Expectations for Oversight in the Age of Social Networks
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how a Harris Poll had been misrepresented as showing that young people were somehow gullible in their trust of advertising, and I promised to follow-up with an examination of the actually meaningful implications of that study. Quite opposite from being gullible, young Americans seem to recognize the new landscape for advertising; in a marketplace driven by information and social media, dishonest advertising has a much greater likelihood of exposure.
The most compelling insight in the Harris Poll was around who the respondents trusted to ensure that advertising was honest in its claims. Nearly half (48%) of the respondents trust neither government or self-regulation to ensure honesty in advertising. The other half was split between the 29% of respondents who trust government regulation, and the 23% who trust self-regulation.
Interestingly, the age-group more deeply intertwined with social media and the associated ideas of community guided self-regulation (18 – 34) places more trust (33%) in government regulation than their 55+ counterparts. True to the social media ethic, this group also places more trust (26%) in self-regulation than does the 55+ crowd.
Is the 18 -34 group naïve – or are they on to something? After all, this is the age demographic that best understands the power of social media in the marketplace, and maybe even takes it for granted. They have learned that if they have a problem with a product, they just need to tweet or post their concerns, and in many cases someone will reach out to them. They are the group accustomed to learning as much or more about a product from their friends and peers on the web as they do from any company’s own marketing. With marketing and advertising understood as something that can and will be contested in very public forums, the concept of industry self-regulation just makes sense.
Of course, this age cohort is not naïve – they know that some companies will still make false or misleading claims, despite the ever increasing likelihood of rapid backlash, so they support government regulation to get through to the firms that don’t understand how social media backlash works. And here they have a good case to make in thinking that government can and should be involved simply by pointing to the October 2009 revisions to the FTC’s truth-in-advertising rules targeting paid endorsements on blogs and other social media. This age cohort saw a president elected in part through the power of social media as a mobilizing force, and contains the thinkers and innovators who will drive the Government 2.0 movement which calls for the use of social media to make all forms of government more accountable to the people it serves.
This survey was conducted immediately following the US elections, and it seems possible that the respondents were reacting in some way to the onslaught of negative campaign ads they’d just been subjected for several preceding months. However, even setting aside the potential effect of campaign ads, the lack of trust in government and business, and the expectation that business will often behave unethically, are clearly deep-rooted contemporary cultural themes, evident not just in this poll but more broadly in the increasingly entrenched and pessimistic political positions of the left (unethical business) and the right (untrustworthy government), and their associated grassroots movements. Therefore, it is good to see that in a system “by the people, of the people and for the people”, the 18-34 cohort shows a greater belief than others that this system should work to protect the people. I personally find it hopeful to see the people who constitute America’s future believing that things can work as they should.