studies suggest that a major group of people understand perfectly well that Facebook and other social media platforms existing in an entrepreneurial symbiosis. They know that their data is used to target and influence commercial speech, but do not feel exploited. They see the value of converged media for themselves. For these people, it is the individual’s responsibility to be careful about what information they post, in the knowledge that material they submit will be used for commercial purposes.

A second group of users, Shtern suggests, is much more worried about how their data is used. These users are deeply skeptical and worried about how their data is used, and think that social media platforms should have greater responsibility to protect users.

A third group were much less informed about the extent to which social media platforms are commercialised. These users tended to hold naive beliefs that social media exists primarily to connect people, and that corporate influence could and should be limited.

Shtern is particularly intersted in the policy and regulatory implications. He touched on two in this talk:

  • There are really interesting politics around advertising. There is particularly a lot of pressure around transparency for sponspored content. This is particularly challenging, since even when sponsorships are disclosed, his studies suggest that people often do not recognise that the content is commercial. There are also some more speculative developments – for example, an argument that ad blocking, which limits the effectiveness of discrete ads, could therefore interfere with diversity of democratic discourse (raised by advertising industry lobbyists).

  • There are implications for internet governance. Shtern suggests that advertisers, who drive infrastructural evolution, need to be much more embedded in multistakeholder governance debates – both as key stakeholders and objects of regulation. For Shtern, this is really about increasing accountability – advertisers have a huge role in influencing the development of the advertising supported social web, but are not at all present in multistakeholder internet governance debates. Bringing them in, Shtern hopes, will help us have better informed debates about infrastructure designed to support commercial speech.