How will social media regulation impact enterprises?

It seems inevitable that 2021 will be a reckoning for social media platforms as governments worldwide become increasingly concerned about issues ranging from monopoly market power and data privacy to disinformation, fake news and hate speech (and the real-world consequences thereof).

The push for social media regulation is nothing new, but it seems to have taken on a particular urgency in recent months. What’s notable is the variety of laws being proposed.

In India, for example, the government is reportedly drafting a law that will create a “code of ethics” for content on social media, streaming and digital news sites, and establish a “chief compliance officer” who would field complaints and ensure content that doesn’t comply with the code is taken down within two days.

In Poland last month, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro took the opposite route by proposing a law that would make it harder for social media companies to delete controversial content or user accounts. The law would enable a government-appointed council to order the platform to restore user accounts and content found to have been deleted by the platform for political reasons. Failure to comply would result in fines up to 50 million zloty ($13.4 million). Later that month, Hungary’s justice minister Judit Varga said she would introduce similar legislation.

In Australia last July, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission proposed a new code that would require Facebook and Google to pay news publishers for links shared on their sites. While the code has not yet been finalized, Google announced this week it reached a deal with News Corp to pay for its news links, while Facebook took the nuclear option and blocked users in Australia from posting or sharing any news links. However, Facebook’s criteria for what counts as news ended up blocking content from a wide range of sites, from public health organizations, emergency organizations, domestic, family and sexual violence support services and weather forecasting sites.

The coming wave of social media regulation – and the unintended collateral damage it could bring to users – suggests that 2021 is going to be a rough ride for the brands and marketers that utilize social media channels as part of their campaigns.

Yet when you look at just about every survey and prediction list about social media marketing trends for 2021, regulation almost never comes up.

Most social media experts predict that the far bigger challenge facing brands on social media isn’t so much regulation of content as the content itself, its impact on society at large, how social media platforms deal with it and the potential consumer backlash against both social media platforms and businesses that use those platforms for marketing and customer engagement.

Guard your brand

For example, Pierre DeBois, founder of digital analytics consultancy Zimana, wrote in his list of 2021 social media trends that the rise of regulation is intensifying media scrutiny on the societal impact of social media, platform transparency and how users feel about all this. Put simply, he writes, enterprises need to pay closer attention to how social media platforms impact the real world by allowing, say, disinformation or hate speech to go unchecked, “because the platform’s responses can and will influence how customers view your organization’s association with the platform.”

DeBois adds that “guarding brand image” will also be paramount in 2021. As social media content becomes more suspect or controversial, social media strategists need to take extra care to ensure ads don’t appear in association with incendiary or controversial posts. Moreover, they also need to think twice about what conversations to join and which ones to stay away from.

On the other hand, simply staying silent or neutral may not be an option – another key social media trend in 2021 and beyond is the rise of socially-conscious consumers in the form of Generation Z and the upcoming Generation Alpha. A global survey from Hubspot and Talkwalker put this at the top of its Top 10 social media trends for 2021. According to the report, socially conscious social media users had a notable impact on brands, politics, and society in general – and they expect brands to engage with them on topics like mental health, inclusivity, and social justice.

More to the point, according to research from SproutSocial, the majority of social media users not only want enterprises to take a stand on social and political issues, but also expect them to put those words into action. They recognize the power and influence of brands, and want more than the usual corporate statements and donations – they want brands to announce new initiatives, goals and involvement in industry-wide coalitions.

At the same time, says the Hubspot/Talkwalker report, brands have to contend with all of the disinformation and fake news that are part of that online conversation they are expected to join. Engaging with those socially conscious consumers requires trust, transparency and accountability. As social media platforms finally start to clamp down on disinformation (either in response to government regulation or in hopes of forestalling it), enterprises will need to ensure their brand isn’t associated with whatever disinformation pops up.

They also need to ensure that they don’t become victims of fake news themselves – whether it’s users posting false information about the company or the social media platform’s moderators flagging the company’s posts or comments as fake news, either automatically or in response to a complaint. That’s why transparency, accountability and authenticity will be key pillars of any decent social media strategy.

Caught in the net

The general takeaway from the experts is that social media regulation will have a bigger direct impact on social media platforms than the enterprises and marketers that use them. The bigger problem facing enterprises in 2021 is protecting brands against disinformation and toxic content, and engaging with users that increasingly expect them to join their activism and pick a side.

That said, social media regulation could indeed impact enterprises inasmuch as they will be subject to the same criteria as regular users when it comes to enforcement. This is more incentive to avoid association with fake news, of course, but it also makes those honest conversations with customers about social issues even trickier than it already is.

An additional challenge is the fragmented nature of regulation around the world. Different countries have different rules with different criteria. There’s not much enterprises can do about this – a unified global approach to social media regulation is unlikely for the usual geopolitical reasons. The closest we may get is a regional approach such as the European Commission’s proposed Digital Services Act, which aims to create a consistent digital regulation regime across the EU (which might also pre-empt proposals such as the ones on the table in Poland and Hungary).

But again, this is more of a problem for the social media companies themselves – enterprises have always had to comply with whatever local regulations are in place in a given market, and social media regulations will be no different.

Social media still rules

The good news – such as it is – is that no one is expecting increased regulation of social media to result in a decline in social media usage. In fact, social media usage continues to grow steadily.

According to the latest Digital 2021 report from Datareportal (published in partnership with We Are Social and Hootsuite), there were 4.2 billion social media users globally as of January 2021 – a 13% rise year on year.

That figure does come with a caveat: it doesn’t represent unique individual users – it also includes social media accounts for businesses, places and even animals. The report also notes that at least 98% of social media users of any given platform use at least one other platform. In fact, the average user has accounts on at least eight social media channels, although they typically don’t use all of them equally of for the same purpose.

However, this also means digital marketers don’t have to be on all platforms all the time. They don’t even have to focus on the really huge platforms, which for now is Facebook (including WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger), YouTube and WeChat – they can also explore other platforms to find new ways to engage with users specific to that platform’s formats.

This is especially good advice given media reports that US regulators are seeking to break up Big Tech companies, while the #DeleteFacebook hashtag is trending (again) as more users plan to abandon Facebook and WhatsApp for alternatives like MeWe and Signal.

Smart Insights notes that platforms like TikTok changed the social engagement game in 2020, causing Instagram to follow suit with Reels. Successful digital marketers adapted their strategies to TikTok’s format – they will do the same regardless of the aftermath of any breakup, content regulation or Facebook exodus.