Big Tech’s image may need to be rehabbed, but for social media giants Twitter and Meta, it’s actual imagery that’s become the issue.
The former instituted a new policy on Tuesday barring tweeting out photos and videos of private individuals without their consent, while a U.K. anti-competition watchdog ordered the company formerly known as Facebook to sell off GIF platform Giphy, effectively undoing the $400 million acquisition.
The announcements are significant to each company as isolated events, but taken together, they suggest social media’s days as freewheeling agents are numbered.
Twitter’s latest update extends privacy protections to visual assets. It joins other content moderation measures that forbid “doxxing” or sharing individuals’ private information, as well as threatening or intimidating behavior. Users can now report photos and videos, and if they’re found to violate the rules, the company will pull them down. It may also take other enforcement steps, such as minimizing the remaining tweet’s visibility, directing the tweet’s author to delete it entirely, suspend the account or ban it altogether.
There are a few exceptions, however — primarily if the content pertains to public matters or figures. Exclusions also include items that are shared in the public interest, “add value to public discourse” or are already publicly available, as in the case of media coverage.
The stated intention is to align the platform’s protections with human rights standards, which is laudable. In a blog post, the Twitter Safety team pointed out that “women, activists, dissidents and members of minority communities” are especially vulnerable.
But the practical reality of a new policy with vague or subjective criteria looks fraught. It would demand sound human judgment and discretion, and that’s something large tech companies just historically aren’t very good at exercising.
That Twitter would re-examine its content moderation may be logical, given that former chief executive officer Jack Dorsey and other tech executives from Facebook (now Meta) and Google have faced Congress repeatedly over social media’s role in the spread of disinformation. An appearance after the Jan. 6 insurrection to look into how tech contributed to radicalization got particularly tense.
If there’s a surprise, it may be that Twitter announced the change one day after Dorsey stepped down.
Meanwhile, the Competition and Markets Authority, the U.K.’s foremost competition regulator struck a major blow to Twitter’s rival — and perhaps Big Tech, in general — with an order aimed at unraveling Meta’s 2020 purchase of Giphy.
A leading source of online GIFs, the service integrates with numerous platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Slack, Reddit, TikTok, PayPal, Signal and more. Meta reportedly scooped it up to bring its functionality directly into photo- and video-sharing app Instagram.
The CMA determined that the deal would unfairly hamper social media competition. Its primary concerns: Meta could block or restrict access to Giphy, disadvantaging other platforms in favor of its own apps or demand more data in exchange for permission.
Stuart McIntosh, the CMA’s inquiry chair, was also troubled that the acquisition killed off Giphy advertising, eliminating a potential competitor for Facebook/Meta. “Without action,” he said, “it will also allow Facebook to increase its significant market power in social media even further, through controlling competitors’ access to Giphy GIFs.”
Robin Koch, Meta’s EU director of policy communications, rejected that characterization. In a statement to the press, he said the company’s tech, resources and talent “would enhance Giphy’s product for the millions of people, businesses, developers and API partners in the U.K. and around the world who use Giphy every day, providing more choices for everyone.”
The regulator believes the only remedy is for Meta to sell Giphy “in its entirety to an approved buyer,” according to its Tuesday announcement. Meta is mulling over an appeal.
Under the Facebook mantle, the company drew scrutiny over its acquisitions, including Instagram in 2012, and other moves that appeared to stifle competition. Snapchat, for instance, originated the Stories format that’s become popular on Instagram.
Congress has grilled CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly over these and other issues, including user privacy and disinformation, and those concerns haven’t gone away with the company’s name change. Naturally, Silicon Valley wonders if the CMA’s decision portends more overt government actions to rein in, or even break up, major tech companies.
Instagram mostly managed to avoid direct scrutiny until recently. Whistleblower Frances Haugen testified in October that Facebook buried its own research indicating that Instagram content psychologically harmed teens. Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri will appear before a Senate panel for the first time next week to address the matter.
The events across Twitter, Meta and Instagram are distinct, but their timing puts one theme in stark focus: When it comes to content and strategy, change is in the air for tech companies, whether by choice or by force.
That’s applicable to content in general, but the stakes are higher with visuals. Psychologists widely acknowledge that the human brain processes images faster than text, as much as 60,000 times faster, according to one study from the University of Minnesota.
This offers key context for the deep influence of large image-sharing platforms. It also highlights a rather contradictory set of circumstances.
On one hand, these colossal global networks are long overdue in grappling with fundamental considerations, such as what images they will allow, what they won’t, the effect on users and which resources they will share or hoard for themselves.
But on the other hand, this subcategory of technology is still nascent. The modern notion of social media only goes back to the late 1990s — which means that, like many of its users, it’s the equivalent of a Gen Zer and it’s still in the process of evolving.
Zuckerberg placed a massive bet the tech will shape-shift, eventually morphing into the immersive, virtual world of the metaverse. But in the meantime, there will be waves of change for 2D social media. Think content and privacy updates, new strategies, tools and integrations, along with features launching and closing down, with an ebb and flow swaying which trends, influencers or even social causes gain attention.
Brands should take note. This is a heady concoction of variables and uncertainties for a sector that, according to eMarketer, will drive an estimated $36.09 billion in U.S. social commerce this year alone.
That may be the best argument yet for not relying too much on a single platform. Retail experts have long recommended maintaining a broad range of channels. Today, that may be a crucial way to keep the big picture in view.