May 29th, 2012

What Facebook’s Pay-to-Promote tool shows us about money, media and influence

Facebook's "Pay to Highlight" option. Screenshot from Social News Daily.

It is always surreal observing how academic matter pans out in real life, and my time as a student in Communications and Sociology offers me the opportunity to view changes in the social media landscape under a more critical lens. Earlier this month, Facebook started testing a pay-to-promote tool on the social media website; essentially granting Facebookers the option of paying to have their status updates highlighted. By paying the amount ($2.00 USD), users of the site will have their posts appear higher on the news feed and to a wider pool of friends and subscribers, in addition to the status update being left visible for a longer period of time.

While the act of paying for popularity is harmless on its own, it is symbolic of the larger issue of how people with money have a bigger say in the news that reaches us. Communication scholars often describe four models of media influence in relation to audience perceptivity.

The first is the “hypodermic needle” model, which contends that media consumers devour packaged information fed to them while lacking the media literacy skills needed to determine underlying agenda-setting functions by media agencies and the bodies that govern them.

On the other end of the passive-versus-discerning audience spectrum is the “minimal effects” model, which credits the media-consuming audience with enough media literacy to be able to discern propagandistic news from factual information.

The other two views are the “agenda-setting” model and the “cultivation” model, which lie somewhere in the middle of the above polemic. Each of these models recognize the influence of media agencies, but acknowledge the free-decision making process of an increasingly informed audience as well.

While the hypodermic needle model is mostly dismissed today, the agenda-setting model is easily found in the media. The key difference between both these models is the distinction between one telling us what to think, and the other telling us what to think about.

This is evidenced on a macro-scale by media conglomeration, and the term “media oligopoly” is largely used to describe the firm handle corporations such as The Walt Disney Company, News Corporation, Time Warner, and Viacom have on the news industry. On a smaller scale, and more similar to Facebook’s new pay-to-promote tool, companies can pay for online visibility resources and are promised immediate increases in site traffic in addition to appearing on major news sites like Google and Yahoo! News. Ultimately, Facebook’s latest embodiment of the agenda-setting model points to a larger question about who decides what we read–us, or a few well-financed corporations?

–Andrew Yeo

Born in Singapore, Andrew is a Communications and Sociology undergraduate student at the University at Buffalo–SUNY.

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