McHugh David: Knowledge of scale, use will determine how far social media battle plays

In 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was subpoenaed to testify before Congress.

The three-day marathon event was somewhat eye-opening as to the position both sides of the coin held.

On the congressional side, it put on full display how far behind government is when considering not just regulation of Facebook, but a general understand of how the platform works. The questions, especially on the first day, were more exploratory than actually attempting a purpose – either to expose some sort of predatory practice, discover illegalities, etc.

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Basically – how Facebook actually functioned, behind the curtain, was a mystery to most of the panel.

Don’t buy it? Feel free to go to YouTube and search for the hearings, and watch Zuckerberg’s demeanor, which has been discussed on these pages before.

Day 1 – Nervous, to calm

Day 2 – Bored

Day 3 – Annoyed

Now, that was two years ago, but it did in fact kick off some deeper interest into how Facebook functions beyond the surface-level ‘connection’ (term used loosely) between people.

For instance, just last year, Facebook was forced to restructure their advertising platform to remove discriminatory and predatory advertising options that would allow people to avoid people in certain protected classes – including by gender, race, and disability.

It was a rare win against Facebook. For some it was small, but it in the grand scheme of things a win is a win, especially when considering the tech giants of the California valleys.

Interestingly enough, Facebook already faces heavy regulation in the European Union (EU), as do all social media platforms. Especially with younger generations, the EU tagged social media as an issue; they also pegged older generations with limited technological savvy as potential targets for misinformation and scamming.

So, the grouping of countries enacted rules for what you can and cannot post on social media, as well as how much time you can spend on such platforms, among smaller rules.

What’s interesting about that? The EU is second to North America with regard to market (read: population) penetration, with 68.5% of North Americans using Facebook in some way, shape or form – two out of every three people.

Worldwide, the count is 28.5% of individuals have a Facebook profile.

The only platform that gives Facebook a run for it’s money with regard to market share? Well, Google dominates the search market with 5.6 billion (on average) searches per day.

As the owner of YouTube, they also dominate the long-form video market.

So now, in 2020, and heading into 2021, the government will look to Facebook and how they could possibly ‘carve them up’ to increase competition by forcing them to released Instagram and WhatsApp, two application companies Facebook gobbled up in their infancy and turned them into global giants with over 1 billion and 300 million users, respectively.

Problem is – none of these platforms is like the others. Instagram is a platform for photos and short videos, audience engagement is just… different from Facebook. WhatsApp is a chat program.

Say the government does force the tech company to unload both, forming their own firms? What stops Facebook from re-tooling Messenger to take over for WhatsApp, and applying a secondary user interface makeover to either look like Instagram, or offer users that choice? All Zuckerberg would have to do is keep the best software technicians, and unload the fat.

Maybe the government would force him to do it a certain way? Hard to say what the details would be, at this point, that’s just seems to be some tech journalists gut reaction as to how any kind of split would play out.

And yet, we forget that Facebook itself has 28.5% market share worldwide. Outside of Google, companies would kill for that kind of penetration, and then it must be considered that there aren’t really any direct competitors to Facebook.

And that, in itself, is the problem. Facebook has become a way of everyday life for two out of three North Americans, and has set itself up to replace so many different media – newspapers included.

Facebook and Google own the internet, and it’s not even close. If all that will be discussed is the separation of two parts of Facebook’s corporation that were late additions – and could be copied – there should be some fear at the consumer level that the government simply doesn’t understand the scale, or inner workings, of tech giants or the ability to contain them.

There are many who will cry ‘but that’s free market.’ There’s nothing free about the tech market, it’s dominated in North America by three giants, if you want to include retail – Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

They’ll continue to eat up market share as they grow bigger and bigger, especially thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic which has kept people indoors and more reliant on digital services. All of the fortunes of digitally-based business individuals have grown by leaps and bounds during this time.

So be wary, the cry ‘free market’ may ring true for another few years, until you’re doing all your shopping on Amazon (or, maybe, it’s competitor WalMart.com), searching on Google, and interacting on Facebook.

And no one will have the money to say any different.

McHugh David is publisher of the Livingston Parish News.