Monday 23 September 2019

Google's power is unchecked

Much of the debate around the Eighth is on social media platforms. Photo: Arthur Carron
Much of the debate around the Eighth is on social media platforms. Photo: Arthur Carron
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It used to be said that real politics doesn't happen on social media. If there's one thing that this referendum proves, it's that this just isn't true any more.

When (or if!) the dust settles on next weekend's vote, one of the big analysis points might be the extent to which online social channels, and search engines were suddenly acknowledged as critical to political outcomes in this country.

Arguably the biggest single campaigning issue in the referendum has been a decision by Google and Facebook to change their advertising policies.

For those who missed the finer points of it (and I'm not sure many did), the two companies did slightly different things.

Facebook simply restricted ads to internally placed cash, cutting out any foreign sources of advertising.

Google, though, made a much more unusual policy change to cease all referendum ads. It was an about-turn that took many by surprise and was greeted as a significant event.

This decision was described in the Irish Times by its political editor, Pat Leahy, as "an important moment" in the campaign.

Leahy, who I worked with previously at a newspaper, is not known for being dazzled by technology or online fora.

But it's increasingly clear that platforms such as Facebook and Google (through YouTube) are where large numbers of Irish citizens now spend more time than any other single format, including conventional television.

This doesn't mean you can win an election on Twitter. But it's starting to look like you can lose one on Facebook and Google.

And it's not just the big utility platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp and YouTube where digital media is now penetrative.

The most talked-about referendum-related issue last week was a confrontation on Eamon Dunphy's 'The Stand' podcast between Dunphy and the veteran journalist and 'No' campaigner, John Waters.

Having become worked up about a line of questioning he objected to, Waters stormed out of the podcast on Thursday, calling Dunphy a "f***ing b******s" as he did so. Dunphy pleaded with Waters not to leave, assuring Waters that he, too, is a 'No' voter.

It was painful listening, but compulsive and authentic.

The podcast segment was pre-recorded. But Dunphy released it anyway, saying he wanted his listeners to "make up their own minds".

Within hours, it was the main talking point of that day's campaign coverage.

(By the time you read this media column, it will likely have surpassed one million streams, putting it ahead of virtually any radio or television segment during the same week.)

A freak one-off moment of audio voyeurism?

Probably not. Podcasts are now a permanent, under-reported, facet of media consumption.

The country's most listened-to Irish podcasts pull in over 100,000 streams each and every week. That's more than all but a handful of radio shows.

(A disclaimer: I host a tech podcast, 'The Big Tech Show'. It's not yet quite at 100,000 streams.)

Will the ad moves by Google and Facebook bear further scrutiny when the referendum is over?

I think they will, regardless of the outcome.

It is precisely because of the power that Google wields that its decision, in particular, was an extraordinary one.

Remember that Google and Facebook, between them, control around half of all online advertising. Google has the bigger share, thanks to the combination of its search words and YouTube video ads.

The consequences of its decisions around what it will or will not allow now arguably goes beyond the scope of a single private entity.

The European Commission may probably get around to this, as they are already scoping out the company's dominance in search.

No one in Google was willing to talk on the record about the decision to axe all ads relating to the referendum. But the nervousness around the issue, even from Google staff talking on background, was unusual.

As for the decision itself, it does look like Google executives took a pre-emptive step to avoid getting embroiled in a blame game should the referendum on the Eighth Amendment be defeated.

From a commercial and regulatory perspective, that's a smart (if crude) move.

From a civic standpoint, it throws up altogether different issues to be considered, going forward, about the role and provenance of utility-like platforms such as Google and Facebook in democratic elections.

Twitter, in case you were wondering, doesn't accept ads around the referendum either.

But that was a decision it took from the start, rather than a couple of weeks from the actual poll.

(In any case, Twitter is considered less important - to everyone except journalists - both because it has more partisan public users and because it has a far lower user base than either Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or YouTube.)

The extent to which these platforms have now entered - and, in some cases, overtaken - some mainstream media channels could result in further moments of clarity.

One of these may be when Facebook releases more (much-awaited) data around advertising penetration for those who spend money on the platform.

In the meantime, I don't think we've heard the last of the ad policies around the Irish Eighth referendum.

Five years ago, a decision by any social platform around this would have been seen as peripheral.

Today, it is undeniably central.

We need to start setting out some clearer rules about what the big online platforms can and can't do.

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